Belfast, Northern Ireland--An imposing length of concrete still divides much of this city into Protestant and Catholic zones, and many walls on either side still bear graphic murals depicting militant images of 'The Troubles.' But in old stone pubs and newly built office parks, many residents here are now voicing a belief that Northern Island's long history of sectarian violence may be at an end. And it's no coincidence, they say, that this once strife-torn part of the United Kingdom has achieved sustainable peace at a time when economic growth is being fueled by investment from Citigroup, Raytheon, Fujitsu, Seagate and other global giants that have chosen Belfast as a site for offshore software development. It all begs the question--could this miracle be repeated in Iraq?"People have now learned to leave their political baggage at the door and go to work," says Martin Mellon, a director at ASG Software Solutions, a Florida-based provider of systems management applications and operator of a development center in Belfast. Or, as one weathered patron at centuries old White's Tavern told me, "People who've got a good job have no time for all that other nonsense."
Thanks to Northern Ireland's small, but rapidly growing presence as a destination for offshore IT work, more and more residents will have access to those good jobs, giving peace a chance to take root.
Walking through Belfast's downtown corridor on a recent Saturday night, the streets filled with young professionals going to and from vibrant new clubs and cafes, I found it hard to imagine Northern Ireland's experience could hold any lessons for the chaos that is present-day Iraq. But then a police patrol car passes by looking more like an armored personnel carrier and one remembers that, not too long ago, this city was frequently compared to Beirut.
What changed is that Northern Ireland and the British government in London adopted a peace process that included Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Republicans. Even at that, however, it took many years of false starts before the IRA finally agreed to "dump arms" this past summer and decommission its weapons.
The political process in Iraq is in its infancy, and progress there could also take years, if not decades. But if Northern Ireland is any indication, efforts to forge a constitutionally-based government that includes Sunnis and Shiites could ultimately yield stability sufficient to attract the kind of foreign investment that now has Belfast looking forward instead of backward.
Will we ever see an IBM or a Microsoft opening a development center in Baghdad? With almost daily kidnappings and suicide bombings, that idea appears pretty far fetched. But not much more so than the thought of a major U.S. bank like Citigroup offshoring its application work to Belfast would have seemed in the 1970s, '80s or even '90s.
Move your software operations to Belfast? "No one would have believed it possible even five years ago" says Mellon, a native. One day, the same may be said of Iraq--but only if its own nascent political process is given a chance to flourish. Like Northern Ireland, it could take decades, but what is the alternative?