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Rock Concert Strikes Chord Of Normalcy in N. Ireland

Tuesday's concert was a hopeful sign that the six-week cease-fire is holding and tourists are returning.

Ireland's most-successful-ever rock band came home this week, bringing hopes of normalcy to Northern Ireland. On Tuesday night it performed to a standing-room-only crowd of 40,000 in the city of Belfast. Next weekend, it will play two concerts in Dublin.

The last-minute addition of Belfast to U2's tour generated great interest and was a direct result of the cease-fire announced by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) six weeks ago.

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The event brought together Protestants, Catholics, and "neutrals" in the biggest concert ever held in Northern Ireland. The two-hour open-air event in south Belfast's Botanic Gardens, the first of its kind, boomed throughout the city.

The decision to hold a U2 concert in Belfast is being taken by many in the business community in Northern Ireland as a hopeful sign that normality is returning after 27 years of conflict between members of the Catholic and Protestant communities.

With cease-fires now in place by the main terrorist groups on both sides, it is expected that tourism will also reap large benefits from the peace. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) hopes that tourism revenue over the next few years can be increased threefold. In money terms, this would mean annual revenue of 750 million ($1.2 billion) and the creation of 20,000 new jobs.

Just in preparing for the Belfast concert, some 300 people were employed to build the 150-foot-high stage, which dominated the city skyline. "I think that when we play in the North, it will be extraordinary, and I hope that both communities will take us to their heart...," said Bono, U2's lead singer, before the concert.

Although the IRA is sticking to a six-week-old cease-fire, police on traffic-control duties around Botanic Gardens still wore flak jackets and traveled in armored cars. But most who paid $46 per ticket to come seemed to have left their differences behind and just enjoyed the music.

Roy Baile, the chief executive of NITB, is looking forward to peace too. He describes 1995, during a previous cease-fire, as a "dream year" for tourism. But when the cease-fired ended in early 1996, he says, tourism went back into "limbo."

The economy in Northern Ireland is heavily dependent upon an infusion of 4 billion ($6 billion) from the British government. The annual security bill for Northern Ireland alone comes to around 900 million.

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In 1996, Northern Ireland's economy grew by only 2 percent. The growth rate in the Irish Republic was just over 7 percent. Many now hope Northern Ireland's economy can be boosted by redirecting the money now needed for security to more productive uses. There is also greater confidence that with peace, private investment will increase.

But despite the recent optimism , there is a degree of caution in business circles. This is largely due to the memories of how the 1995 cease-fire didn't last. There is a "credibility gap," and businesses will have to be persuaded that the peace is real, says Stephen Kingon of the accountant firm Coopers and Lybrand.

Many business people are looking to the start of talks between the region's political parties next month for signs that the peace will hold. There "could be great gain if we could get stability, but it is down to the politicians," says Garbhan O'Doherty, a hotel owner in Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second-largest city.

All Northern Ireland parties have been invited to sit around the same negotiating table Sept. 15, but Unionist leaders have yet to decide whether they will join in.

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