At Belfast City Airport, I was picked up by an English taxi driver now resident in Northern Ireland. "It's such a peaceful place," he told me, "I wouldn't live anywhere else in the UK." To someone who remembers the Troubles (and is married to a British soldier who did five tours of duty there, even if I didn't know him at the time), these words seem almost impossible to believe. And now there is, we're told, a threat the Troubles could return if we don't get the Irish border right.
Now I admit there are a few lingering signs of the Troubles, especially in the "commemorative" murals and the Union Jacks festooned across the loyalist streets. But these seem mostly for the benefit of the tourists who come and take their selfies and move on. The paramilitaries – and almost everyone of whatever allegiance seems to agree on this – are no more and in their stead are criminal gangs, mostly running drugs and inflicting carnage on each other. The romance of the Irish uprising has died long since.
And it's not surprising. Not only is there a new generation who didn't have to grow up through the Troubles, they've all got jobs and pretty decent lifestyles because the Northern Irish economy is booming. Tourism is on the rise (the Titanic Museum and the Game of Thrones are the new top places to visit, though there are still plenty of Americans and Australians in search of their roots). There are new hotels opening all the time and the tech, film and hospitality businesses are all on a roll. There are even a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants (not bad in a population of 300,000 -– Manchester with twice that has none).
Irish whiskey's not doing too badly either – The Friend at Hand whiskey shop (reconciliation is their tagline) – have picked up the mural idea and turned it into a celebratory story with George Best rubbing shoulders with Sinead O'Connor. So it's all in all a remarkably upbeat place and possibly, as my taxi driver opined, even a peaceful one. Not what most of us would have expected at all.