Chris Heaton-Harris hails Northern Ireland investment summit as success despite political impasse

Political instability in Northern Ireland has not stopped businesses from flocking to a major investment conference in Belfast, Chris Heaton-Harris has said.

The Northern Ireland Secretary also predicted the Windsor Framework will make a “big difference” to trade in the region.

Around 200 investors from across the world, including the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific, are attending the summit at the ICC.

The Princess Royal was a special guest at the event on Wednesday.

There have already been a series of jobs and funding announcements, including the creation of 1,000 jobs by professional services firm EY over the next five years.

Delivering the UK Government’s keynote address, Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch said she believed the event was the first of its kind in the region.

Princess Anne addressed the investment summit in Belfast Credit: PA

She said it was about telling a story about Northern Ireland “different from the ones you typically hear”, of “energy, creativity and innovation”.

“It is about opportunity and how the UK Government is working to create it here,” she said.

“Today in Northern Ireland there are more people employed in manufacturing than either the Republic or the UK average, and we know that long-term prosperity requires peace and political progress.

“There have undeniably been some recent challenges but this Government has restored the smooth flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and protected Northern Ireland’s place in our union.

“This certainty and stability make Northern Ireland an even more attractive investment prospect given its unique role.”

Earlier, opening the event, Mr Heaton-Harris told delegates that Northern Ireland has “enormous economic potential and is full of the talent and expertise required by the sectors of the future to succeed and to thrive”.

Political leaders were among the crowd which filled the seats and standing room at the back as Mr Heaton-Harris said he expects progress around Stormont “very soon”.

He said: “I had hoped by now that we would have an Executive back up and running, for potential investors travelling here today to be met by ministers from Northern Ireland and discuss their ideas; sadly, this has proved not to be the case.

“But my team and I have worked intensively with the DUP, and indeed all the main Northern Ireland political parties across the summer, and I’m genuinely hopeful that progress will be unlocked very, very soon.

“I know it will require courage on all sides to prioritise reconciliation and prosperity over division, but I know this can be done because it was done in spades 25 years ago to deliver the foundation of peace and prosperity here in Northern Ireland.”

There was a protest outside the conference, however, by families opposed to the government's controversial Legacy Bill.

Anti-Legacy Bill protesters gathered outside the investment summit Credit: PA

The summit was first announced during events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

However, it is taking place while the devolved power-sharing institutions at Stormont remain dormant, with the DUP maintaining its protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

But, speaking to reporters, Mr Heaton-Harris predicted that the Windsor Framework, agreed by the UK and EU to deal with trading issues caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, will have a positive effect on trade.

He said: “About 500 of the tangible benefits are sat next door, because lots of people are in that room because they see benefits for their businesses to invest in Northern Ireland because of what the Windsor Framework is bringing.

“On October 1 the first phase of the Windsor Framework comes in and we will see a big difference in how trade flows, and indeed goods coming into this country.”

Speaking about the event taking place with no devolved government in Northern Ireland, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “It is not the most ideal situation.

“However, all these people are here given that situation. They all know about it, they all know that the UK Government is doing everything it can to get over that particular hump.

“I also think what they are seeing is a huge Government presence to demonstrate that, working together, we can bring lots of opportunities for businesses here.

“I think, based on the buzz around the place, this will work, and work well.”

A number of industry-led sessions at the summit are focusing on advanced manufacturing and engineering, technology, financial and professional services, the green economy, and the life and health sciences sector.

Nineteen companies from across Northern Ireland will also exhibit to global investors, including Londonderry-based Respiratory Analytics, Collins Aerospace in Kilkeel, and Ballymena-based Wrightbus.

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