As Northern Ireland transitions from past to present, there is a sense of cautious optimism about its future.
Despite its post-Brexit uncertainty, and its post-Troubles struggle for identity – one that bares and blurs the lines of Irish history (and the History of Ireland) – the region and its 1.8 million residents are confident that their darkest days are behind them.
“Young people here who were born in 1998, or after, have no immediate memories of the Troubles,” notes journalist and author Eimear O’Callaghan over steamed mussels at Harry’s Shack in Port Stewart. ‘For many of them, it was as if it simply never happened.”
O’Callaghan, whose bestselling memoir Belfast Days recounts her tempestuous teenage years in the city’s Catholic, west-end enclave of Andersontown, believes that letting go of Ulster’s immediate past is both a blessing and a burden.
“On the one hand, it is very important that we continue to discuss the conflict, so that we may heal and learn from those tragedies. On the other hand, it is quite understandable that the next generation just wants to move on from it…”
While the area’s biggest export has traditionally been its people – and specifically young people looking to build a better life for themselves in Europe, North America and Australia – there is a growing sense of hope and trust amongst millennials that two decades of peace has brought about an enduring prosperity, and perhaps, a reason to stay.
The numbers appear support that belief. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate remains low at just 4.7%. The capital city of Belfast is booming with huge growth in both the IT and financial sectors, and continues to cement its reputation as an entrepreneurial hot-spot. Most significantly, perhaps, the region’s tourism sector is expanding at an exponential rate; in 2016, visitors spent over £860 million (1.128 billion USD) in Northern Ireland, with 4.6 million overnight stays sold, and close to 100 cruise ships calling into port. As well, business tourism saw a 25 per cent spike since 2015.
With a host of natural and man-made attractions across the area – and as trust in a lasting peace continues to develop – those numbers are expected to soar even higher over the coming years.
The gamechanger, of course, has been Game of Thrones. The massively successful HBO television series has been shot on location across the six counties for seven seasons, bringing big bucks into Northern Ireland’s burgeoning film sector and inspiring fans from around the world to explore the region’s raw and rugged landscapes.
“Thronies, we call them affectionately,” chuckles Tourism Northern Ireland representative Billy Scott, referring to the series’ huge throng of followers. “They are mad for the show, and we are happy to have them here.”
He is quick to note that while the region has always been a popular destination for those-in-the-know, Game of Thrones has pushed Northern Ireland’s uniqueness into the global spotlight.
“The show is what has gotten visitors through the door. Once they are here, many of them are quite surprised to discover who we are and how much we have to offer. And word has spread like wildfire, especially through social media.”
That’s good news for a place renown for decades of bad news.
“Things are still a little shaky,” cautions Scott. “And yes, it will take some time to rebuild broken bridges, but we are heading in the right direction. There is a sense of hope here now, one that I have not felt for some time, that there is some light at the end of those ‘Dark Hedges’ – especially, and most importantly, amongst our young people.
Be sure to follow our daily rolling coverage across Northern Ireland via our Facebook page!