Troubled Northern Ireland Is Wooing Foreign Investors

`THE jobs drive has been going extremely well,'' says Tony Hopkins, ``but we must keep up our momentum.'' Mr. Hopkins is head of Northern Ireland's Industrial Development Board. Since he took over last June, the IDB has landed a series of international investments and commitments from overseas companies - some new and some already established in Northern Ireland.

``Within the three months at the turn of this year, we recorded new inward [direct] investment of some 150 millions sterling [$263 million], which will bring an additional 2,000 jobs to Northern Ireland,'' he says.

Significantly, the long-established Ford Motor Company is the latest investor.

Ford, which has a modern plant near the edge of troubled west Belfast, recently announced a further commitment of 50 million to equip its plant to produce parts for Ford engines.

``This is of immense importance to us,'' says Hopkins, ``because it shows that a long-established company is prepared to capitalize on its experience here.''

In addition, the Dae Woo Corporation of South Korea plans to make videocassette recorders in the province, bringing 500 new jobs to the Antrim area, north of Belfast.

And a planned investment by the French company Montupet, world leaders in the specialized-aluminum business, will provide up to 1,000 new jobs in the high-unemployment area of west Belfast.

Hopkins looks on this last development as an important indication of the complex factors that help direct investors make up their minds.

``The company might well have received equally good, if not better, financial incentives from other parts of Europe, but the chairman made the point that the local skills and adaptability of Northern Ireland people was one of the clinching factors in making his decision,'' says Hopkins.

At a time when would-be investors are being chased by industrial-development agencies all over the world, Hopkins makes it clear that the money alone is not the deciding factor.

``We are not in the business of a quick fix, or of bringing a company to Northern Ireland if it does not make sense to do so. We are determined to look after our long-term interests,'' he says.

``I like to think that we at IDB are putting something back into the society of which we are a part. In the long term, we are helping to build a better society for everyone in Northern Ireland.''

Hopkins says two high-profile government-financed failures in Northern Ireland - John De Lorean's sports car project and the Lear Fan airplane - have not really been detrimental to the province's business image.

``The De Lorean project was a failure because the market expectations were not fulfilled,'' he says. ``The Lear Fan project, involving a revolutionary new aircraft, was different. It was on the leading edge of technology and it failed partly because the opposition had closed the market gap.

``Both projects have taught us the importance of bringing to high-profile projects a significant degree of private-sector backing.

``Certainly when I meet people in the USA I find that they are aware of the basic reasons for the failure of the De Lorean project. It is important to remember that, in the main, the majority of USA investments in Northern Ireland have flourished, as Ford and DuPont and others demonstrate.''

One major selling point is Northern Ireland's position as part of the European Community. In 1992 Europe will become a single market, and this development is being watched closely by big business in America and the Far East.

``Northern Ireland is an excellent springboard to Europe,'' Hopkins says. ``We are English-speaking, we have a proven record of US investment, and we have the requisite skills to meet challenge and change.''

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