Belfast Investment Conference can break all records…

It all kicked off this week when Doug Beattie wrote to PM Rishi Sunak to ask him to postpone the Belfast investment conference because he said it shouldn’t be held when Stormont is down.

A suggestion that this landmark event would be a damp squib and should be delayed until October enraged a group of our local business leaders. For instance, Roger Pollen, Head of the Federation of Small Businesses (NI), immediately hit back by saying,

‘It would be folly to try to stand in the way of the first international investment event, either by postponing or cancelling.’

Then amongst mounting pressure, the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, stepped in and during a press conference on Friday confirmed that it will go ahead. He tweeted,

‘The NI Investment Summit is September will be attended by leading investors and international business, and is a significant opportunity to secure private sector investment and drive growth at a time when budgetary pressures in NI are restricting public investment into growth sectors.’

Even if we disagree on the exact detail, we need to ask ourselves, what can an international investment conference actually achieve for Northern Ireland?

To answer this question, we need to take a brief look at other successful conferences, like Sibos, the world’s annual conference for the financial industry.

The 2019 Sibos conference was held in London and was considered to be a huge success, providing many businesses with a much-needed boost. It had over 11,000 delegates, more than 300 exhibitors and attendees managed to exchange contact details an astonishing 170,000 times during the event. This year’s Sibos is to take place in Toronto and promises to feature major industry topics such as digital currencies and cross-border payments. This sounds impressive and, given our own custom border and Windsor Framework challenges, we might learn something from this one too!

Anyway, our own Belfast conference will not be on the same scale, but it has the advantage of having the backing of the world’s biggest influencer, President Biden. During his brief visit to Belfast in April, the US President urged Northern Ireland leaders to seize an ‘incredible economic opportunity.’

He was ably supported, during his visit, by the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kenedy III, who went on in June to tell the NI Energy Summit,

‘I get to bring good news back to America investors about the opportunities here, such as net zero technologies.’

This could well be a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ for our aspiring companies but I fear that we will either be distracted by political stagnation at Stormont or by our own inability to reach out beyond these shores to make the most of a unique chance.

Sometimes we can spend too much time thinking about the political bubble at Stormont that we don’t see the wood for the trees. Apart from the annual pilgrimage to the United States for the St Patrick Day’s celebrations many of our local politicians remain transfixed by events back at home.

This reminds me of a dream I had the other night; we were suddenly living in an ultra-modern apartment in the centre of Glasgow. Located in Glasgow Central Train Station, it comprised of a rectangular glass box perched high up above the rails. We had the most beautiful views as sunlight radiating between the arches of an old historic viaduct. The smells and aromas from all the international cafes and restaurants below emanated tantalisingly.

But we were frozen and unable to move from our glass box as international travellers passed by on a huge escalator, travelling to every destination in the world.

Perhaps this is a good analogy for Northern Ireland, or maybe you disagree? Do we often look outwards at all the possibilities but fail at the final hurdle to experience and enjoy everything that is on offer?

But one thing is clear, our local businesses and staff have a huge amount to offer. This Belfast conference can provide confidence and contribute to economic growth to help pay for our beleaguered Public Services.

I, therefore, have deep respect for the UUP Leader, Doug Beattie, but, on this occasion, we disagree on the timing of the conference.

We shouldn’t let the current shenanigans at Stormont, or the confines of our own glass boxes, prevent us from making this Belfast Investment Summit a huge success.


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