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The micro-businesses that give me hope for Belfast

Plus: Is Dublin overheating again?

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

At Stormont on Saturday, we observed a minute’s silence for the dead of Paris. Our conference group of Brits and Americans had convened two days earlier to discuss conflict resolution, the idea that nationalism and tribalism are the enemies of peace and prosperity, and how all this might relate to the migration crisis; so the moment could not have been more poignant. We had reached the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly by way of a bus tour that was a potted history of the Troubles: up the Catholic Falls Road, through a gate in the ‘peace wall’, back down the Protestant Shankill Road and across Loyalist East Belfast; onwards through leafy suburbia to the government estate with its elevated view across a huddled city where very little, it seemed, has been forgiven or forgotten.

Murals of masked gunmen still adorn the gable ends. The graffito ‘Stick Haass up your arse’ was a reminder to our American friends of how US diplomat Richard Haass was received when he tried to broker agreement on ‘parades and flags’ a couple of years ago. Our Stormont host, a deputy speaker of the Assembly, apologised that none of his senior colleagues could join us because the leaders of the province’s five main parties were locked in talks, with British and Irish officials, over ‘legacy’ issues, continuing paramilitary activity and welfare cuts.

Evidently all points are sore in talks that have already dragged on for weeks. But in a region where the public sector accounts for more than 60 per cent of the economy, and youth unemployment stands 40 per cent higher than the UK average, the prospect of Westminster-imposed cuts to match those on this side of the water is a particular provocation. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has declared them a threat to the fragile power-sharing and devolution arrangements currently in place. ‘An unsung hero of the peace process has been the British taxpayer,’ one long-time observer told us, and there’s a fear — despite decades of community-building by local unsung heroes — that if the money tap is turned off, violence will return.

Titanic efforts

So it was a consolation to visit one part of Belfast where entrepreneurship (albeit catalysed by grant funding and tax incentives) is creating a genuine sense of looking forward rather than back. This is the Titanic Quarter, occupying much of what was once the world-leading Harland & Wolff shipyard where the great liner was launched in 1911.


The yard itself still operates, on a reduced scale, as a repairer of ships and oil rigs. But here, beside the drawing office where Thomas Andrews sketched Titanic’s ill-fated structure of not-so-watertight compartments, stands the shiny £97 million Titanic Belfast tourist attraction, the film studio where Game of Thrones is made, and a large new block occupied by Citigroup, the US banking giant.

Most importantly, here is the Northern Ireland Science Park, developing specialisms in cybersecurity and the super-hot ‘fintech’ sector I wrote about last week, and incubating start-ups such as See.Sense, which makes intelligent bike lights that transmit traffic data, and Write to Read, an app (invented by a remarkable 17-year-old, Gareth Reid) that reshapes typefaces to make them more legible for dyslexics.

Such micro-businesses, briefly described, can sound relatively insignificant: but what could be more insignificant, in relation to things that really matter, than an argument over parades and flags and ancient fights that has impeded economic progress for two generations? Conflict — I conclude after one wet day in Belfast — is most effectively diminished by prosperity. And while governments often get their blueprints as wrong as Thomas Andrews did, prosperity is always best nurtured by entrepreneurs, who by definition start small. The future is theirs.

A fine clip

Our conference began and ended in Dublin. As ever in recent visits, I came away with an upbeat impression — amplified this time by a downbeat experience of Belfast. The economy is ‘moving along at a fine clip’, as the Irish Times put it, with the number of people in work up by 130,000 to almost 2 million since post-crash unemployment peaked; Sunday’s switching on of Christmas lights in Grafton Street illuminated a 5 per cent rise in retail sales since last year. The property market is buoyant (no talk of overheating, but I was worried by Bank of Ireland billboards offering big mortgages with ‘2 per cent cashback’) and new car sales up by no less than 31 per cent — contributing to a statistic I can confirm, that Dublin traffic congestion has returned to 2008 levels. The airport, whose glossy new terminal was condemned as expensive folly when it opened in 2010, is also buzzing, and is a Babel of European languages.

The Irish love being part of Europe. Of course they have benefited from Brussels’ largesse, but they have also played a smarter game than other small members during the recession by keeping tax rates low enough to attract continuing flows of inward investment from the US and elsewhere: ‘Apple creates 1,000 new jobs in Cork’ was one headline this week, and more striking as an indicator of change, ‘Galway’s Indian community celebrates Diwali’.

What’s more, the Irish have never regretted joining the euro, despite the excesses to which it tempted them. And they remain a huge trading partner for the UK. Ireland buys more of our goods and services than China does, and five times more than we sell to India — whose prime minister Modi was being so assiduously buttered up for bigger orders during his London visit. The UK is Ireland’s second-largest export customer after the US. So the Irish are mustard keen that we don’t vote for Brexit — and indeed find it incomprehensible, from their own experience, that we might contemplate doing so. The message was whispered in my ear repeatedly this weekend. ‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’ will be the Outers’ instant response, but perhaps we should listen a little more carefully.


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