Peace pays Northern Ireland big dividends

For three decades security was the one issue that deterred investors in Northern Ireland. Today, 10 years after the Good Friday peace agreement, it is a measure of the changes that the province’s crime rate, now below the UK average, is included on the local investment board’s website as a reason to locate there.

Leslie Morrison, a former investment banker recruited to head Invest Northern Ireland in 2005, says: “People don’t see it as a risky place any more. The questions investors now ask are the economic ones.”

It is easy to forget that for much of the Troubles, US investors boycotted Northern Ireland, under pressure from Irish-American lobbyists, because of its failure to tackle the anti-Catholic bias in the jobs market. The mayor of San Francisco once famously emptied his cellar of Bushmills whiskeys into the bay when he heard the Antrim distillery employed few Catholics.

Today it is commonplace to hear Martin McGuinness, a one-time IRA leader and now Sinn Féin deputy first minister, extolling the virtues of doing business in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, next month Mr McGuiness and Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist first minister, will host an international investment conference in a bid to capitalise on political changes in the province. Northern Ireland is, of course, competing with other UK regions and with the Irish Republic in attracting foreign companies. But among its unique “economic” selling points is the relatively low cost of commercial property, with office rents still well behind the rest of the UK.

Given this, you might think local developers would be wary of adding to the building stock, but Nick Reid, chief executive of William Ewart Properties, a privately owned property company, says: “You only have to look at the number of cranes around the city to see the activity going on.”

But perhaps the most dramatic expression of Northern Ireland’s new feelgood factor is the extraordinary rise in house prices – up 800 per cent in 15 years, making it the best performing regional UK market.

“Every doctor or lawyer I know seems to have a little investment property,” says Mark O’Connell, who runs a consultancy monitoring investment flows in Northern Ireland. “Those who got in early enough have made big money.”

Welcome as all these signs of renewed confidence are, all commentators agree that the long-term structural problems still need to be addressed. The public sector still accounts for two-thirds of economic activity, and a third of all employment. Although unemployment levels have improved dramatically – according to the Geneva-based International Labour Office’s measure, Northern Ireland has the lowest unemployment rate of any European region – the number of the so-called economically inactive remains 50 per cent higher than the UK average, at one in five of the working population.

One industry with great potential, which, for obvious reasons, has suffered from the years of civil conflict, is tourism. The province has enjoyed a big increase in tourists, admittedly from a very low base.

“We’re getting a lot of positive PR,” says Lisa McMurray of the Belfast visitor and convention bureau.

Visitor numbers in the city have grown from 200,000 in 1994 – the year of the IRA ceasefire that set the peace process in train – to 1.2m in 2006. Belfast is now second only to Edinburgh as a recognised city-break destination, according to one poll.

Interestingly, when a London branding agency was asked to define the city, it was described not only as “witty, sociable, welcoming and vibrant”, but also as “edgy”. In today’s improved security climate, it seems, edgy is a good thing to be.

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