Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Ministers aim to show US we’re still open for business

The first killings of Army and police personnel in a decade will dominate Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s trade mission to America but, says Political Correspondent Noel McAdam, the trip can also be used to underpin their investment message

There are no signatures on paper just yet; fingers are not being crossed, pulled out or pointed.

But according to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness another American company has “all but” decided to invest in Northern Ireland, economic downturn notwithstanding.

The two men had considered attending today’s funeral of Constable Stephen Carroll, which would have been a potent image, but decided they should not be further deterred from their intended business of the week — in the United States.

The Craigavon and Antrim atrocities can be expected to dominate discussions across the US, culminating in the St Patrick’s Day events in the White House.

And while they will be first (or at least joint first) to trumpet any success, the First and Deputy First Ministers have also been keen to downplay expectations from their latest investment expedition to the US, which finally gets under way today after Northern Ireland’s darkest week in a decade.

They point out that the money from America, should it finally materialise, is not the work of a few days, but the result of sustained hard work from the Stormont economic conference last May, and beyond.

“You don’t just walk into a chief executive’s office and come out with some jobs, though that is what the media expects,” a senior First Ministers’ official said.

There is a |suggestion Messrs Robinson and McGuinness will get longer with the President than Gordon Brown

Nonetheless as they begin their latest investment mission in California today, the twin heads of Northern Ireland’s Government, who appear to have forged a closer alliance despite the grim events of recent days, will be hoping for something tangible to show.

But the thrust of the now six-day trip is slightly different this time. All trade missions have two main aims — a pitch for investment, the old ‘NI open for business’ line along with the renewal, enhancement and addition of purely political contacts, both of which feature heavily.

But a further level has been combined with the basics — making contact with companies who already operate in Northern Ireland and who may be facing difficulties in the short-to-medium term.

“We want to build up the relationship with them because some will be facing decisions in the months ahead,” Mr Robinson said — decisions such as whether to |reduce their presence in one part of the world in favour of another.

The DUP leader and his Sinn Fein counterpart believe they have a strong case to put: they argue Northern Ireland is already stronger — and in a better position to gain from the first signs of any recovery — than the surrounding economies.

Yet Deputy First Minister McGuinness also admits the signs are growing that the crisis could prove deeper and longer than |expected “three, four, maybe even five years ... that has to be very worrying for all of us”.

Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson had already been working hard together even before the awful events since last Saturday night. The two men have spent considerable time in recent weeks putting their own house — the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister — in order.

They are attempting to modernise the Department, once lambasted for having almost as many staff as the Oval Office, and make it “fit for purpose”.

Their prolonged discussions have also dealt with the very significant backlog of work still facing the Executive following its five-month hiatus last year, which neither politician can be expected to mention much during their Stateside sojourn.

Mr Robinson and his partner-in-government will instead be |emphasising the need for investment to bed in the growing stability of their administration when they meet the chief executives of companies who may still include All State, Sling Media, Caterpillar and Seagate.

Today has been set aside for a day of meetings around the film industry and there will be a focus on high technology jobs from Silicon Valley and another whole day — Friday — devoted to regeneration projects. Officials are working to attempt to juggle meetings missed earlier in the week.

And that is all before the St Patrick’s Day festivities, with President Barack Obama putting Ireland’s patron saint back on the White House radar screen, after the Bush years when the Clinton era emphasis on March 17 greenery faded.

There is a suggestion Messrs Robinson and McGuinness will get longer with the President, perhaps at a new evening event, than Prime Minister Gordon Brown did last week. Surely someone from OFMDFM will bring a stopwatch.

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