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Plenty of hope despite these difficult times

Over the last month we have had a stream of information about the eurozone crisis, debate about what needs be done and wide speculation about Europe's future.

It can be easy to get weighed down by all the anxiety and forget, or just overlook, some of the more promising economic activity and talent that is on our very own doorstep.

Last week I was invited to the SDLP's Economic Conference and I listened to a range of views from policy influencers such as Sir George Quigley, Alastair Hamilton and Dan O'Brien from the Irish Times. Sir George talked very eloquently on the resilience of the Northern Ireland private sector and the need for future economic growth to come from wealth creating industries and not credit - as was the case in the early and mid-2000s. He also stressed the central role that skills and corporation tax will have in delivering sustainable economic growth going forward.

Alastair Hamilton, Invest NI's chief executive, demonstrated his organisation's commitment to aligning its strategy, targets and outcomes with the new Northern Ireland Economic Strategy. Bringing his private sector skills to a large public corporation, Alastair left the audience in no doubt that he is acutely aware of the economic challenges facing all of Northern Ireland's private sector. As chief executive, he has ensured that Invest NI has expanded its overall offering.

Dan O'Brien told the audience that despite what Europe had gone through over the last couple of years, he remains optimistic. He told us that when he thinks about the creativity and adaptability of the human race, he knows that Europeans will be able to emerge from this crisis too. He also made a good point on Northern Ireland's need to encourage young people to think about starting their own firms and creating wealth.

One amazing story came from Professor Paddy Johnston, Dean of School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Science at Queen's University. Professor Johnston outlined a story about investment in a cluster of medical centres and research facilities based around the City Hospital in Belfast. The cluster attracts massive international research grants, it links up with industry, it creates jobs and it attracts global scientific talent. The combination of this investment with the entrepreneurial skills in scientific firms such as Almac, Warner Chilcott and Randox Laboratories, augurs well for our economic future.

While the information was endless, one significant conclusion did stand out from this occasion. When the private sector representatives were asked by SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell "what is the one thing that you think politicians can do to support you?" the answer was unanimous - "education and skills".

Angela McGowan is chief economist at Northern Bank