Recovery gaining pace with series of high-profile investments

Flags, parades and the past have the potential to cost NI essential investment

US diplomat Richard Haass assisted by Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan, speaking to the media at Stormont Hotel in Belfast, where he is chairing negotiations dealing with issues including contentious flags and  parades. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

US diplomat Richard Haass assisted by Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan, speaking to the media at Stormont Hotel in Belfast, where he is chairing negotiations dealing with issues including contentious flags and parades. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

 

Every Christmas Eve I like to have a last-minute race, panic buying around Belfast city centre. It’s the perfect occasion to run into old friends, engaged in the same activity, to stop for lunch in one of the many great local pubs or restaurants and then wander up to have a final look at the Christmas tree in the grounds of City Hall.

It has been a tradition of mine since president Clinton officially switched on the Christmas lights what now seems like a lifetime ago and promised Northern Ireland that one day it could have a much brighter future.

This Christmas Eve, if Clinton were to return, he would see that his promise is coming true. The economy may not still be quite where it should be but the recovery is picking up pace and there is an air of optimism emerging in the local business community.

According to research conducted by Ulster Bank, firms last month recorded their fastest rate of growth in nine years. Its most recent PMI survey, which measures the performance of private sector firms, showed a surge in both business activity and new orders in the North last month.

In the last 12 months Northern Ireland has also successfully landed a series of high-profile investment projects from the likes of Fujitsu, BT, Caterpillar and Stream, which will deliver a major boost for the local economy.

Aside from the stalemate over political disputes, there are strong expectations that the economic outlook will be much better in 2014 than it was this year.

But unfortunately, there is always the threat that legacy issues from flags to parades could temporarily derail the recovery or, in a worst case scenario, cost Northern Ireland further investment and jobs.

That threat has manifested itself again recently in a series of sporadic security alerts in Belfast and Derry in the run-up to the festive season that has primarily affected retailers and the hospitality industries. They have dealt with this threat with good natured resilience and have been largely supported by people and communities determined to send their own message to a small minority involved in these activities.

The way in which the public and local businesses have reacted to these incidents reflects, in part, the very particular nature of living and doing business in Northern Ireland. One of the byproducts of decades of local unrest was the emergence of a certain spirit, still exemplified by the business community, of a refusal to give in to threats.

Alongside this, a fledgling local security industry has also evolved and, more than 40 years since the Troubles first began, the North has its own security specialist sector with more than 60 flourishing firms.

Security specialists are at the forefront of developing new physical and online security technology and are leaders in their field when it comes to high-tech bomb-proof solutions for buildings and vehicles and high-performance protective clothing.

One of these companies, Belfast based Core Systems, has just announced plans to invest £700,000 in a major new expansion and research and development project to win new business in the United States. A software development company which specialises in identity and inmate management solutions for high-security establishments, Core Systems has developed pioneering biometric solutions which employ features such as face, fingerprints, hand geometry and iris, retina scanning to protect high-security locations.

Chief executive Patricia O’Hagan says research and development is at the heart of the company’s success. The privately-owned company commits 15 per cent of its annual turnover to R&D and she believes this is just one of the reasons why it is leading the way with new technology and concepts.

“It is all about innovation, looking into the future, trying to find solutions, sometimes to problems that haven’t quite materialised yet and taking a risk and investing to create solutions,” she says.

“To do that, we have to have the right people with the right skills. We have a great team in Belfast, who are committed to innovation. We’re very agile because of our size and being based in Belfast has opened a lot of doors for us.

“In our sector, key players are very aware of the level of security expertise which exists in Northern Ireland,” O’Hagan said.

Core Systems specialises in solving “complex problems” and has developed an expertise in particular for providing solutions for custodial systems in Europe and the US.

The company now plans to create a further eight jobs in Belfast on the back of its latest investment project. This will increase its workforce to nearly 40. O’Hagan, who recently won the Women in Business NI 2013 Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year Award, says the company is looking forward to further expansion.

“We are developing next generation technology in Belfast – technology that is unique, that protects and safeguards people.”

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