‘A Bolder Vision’
I was delighted to be asked to kick off the discussion at the Belfast On The Rise business breakfast in the Merchant Hotel this morning. We had a standout panel sparking a lively debate: Gerry McKernan of ClubsToHire.Com, Colin Williams of Sixteen South, Catherine O’Neill of Amelio and Deb Lange of Invest NI. Our Chair was Emer Hinphey of Think People.
My address is below:
Radical change is needed.
Radical change is needed in how we approach the key issue of economic development.
All of us want to grow the economy, create thousands of jobs and make Belfast a world-leader in enterprise and innovation.
But to do that, ‘as you were’ isn’t good enough.
It needs a fresh and determined focus.
It needs an urgency and intensity not seen before.
It needs us to raise our game as a city.
It needs Belfast, in economic terms, to be a Champions League city.
And, in my view, the Fresh Start at Stormont gives us the ideal opportunity to reboot our entire approach to economic development.
Of course I am proud of what has been achieved by the Executive on the job promotion front, 39,000 new jobs, support for groundbreaking investments by AES in energy storage (spearheaded by CEO Carla Tully who is with us) new headquarters for Concentrix and All State at Laganside, a world-class Deloitte Digital Academy on the Gasworks site and much more. But we need to double and treble that level of activity in the years ahead if we are to realise the ambitious goals we set ourselves.
My commitment to you is to work to deliver that dramatic step-change in our approach to the economy from day one of the new mandate.
I make that commitment in the knowledge that when business prospers, Belfast prospers.
We need this fresh start because 18 per cent unemployment among those aged 18-25 is an indictment of us all.
20 years-plus in the Belfast Media Group has taught me that growing a business is tough. And while we’ve had our ups and downs as a small business, we have never lost our belief in Belfast as a city on the rise.
I want to see that belief reflected now in an ambitious economic policy which wages war on emigration and poverty through job-creation.
The potential is enormous: Belfast and Dublin are the two youngest cities in Europe, the corridor between them can be the most vibrant knowledge economy region in Europe.
And the role models are there.
Let’s match the ambition of Belfast City Council and its plan to drive £1bn of investment into the city centre.
Let’s follow the lead of those who made Titanic Belfast the greatest tourist attraction in Ireland.
Let’s take heart from the University of Ulster which is transforming Belfast with its new city centre campus and from the NI Science Park which having invested £50m in gamechanging projects has just put a new £100m development plan on the table.
Let’s emulate the formidable entrepreneurs and business leaders in our own ranks this morning: Jack Butler of MRP, Bill Wolsey of the Merchant, Ciaran Sheehan of Young Enteprise, Elaine Sykes from new start-up Welly One Suit, Joanne and Niall McKenna of James St South, Áine Brolly of CPL, Martin Agnew of Henderson-SPAR, Orla Brennan Smyth of KaffeO and social entrepreneurs Lysney Cunningham of Entrepreneurial Spark and the Rev Margaret Ferguson of East Belfast Mission and Skainos.
The Irish Government recently pivoted its 80 global embassies from centres of diplomacy and politics to economic hubs, encouraging trade and investment. And yet no one has the ear of the 70 million strong diaspora more — as I know personally — than the peacemakers of Belfast. It’s time for us to activitate that global network and see more of our international advocates follow the lead of Tom DiNapoli Comptroller of New York State who has invested $22m in our start-up funds. Not bad for an Italian-American as Jayne Brady CEO of Kernel, who is here, can attest.
But we can only move forward if we unite as a coalition for jobs with the trade unions, with the public sector workers, with the universities and with the community leaders.
We can unite in the belief that we can handle our own affairs better than Tory ministers or faceless civil servants in London.
That unity and belief is a great asset of our city; let’s put it to work.
As business people, you’d be surprised if I left this room without trying to seal the deal. So if you’re from South Belfast, yes I want your votes but more than that I want to appeal to all of you as Belfast Business Champions to be relentless ambassadors for a Fresh Start in how we build the economy. In that way, together, we can ensure that with this BOLDER vision, Belfast and its people truly remain on the rise.