Investment Conference a Hit

SUNSHINE pervaded Northern Ireland just in time for last week's US-NI Investment Conference in Belfast. Intended to encourage American investment, the two-day event, timed to mark the first anniversary of the new power-sharing government, was hosted by First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.The conference was endorsed by the governments of Northern Ireland, U.K., U.S., Ireland and the European Union. All were represented and welcomed more than 120 senior executives from more than 80 major corporations such as Nortel, AOL, IBM, Allstate, Pfizer, CITI, Bank of Ireland, Palm, Bloomberg, Mutual of America and Goldman Sachs.U.S. Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, President Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland, attended along with fellow U.S. ambassadors Robert Tuttle (to Britain), and Tom Foley (to Ireland). Also on hand was a New York delegation including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and the comptrollers both of New York City and New York State, William Thompson and Thomas DiNapoli.Speaking as both politician and businessman, Bloomberg reiterated that, to become a destination for business and tourism, Northern Ireland must continue to demonstrate that the decades-long conflict is over. On a lighter note he warmly invited northerners to visit and spend money in the Big Apple. The conference was a landmark success - attendance was three times original estimates. The events led by Nigel Dodds, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Industry, meticulously unfolded at sites across the city from the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum to Stormont and Hillsborough Castle. Immediate results may be slow to materialize but this was matchmaking on a grand scale. Over both days several investments were announced, including Bombardier Aerospace's major investment of 70 million, the New York Stock Exchange-owned software company Wombat, software firm CyberSource, Allstate, Bloomberg and CITI. On his home turf Donegal-born Patrick Doherty, chairman of Harcourt Developments, predicted his iconic $1 billion waterfront project Titanic Quarter will deliver up to 5,000 jobs and over 3,000 new homes over the next seven years. One extraordinary mo-ment took place in the Great Hall at Stormont. Brian Cowen, on his first day as Ireland's new taoiseach (prime minister), stood alongside Paisley and McGuinness while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that Britain would grant the Northern Ireland Executive an additional $1.2 billion from sale proceeds of public assets over the next three years. Though well received, this fell short of a hoped-for tax break. Many fear that the corporate tax rate of 28% in the North compared with 12.5% in the Republic will discourage potential investors. But Brown held fast to no new tax allowance in an effort to stave off demands for similar concessions from Wales and Scotland; no doubt dampening Brown's mood is the ongoing news that the leader of Scottish Labor is calling for a referendum on Scottish independence. To Westminster, a tax break for the North would mean the end of fiscal union between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain."What an irony," whispered Business Week's correspondent Kerry Capell. "The opportunity to offer companies the favorable tax structure may be the very thing that causes the Unionists to eventually break with the U.K." Tax breaks aside, much is expected in the weeks ahead. The North will continue to attract investment from America. Just last month four New York City employee pension funds announced a $150 million investment in the province. Investments are also coming from India, and especially from the Irish Republic where Cowen called for an end to competitive marketing between the North and South to be replaced by a mutual win-win strategy.At the gala finale at Hillsborough Castle, Paisley gave what many believe was the first of his political farewells. He thanked former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for his role in the peace process and reflected warmly on his past year of governance with McGuinness. "The year has enabled the majority of people to put their trust in the executive which is determined to deliver greater stability and greater prosperity both for them and for those who follow," he said.Earlier McGuinness received sustained applause when he said, "the old days are gone, the old days will never return." Whether he is right only time will tell-but this remarkable spell of economic sunshine was a joy for all indeed.

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