Focus on Northern Ireland: USA Inc Is Ready to Invest

By Cunningham, Francine | The Independent (London, England), April 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Focus on Northern Ireland: USA Inc Is Ready to Invest


Cunningham, Francine, The Independent (London, England)


IRISH AMERICA'S corporate elite will gather in the resplendent Art Deco glamour of New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel next month, to feast on smoked salmon washed down with the finest malt whiskey and to muse on future projects for Northern Ireland's battered economy. Some 900 leading figures in the Irish-American business world will pay up to $25,000 (pounds 14,700) a ticket to attend the American Ireland Fund's annual dinner, which will provide them with the first opportunity to discuss the economic fallout of last week's historic peace deal in Northern Ireland.

With Michael Foley, the Heineken USA president, doing the honours, the invitation list reads like a Who's Who of Northern American boardrooms. It includes Bill Flynn, chairman of Mutual of America; John Shark-ey, vice-president of advertising at MCI Communications; and Christopher Condron, president of Mellon Bank. They will rub shoulders and wallets with representatives of Guinness, Allied Irish Bank and Waterford Crystal.

The question on everyone's mind will be whether the peace agreement will open the floodgates to new US investment in Northern Ireland. Despite strong attachment to their home country, Irish- Americans have been cautious about putting their money where their heart is. Past experience suggests that American multinationals are likely to wait for proof that the peace deal will hold before considering expansion in a province destabilised by 30 years of violence. Jim Lyons, special adviser to President Clinton on economic initiatives for Northern Ireland, said there was "real impetus for new investment" following the peace agreement. "I am sure that there are companies poised to make a commitment to Northern Ireland, but they will not do that until after the referendum." But the long-awaited peace dividend could be slow in coming, even if the political agreement is ratified by the refer- endum vote on 22 May. Around 64 American companies have already invested in Northern Ireland, including synthetic material manufacturer Dupont, textile producer Fruit of the Loom and computer component manufacturer Seagate Technology. Foreign companies invested a record pounds 400m in the year ended March 1997, according to the latest available figures from accountants Coopers & Lybrand. These companies are attracted by a highly educated workforce driven by a formidable work ethic. "Northern Ireland is one of the best-kept economic secrets in Western Europe," said Mr Lyons. "My job is to put an end to the secrecy." The potential that peace has to boost the economy was demonstrated after the first ceasefire, when the number of Americans travelling to Northern Ireland increased by 57 per cent in one year. But the collapse of the initial ceasefire led to a fall-off in tourism and interest from potential US investors. A return to normality in Northern Ireland is crucial to enticing nervous investors.

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