Attracting Investment to Northern Ireland No Easy Task
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ With a 16.9 percent unemployment rate, Britain’s highest by far, Northern Ireland desperately needs jobs as an antidote to its conflict, and it goes to extraordinary lengths to attract outside investment to create them.
But as the province marks its 20th anniversary of political and sectarian violence, obstacles persist.
These include a disinvestment movement in the United States, the potential ″hassle factor″ of new employment laws designed to combat job discrimination against the Roman Catholic minority, and Northern Ireland’s violent image.
To compensate, local businessmen have used sheer persistence and the government has resorted to enticements, such as rent-free factories and hefty matching funds, to attract foreign manufacturers, and they have achieved a small measure of success.
″It is very, very difficult,″ said Bob Nicholson, manager of Du Pont’s chemical plant near Londonderry.
Entrepreneur Jim Bloomer recalls his difficulties in getting Neotech Industries, a maker of electronic pressure gauges based in Dallas, to set up a joint manufacturing venture.
″I made 21 journeys to the States,″ Bloomer said. ″They were most definitely not interested in Northern Ireland at that time.″
Perseverance succeeded for this Antrim businessman, who said with obvious pride about Northern Ireland’s newest American investment: ″We have people here who have never worked before.″
Michael Bohill, an executive director of the government’s Industrial Development Board in Belfast, said: ″Our aim is to create long-term employment opportunities in Northern Ireland. That is a social as well as an economic challenge.″
A slump in manufacturing industries has left 117,000 jobless in Northern Ireland. The Catholic male unemployment rate is 2 1/2 times higher than the Protestant rate, and the job scarcity fosters an atmosphere in which Catholic and Protestant armed groups flourish.
″One side’s gain is quite definitely another side’s loss. This is a difficulty we all face,″ said a government official who requested anonymity, saying his life recently was threatened.
Not everybody is convinced that jobs are the answer.
In fact Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, believes the creation of more Catholic jobs will prompt more violence.
Sinn Fein spokesman Jackie Donnelly said that while he welcomes more jobs for Catholics, he believes they anger Protestants who feel the employment opportunities should go to them. These Protestants, Donnelly added, retaliate by physically attacking Catholics.
The IRA is fighting to oust Britain from Northern Ireland, officially the province of Ulster, and unite it with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Critics maintain the real reason for Sinn Fein’s stance is the fear that jobs mean normality, and normality entrenches British rule.
Northern Ireland relies heavily on outside investment, which accounts for 35,000, or one-third, of the province’s 105,000 manufacturing jobs.
Americans are the largest outside investors, with 26 U.S. companies employing 10,000 workers, or about 10 percent of the manufacturing work force.
″The importance of American investment to Northern Ireland cannot be overstated,″ said the government official.
But now, American investors are being frightened off by the movement in the United States calling for disinvestment to punish what it sees as bias against Catholics, who represent 40 percent of the population of 1.6 million.
Since 1986, 11 U.S. states have enacted legislation inspired by the late Irish statesman Sean MacBride’s fair employment principles, and the British government has mounted a concerted lobbying campaign to prevent the trend from spreading.
The MacBride Principles call for disinvestment measures against companies in Northern Ireland that fail to operate by a code of anti-discriminat ion measures, which include affirmative action and personal protection for workers.
More states are considering such legislation, which is being promoted by Irish-American politicians and pressure groups and which Sinn Fein supports.
″We expect to face challenges in quite a number of states,″ said Simon Johnston of Ulster’s Department of Economic Development.
″We could have had more American funds and we have not got them and MacBride is part of the reason,″ said the department’s Gerry Lavery.
The British government has sought to counter the disinvestment drive with its own laws against job discrimination, which take effect next year.
These will force companies to monitor the religious makeup of their work forces and demonstrate that they are trying to recruit among minority groups. Offenders will face fines and denial of government contracts.
The MacBride Principles are credited with spurring this action, which the government says makes the principles redundant. But there are concerns that these will only magnify the ″hassle factor.″
″People say, ’To hell with this. We’ll go to Holland,‴ said Du Pont’s Nicholson.
Ford, the U.S. automaker, was targeted by an Irish-American boycott in 1986 over the lack of Catholics in the management of its Northern Ireland operations. Ford had to mount a full-scale investigation which resulted in an admission that Catholics were under-represented, and a promise of corrective action.
Sinn Fein excepted, all Northern Ireland’s parties oppose the disinvestment campaign, including the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the largest Catholic party, which argues that since unemployment breeds violence, nothing should be allowed to hinder job creation, regardless of who benefits - Catholic or Protestant.
The U.S. State Department also has come out against the MacBride Principles.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Development Board, which employs 300 people and has 11 offices abroad, is focusing on finding smaller, private companies and potential investors in Asia, which all are less vulnerable to pressure, and is pushing joint ventures that reduce the risk to the outside investor.
″The financial incentives we offer are extremely attractive,″ Bohill said.
The board won’t elaborate, but for example, Neotech got its factory rent- free for three years.
The cost is high. In its first five years, the board has put up 27 million pounds ($46 million) in aid to create an additional 61 million pounds ($103 million) of investment. And the 2,600 jobs it has created through promoting new inward investment have hardly dented unemployment.
But by offering incentives, and stressing such selling points as Northern Ireland’s well-educated work force, the board helped create 867 new jobs at 12 new inward investment projects in its most recent financial year, a large increase over the previous 12 months.
″We’re very confident that we will better that″ this year, Bohill said.
The oldest and probably biggest obstacle to investment remains the fear of violence, which has killed about 2,700 people and has escalated in recent months.
No American company or executive has ever been directly touched by the conflict, but Sam Lord, an American who heads Du Pont’s British operations, said: ″The perception is like a little Beirut. Or South Africa. It’s very difficult to get around that perception.″