Northern Ireland’s tentative economic recovery will be threatened if violent disorder continues to generate negative headlines for the region, the secretary of state has warned.
Theresa Villiers said the task of convincing investors to set up business was hampered by the scenes of serious rioting witnessed this summer, particularly in Belfast.
Ms Villiers, who marked a year in post today, welcomed a forthcoming cross-party talks process at Stormont to resolve outstanding political issues, such as parades and flags, but stressed that it alone would not address the deep-seated divisions that still exist.
“It is damaging for Northern Ireland because those scenes of violence make it into the news and they are picked up internationally,” she said.
“Even if it’s just a couple of streets in east Belfast or north Belfast, that can be headlining the news in Canada or the US or Australia so it does make it less easy to convince the world that Northern Ireland is a great place to visit, to study, to live and above all to invest in and build a business.”
The Conservative MP added: “We are seeing some signs that the Northern Ireland economy is healing and Northern Ireland has a very strong record with inward investment but it is harder to attract investors if they associate Northern Ireland with riots and violence.”
Ms Villiers said she was not aware that the plug had been pulled on any pending deals, but she warned that further unrest could undermine the chances of drawing new business to the region.
“I hope we can still convince the world that Northern Ireland is a great place to invest but it is made more difficult to convince people that they should come and set up their factory or their business in Northern Ireland if they have a perception that it’s a place that is very divided, very tense and with a tendency to see that tension manifested by riots on the streets.”
The secretary of state expressed hope that an upcoming international investment conference in Belfast, which will be attended by Prime Minister David Cameron, would deliver results.
While the Government unveiled a financial package to assist the region’s economic recovery in June, the business sector has criticised Downing Street’s decision to hold off, until late next year, making a final determination on whether the devolved administration will be handed powers to reduce its rate of corporation tax - a potentially significant financial incentive for would-be investors.
Ms Villiers acknowledged that some were frustrated at the timetable but she insisted the issue was a complex one that needed to be fully worked through.
Northern Ireland has experienced one of the worst years of street disorder since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Tensions were raised in December when loyalists embarked on widespread protests against a decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag at City Hall, with some descending into serious rioting.
There were further outbreaks of loyalist rioting over the summer months in relation to parading disputes in the city, while Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir was attacked on a visit to a unionist area in north Belfast, as loyalists continue to accuse his party of waging a cultural war against their traditions.
Last month, republicans were heavily criticised by victims campaigners and unionist politicians for holding an IRA commemoration parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone - a town that suffered significantly at the hands of paramilitaries during the Troubles.
In another indication of fraying relations at the heart of the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein-led coalition at Stormont, First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson subsequently withdrew support for a peace centre at the former Maze prison site near Lisburn.
All the events have been played out against the backdrop of the ongoing campaign by dissident republicans to de-stabilise the peace process with violence.
This autumn’s talks initiative, which is being chaired by US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, will attempt to find resolution to three major issues yet to be settled in the peace process: flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the past.
Ms Villiers welcomed the “fresh perspective” that the former White House special envoy would bring.
But she said politicians should not view it as a solution to all the issues and urged them to continue to work on other ways to achieve reconciliation.
In particular she called for focus on implementing a Stormont strategy, published earlier this year, aimed at promoting tolerance and integration with initiatives such as shared religion education campuses.
“It’s important to recognise that although the Haass process is looking at some important issues and very difficult ones there is very important work that needs to go forward,” she said.
“The Haass process shouldn’t signal the idea that everything else stops until we see what the outcome is.”
She added: “Even if Haass has the miracle answers to a whole range of issues at the end of the process, there’s still a lot of other work to be done before Northern Ireland has a genuinely shared society and that work we need to press ahead with.
“I hope the Haass process is successful but whether it is, or whether it’s not, there’s still a great deal of work to be done on healing social division which needs to carry on regardless of the outcome of the Haass process.”
With Mr Cameron expected to reshuffle his cabinet ministers this autumn, Ms Villiers made clear she would like to stay on in her current role.
“I would love to stay on as Northern Ireland Secretary,” she said.
“I have had a great year and it would be brilliant to stay on in this role.
“There is talk of a reshuffle and those are entirely unpredictable, so I have no idea what the outcome will be, but I would be very happy if I stayed in this role.”
In the meantime, she highlighted that there was much to do.
“I am absolutely convinced that the majority of people in Northern Ireland have moved on, they have left those divisions behind but there are those elements of the community who have not and it is very clear from the events of the last 12 months that there is a lot more work to be done.”