UK: Behind the Irish troubles, business is looking up. (1 of 4)

UK: Behind the Irish troubles, business is looking up. (1 of 4) - The image of Northern Ireland has suffered greatly from the continual strife there, but the Industrial Development Board is successfully wooing overseas employers, as Philip Beresford and

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The image of Northern Ireland has suffered greatly from the continual strife there, but the Industrial Development Board is successfully wooing overseas employers, as Philip Beresford and Daniel Butler report.

The ride from the airport passes through quiet and unspoiled countryside by way of a converted mill into a small prosperous market town. As the car swings off the road into the technology park, the ducks rise from the man-made lake in the middle, while the surrounding buildings could be straight out of Silicon Valley, or a quieter version of the Thames Valley.

But hang on, this is the Antrim Technology Park in Northern Ireland, barely half an hour by car from the Falls Road and other familiar battlegrounds. This is the hidden face of Northern Ireland well away from IRA violence, and it is an image that economic planners in the local Industrial Development Board (IDB) hope will play a key role in financial regeneration of the area in the 1990s.

Certainly the Antrim Technology Park is filling up with the sort of high-technology software companies that any self-respecting Californian science park would like to have. Take BIS Beecom International, founded in the mid-1970s by Paul McWilliams, a quietly spoken computer boffin ("I like to think of myself as a guru"). Originally called Beecom - "it sounded better than Acom or Ceecom" - the company boasts 170 staff working as computer consultants for a range of blue chip clients. "The plan was to have 100 people working by the end of 1992, but we've been so successful that we achieved that by the end of 1989," McWilliams claims. The current target is some 300 by 1992.

One of the keys to the success of software companies in Northern Ireland is the large local pool of talented labour. The IDB may be desperate to lower the unemployment rate - currently around 14% and the worst in the UK - but it does actually have advantages. "Labour turnover here is virtually unknown. We have an inquest when anyone leaves," McWilliams says. Compare that with the South-east of England, where even in recessionary times turnover of software staff can be as much as 30% a year.

What is more, the supply of high quality graduates from the two universities, Queens and the New University of Ulster (NUU), does keep pace with demand, deliberately so. A recent report on the Northern Ireland software industry proposed employment growth in the industry from just over 2,000 today to around 6,200 by 1995. There are no worries about filling those posts with the right staff.

Certainly Frank Graham, managing director of Kainos Software, a joint venture between ICL and Queens University, does not have to worry about the supply of graduates that he gets. Based right in the heart of the university area in a lovingly restored old Georgian house, he says: "Getting staff is the least of my problems. I'm only limited by how fast I can get growth." In four years he has grown from 16 staff to 40, and plans to add at least 10 a year for the next three years.

The familiar mainland gripe of skill shortages is rarely heard in Northern Ireland. Its population is also growing and bucking the demographic trends that are already resulting in a scarcity of young people in the rest of the country.

Such factors, of course, make Northern Ireland a prime site for locating computer operations which can be done discretely with no eyeballing required. A determined campaign to woo back office functions from the overcrowded and overpriced mainland South-east is underway. IDB officials wonder how they can prise companies such as British Airways from the Heathrow area. "They have 3,000 software people there; 3,000 - if we could get a fraction of them here ..." says one IDB official wistfully.

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