Belfast Telegraph

'We went from having 150 clients in 1998 to 450 within five years'

By Paul Mulholland, Co-founder and partner, Harbinson Mulholland Accountants

We started on July 1, 1998, so that was right after the agreement was signed and I remember it very well. The GFA actually came into effect in December of that year, so it was almost exactly six months after we opened our doors.

Both Jeremy and I had been at Pricewaterhouse, as it was known at the time, and decided to make the move just as they merged to become what is now PwC.

But I have vivid memories of all the times I had spent standing outside the PW office in the middle of Belfast because of bomb scares.

The amount of actual work time we lost because of the Troubles was incredible.

At the time, we felt the need to strike out on our own, and, despite all that was going on, we felt we could make it work. You just have to work harder.

Being a firm that works with clients in the business community, I think you can judge the effect the peace accord had by how our own business at Harbinson Mulholland grew in that time.

We went from having about 150 clients in 1998 to about 450 within five years.

There was a palpable optimism across Northern Ireland at the time, which is obviously good for business.

At the time, though, you didn't really focus on it because no one kneew if it would last.

Looking back on it now, it's clear the agreement did make a significant difference in terms of hope and stability.

We started off with 15 employees - we doubled that in a year and again a few years later.

I remember in the Eighties you had businesses that simply wouldn't come to Northern Ireland because of the trouble.

After the GFA, firms could no longer really say that and started to entertain the idea of coming here, and in many cases, doing just that.

Back then, many hotels were bombed.

Now? They can't build them fast enough.

Back then, Northern Ireland wasn't exactly a mecca for tourism.

Now? Now people are flocking from all over the world to come here. Even look at the big cruise liner that just pulled into Belfast Lough, the Azamara Pursuit, which is currently getting a £50m makeover by MJM at Harland and Wolff.

That's a great coup for Northern Ireland and something you probably wouldn't have seen back then.

Now, we face a different problem - Brexit.

But looking around, there are businesses coming to Northern Ireland.

However, there is the sense of uncertainty about how things will turn out.

Does this uncertainty have any parallels with the uncertainty of the Troubles?

"I don't think so. But one similarity that does strike me is the mentality of Northern Irish people. We keep our heads down and get on with the work.

"After everything, the bombs, the shootings, the riots - that mentality was hard won and learnt over time.

"It is something that is still prevalent in Northern Ireland business today."

  • Paul Mulholland was talking to Andrew Madden

Belfast Telegraph

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