Investing in Northern Ireland may seem about as attractive as ploughing your money into Beirut or Nagorno-Karabakh. The image of all three is destruction and blight, and the wary traveller arriving at Belfast International Airport can’t be blamed for thinking he’s about to enter a mini-Vietnam, circa 1965. The reality is different, and often that traveller leaves the province a convert to a surprisingly relaxed and upbeat culture, and envious of a lifestyle many information technology executives in the south-east of England might covet. There is violence and disruption in Northern Ireland, but the vast majority in business and professional circles escape its effects.
The homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants compares favourably with Washington DC (over 70), Detroit (58), New York (27) and Boston (15) – Northern Ireland is 5. You may think comparing your city with some of the most violent in the US is neat use of statistics, but the crime rate in Northern Ireland compared with areas in the rest of the UK is low – the north, Scotland, south-east and East Anglia are all higher. Northern Ireland’s computing community does an effective public relations job telling outsiders that in information technology terms it has many attractions for investors: a highly educated and loyal work force, good labour relations, attractive government-sponsored investment packages, an infrastructure boasting unclogged roads – and as many golf clubs to join as you want – 70, in fact. In terms of size, Northern Ireland as an information technology market is probably the same as Greater Manchester, according to some estimates: its total Gross Domestic Product is a shade over UKP9,000m and the area is roughly a third the size of Eire, whose GDP in turn is about a tenth of the UK’s. A huge proportion of its workforce is employed by the state, 65%, but its disposable income per head – UKP4,535 per annum – is a reasonable 84% of the UK average. The UK government is prepared to outlay huge sweeteners to companies willing to create employment in the province – cash grants of up to 50% for buildings, 100% of factory rents for up to five years.
It has also spent UKP10m so far on the Antrim Technology Park, a campus four miles from the airport and a 30 minute drive from Belfast and Queen’s and Ulster universities, where software start-ups such as Soften Technology Ltd and Task Software Ltd, plus staff from the software arms of Du Pont (UK) Ltd and BIS Group’s BIS Beecom International Ltd, enjoy pleasant surroundings and the artificial streams. With a capacity for 1,000 jobs the site has so far reached just over 280, with a so-called Advanced Software Centre architected for software developers awaiting a tenant. Who will this tenant be – what sorts of information technology jobs does the Northern Ireland computing market want? Does it want to become an offshore programming resource like India? Absolutely not, according to Frank Graham, managing director of Belfast’s Kainos Ltd Unix software house, a UKP1.2m turnover joint venture started six years ago by ICL Plc and Queen’s University. We have an unlimited supply of high quality graduates and for the vast majority of them the quality of life here is unbeatable. Any organisation that has a requirement for a constant supply of good people should look here, he says. We can offer premises, staff, training, skill and a work-oriented culture. But we do very little bodyshopping, and can’t – and don’t want to – compete with Indian programmers. Taiwan and India will always beat the province as a cheap software factory in terms of price, so it concentrates on selling the calibre of the staff and graduates of its two local universities. Northern Ireland’s software industry – represented by the trade body the Software Industry Federation, the government’s Software Training Council, the local branch of the Computing Services Association and the Institute of Software Engineering – seeks investment from multinationals and UK firms wishing to take advantage of the local pool of well qua
lified job seekers, who are less likely to emigrate en masse than their southern cousins in the Republic.
The graduates we see are well educated, with a broad understanding of business methods, very committed, hard working and articulate, says a BIS spokesman. Other advantages include the compactness of the province: according to Du Pont site manager at Antrim Malcolm Elder, It’s a relatively small community so you usually know people, making it easy to get things done here. Despite the politics, Northern Ireland has many charms – Elder himself is a Scot who went over the water some years ago and never quite made it back, in an unconscious echo of the migrations that created the Protestant enclave in what was then just the north of Ireland three centuries ago. People in the province won’t pretend there’s no such thing as The Troubles as they so euphemistically call the terrorism, but they understandably accentuate the positive. In fact, with straight faces, they’ll tell you the worst thing is the weather – annual rainfall is a rather damp 4.2 per year. Not such a bad place to visit after all, and maybe not such a terrible one to live (and work) in, either.