Last week I had the privilege of hearing President Biden’s public address at Ulster University – experiencing it close-up as the President of NI Chamber was a memorable experience and like most of the people in the room that day, I left feeling proud of how far we have come and optimistic for what lies ahead.
A Presidential visit is an opportunity that would be the envy of many. It was, and still is, an opportunity to show the eyes of the world that Northern Ireland is open for business; to tell a captive, international audience about the unique benefits of investing here thanks to dual market access, our skilled and youthful workforce and our propensity for innovation.
President Biden spoke about how the dividends of peace are all around us and he was correct. In the past 25 years, we’ve experienced transformational social and economic change. It is apparent in our world-leading agri-food sector, in the growth of life sciences and advanced manufacturing and of course, in our fantastic universities. We’ve experienced a net increase of more than 200,000 jobs and today, more than 1,200 internationally headquartered companies have a presence in Northern Ireland.
While we’ve come a long way, we are acutely aware that persistent challenges remain. Northern Ireland has the lowest productivity levels in the UK (20% behind the UK average), average household discretionary spend is just £93 a week (less than half the UK average) and we have persistently high levels of economic inactivity, the largest growing category of which is long-term sickness.
US trade and investment has played a vital role in bringing prosperity to Northern Ireland; over the past decade, we’ve benefited from £1.5bn of US investment which supports 13,000 jobs. That’s evidenced by companies like Allstate, who arrived here to establish a small back office and now employ more than 2,500 of our skilled people, as well as Citi which employs more than 3,000 people across three sites. In Mid-Ulster, materials handling manufacturer Terex, which arrived in 1999 now employs 1,500 staff locally.
Significant strides have been made but there is so much more of that ‘peace dividend’ to be drawn down and shared equally. We warmly welcome the President’s pledge that the US will continue to be our partner as we do that. The recent appointment of Joe Kennedy III as US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland will be key and the indication that he will lead a major trade delegation later this year is great news. As a Chamber, we’re already met with Mr Kennedy on several occasions in both Washington and Belfast and will continue to do so.
For the second time in a fortnight, international media has descended on Northern Ireland again, this time at Queen’s University as it hosts Agreement 25. We all have a collective responsibility to use opportunities like this as platforms for good. They come around rarely, so it is incumbent on each of us to put our best foot forward and focus on the opportunity ahead; building on the goodwill which exists in order to showcase what is great about Northern Ireland and leveraging the chance to progress the things we want to change for the better.
With collective will, political stability, and sufficiently strong levels of FDI, there is every possibility that the next decade will be as transformative as the 25 years past.