How Lord Rana faced racism and bombs in journey from migrant with nothing to millionaire with five hotels
Hotel tycoon Lord Rana speaks to John Mulgrew about the prejudice he faced when he first came to Northern Ireland, how his businesses were bombed during the Troubles and why the Stormont crisis isn’t good for our global image.
If racism, repeated bombings and the threat of going under on several occasions didn’t put off hotelier Lord Diljit Rana, then the ongoing political crisis at Stormont certainly isn’t going to. The 77-year-old Indian-born businessman said the current stalemate “doesn’t portray a good image” of Northern Ireland to the rest of the world.
And he’s keen for the country to grow further, and become less dependent on handouts from Westminster.
His company Andras Hotels now has five hotels in Belfast.
But despite his properties being bombed no less than 26 times during the course of the Troubles — included one which was attacked twice in the same day — he’s continuing to expand his hotel empire.
Plans have already been submitted for a 179-bedroom development adjacent to his newly refurbished and branded Holiday Inn business on Hope Street, formerly Days Hotel.
The business has already found an operator to run the hotel, which already has another spot in Belfast, but Lord Rana said he could not yet reveal its name.
“We have an international franchise, but I am not at liberty to disclose the name at this stage, but it’s a very well-known international brand,” he said.
It’s set to be a three-star plus hotel, still sticking to the budget end of the spectrum.
And there is also room for scope elsewhere, with Lord Rana’s firm owning a series of other properties in the north west, including buildings in Londonderry and Portrush.
But it was a small greasy spoon, which was located at the site where Belfast’s top-end shopping spot Victoria Square now stands, where he and his late wife Uma first began their foray into business here.
After turning that around he expanded, opening two other restaurants in Belfast.
And he lost it all early on, with a bomb beside his Dublin Road building, destroying his business.
Lord Rana moved to Northern Ireland in 1966 — after spending three years in England, following his move from India.
But he said he suffered a deluge of prejudice and racism when he first arrived in England, and, despite being educated as an economist, found getting suitable work impossible.
“I came from India and couldn’t get a decent job for my experience and qualifications.
“I was a civil servant, and have a degree in economics. When I came here, I was hoping I would get a similar job. But in those days, in 1963, when I came, people like me from the Commonwealth were not welcome in the civil service, or the white collar jobs.”
“It was extremely difficult. The colour prejudice and the racial prejudice was there — unashamedly. Whether it was against the Irish, black people or against Indians.
“I didn’t expect that when I left India, but going back would have been losing face.”
Lord Rana said he was forced into factory work, and also had a stint as a postman, before moving to Northern Ireland in 1966.
“It was absolutely soul destroying. I had a very unhappy period.
“This (Northern Ireland) was a very different place, there weren’t many Indians here, and the ones that were, they were all self-employed. There were no working class Indians here.
“Property prices were a lot cheaper, it was a lot cheaper to buy your business.”
He’s enjoyed and endured both the boom, bust and bomb days in Northern Ireland over the last five decades.
Speaking about his time as a businessman during the tough times in the 1980s, Lord Rana said it was “heart-breaking”.
“The city centre closed down, and there were bombings every day. It was totally heart-breaking. One day you have a business, and a cash flow, and the next you have no money.
“In 1986 I thought, there will be need when there is peace. But people thought it was too risky,” he said.
He helped build his empire alongside his late wife Uma — who passed away in 2002 following a heart problem — who he said was with him “through thick and thin”.
“It was very difficult. She and I worked very hard all of those years, and built the business,” he said. His first hotel investment was in the now Travelodge, no longer owned by Lord Rana, on Brunswick Street — the first new hotel to be built in the city in 20 years.
It was targeted three times by bombers — twice in the same day.
“We had the idea, we are never going to close,” he said.
And he considers himself having a global identity, given the sheer number of places he has done business, his jet-set journeys across the globe for both work, and his charity.
Lord Rana was also given an MBE in 1996, and continued his political career when he joined the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer in 2004.
Now, Andras Hotels is run day-to-day by Lord Rana’s sons, Rajesh (47), who is managing director, and his brother Ramesh (45).
It’s still based at Andras House in the city centre.
The business invested in the hotel market throughout the recession, including the construction of two new Ibis Hotels in 2009 and a renovation of the Holiday Inn Express in 2010.
He said the first time Stormont collapsed post-Good Friday Agreement, a major hotel operator pulled the plans on taking over one of Lord Rana’s city centre spots.
And he’s keen for that not to happen again.
“We need inward investment, more industry and more employment to balance our economy. We are too dependant on the British Exchequer.”
Asked whether Stormont has failed Northern Ireland’s business community, Lord Rana said: “I think politicians are playing politics, with the elections next year. They should be focusing on investment...not just playing their party politics.
“In 1998 (the Good Friday Agreement) it was unthinkable. Everybody stepped forward to compromise. A real example of sorting out problems.
“The present issues are small issues, and it’s working together, in the spirit of compromise, to resolve that.”
During the 1980s and 1990s he was heavily involved in bringing politicians and business groups together.
“I started bringing people together during the pretext of dinner,” he said.
“Coming to an Indian home was acceptable, it broke the ice.”
He was also at the forefront of a push to reduce the rate of corporation tax here, alongside his friend, the late Sir George Quigley.
And with an influx of hotels planned for Belfast over the next couple of years, Lord Rana said he welcomed the competition, which would “improve the Northern Ireland brand”.
Speaking about racism in Northern Ireland today, he said in “any society, there are good people and bad people”.
He added: “In the 1960s, it wasn’t illegal, now it is and that’s the big difference. People like me, who weren’t good enough for an office job, now are members of the House of Lords.”
And Lord Rana has said the UK should “be doing something” to help the thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe, adding “we should be feeling their pain and suffering”.
He said: “It’s very sad what has happened. Imagine, if you or I were there. How would you feel? How many have died, how many have become homeless?
“I think we need to examine government policies, that we don’t repeat those mistakes. We should help those people. Whether we help them in the refugee camps, or, whoever comes here.
“But I accept the UK is a small place, it can’t take another 500,000 refugees.
“But we should be doing something. We should be feeling the pain of those people.”