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UK officials will welcome 200 companies from around the world to Belfast this week to showcase Northern Ireland as an investment location, offering unique post-Brexit access to both the EU and British markets.
Lord Dominic Johnson, the UK’s investment minister, said that sovereign wealth funds from the Gulf states and companies from Japan and the US were among those eyeing opportunities in the region.
He promised the conference would “put Northern Ireland on the map” with a number of investments due to be announced at the two-day summit that starts on Tuesday. It will be attended by Kemi Badenoch, the UK’s business and trade secretary, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and US special envoy for the region, Joe Kennedy III.
“[The conference] is about creating a buzz around Northern Ireland,” Johnson told the Financial Times.
But the event is overshadowed by more than a year of political paralysis in the region. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive and assembly at Stormont have not functioned since May last year after the pro-UK Democratic Unionist party boycotted them in a dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The power vacuum has not only raised fears of irreparable damage to struggling public services in one of the UK’s poorest regions but has also highlighted how its volatile politics have undermined its ability to manage its finances.
The UK and EU say the Windsor framework, a deal agreed earlier this year to smooth post-Brexit trade friction, can transform Northern Ireland’s fortunes. But local business leaders are sceptical about the impact the investment summit can have given the power vacuum.
“It’s very clear that trying to bring inward investment into Northern Ireland . . . is just a non-starter until there is some sort of political traction and stability,” said the chief executive of a leading Belfast tech company.
The conference will just “put more people into the waiting room of people who might invest in Northern Ireland”, he added.
Andrew Pyne, who wants to turn Belfast international airport into a hub for budget transatlantic flights with the launch of his low-cost airline Fly Atlantic in 2025, complained the lack of support from the UK and US governments could force him to look elsewhere.
“I don’t think they understand the significance of this for the Northern Irish economy — inward investment follows connectivity,” he said. While it was “unfair to blame all delays” on Stormont’s paralysis, it was “a factor”.
He said his attempts to secure US immigration pre-clearance for Belfast, which exists in Dublin, have garnered only “bureaucratic” and “lukewarm” responses in Washington and London even though that could “lubricate the process of getting private investment”.
The UK’s Northern Ireland Office said it had received no formal application from Fly Atlantic. Stormont’s department for the economy and the US embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.