A MAJOR U.S. business conference taking place in Belfast this week will allow Northern Ireland to send the message out around the globe that it is "open and ready for business'' outgoing First Minister Ian Paisley has predicted.Up to 100 top U.S. executives from 80 multinational business and financial service companies are in Belfast this week to take part in the largest international business conference to ever take place in the North.The importance of the conference is seen by the fact that delegates will not only hear from First and Deputy First Ministers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, but also new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The high profile conference on May 7-9 comes on the first anniversary of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) going into powersharing government at Stormont, and just 24 hours after the departure of outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.Last month McGuinness and Paisley visited New York to the witness the city's Comptroller William Thompson unveil the Emerald Fund, a major U.S. investment package which, it is predicted, will pour hundreds of millions of pounds into the North's economy over coming years.Four New York pension funds have already announced that they will initially invest a total of $150 million in infrastructural projects, with the funds potentially rising to $750 million.Describing this week's business showcase as the "most important economic investment conference in our history," Paisley said, "We are transforming ourselves into a world-class and progressive region that is now an integral part of the global community."There is tremendous interest in this conference - 90 of the leading companies in the United States are coming to see the wealth of education and talent we have in Northern Ireland. "That turnout is all the more remarkable given the current international economic climate. "Over the last year we have been sending out a strong message that the economy is a top priority for the (Stormont) Executive and that we want to bring high value jobs to Northern Ireland. "We have positioned ourselves in a good place. We are offering something new, something innovative and we want people to go away and be good evangelists for what we are doing here."Stressing the importance of attracting international investment to boost the economy, McGuinness said, "We have never been in a better position to boost our economic prospects. "In order to do so inward investment will play a crucial part."Describing the blue-ribbon conference as a major vote of confidence in the efforts to promote power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, McGuinness added, "The fact that we have so many important people coming from the United States - twice more than was initially expected - clearly is a major vote of confidence in what is happening here."People with very busy schedules are taking time out to look very seriously at what we have to offer. That is very encouraging indeed at a time of economic difficulty in the United States."Endorsing the importance of support for the North's newly emerging economic boom, U.S. special envoy Paula Dobriansky said, "People have asked why the U.S. in engaged in this investment conference."My answer is straight forward - helping Northern Ireland build a stable and prosperous future is in our interests."We, and other friends of Northern Ireland, have invested significantly in the peace process over the years and we want to see successful results of everyone's hardwork continue to prosper."Potential investors will hear from executives from American firms who have already invested in Northern Ireland including Nortel, CitiGroup, Seagate, Liberty IT, Allstate Insurance, Caterpillar, Du Pont, Nacco, Perfecseal, Copeland and Northbrook.Irish business leaders, including former Heinz chief executive Tony O'Reilly, will point to the North's new political stability, a young and vibrant work force with a large pool of university graduates, competitive salaries and government pledging to spend 18 billion on infrastructural improvements over the next decade.A further key selling point will be the North's proximity to the Republic, where many U.S. companies already have their European bases.Last month incoming leaders Brian Cowen and Peter Robinson announced a joint initiative which would see the relaxation of tax laws to encourage financial service companies in the Republic to invest in Northern Ireland.The agreement is being seen as the first sign of a new era in cross border cooperation. It is predicted that the move could lead to the creation of up to 5,000 jobs in the next few years.
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