It’s not clear whether the old Chinese adage, ‘May you live in interesting times’, is a curse or a benediction but, either way, an interesting year lies ahead for West Belfast.
Readers can certainly expect to be buffeted by the headwinds of a turbulent economy over the next 12 months as there’s little sign of respite and little sign that either government in Dublin or London has the faintest idea of how to turn things round; the masters of the two ships of state have simply tied themselves to the wheel until the weather eases.
Jobless levels seem certain to rise – with our West Belfast youth, as ever, being disproportionately affected – as more companies up sticks and move off-shore or simply decide to pull down the shutters for good.
In some ways, crippling unemployment levels are nothing new to West Belfast – they were bequeathed to this community by partition and were as much to do with religious discrimination as with the economic climate.
Nevertheless, it was to be hoped that with a raft of fair employment laws, the demise of the old, unionist-only smokestack industries, and the emergence of highly-educated generations of nationalists, joblessness would be consigned to history. Or at the very least that that process would have got under way.
That’s clearly not the case, however. It’s not just that the global economic turmoil has wreaked havoc with the job prospects of our young, but West Belfast has also been failed by successive administrations (in which nationalists of all stripes were strongly represented) since the ceasefires of 1994. Indeed, while jobs and opportunity continued to be directed to the historically prosperous East and South of the city throughout the past decade, West Belfast lost out to this double whammy of economic recession and a dearth of investment.
There are signs, however, that the tide is turning. The £80m Casement Park development, if managed to promote maximum local employment and local procurement, could turn out to be an economic game-changer for West Belfast. At a time when many construction workers are being forced to choose exile over unemployment, the new Casement stadium could provide hundreds of jobs and spark additional investment in, for example, a hotel or a new Andersonstown Leisure Centre.
Again, plans for an innovation centre at the Springfield peaceline where Mackie’s engineering works (with its 98 per cent unionist workforce) once stood give similar cause for optimism.
What is clear is that the solution to our economic woes, if it is to come, will most likely come from within this ebullient community.
The West Belfast Taxi Association, providing over 200 jobs and now in its fifth decade, is just one example of what can be achieved when ordinary people put their shoulder to the wheel. An Chultúrlann, Belfast’s most successful cultural centre in a city where Irish – until this Christmas at City Hall – was deemed an invisible language, is another shining beacon of the new West Belfast.
We have no doubt that in a shared, peaceful Belfast, other equally inspirational projects can blossom and prosper.
All it requires, as we start another interesting year, is for West Belfast to be given a fair crack of the whip.