Now you're talking: future looks bright for Northern Ireland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2007, 12:00am

Northern Ireland is in the grip of a mood of unstoppable and sustained optimism following a spate of ground-breaking developments in the political arena that culminated in the formation of a coalition government last month.

Having refused for decades to even sit at the same table for talks, the Democratic Unionist Party leader, Reverend Ian Paisley, and Martin McGuinness from the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) political front Sinn Fein, have now been appointed First and Deputy First Ministers in the newly elected Northern Ireland Executive. Thus far, the new power-sharing arrangement is reported to be functioning harmoniously; a prospect dreamed unimaginable during earlier times of conflict.

Fears that the 1998 Omagh bombing, committed by the Real IRA just months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, had derailed the peace process revitalised by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, proved unfounded. Indeed, the single worst atrocity in the previously troubled province served only to strengthen the resolve across all communities to bring about a lasting peace.

As demonstrated by the performance of the economy in the past decade, the peace effort has been bearing fruit. Gross value added rose from GBP17.37 billion (HK$270.27 billion) in 1998 to GBP24.48 billion in 2005. The unemployment rate between December and February 2007 was at 4.6 per cent when 767,000 people were in employment, an increase of 0.6 per cent year-on-year.

The strength of the rising economy has been fuelling demand in the property market and leading to concerns of a housing shortage. House prices shot up by 57.6 per cent in the past year, and by 14.6 per cent in the first quarter, bringing the average house price to GBP200,000, according to the Nationwide Building Society.

Northern Ireland is also looking to mainland China for opportunities to develop its economy through stronger trade ties and greater business exchanges.

Mainland and Belfast officials are due to hold talks with Northern Ireland about the opening of a new Chinese consular office in the Northern Ireland capital.

'This will be a real boost for people wishing to travel to or do business with China,' said South Belfast Alliance MLA Anna Lo, who is from Hong Kong. The comments come after a trade mission led by Invest Northern Ireland recently visited Beijing, Tianjin and Shenyang. Another trade mission will head to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai in November.

The improving economy and influx of overseas firms are raising calls for more skilled workers, especially as university graduates only made up 14.8 per cent of Northern Ireland's workforce in 2005. In a bid to compensate for the shortfall in the IT pool, US software development company Liberty IT is preparing to invest GBP6.6 million in 175 new staff positions in engineering, software development and project management at its Belfast office, the BBC reports. IT development is expected to receive a further boost following the recent opening of the GBP20 million Intelligent Systems Research Centre at the University of Ulster for computational intelligence and bio-inspired computing.

On the tourism front, the number of visitors to Northern Ireland last year increased by 0.4 per cent to 1,979,000. The numbers are set to rise further as the major push towards peace in the province has caught the attention of the global tourism industry, with Lonely Planet tipping Northern Ireland as one of 'the must-see places to visit in 2007'. Its gorgeous green landscapes and coastal scenery make it a potential gold mine for tourism. That's a view backed by yachtsman Dee Neill, who has invested GBP200,000 in a new luxury yacht to take visitors around the coast. 'Northern Ireland's coastline is the envy of the world, from the Giant's Causeway down to Carlingford Lough,' he said in the Belfast Telegraph.

To help finance a tourism attraction that is projected to draw up to 400,000 visitors a year when it is completed in 2012, the Northern Ireland Executive is applying for GBP25 million from Britain's Big Lottery Fund. The proposed GBP90 million Titanic Signature Project envisages the development of a five-storey building containing exhibition galleries, retail and restaurant facilities on a 1.21 hectare plot in the heart of Belfast's Titanic Quarter.

These initiatives indicate that hopes are high both domestically and abroad that Northern Ireland's economy will thrive, and businesses and tourism will flourish as it enters a new era marked by the re-establishment of devolution under the Northern Ireland Assembly.

With the province emerging from three decades of violence and bloodshed as the Provisional IRA fought an armed campaign to gain independence from British rule, Northern Ireland will look to trade partners overseas to stimulate economic growth.

Rome was not built in a day, and it will take time to develop a stable and prosperous economy, yet what a difference a day can make, especially to the peace process.

Growth in tourism

The number of visitors to Northern Ireland last year: 1,979,000