Jobs Cement Northern Ireland's Truce
Clinton's visit this week may attract foreign interest - and investment
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — 'THE best thing about the cease-fires is that more and more international investors have started showing interest in Northern Ireland and are actually coming here to see for themselves."
Jim Bloomer, chief executive of Schrader Electronics, should know. His company, which makes tiny sensors to register tire pressure on a vehicle's dashboard, is already benefiting from a boost in investment.
His firm merged with Schrader, based in the United States, in May this year. It is thriving in the new atmosphere of peace generated by the decision by paramilitary groups 15 months ago to declare an unconditional end to violence.
Mr. Bloomer expects the sensors, developed at a technology park at Antrim, 20 miles from the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast, will sell worldwide. He is confident, too, that if the peace holds, "many companies will decide to set up in our province."
A number already have, and executives here hope that President Clinton's visit to Belfast beginning Thursday will encourage others to follow. In a country where unemployment is traditionally high, giving people work is seen as critical to maintaining optimism and cementing peace.
According to Brian Arlow of the Northern Ireland Development Board, the number of first-time visits to the province by potential investors almost trebled in the six months following the cease-fires.
He says there is a bias toward high-tech industry. Coming in ahead of most others nationalities have been South Koreans. Daewoo Electronics already have a plant at Antrim making video recorders and are set to expand production.
Through March of this year, South Korean companies committed themselves to investing more than $50 million in Northern Ireland, creating the prospect of 1,000 new jobs - a significant number in a province whose population is 1.5 million.
The new mood extends far beyond investment statistics. Stephen Kingon, senior partner of Coopers and Lybrand in Belfast, notes greatly increased consumer shopping in the Northern Ireland capital. Walt Disney is opening a store here. And Sainsbury, a major British supermarket chain, has announced plans for seven new stores in the province.
Bloomer, the electronics executive, offered a personal perspective on the changed atmosphere.
"It may sound strange, but actually I have never heard a bomb go off. But I got so used to security restraints that often I did not notice their effect on my life," he said. "For example, nowadays I can leave my car on the street near a restaurant instead of having to put it, for security reasons, in a car park some distance away."
Visitors keep coming. Three-quarters of a million passengers passed through Belfast's international airport in the past year. The Belfast-London route is now the second busiest in Europe. And unemployment, though still high by British mainland standards, was 11.5 percent in September - the lowest rate in 14 years.
There is a surprising degree of optimism among business executives that even if a formal peace is not speedily reached and the current political impasse continues, there will be little adverse impact on Northern Ireland's economy.
"We now have an environment where managers and workers can concentrate on the real business issues of growth, productivity, and exports. Every day without violence businesses become more confident," said a Coopers and Lybrand economic survey published last month.
Yet in the throng of foreign countries investing here, Japan has been conspicuously absent.
So far only two Japanese companies, neither of significant size, have opened plants in Northern Ireland; one has already closed.
The Japanese are highly cautious when there is the possibility of violence or instability. In that they differ from entrepreneurs from Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, which have made a number of inquiries.
OVERALL, other than a collapse back into violence, the only possible dark cloud most business leaders can see would be a decision by the British government to curtail spending in the province.
Government spending accounts for a strikingly high two-thirds of Northern Ireland's gross domestic product of $19 billion; nearly 40 percent of the work force is employed in the public sector.
This, Mr. Kingon says, means that a material reduction in public funding would hold back economic recovery and hit jobs.
On the other hand, if the peace holds, another trend will likely continue: the fall in the number of well-educated people leaving the province for jobs on the British mainland and elsewhere in Europe.
The government in London has said it will offer resettlement grants to graduates who have left Northern Ireland to help them return home, take advantage of the peace, and put their knowledge and experience to work in the province.