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Why Independence Day reminds us of importance of US investment in Northern Ireland

Stephen Kelly, Chief Executive Manufacturing NI


Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly

Ruairi McAlornan, Richa Bajpai and Dale Kenny from Sensata Technologies demonstrate engineering in action at Limavady STEM event

Ruairi McAlornan, Richa Bajpai and Dale Kenny from Sensata Technologies demonstrate engineering in action at Limavady STEM event


Stephen Kelly

“Everything’s big in America,” they say, but as I was reminded at the annual Fourth of July garden party hosted by the excellent US Consul General, Paul Narain and his family, everything about America here is pretty big too.

Today is Independence Day, so it’s apt to recall that in the last decade US firms have invested £1.5bn here and helped create c.13,000 jobs. America remains our leading source of FDI and it’s also our second largest export market, worth around £1bn.

Importantly, much of the US interest locally is in our manufacturing sector which is critical to delivering jobs across Northern Ireland. It’s not, however, just the quantity but also the quality of this investment which is so impressive.

For example, 25% of the world’s electronic equipment contains small but critical components manufactured by Seagate in Derry. The firm employs more than 1,000, of which around 20% have been educated to PhD level.

Sensata Technologies is the global leader in sensors at its major manufacturing and R&D facility in Antrim and Caterpillar in Larne produces the generators which kept our hospitals, data centres and other critical infrastructure going in the midst of the Covid pandemic.

The American investment keeps flowing with Terex operating and expanding its global centre for the manufacture of materials handling equipment and Dalradian developing an underground mine project in Tyrone.

The £1bn proposal will create and support around 1,000 jobs and complement other firms in the area. The plan has attracted headlines, but if we are to meet our local and global net zero ambitions, we need to produce gold, copper and silver which are metals integral to renewables technology.

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The advantages of US investment, therefore, goes beyond just jobs. It’s about pump-priming other sectors, enhancing skills, driving innovation, commercialising R&D from our universities and boosting productivity.

American FDI has much to offer Northern Ireland’s economy and we should be pulling out the stops to encourage more of it.

The global investment market is ferociously competitive, but it’s clear that US firms like doing business in Northern Ireland. Plus, judging by the number of Americans who end up living here, their staff clearly love the place too. Are we making the most of this favourable predisposition?

Any investment decision is multi-faceted, but Northern Ireland ticks a lot of boxes. There’s language, culture and a similar regulatory framework. We have great people with great skills, an impressive engineering heritage, a competitive location and market access within the UK and EU which is unique. The City Deals are also creating projects of sufficient scale and ambition to whet the appetites of potential investors.

Be under no illusion though, US businesses invest here because it makes commercial sense rather than some misty-eyed romanticism. We need to stay stable and competitive.

Those unquantifiable historic links, however, really do help us market Northern Ireland and it would be foolish to ignore them. For instance, next year is the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This should be a brilliant means to articulate that Northern Ireland is peaceful and a great place to invest, but are we preparing to seize the opportunity?

As a starting point, we need a functioning Executive — not just to convey that we have political stability, but to update our investment narrative and put policies behind it.

Net zero, for instance, is the standout challenge for the mid-21st Century. Are we making it easier for investors to access Northern Ireland skills and expertise to address this and other technological challenges?

Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector punches above its weight thanks to our innovativeness and openness to external ideas and investment.

There are no open doors in the world of FDI, but in the US there’s a welcome mat already on the porch. Let’s make the most of it.