In pursuit of peace: how Northern Ireland businesses provided a glimpse of normality during the Troubles

Mar 26, 2021
Dr Joanne Murphy has researched the Northern Ireland business community’s experiences in facing the challenges of the Troubles to make life as normal as possible for their customers. It is perhaps timely to listen to their voices and reflect on the crucial role businesspeople play in fostering and maintaining peace.

“We had a door in the bar that squeaked, and I used to think that sometime in my life, that door will squeak and my stomach won’t tighten – I’ll not have that fear in me. The first year was just like hell.”

These are the words of a publican I interviewed, reflecting on his first years in business at the start of the Troubles. While much has been written about this period, few existing accounts reflect the business community’s experience of living and working through violence. From my research in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, and Bosnia on how leaders and managers adapt to and function in environments of conflict, I have identified four common characteristics among those who share such experiences:

  1. The fear, countered by courage, experienced in running a business against a background of the threat and reality of violence;
  2. The ability to continue to make decisions in the ‘grey zone’ of an environment where a clear good or positive outcome is often not possible;
  3. An acute understanding of the political dynamics at play at a community level; and
  4. An ability to seize the business opportunities presented by political change and evolution.

Fear and courage

It is easy to forget that in violent environments, experiences are visceral. An experience repeatedly shared by business owners I have interviewed is one of living with fear and the need for the courage to confront it. In the case of Northern Ireland, many have described how the disruption and street violence of the civil rights period quickly descended into the chaos of full-blown conflict and its impact on what had been a stable, albeit divided, business environment. A pharmacist with a business at the centre of a market town described the early years of protest and trouble: “When the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations started, we would have had to lock the doors because there were fights bouncing off the windows. It progressed on to the bombing and incendiaries.”

As the conflict progressed and periods of violence became more intense, low levels of intimidation sometimes became active threats. The same pharmacist recalled frightening days in 1981: “During the hunger strikes, we got a slip of paper through our letterbox saying ‘When Bobby Sands dies, you close for the funeral’… but we didn’t close and there were three of them that came in about 9.30am. I knew one of them… ‘You’re not closed?’, they said, and I said ‘No’. And they said ‘Are you going to close?’, and I said ‘I’m not. I prayed for Bobby Sands at mass this morning. I prayed for his family. I don’t think he should have taken his own life’. So then, they went out, and about ten minutes later, the phone rang. ‘If you’re not closed in half an hour, you’ll be dead.’ I sent the two staff home – there weren’t many customers about, but I did the rest of the day myself. And I can assure you that every time the door opened…”

With towns and cities encircled by barriers and security forces, the economic impact was devastating. Interviewees talked about losing half their business when towns were gated to protect them from bomb attacks, deterring casual shoppers. Even with this difficulty, there were consistent attempts to stay positive and open for business. A shop owner reflected: “The way I looked at it, you had to think of the people that took the trouble to come to you”.

Undoubtedly, there was a personal impact on people’s peace of mind and mental health. One business owner reflected on a particularly difficult period. “There were times you would drive into work, the mountains so peaceful above you, and I’d think ‘I’d just love to drive on and walk in those mountains’. I’m a very calm person, but I remember the whole front of the shop was blown out with a bomb, and we had to barricade it up and lock it with a chain and a padlock. One day I couldn’t get it open with the key, and I just kicked it down… not like me at all.”

The resilience to persevere through fear and uncertainty was critical.

Decision-making in the ‘grey zone’

In his book, The Drowned and the Saved, Italian industrial chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote about the moral ambiguity of being trapped in an environment of terror, the ‘grey zone’, where moral compromises persist and perfect outcomes are not possible. In such situations, business owners struggle to manage relationships when trust is in short supply and there is acute anxiety about outcomes and the consequences of action. One commented on the struggle to find a middle way: “I didn’t trust the cops, and I didn’t trust the paramilitaries”. Many of those I interviewed spoke about making choices to establish acceptable behaviour norms to mitigate a volatile environment’s worst aspects. For example, a publican described taking a stand about bad language in his bar, despite being personally threatened.

The difficulty of such decisions should not be underestimated, and many interviewees were open about the dread such choices entailed. They were also clear about the compromises made to be able to trade successfully. The employment of doormen, for example, could put bar and club owners into morally invidious positions. One observed that while such dilemmas had eased as the peace process developed, doing business still involved engaging with paramilitary elements in local communities. He described how demands from paramilitaries had changed from “You need to employ such and such” to a more conciliatory “If you’re employing doormen, will you employ these doormen and it’ll be completely legit, and you tell them what your rules are, and how you would like to run it?” He concluded: “Most things would work out okay”. 

One of the factors that facilitated a move away from engagement with paramilitary elements was a high level of political and community knowledge among business leaders. Initiatives like sponsorship of local sports and youth clubs helped embed relationships in the community and allowed business owners to leverage a wide range of connections, providing a protective mechanism against organised paramilitarism.

The grey zone was particularly extended for the business community during prolonged periods of heightened tension, such as the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike when many businesses were either forced to close or closed voluntarily in protest at the Sunningdale Agreement. “During the Ulster Workers’ strike, we dealt with it in a very Irish way. We closed the front door and opened the back.”

Such compromises, however, often obscured the very firm line businesspeople drew in the sand. “For anyone who has shown weakness, that’s the road to ruin. And anyone I’ve known who has joined in – let paramilitaries put machines in, laundered money, et cetera – it’s ended in a very bad way.”

Understanding the political realities

When asked about the knowledge and behaviours necessary to survive and thrive in a politically volatile and violent situation, one businessman observed, “You need to understand the environment very well, and the bad and difficult bits of it. I’ve been involved in low-level mediation, trying to do things behind the scenes, you know, when workers are being intimidated. If someone’s getting hassle, I would try to help because I know people. Knowing people is very important.”

One common challenge was discrimination based on community background, religious belief, or political opinion. While much has been written about such discrimination in employment terms, respondents were often keen to relay their experiences of similar dynamics affecting the sale of property and the procurement of services. The boycotting of shops would intensify at times of political tension: the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, the hunger strikes, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Drumcree protests were all identified as difficult periods. Many were sanguine about the reality of the underlying community division that resulted in people choosing to do business or give their business to a rival based on community identity. One rural business owner noted the difficulties in buying and selling property, comparing it with the experience of racial segregation in the United States. “I remember being the highest bidder a couple of times on unionist property and it being withdrawn from sale and finding out later it had been sold. But I can understand that because those people had to live in the community. It’s not easy… but if they sell to me, they could be in trouble with their own people. You have to be at peace with your own community. Those who step outside that are very brave people.”

Seizing the opportunities of change

In 1994, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published Peace: A Challenging New Era, which became widely known as the ‘Peace Dividend paper’. It argued that a viable peace process would help spur economic growth, which would help promote peace. This initiative coincided with strenuous efforts to move to a non-violent environment, including John Hume’s ongoing dialogue to move the IRA away from violence. The CBI emphasised that the vast amounts of money being absorbed by the Troubles could be reinvested in education and infrastructure.

At a local level, the business community could also sense change. One respondent, a Belfast-based businessman, recalled seeing the opportunity and changing his business strategy – but then having his expansion plans rejected by local funders, who were unconvinced. The idea of moving into Belfast city centre, previously an economic wasteland, closed and cut off during much of the Troubles, was indeed radical. “I decided to move the business to Belfast. I thought, I’ve got to get into the city centre – that was that. I knew that when I went to the centre of Belfast, people would start to come in.”

While local entrepreneurs may have sensed that the environment and business opportunities were shifting, support was not necessarily forthcoming from regional business development agencies. The same businessman recalls visiting one such organisation in search of support after he decided to move his business into Belfast city centre. “I outlined my vision. They told me it was never going to work. It was a very short meeting, and I haven’t forgotten it.”

Others reflected on how they sought to build community relations in various ways, including the employment of ex-combatants. Many also believed that they had the opportunity to give something back and benefit the wider community: “My firm’s ethos and culture is about doing some good here. And, if I’m honest, these things often have a very beneficial business upshot.”

For many, the business benefits of peace also sit beside a clear commitment to the region and an investment in its stability and sustained progress. When the conversation with one businessman turned to recent violence by dissident republicans, including the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in 2019, he was unwavering in his view that a deterioration in the security situation would not impact his commitment to Northern Ireland. “If things got worse, I’d work harder. I’m far too invested in the community here to give up. I feel so blessed that I don’t carry any baggage from the past… I’ve not lost anyone or had anyone injured. I’m lucky in that sense.”

The journey to a ‘kind of’ peace in Northern Ireland has been long, and not all stories have been told. We are only beginning to understand the impact local enterprise has on stabilising society and building accord, but the experiences of those who worked through difficult times stand as a testament to their resilience and the need to build on progress.

Dr Joanne Murphy is Reader in Leadership & Change at the Centre for Leadership, Ethics and Organisation in Queen’s University, Belfast.