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Don't Forget Northern Ireland

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It is a momentous day in our country, a day when eyes of the world will turn to us and we can celebrate being British. We will no doubt take much pride in Team Great Britain, but across the Irish Sea, a contested corner of the United Kingdom remains troubled.

Today's Guardian reports that previously-disparate dissident groups have come together under the banner of the IRA with the intention of stepping up attacks against security forces and other 'British-related targets'. For many in Northern Ireland, this will not come as a surprise, since they know only too well that the Good Friday Agreement did not guarantee lasting peace. But for those on the 'mainland', the level of insecurity in Northern Ireland may come as a surprise.

For many of us, myself included, Northern Ireland has largely been out of sight and out of mind since Tony Blair felt the 'hand of history' on his shoulder. It was only when I went to Northern Ireland last year while researching my book that I realised how troubled it remains. Most children in Northern Ireland still go to segregated schools; there are more 'Peace Walls' dividing the Protestants and Catholics in inner-city Belfast then there were during the Troubles and small-scale rioting is a regular occurrence; there is great poverty in both communities and high suicide rates, particularly amongst young men; and there are hints that a romanticised view of the violence of the past is emerging. Power-sharing in Stormont has led to political stalemate and a lack of progress on many of these pressing issues.

That is not to say that Northern Ireland has not moved forward; it has, massively, and is in many ways a beacon of what can be achieved in a post-conflict society. But the peace is uneasy: divisions remain and the UK's economic downturn may exacerbate them. The funding for over 60% of jobs in Northern Ireland comes directly or indirectly from the state. Austerity plans drawn up in Westminster will have a disproportionate impact on a place which is heavily-reliant on the public sector; a long downturn could see a big rise in unemployment.

And that is the fear: for fifteen years, a good economy has given a fair wind for the peace process. That wind may not be so fair in the years ahead. So, as the Olympics begin and you talk about the UK or think about being British, remember that - at least for the timebeing - that includes Northern Ireland, a place full of the best of people yet still struggling to move on from a violent past. It is better that we give it the recognition that it merits now than violent events demanding that attention in the future.

Joe Hayman is the author of British Voices, which includes six chapters looking at Northern Ireland from the perspective of its people. www.britishvoices.org.uk