Sparking a brighter and bolder vision
Two upcoming events — both dates for your diary if you live in these parts — will focus on a brighter vision for a resurgent Belfast at a time when negative forces are determined to dominate the public discourse.
On Thursday 14 April in the Merchant Hotel, I will be the guest speaker at the annual Belfast on the Rise business breakfast when my theme will be ‘A Bolder Vision’. Four business leaders who have demonstrated that bolder vision in their professional careers will take part in a panel discussion exploring ‘The Keys to Success in A Global Market’ with Emer Hinphey of Think People in the chair. Our quartet represent a wide range of interests but all are united in the pursuit of business excellence: prizewinning young entreprenur and Amelio MD Catherine O’Neill, serial entrepreneur and founder of ClubsToHire.Com Gerry McKernan, Colin Williams of animation company Sixteen South (which has just announced ambitious expansion plans), and former Silicon Valley businesswoman and now a board member of Invest NI Deborah Lange.
Our business experts will challenge and inspire in equal measure as we seek to bring about a step-change in Belfast’s economic development but the real business ambassadors on the day will be our audience — and we are planning for a full house of business-owners and civic leaders.
Another chance to show off the best of Belfast will come on Saturday 19 March at a reception in the Shaftesbury Recreation Centre (AKA Belfast’s United Nations hq) for the Syrian refugee families who have received shelter in our city. Ten families moved to Belfast just before Christmas under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme and all are now well-settled — thanks to the generous support of their neighbours, voluntary organisations and faith groups.
As Chair of the Assembly All-Party Group on Ethnic Minorities, I’ve been dismayed at the fact that there hasn’t been an opportunity for the wider community to embrace our new friends and assure them of a céad míle fáilte as they rebuild their lives after the horror of the Syrian civil war and the hardship of the Lebanese refugee camps. My pals Raied Al-Wazzan of our ebullient Islamic community, Keith Preston of the lifesaving Presbyterian International Meeting Point and the Rev Steve Stockman of the ever-generous Fitzroy Church have been to the fore in welcoming individual refugee families over recent years but now with this reception we have a chance to allow the entire community to welcome our Syrian guests.
There’ll be a practical purpose to the event as well as we’d like to link up our Syrian guests with learning and employment opportunities.
After I wrote here previously about the recently-arrived Altikush and Alnajjar Syrian families, I was cheered by your response which enabled us to provide a TV and laptop to each family and top up their heating supply.
Hopefully, many of you will be able to call along to the Community Welcome at 5:30pm on 19 March.
On Thursday morning, I had the pleasure of attending the exciting opening of the Entrepreneurial Spark Hatchery in Lombard Street. ‘Powered by’ Ulster Bank and located in a former bank premises in that city centre street, the hatchery boasts over 70 start-ups, all exuding boundless energy. I go to a lot of business events but this was different: the biggest-ever concentration of start-ups ever in Belfast, each headed by passionate entrepreneurs. Behind the venture is irrepressible Glaswegian Jim Duffy who has the marvellous motto #GoDo. I love that and plan to make it my mantra. Congrats to all those — including my pal John Ferguson of Venuebooker — who are forging the less-travelled path of business ownership. Belfast is lucky to have you.
Focal Scoir/Finally: I was on my feet in Stormont this week encouraging Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín to reflect, in her last question time for this mandate, on five frenetic years of Irish language promotion under her stewardship. Bhí rath is bláth ar a hiarrachtaí. Go maire sibh is go gcaithe sibh le linn Seachtain na Gaeilge.