Northern Ireland: Forging a new future
The U.K. region’s focus on innovation inspires post-brexit optimism
“Neither Brexit or COVID have reduced the flow of foreign investment for Northern Ireland. The interest level right now is very high.”
Kevin Holland, CEO, Invest Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year as a peaceful, prosperous and dynamic knowledge-based economy. Not many countries have engineered such a dramatic transformation.
A century ago, its economy revolved around shipbuilding, heavy manufacting, rope and linen. Today, the small, agile nation punches above its weight in industries of the future, reveals Kevin Holland, CEO of the investment agency Invest Northern Ireland. “We are a world-class leader in areas like cybersecurity, fintech, screen industries, software and life sciences. We are also very strong in advanced manufacturing—a fifth of global computer hard drives have parts made here, for instance.” Clusters of excellence have been built around these and other sectors that have enabled homegrown entrepreneurial firms to catapult onto the world’s stage, with notable examples being Randox, CIGA Healthcare and Diaceutics in diagnostic testing; Devenish in sustainable food solutions; and FD Technologies, a frontrunner in streaming analytics.
Its wealth of innovative talent in emerging industries is a major draw for the 1,100 or so international companies operating in Northern Ireland. They include multinationals like KPMG, PWC, Allstate and Microsoft, which all develop novel technologies for their global operations from there. Tellingly, “Of the international brands that have invested here, almost 70 percent have reinvested,” notes Kirsty Mcmanus, national director of the Institute of Directors business association. U.s.-based Seagate Technology, the data storage specialist, is illustrative of this phenomenon: since 1994, it has invested over £1 billion in its Northern Irish manufacturing plant. “The industry-leading innovation delivered by our facility in Springtown has been at the heart of our business strategy for the last 27 years,” explains CEO Dave Mosley.
According to Holland, “Neither Brexit or COVID have reduced the flow of foreign investment for Northern Ireland. The interest level right now is very high.” Interest is partly being driven by the region’s devolved government, which launched an ambitious strategy for future growth in May. “Our 10X Economic Vision details how, through a focus on innovation, we can make Northern Ireland one of the world’s leading small economies,” states Minister for the Economy Gordon Lyons. The roadmap plays to the country’s digital, creative and tech-based strengths and will be implemented in tandem with various City Deals, through which the executive and the U.K. government are pumping £1.3 billion into the region’s infrastructure and economy.
But there are other forceful drivers of investment, asserts Holland. “It’s a great place to do business, with a high quality of life, a low cost of operation, interesting tax rates and funding incentives, and it’s the most welcoming place. We also facilitate a very special ecosystem of businesses, government, development agencies and higher education.” Within that sector are the renowned research-intensive Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, the cross-national Open University and a network of further education colleges, which continuously develop Northern Ireland’s young skilled workforce.
Investor interest has also been raised by the region’s unique position after Brexit, Mcmanus stresses. “Unlike the rest of the U.K, Northern Ireland still has dual market access to both Great Britain and the European Union. It’s now the only country in the world that has that access, which creates a competitive edge for companies based here.”
To visualize how radically it has changed, head to Belfast Harbour, the region’s primary gateway for seaborne trade, which is also now home to an iconic waterfront development and a vibrant community of residents, businesses, the Catalyst tech hub, film studios used by the likes of Netflix and award-winning tourist attractions such as Titanic Belfast. As its chief executive Joe O’neill says, “It’s a genuinely exciting time here, we are all embracing new opportunities around innovation.”
Learn more about how Northern Ireland is forging forward to become the U.K.’S capital of innovation by accessing our full-length special with the QR code or visit www.newsweek.com/newsweek-country-reports.