- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

Phoenix of the north

Belfast has defied its tangled and tragic history to emerge as the showcase of Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants are planning together for a prosperous future, instead of killing each other.

That is the message four Belfast officials are spreading around Washington during the week before St. Patrick’s Day, as they work to develop an economic relationship with the D.C. city government and prepare for the summer Smithsonian Folklife Festival that will feature Northern Ireland.

Like the phoenix, the mythological bird reborn from the flames, Northern Ireland has rekindled its spirit and redefined its message in the 13 years since the end of the “Troubles,” nearly four decades of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,600 lives.

“People used to go to Belfast to see what it was like to go to a war-torn country,” said Shirley McCay, head of economic initiatives for the Belfast City Council.

“During the dark days of the Troubles, people would get into their cars and rush home,” added Lesley Holmes, the council’s economic development officer.

Now more than 6 million visitors a year come to the Northern Irish capital of about 640,000 residents for business, tourism and family reunions. Visitors spent about $560 million in 2005, helping maintain 17,000 jobs. Belfast commuters no longer scurry home at the end of the workday. They linger in bars, restaurants and attend a vast variety of shows, Mrs. Holmes said.

Gerry Lennon, chief executive of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, noted that a year after the 1994 Good Friday Agreement that began the process of reconciliation, Belfast had 900 hotel rooms. Today, the city has more than 3,000 rooms and is one of the most popular sites for conventions and conferences, hosting 83 in 2005. Unemployment has tumbled from 11 percent in 1991 to 4.2 percent last year.

“There’s money to be made in a business venture in Belfast, the gateway to Europe,” added Susie McCullough, Mr. Lennon’s director of marketing.

Politically, Northern Ireland is trying to revive the assembly, created by the peace pact but suspended in 2002 after officials of the Sinn Fein party were accused of gathering intelligence for the outlawed Irish Republican Army. A new assembly could be formed later this month.

Belfast is even marketing the fame of the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ocean liner that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. The most famous ship of the White Star Lines was built in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Today, the Titanic Quarter of Belfast is attracting interest because, at 185 acres, the area features the largest underdeveloped waterfront in Europe, Miss McCay said.

“The Titanic,” she added, “is the symbol of a new Belfast.”

‘Fertile crescent’

A former Saudi ambassador to the United States this week called on his fellow Sunni Muslims to stop fearing regional domination by rival Shi’ite Muslims and work to develop economic prosperity.

“Let me say it loud and clear. Instead of dreaming of a Shi’ite crescent or fearing it, we can work together to build a fertile crescent stretching from Iraq to Lebanon,” Prince Turki al-Faisal told a conference in the United Arab Emirates.

Prince Turki, now head of a think tank in Saudi Arabia, noted that Saudi King Abdullah, a Sunni, hosted a visit by radical Shi’ite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to try to end the violence in Iraq and Lebanon.

“The kingdom and Iran agreed during the latest summit to put out the fire of sectarianism in Iraq and extinguish its embers in Lebanon,” Prince Turki told the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. “I prefer to look at Iran as a neighborly and friendly state with which we are bound by historic ties and economic interests.”

Prince Turki resigned as ambassador in December and has been replaced by Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, formerly Abdullah’s chief foreign policy adviser.

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