Bargain-hunters are sold on Northern Ireland's prices

Jimmy Connors, a chauffeur from Dublin, drove 100 miles up here from Dublin the other day . . . to do some shopping. One of the things he bought was a color television. At about $400, the set cost roughly half what it would have back at home in Dublin ($750).

Mr. Connors's story is not unusual - lopsided currency rates allow Northern Ireland's traders to offer far better deals than their counterparts can in the Irish Republic to the south. Belfast's prices are sometimes 50 percent lower than those in Dublin.

So thousands of southerners from the Republic are flocking north across the border. And, while southern traders are feeling the pinch, northerners hope the influx will not only increase retail sales, but also help stimulate Ulster's sagging tourism.

Like other visitors, Mr. Connors, his wife, and three children have lost some of their fears about the politically troubled north during their shopping sprees there.

''Many other goods cost less in the north,'' he says. ''The petrol (gasoline) is cheaper, too, so we actually save money on our traveling. My family and I like to come north to do some shopping and to have a meal. It's a day out for all of us, and not once have we experienced any trouble.''

Each weekend the main roads from the south are chockablock with southerners coming north for a bargain. On St. Patrick's Day thousands of them drove north to the border town of Newry. A local trader there said it was the best St. Patrick's Day the town had experienced since 1968, before the troubles began.

The new influx already has given an impetus to the tourist trade, which has suffered from Northern Ireland's image of violence. In 1982, about 100,000 visitors from the south stayed for at least one night. There was a 17 percent increase in visitors from overseas and the Irish Republic, compared to the disastrous year of 1981, when the hunger strikes by imprisoned members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) stirred political passions here.

''Attitudes are changing,'' says Ian Hill, a senior executive with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. ''Southerners come across the border to shop, they buy meals, some of them stay for the night. The next time they venture further north, and the word soon gets around. We hope eventually that even more will visit the north coast resorts regularly.''

There is an emphasis on attracting North American visitors. Some 40,000 Americans came to Northern Ireland last year.

''We're trying even harder this year, and concentrating our efforts in the United States,'' Mr. Hill says. The northern and southern tourist boards work together to attract visitors from the United States and elsewhere who want to see both parts of Ireland. But the boards compete directly in the British and European markets nearer home.

This competition is reflected on a wider scale by government-sponsored organizations from north and south that are trying to attract investment to provide sorely needed new jobs. In the north, the Industrial Development Board was formed in September to replace the Northern Ireland Development Agency and the Department of Commerce.

The northern selling points include good industrial relations which, the government claims, are bettered only by Japan and West Germany. High financial incentives are offered to potential investors in the form of government grants. But the province is battling against the image of violence and the collapse of the De Lorean car manufacturing project with the loss of some 2,000 jobs.

Tony Hopkins, deputy chief executive of the development board, points out that local workers performed extremely well by building the De Lorean plant and producing the car in record time. The project came to grief, he contends, because of the recession and because of the ''overoptimistic'' projections of its promoters. Hopkins further notes the US-based Hughes Tool Company has been in Northern Ireland for some 20 years and has expanded four times in that period.

There is strong competition from the Dublin-based Industrial Development Agency. Hopkins says, ''This does not prevent us from maintaining friendly professional relationships with one another within the context of a competitive approach.''

The north is focusing on medical electronics such as robotics, futuristic office equipment, and computer software. Hopkins thinks this will pay off, but has no illusions.

''At times it feels like running hard up an escalator that is going downwards ,'' he says. ''But the experience of some 30 US firms that are trading in Northern Ireland is a measure of the confidence in us.''

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