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Belfast Harbour boss confident he can place Northern Ireland in shop window at global event

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Joe O’Neill said the Belfast team has a ‘strong platform’
to sell the city and Northern Ireland

Joe O’Neill said the Belfast team has a ‘strong platform’ to sell the city and Northern Ireland

Joe O’Neill said the Belfast team has a ‘strong platform’ to sell the city and Northern Ireland

Belfast Harbour boss Joe O'Neill will help lead a private and public sector delegation from Belfast to MIPIM, the world's biggest commercial property event, next month.

The event from March 10 to 13 sees tens of thousands descend on Cannes in France for four days of discussion about real estate and development.

And Mr O'Neill said the Belfast team has developed a "strong platform" to sell the city and Northern Ireland, with hopes of attracting a big name insurance or tech firm.

Belfast will also be joined by representatives from other Northern Ireland councils, including those that are part of the Belfast Region City Deal, such as Mid & East Antrim. That deal will be a focus for announcements and development during the event.

This year's delegation will be led by developers in Northern Ireland, alongside Belfast City Council and organisations such as Belfast Harbour.

Developers include Bywater, Wirefox, Titanic Quarter, Tribeca, McAleer & Rushe and Graham Group.

Previous visits have included the announcement of major offices schemes, hotels and apartment developments.

Mr O'Neill said announcements will include progress on existing plans, as well as new intiatives.

"This year we are looking at launching schemes around digital innovation. That aligns with one of the themes in the Belfast Region City Deal, for the city and councils in the deal. We have a particular focus on cyber-security as an investment and operating location - particular those from the US."

He added: "We are looking at announcing some details around the Belfast-Dublin-London corridor or triangle. Post-Brexit, there are clear synergies in developing a proposition where companies can avail of the three locations if they are looking at a global footprint, and see advantages to locations in three cities."

The issue of increasing connectivity between Belfast and Dublin also remains high on the list - improving the speed and frequency, and making developers aware of the new Belfast Transport Hub, which will transform the city's rail and bus connectivity when complete.

Belfast Harbour also wants to bring the expansion of its already successful film studios to MIPIM as part of an aim to become the largest of its kind outside London. "We will be revealing more of our expansion plans, which is being supported by NI Screen," Mr O'Neill said. Some of those delivering their own presentations to potential investors will include the Harbour, Belfast City Council, Catalyst and the universities. "We are out looking around, when we are there, at what different cities are doing - seeing whether something works well, and looking at our competitive advantage in that area."

As for the strengths and attraction for potential investors, Joe says: "Skills, talent and technology are very much at the fore. Agility as a small region and to be able to respond, and seeing that team Belfast is there and that we are aligned with a particular project. It doesn't have to be taken back home and introduced to someone else.

"There is the emergence of Belfast as an attractive city - investment opening up, and people are always looking at new markets.

"Part of the initial rollout when I took on the chair of MIPIM, the role was to go around to ask those who were on board previously to ask about it, if it had changed. Everyone noticed and recognised considerable (positive) change over the last four years.

"We were pioneering and establishing ourselves four years ago, now they felt we were very much a concerted and effective operating team… the collective was a powerful message, and having panels or lunches involving all of the stakeholders at one time. It's a really strong platform to take on the next chapter."

"A particular focus this year is to attract key institutional investors - the big insurance companies for example. That's a chicken and egg situation… you need to have product, to have product you have to show that you have occupiers and a steady revenue stream.

"What we have been able to say to the investment market is 'we have product and we now have sustainable occupation coming through… now it feels like the right time for you as an investor, to come in, and to support further investment'."

Asked whether replicating the successes of our neighbours in Dublin in attracting tech giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google is also on the cards, he said: "Something like that, or a major investor. For them to do that - a technology or an investment company - they need to see that the public, private and third-tier sectors are all collaborating together to make an effective market, and I think we are good at doing that now."

And the timing couldn't be better for the delegation - now able to go in with a clear mandate and message with the restoration of the Executive and a return to day-to-day power-sharing politics.

"The positive thing for us is with the government and secondly, some (clarity) around Brexit… it takes those two challenging issues off the table."

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