Byline: Sarah Sennott
On a cold November evening in Belfast, an eclectic group of students, writers and politicians gathers for a book party near Queen's University. Two old hands in the Northern Ireland peace process discuss the latest developments. But the hottest buzz in the room isn't politics. It's excited talk about a new cultural magazine, an upcoming music festival and the latest cool bar. Indeed, the title of the book being feted says it all: "Ireland: From Bombs to Boom" by local author Henry McDonald.
Since the groundbreaking 1998 Good Friday Agreement, peace has come to Northern Ireland by fits and starts. The Northern Ireland Assembly, symbol of the New Ulster, has been suspended for two years. Last week negotiators for the leading political parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, seemed on the cusp of an agreement that could reopen it. Yet even as the politicos dither, one thing can be said: the time of Troubles is truly over. The surest evidence? Belfast itself.
Once almost inconceivable, signs of a civic renaissance abound. The last decade has seen a rush of foreign investment and urban renewal. A new generation of artists, designers, musicians, producers and writers has risen out of the rubble of sectarian strife to invigorate a city that was a war zone. "Just as the peace process reinforces cultural changes, cultural changes reinforce the peace process," says Queen's University professor Richard English. As he tells it, a new Belfast is being born and "etching itself into people's imaginations." The Troubles, begun in the late 1960s, have been supplanted by the Changes, all for the good and seemingly irreversible.
Begin with the economy. Unemployment recently fell to a historic low of 4.2 percent. Drawn by Northern Ireland's young, well-educated work force and low-priced office space, foreign investment has grown by nearly half over the last six years. Large multinationals--Caterpillar and the packaging company Chesapeake among them--are buying up Belfast businesses. New software companies and call centers are sprouting like mushrooms. Last month Citigroup, the world's largest financial-services company, unveiled plans for a new technology center, scheduled to open by spring. The city skyline is a jigsaw of cranes and new high-rise offices. The racket of drilling and riveting throughout town herald more growth to come. Not so long ago, Belfast's Europa Hotel was the most frequently bombed building in Europe; today it's thriving, joined by a new generation of boutique hotels, from the hip Ten Square to the fashionable Malmaison.
There's also a newly vibrant cultural scene. The city's Arts Council has doled out over 24 million pounds in lottery money over the last decade, including 9 million pounds for an extension to the Grand Opera House. Millions of pounds have been pouring into Cathedral Quarter, a warren of galleries and studios that is becoming Belfast's creative heartland. Prime Minister Tony Blair has a huge stake in the …