Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Political leaders playing a smart money game in US

The First and deputy First Minister have diversified their sales pitch to US investors to good effect. Jim Dee reports

This week Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were again pounding the pavements in Washington, singing Northern Ireland's praises to potential investors and anyone who might help funnel tourist dollars across the Atlantic.

In terms of media profile, their visit has almost been a non-event. Compared to the brutal government crackdown in Syria, and the threat of a war involving Israel and Iran, Northern Ireland seems positively tranquil to most US observers.

Gone are the days when the Washington Press corps tripped over themselves to glimpse key peace process players doing the rounds of Capitol Hill.

Gone too are the days when killings like those of Robert McCartney, sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, or constables Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr, would have had the American Press pack questioning whether or not the peace process was on the rocks.

These days, visiting leaders from Northern Ireland come much like any other foreign dignitaries seeking US governmental assistance in matters of trade and investment.

But is the fact that they've become just another investment-seeking foreign delegation a good thing? Or will Northern Ireland's lowered profile translate into less bang for the buck in terms of bringing home the bacon to Belfast?

"It's probably a little bit of both," said Jim Lyons, who served as Bill Clinton's special economic envoy to Northern Ireland and the Republic between 1997 and 2000.

"On the one hand, the 'Belfast is Beirut' syndrome appears to have disappeared. There is a wide perception that political and social stability has really taken hold in Northern Ireland."

But ongoing stability also means that peace dividend-style investment is beginning to fade.

More and more, Robinson and McGuinness are pitching to potential investors concerned first and foremost with the bottom line.

And then there's the ever-present gorilla in the room: America's still-fragile economic recovery has US cities, towns and states trying to elbow past Northern Ireland in order to land investment dollars.

As such, it seems smart play by Team Robinson-McGuinness to diversify their sales pitch in order to play-up Northern Ireland's attractions - from its movie-making infrastructure, to its outdoors and sporting life, to its cultural and historical highlights.

Rory McIlroy's rise to household-name status among US golfing devotees hasn't hurt, either.

"You get Rory mentioned so much now in golf coverage and in general coverage, and people know where he's from," said Bill Fields, a senior editor of Golf World magazine.

McGuinness and Robinson have also spent considerable energy promoting the so-called creative industries, including the nascent film-making sector. Most notably, following the March 2009 killings of Quinsey, Azimkar and Carroll, they travelled to Hollywood to meet industry executives.

The pay-off came in the form of HBO's award-winning series Game of Thrones being shot largely in Northern Ireland. Last month's Oscar win by Terry George for The Shore also added to Belfast's film industry credibility.

But a senior editor at the Hollywood Reporter - the movie industry's leading magazine - said that Northern Ireland remains but a "blip on the radar" in terms of prospective movie-making locations.

"You're talking about many, many [US] states and countries that compete for people to come and make films there," said Alex Ben Block. "The reality is that, in a world full of people screaming and hollering for attention, [Northern Ireland] is one of the smaller voices."

It is doubtful that such assessments will deter McGuinness or Robinson.

And it's a fair bet that - for both men - such hurdles still seem tiny compared to the ones cleared while keeping the peace process up-and-running against all the odds.

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