Category: Archive

Empey attempts to calm nerves

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

During his three-day visit to New York last week, Reg Empey was the smiling, hopeful, even optimistic face of Northern Ireland. But then, of course, he would be, because as the North’s minister for enterprise, trade and investment, his job, in part, is to promote the area to U.S. business as an ideal gateway to Europe’s huge consumer market.

But even as Empey, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, was making his pitch to U.S. venture capitalists, trouble at home loomed. With his party’s candidate having been defeated in the recent South Antrim by-election by a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is opposed to the Good Friday agreement, there are now questions about the future for Empey’s party leader, David Trimble, the North’s first minister. And, of course, there is debate over reform of the RUC as proposed in the Patten Report, as well as an ongoing and deadly loyalist paramilitary feud, attacks by dissident republicans and continuing paramilitary punishment beatings and shootings.

"You just don’t switch off 30 years of terrorism and destruction overnight," Empey said.

But while the North’s politics may at times seem reason for pessimism, Empey instead sought solace in the economics.

"The fundamental arithmetic of the economy continues with significant growth and with very great potential," he said. "So my job is to focus on that, focus on the fact that there are now some 65 or so North American companies trading in Northern Ireland and let them be the spokespersons for the economy. American companies are not known for investing for philanthropic reasons, they’re there to make money and it is our job to make sure that there is a good environment in which they can work and make profits. That’s what we’re doing."

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And although Empey said American investors were not talking about the results and aftermath of the recent South Antrim by-election, he agreed the election was significant.

"It has had an impact and it has given people opportunities to pursue objectives which they’ve held from the day and hour the agreement was signed. And I don’t in any sense underestimate that or neither do I ignore it. It cannot be ignored."

"But," added Empey, "neither must it allow me or my department to become paralyzed. We have a job to do and I might point out that even in the darkest days of the difficult Troubles, even in the early 1990s, we actually experienced very significant economic growth despite all the difficulties."


As to why an American company should invest in Northern Ireland rather than in the Republic or in Britain, Empey said that first of all, "We do see ourselves as the gateway to the Europe with access to a market of 400 million people, about to grow to 500 million people."

"Secondly," said Empey, "we do have the one major asset that is at a premium in the developed world and that is skilled labor.

"Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of software graduates in the world and in addition to that we do have a very flexible regime of assistance that we can offer to investors and that is why we have been achieving success

"We’ve got the people, we’re within the European Union and we do have a range of products we offer companies that many of them find attractive."

Since 1995, $3.5 billion has been invested by North American companies in Northern Ireland, among them Bombardier ‘rospace, currently the North’s largest private-sector employer with about 6,500 employees, and Nortell Networks, which, Empey said, is "growing at a phenomenal rate," providing infrastructure for the internet.

"So if we take the trade side, our trade with the United States in particular, and Canada, we would have experienced 50 percent growth in the last two years," Empey said. "And I think when we take those things into account, it indicates how important the North American market is to our economy."

When Empey was in the U.S. last August, he had to return a day earlier to deal with crises at Harland & Wolf shipyard, which is currently fighting for its life. Last Friday last, he said, "those problems remain, we haven’t resolved that matter."

Empey said the current situation is that the company has proposed to make 600 workers redundant because it hasn’t received the orders that it is currently negotiating.

The solution for that company is orders, he said.

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