Northern Ireland is well known for 30 years of ‘The Troubles’. It is also becoming notorious for a ‘peace process’ punctuated by localised instances of violent sectarianism and characterised by such severe political disagreements at the Northern Ireland Assembly that there is constant switching between government from this institution of devolved power and direct rule from Westminster.
Less well known, however, are both the nature of Northern Ireland's economic decline and the complex of L&RED initiatives in this region. These cannot be understood outside the socio-political context although equally their influence on ‘The Troubles’ and subsequent political events is important. While industrial decline may have contributed to the years of violence, many contemporary L&RED programmes and projects have been developed to address social divisions as well as to reverse the economic problems. In Northern Ireland, perhaps more than other jurisdictions then, the conjoining of the economic and socio-political objectives of contemporary L&RED is the norm. However, we believe that lessons learned from the Northern Ireland L&RED experience do have wider relevance, and not just to jurisdictions where ethnic conflict is significant. This is not least because, given the region's multiple problems, there has been considerable national and EU funding and encouragement of innovatory L&RED work. These funding and political opportunities have led to an interesting complex of L&RED initiatives. We argue that there is much to learn from these although, given the nature of the micro- and macro-political economic spaces in which they operate, issues relating to the endogeneity and sustainability of initiatives are of key importance.
Northern Ireland's economy and the ‘national’ context
Northern Ireland is a constituent country of the UK with a population of just 1.7 million. Northern Ireland was once part of the ‘core’ of UK industrial manufacturing, specialising in shipbuilding and linen. Since the 1920s, however, when Northern Ireland was created by the partition of Ireland, the key industries have been in decline and unemployment on the rise. On the UK's accession to the European Economic Community in the 1970s, Northern Ireland completed a transformation from a core area of the Empire to a peripheral region of Europe (see, for example, O’Dowd, 1995). In the 1960s the policy response to industrial decline was to attract new foreign direct investment into the region. This worked for a time, attracting in textile and other firms and addressing unemployment to some degree, although mainly through low-waged jobs.