WORLD business leaders are joining forces to help provide a firm economic foundation for the Northern Ireland peace process, as the war-weary province begins its long journey down the road to prosperity.
Prime Minister John Major, who hosted an International Investment Forum in Belfast last week, told more than 300 businesspeople from such countries as the United States, Japan, and South Korea that five new investment ventures worth 75 million ($48 million) were about to enter the pipeline.
The forum also reached a consensus on the need for a sustained attack on two of Northern Ireland's most intractable economic problems: high unemployment and a sectarian imbalance in jobs.
Mr. Major spoke of a ''vicious cycle of declining skills and motivation,'' resulting from long periods of high unemployment. He noted that joblessness in some places of Northern Ireland is more than twice as high as in the United Kingdom as a whole. As long as that continues, political tensions would persist, he says.
US Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who led a 50-strong US team to the forum, underlined the urgent need to support political progress with measures to rebuild Northern Ireland's economy.
Among the most important projects Major announced were those by US-based chemical company E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., which is investing 13.5 million in its existing Lycra plant in Londonderry, and Ford Motor Company based in Dearborn, Mich., which plans to spend 15 million to produce engine components in Belfast.
Fujitsu Ltd., the Japanese electronics group, will also build a new factory in the Northern Ireland capital. Chung Sung Moon, managing director of South Korea's Shin Ho Corporation, a paper manufacturing company, said he was interested in investing in the province because it had a more favorable labor market than Scotland, where he was considering doing business.
British government officials say creating more jobs in the early phase of a peace settlement will be vital, because thousands of jobs will be lost as a result of violence disappearing.
Many workers are employed servicing the 30,000 British troops in Belfast and other centers, and in other security-related activities.
Graham Gudgin of the Northern Ireland Economic Research Council fears that as many as 20,000 people could lose their jobs in the next three to four years if Britain withdraws troops.
There is a big investment gap for foreign companies to fill. At present, Britain spends about 3 billion a year supporting Northern Ireland's economy. The government employs one-third of the province's work force.
Although Major was right to call the two-day forum a success, political tension still lingers. Major failed to invite members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to the forum's working groups. It took vigorous backstage persuasion by Mr. Brown and other US representatives to convince Sinn Fein representatives to enter the conference hall.
Alan Hevesi, the New York City comptroller, says excluding Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein chairman, was ''a mistake on the part of the British government.''
Major appears to have decided to keep Mr. Adams out because his presence would anger Protestant businesspeople, but Mr. Hevesi says such an attitude would ''turn off'' American investors.
Hevesi, who controls a $50 billion pension fund, says he would direct investment funds toward Northern Ireland only if there was ''positive discrimination'' toward Catholics working for companies with a significant US shareholding.
Despite British government attempts to persuade Northern Ireland companies to be even-handed in allocating jobs, companies still tend to favor Protestant workers.
Official figures show that 43 percent of Catholic men aged 20 to 60 are unemployed, compared with 26 percent of Protestants. Catholics form a little more than one-third of Northern Ireland's 1.6 million population.
While the forum was under way, Adams said one of the main impediments to investment in Northern Ireland was ''the adverse image created by the spectacle of tension and violence.''
Not only investors are deterred by the image. Tourists are ''turned off'' in the tens of thousands.
Tourism accounts for 7 percent of economic activity in the Irish Republic (southern Ireland), but only 1.5 percent in the north.
The Confederation of British Industries, Britain's premier employer's group, calculates that at least 10,000 new jobs could be created if Northern Ireland, which is a beautiful province outside its main cities, could be put firmly on the international tourist map.