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Businesses come out fighting against riots

Businesses, like most people, are at the end of their tether over the flags row, which has been disrupting day-to-day life in Northern Ireland for a month.

CBI chairman Ian Coulter said its membership was "exasperated" with the situation, and he said the economic effects of what has been happening will be felt for six months. There is also a profound anxiety that the trouble could spread, as other councils - beginning with Craigavon - start to rethink their policy on the flying of the Union flag.

At a media briefing yesterday, Mr Coulter and other CBI representatives discussed the harmful effects of the disruption.

There are anecdotal reports of would-be investors who have reconsidered plans to invest here.

We have also heard of cancelled business meetings and the dominance of the riots as a topic of conversation, even at international conferences.

Over the last few years we have been accustomed to covering the meticulously-managed announcements by inward investors, such as law firm Allen -amp; Overy, which said it had selected Belfast out of a shortlist of locations including Cairo in Egypt and Budapest in Hungary.

We attracted such business through low operating costs and high education standards.

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But with such depressing headlines, what is the likelihood now of Belfast outshining Budapest or anywhere else? Invest NI has said a "small number" of potential investors have expressed concern but that it is trying to minimise any damage to the image of the place.

Northern Ireland plc needs to be as competitive as it can to increase its prosperity - and, says the CBI, that comes back to corporation tax. Mr Coulter yesterday vowed it was far from dead.

It's hard to remain positive about the prospects for Northern Ireland businesses this year.

One person at yesterday's CBI event wondered how successful a would-be NI plc float might be were it to take place in present circumstances.

Last year we were in the international news for Titanic Belfast and at home, business headlines were dominated by the energetic attempts to secure a lower rate of corporation tax.

Most of us in Belfast and Northern Ireland couldn't help but cringe at such an old chestnut putting Belfast back in the news. But in a competition of old chestnuts, who wouldn't prefer to be reading about the Titanic than sectarian riots?