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East Belfast: Years of decline at end as Titanic Quarter and burgeoning IT sector take root


Titanic Quarter, Belfast

Titanic Quarter, Belfast

Titanic Quarter, Belfast

East Belfast has suffered a marked decline since its heyday when it helped fuel industry and build majestic machines responsible for transporting goods and people across the world.

Once buoyed by an expanding shipbuilding industry, the area kept thousands in work.

And that had a knock-on effect - with businesses such as the Belfast Ropeworks Company formed to meet the increased demands of shipbuilding, ensuring jobs for young men and women leaving school.

But a slowdown in those heavy industries resulted in "second and third generation unemployment", according to Maurice Kinkead of the East Belfast Partnership.

"There was shipbuilding, a host of areas of manufacturing and a distillery," he said.

"I think it has seen decline from its heyday - over the last few decades.

"Part of the heritage that it has left is lots of second and third generation unemployment. Many would have looked towards heavy industry, but a lot of that has now gone."

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And it is skills and training that Mr Kinkead believes will help young people living in east Belfast to find work.

"There are challenging conditions - it's important that we get things right in terms of skills and education, and that needs to be provided by government. But I do sense there is a lot of work going on among various organisations to improve things."

The former Shorts Brothers factory - now Bombardier Aerospace - began producing aircraft at its east Belfast base close to the airport, and still remains Northern Ireland's largest manufacturer.

It boasts a workforce of some 5,000 permanent employees and around 1,000 temporary and contract staff. And linen was another of the city's big exports, with the Owen O'Cork Mill in the east helping fuel the trade.

But east Belfast is becoming increasingly known for a very different area of industry, with technology and IT pushing its way to the forefront in the ever-expanding Titanic Quarter.

And it's just a short walk away from the towering yellow cranes at Harland & Wolff.

The growing IT and software industry has been helped along by the Northern Ireland Science Park, as well as the prevalence of big name international players including Intel and Citi.

According to Dr Norman Apsley, chief executive of the Science Park, getting people trained and educated from a young age - especially in east Belfast - is key to getting them in to the burgeoning sector.

"The economy has changed - now you will find more people who are trained to a graduate level," he said. "It will take all of us, it's not just top-end trained staff with PhDs - every business needs lots of support."

And the issue of skills and training is something that's echoed by David McVeigh, general manager of Harland & Wolff.

"The Department of Employment and Learning's welding academy is one important area of training," he said.

The Titanic Quarter is also becoming a home from home for an increasing number of TV and film projects. Formerly home to some of the world's biggest maritime creations, the Paint Hall is now playing host to fantasy epic Game of Thrones, among other big name productions.

Meanwhile, one new company choosing to set up shop in east Belfast is Boundary Brewing.

Matthew Dick (30) set his sights on the area, after raising £100,000 for his co-operative beer business.

"We are committed to east Belfast, after our first location didn't work out we stayed in the area," he said. "I think it's important and exciting to be part of the area's regeneration. It's close to our clients, and it's going to be an interesting place to do business soon."