South Armagh: just typing the words evokes emotion. I suspect everyone has a story to relate about The Troubles, especially if you lived in the UK in the 70’s and 80’s and most especially if you lived in Northern Ireland. While I was in Ireland last week I heard great stories about the people of South Armagh that were surprising and inspiring. And I want to share them with you.
Over 800 years, and probably before that, one thing seems to be a constant, the people of South Armagh have always found creative ways to address their needs. As the joke goes “Only two things in life are certain, death and taxes, and in South Armagh they’ve got it down to one.”
A major component of The Troubles was economic. Very high rates of unemployment and poor (at best) and discriminatory (at worst) social services meant that too many people were without any source of support for themselves or their families. In South Armagh the solution, the solution that Slick Willie chose, was to rob banks “because that’s where the money is.” Crime families evolved into powerful undercover corporations providing employment (of a kind) and money in exchange for dangerous and illegal activities in support of one cause or another.
When the banks closed their doors these families turned to other enterprises like smuggling, arms dealing and a host of other “lines of business” all the while being under the most intense scrutiny of not only the Ulster Constabulary and the Garda but also might of the British Army. And, for the most part, they escaped detection (and taxes).
It seems that the people of South Armagh have a talent for solving very tough problems with very elegant solutions and they are not bounded (clearly!) by rules, laws or conventional thinking.
And its geographic location could not be more perfect. It forms a powerful business triangle with Newry and Dundalk and can exploit the border proximity along with its neighbors (as it has for centuries).
The real DNA of the people of South Armagh is extreme problem solving in truly adverse conditions. Now that peace has descended it is time to turn this creativity towards new kinds of businesses that profit the people and the place. This generation of young people in South Armagh can change the images and memories that the name evokes to something all can be proud of.
Many thanks; on the island of Ireland we suffer the legacy of occupation. One of the things we don’t do is talk openly or process things aloud. “Whatever you say say nothing” is a sentiment long felt in Northern Ireland and all along the border. Tommy Makem had a well known song (http://goo.gl/kX9wc) and Seamus Heaney a poem (http://goo.gl/H62rx) by the same title. Silence and obfuscation were once necessary, they are no longer.
There is a new reality decades into the peace process – it is a concerted effort by business people in the Republic and in Northern Ireland to accept that we are a small island best served economically by creating a larger, all island, marketplace.
Taken a step further we need to attract foreign investment to both countries – to the Island. And the Irish Diaspora can help.
One in 7 people in the Republic owe their jobs to foreign investment. Northern Ireland has invested in a project which brings the fastest data transmission between the US and Europe to our shores – with connections in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Google is here, Facebook is here, American and European pharmaceutical and bio tech firms are here. Our construction companies are exporting expertise and building in the Middle East and South America.
We have the youngest and best educated English speaking workforce in Europe.
We need to speak aloud, we need to shout a message of economic opportunity to the world.
We need to find a common language in which to share and celebrate our successes. The din of that celebrating would be the best means to silence the naysayers who would threaten what was once a peace process and is now a prosperity process!