Northern Ireland proves that prosperity requires peace

Writing exclusively in The National, Joe Kennedy III, the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs, says the region's Middle East trade ties prove that although it is small in size it remains big in influence

Young organ-donation campaigner Daithi MacGabhann, 6, outside the seat of Northern Ireland's government in Belfast. The region's post-Troubles achievements are a positive example to other societies with deep and sometimes divisive histories. PA
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The exodus of Irish emigrants to Boston started in 1718 when five ships from the north of Ireland docked in Boston Harbour. These early Scotch-Irish emigres were followed in later generations by millions of rural Irish from the southern and western counties, including the Kennedys, escaping famine and economic collapse while dreaming of a better life in the New World.

The early waves first settled in New England but many moved to the frontier, following the hunting and trading paths of Native Americans. The rugged determination and strong work ethic of these farmers, craftsmen and blacksmiths were the very qualities that helped elevate their influence in shaping the cultural and social fabric of our fledgling nation.

Thankfully, our unique connections to Northern Ireland are not grounded in the distant past.

Americans possess a deep affinity and interest in the region, not least because of the US-brokered Belfast/Good Friday Agreement which, in 1998, brought stability to a place once blighted by political turbulence. Since then, positive changes to the region’s physical and psychological landscape have been significant. There are currently 260 US businesses in Northern Ireland, employing almost 31,000 people across a range of industries. Northern Ireland now enjoys almost full employment. Our continued support is founded on the premise that political stability and economic prosperity remain inseparable.

In December 2022, I was honoured to be appointed US President Joe Biden’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs. On my first visits there, I quickly learnt that its people possess the very same spirit of innovation and ingenuity as those who pushed the boundaries of the American frontier.

The US is now the biggest foreign investor in Northern Ireland, accounting for one half of total foreign investment. Of the 1,200 international companies present in Northern Ireland, 70 per cent chose to reinvest there – testimony to its world-class research universities, skilled workforce, competitive wage levels, and the best telecommunications infrastructure, per capita, in Europe.

The benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland don’t stop there.

Recent agreements between the UK and the EU mean that Northern Ireland now enjoys full access to Great Britain and markets in Europe. In other words, international companies seeking to expand their footprint into Europe can avail themselves of unique dual-market access, giving them a competitive edge.

Organisations such as Invest Northern Ireland – that 30 years ago established its first office for the India, Middle East and Africa region in Dubai – are working hard to deepen two-way trade and collaboration between both regions

A number of Fortune 500 companies represented on a trade mission I led to Northern Ireland last autumn recognised the opportunities in a society that has come a long way towards healing the political and cultural wounds of the long conflict known as the Troubles. Companies already active in Northern Ireland announced new investments, along with commitments to establish new beachheads of US commerce.

These are more than just one-off investments. Northern Ireland’s new Economy Minister has outlined a strategic vision for the future of the region, one that lines up with its strengths – like cybersecurity, health care and manufacturing – and with the opportunities that are ripe for the taking – such as green technology.

Many of the core sectors of this strategy have strong resonance to the UAE, and organisations such as Invest Northern Ireland – that 30 years ago established its first office for the India, Middle East and Africa region in Dubai – are working hard to deepen two-way trade and collaboration between both regions.

As an example, about 40 per cent of the world’s crushing and screening equipment, as well as mobile stackers and wet processing equipment, is produced in Northern Ireland. Many of these products end up in quarries across the UAE.

In life and health sciences, Northern Ireland benefits from a unique combination of world-class research and positive synergies between industry, academia and clinicians. A strategic partnership between the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai and Queens University Belfast is generating mutually beneficial outcomes for both academic partners.

Northern Ireland also has a growing agrifood sector worth $6.8 billion. Last year alone, it exported more than $28.4 million worth of food and drink to GCC states. Buoyant growth in this sector illustrates Northern Ireland’s global reputation for premium produce, coupled with best-in-class food traceability and food security.

Finally, Belfast is now ranked as the world’s top destination for financial technology investment, with Northern Ireland being the number-one investment location for American cybersecurity companies outside the US. These remarkable commercial advances are testimony to leaders within the sector, many of whom are collaborating with Emirati counterparts to fortify critical infrastructure and protect against cyber threats.

Northern Ireland is small in size but big in influence. It is a privilege to champion Northern Ireland and shine a light on its innovative spirit, its commitment to excellence, and, above all, its ability to respect the past without being held hostage to it. Its extraordinary achievements provide an example to other societies with deep and sometimes divisive traditions of what can be wrought when every community pulls together.

Published: April 11, 2024, 4:00 AM