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

UK: Behind the Irish troubles, business is looking up. (4 of 4) - Prospects good in the province.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Prospects good in the province.

"It was said that this was the place where the tide came in first and went out last, but this recession has barely affected us so far," announces Richard Needham, Minister of State for Northern Ireland.

He was speaking at a lunch organised by the Industrial Development Board for leading businessmen in the province, and his words went down well. Sean O'Dwyer, deputy chairman of Desmond and Sons, has good reason to agree. His family clothing firm used to be Marks and Spencer's 15th largest supplier. Now it is the fifth. He believes that this is the result of a highly educated and willing workforce with an excellent labour relations record. He points to American chemical giant Du Pont, which has lost the equivalent of only one working day in industrial action over the past 30 years. His sentiments are echoed by Frank Lawrence, general manager of United Technologies, at whose factory only 19 hours of production have been lost since 1976.

But all of Northern Ireland's businessmen appear frustrated by the lack of interest from their mainland colleagues. "What do we have to do to convince people that this isn't a dangerous place?" asked Alasdair MacLaughlin, the Confederation of British Industry's regional director in the province, pointing out that London suffers from a worse violent crime rate.

Northern Ireland has a lot to offer, both to business and the individual. Ewan Rice, corporate services director for Woolwich Building Society, believes that there are openings there for the taking. He has helped to construct specially tailored mortgage services to exploit the low cost of housing and he points out that after Woolwich developed its property services division in Kent, its second area of development was in Northern Ireland.

But in general, British industrialists appear slow to investigate the potential of Northern Ireland, frightened, perhaps, by the image of bombings and kneecappings. This contrasts with some overseas manufacturers which are more resolute. Montupet, the French aluminium manufacturer, has recently opened a plant producing lightweight aluminium cylinder heads for Ford in the former De Lorean car plant.

And the minister, Mr Needham, is certainly nothing if not ambitious about the future. He wants growth on the scale of Korea and to "uncouple the Northern Irish economy from the mainland" - at the moment he fears that it may be dragged back by the mainland South-east. But as he points out, the province has much to offer: the most highly qualified school leavers in the country and - with wages on average 85% of those on the mainland, but mortgages at a third - potentially one of the highest standards of living.

With violence appearing to be on the wane at the moment, he may well be right that the future looks bright.

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