By Harry Keaney
John McFall, M.P., is a fast-talking Scot in a hurry. Appointed last July as the British government’s minister with responsibility for the economy and education in Northern Ireland, it’s easy to understand why. When power to partially govern the six counties is devolved from London this Thursday, McFall will find himself out of a job. He will then become one of the shortest-lived British ministers ever in Northern Ireland.
During his first visit to the U.S. last week as the North’s economy and education minister, he was preaching a now familiar message: For U.S. business, Northern Ireland is the place to invest. In 1998-99, the North had a record year for American investment, with 13 projects creating more than 2,000 jobs.
"Inward investment is key to our continued success," McFall said. "We will continue to focus on attracting to our shores global companies involved in e-commerce and the web, software development, call-center technical support, and high-tech manufacturing.
"Our driving force will be our brightest and best young graduates who are thoroughly versed in the dot-com world. Nearly 70 percent of our young people go on to higher education, the highest rate in the UK."
And, in a message that should be welcome news to many in the Republic, McFall added: "In fact, we have a surplus of talented information technology professionals, [something] practically unheard of in the high-tech world."
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In Washington, D.C., McFall joined Rep. James Walsh at the launch of the Walsh visa program under which temporary non-immigrant visas will be provided to immigrants during the next three years for training and employment programs. McFall also met U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley to discuss a number of education initiatives and strengthen relationships for technology transfer with U.S. colleges and universities.
He also visited the JFK Center for the Performing Arts to discuss arrangements for next year’s Arts of Ireland Festival to be hosted at the center. "The focus will be cultural, musical," McFall said. "It will present a modern face of Ireland."
In St. Louis, McFall met young people taking part in the Business Education Initiative at Lindenwood University. Through the initiative, almost 800 young people from abroad have spent time in the U.S. learning about its culture. In Toronto, he helped officially open a new office for the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board.
Born in 1944, McFall was a schoolteacher from 1974-87. He then was elected to parliament as a Labor M.P. for the constituency of Dumbarton.
In July 1998, he was appointed parliamentary under secretary of state in the Northern Ireland Office where his responsibilities include the department of education and the portfolio of economic development, including North-South co-operation.
McFall said that unemployment in Northern Ireland was now 7 percent compared to 18 percent in the 1980s. There are now 615,000 people employed in the area, the highest figure ever, he said.
As to whether a Catholic is still twice as likely as a Protestant to be unemployed, both McFall, and Bill Montgomery, IDB senior vice president in North America, said that the situation was improving. And they pointed out that 70 percent of new jobs are now going to "areas of special need," mainly west of the Bann, as well as West Belfast, Newry, and the Down and Mourne district.
Both McFall and Montgomery dismissed suggestions that Britain’s absence from the EMU, European monetary union, is a disadvantage in promoting Northern Ireland as an investment location.
"At this stage, it’s not significant," Montgomery said.
"We have established five economic tests for entry, and we will have a referendum" McFall said. "We are very much looking toward Europe. We want to target Northern Ireland as an investment gateway to Europe."