Flag protest threatens local economy
Belfast Briefing:If ever there was a time for an innovator to devise a sticking plaster to heal some of the ugly sores that threaten to spread and infect the wider economy in the North this is it – the start of 2013.
Local business bodies including the Confederation of British Industry and the Chamber of Commerce are urging political leaders to celebrate the new year by finding innovative ways to kick-start the local economy.
But this year, for a change, they might be better employed in simply kicking the politicians themselves – at least that way they would be guaranteed a result. Finding a different path in 2013 to revive the local economy – whether by capital investment in infrastructure or by securing a new rate of corporation tax – is vital.
But the Executive also needs collectively to deal with the more pressing problem of what the loyalist flag protest is doing to the image of Northern Ireland and the local economy.
In the last four weeks business, trade and tourism in Belfast has taken a sustained beating from protests over the city council’s decision to fly the Union Jack flag only on certain days. These often violent protests have left notable bruises in the shape of lost trade and profits in Belfast. But there is growing concern that they could hurt the wider local economy, jeopardising potential tourist revenue or new inward investment.
Invest NI, the North’s business development agency, has confirmed that the flags issues is attracting the wrong kind of attention.
“A small number of potential investors have raised concerns about the current level of unrest,” the agency said. “Invest NI is working closely with them to minimise the impact of any negative perceptions and reassure investors that Northern Ireland remains a safe and competitive place to do business.”
It stressed that no planned visits by potential investors had been cancelled due to the tumult and that all recent scheduled visits had taken place without disruption.
The North’s Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, whose portfolio also incudes responsibility for tourism has yet to comment about the potential economist cost of the flags dispute.
Even local businesses such as the Belfast-based children’s television production company Sixteen South, which is earmarked to be one of Northern Irelands rising stars in 2013, has picked up on the tensions in the city.
It describes itself as being based “in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, a city reborn with a new spirit, a creative determination”.
Yesterday in the midst of colourful pictures of various puppets from its shows, there was also a simple statement on its website: “This is not a time for finger pointing; this is time to be trusted leaders and bring restoration to your city.”
Despite the shaky start, there is nevertheless a heartening swell of local companies with exciting prospects for 2013. Among them is LifeScienceHub UK which will complete medical trials on a pioneering pH diagnostic tool called Wound pHase.
LifeScience, based at the Northern Ireland Science Park, specialises in discovering late stage development technologies with commercial value in the medical devices, biotechnology, pharma and food sectors.
Other potential candidates for success this year include: Axis Composites, a spin-out company from the University of Ulster’s Engineering Composites Research Centre and Cogknow, a company that has devised a software solution for people with dementia to use in their own homes and outside.
Two other science park tenants – Cyber Investigations, a next generation information security company and Pure Marine, which is developing solutions to harness wave and tidal energy resources are also ones to keep a close eye on while at Queen’s University there is Althexeon Ltd, a biotechnology company.