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From bullets to bullish

Northern Ireland is enjoying a huge peace dividend, as the strife of the past is succeeded by the prosperity of the future.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published March 19, 2006


[Times photo: Susan Taylor Martin]
Bro McFerran, formerly of Clearwater's IMR Global, now heads the Northern Ireland office of Northbrook Technologies. Many U.S. companies are investing there.
Bill Sharar, a software development engineer, is in a first wave of business immigrants.

Belfast's Waterfront Hall and the Riverside Walk along the River Lagan have become two of the city's most popular spots since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Since then, investment has been pouring into the region.

Much of Belfast's growth, like these upscale apartments, is along River Lagan, once a fetid mud flat at low tide.

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Fifteen years ago, most people would have considered Bill Sharar crazy for moving from Florida's Gulf Coast to a city with the "world's most bombed hotel."

At the time, Northern Ireland was gripped in a violent struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Then came the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, and with it an economic boom that is drawing foreign companies like Sharar's employer, ASG Software Solutions of Naples.

"I had a choice of Germany and the south of France but with a daughter, I wanted an English-speaking, new-development center because I'm into new development," Sharar says. "There are more career opportunities here."

ASG, which has 45 offices worldwide, opened in Belfast three years ago for many of the same reasons other U.S. companies flocked to the Republic of Ireland in the '90s: proximity to the huge European market, a pleasant lifestyle and a well-educated work force that speaks the mother tongue.

Now, as rents and property prices soar in Dublin and other cities in the south, Northern Ireland is becoming the new "Celtic Tiger," or at least a robust cub.

Foreign investment is up 45 percent in the past five years. The 4.5 percent jobless rate is below the U.K. average. There are dozens of direct flights to other European cities and the first nonstop service, by Continental, to the United States.

"Peace has had a huge effect," says Martin Mellon, ASG's director of development and one of many natives who left during the "troubles" but have returned. "You wouldn't recognize it from what it was before."

The River Lagan, once a smelly mud flat when the tide rolled out, has been re-engineered and is lined with upscale housing; the 10,000-seat Odyssey arena, home to a new hockey team; and a five-star Hilton. Nearby, work is under way on a new shopping mall built by a Dutch company and financed by Germans.

Construction starts this summer on Titanic Quarter, a $1.5-billion venture that will transform the shipyards where the fabled liner was built into a multiuse complex with 10,000 residents and 20,000 jobs. Plans include a Titanic museum as part of a major tourism drive.

Did the developers worry about linking such an ambitious project to a ship that sank?

"It would have been much more difficult 10 years ago when there was a feeling somebody here was to blame," says chief executive Mike Smith. "But Titanic was the most advanced ship of the time and there was nothing wrong with it when it left Belfast. When you think about the cost of creating a brand name, this is something everybody has heard of."

Now one of the safest cities in Europe, Belfast still faces image problems that started with Titanic's demise and grew during decades of strife that killed more than 2,000 people.

"If you're looking at four possible locations, one of which you're not sure is politically stable, you go to the other three," says Brendan Mullan, chief executive of Investment Belfast. "Our problem is that perception lags behind reality. But we're tremendously encouraged."

Before the '98 peace agreement, foreign investment was mainly what Mullan calls "friends and family" - U.K. banks and retailers. Since then, newcomers have included Montreal's Bombardier, Boston's Liberty Mutual and New York's Citigroup with its 400-job Belfast call center.

Among the first arrivals was Northbrook Technology, an Allstate subsidiary that started its Northern Ireland operation in late '98. Today, it has more than 1,200 employees, including dozens from Poland, which joined the European Union in 2004.

"It's a European labor market now," says managing director Bro McFerran, who previously headed the Belfast office of Clearwater's IMR Global. "The wage scale is about 80 percent of Dublin's but at the same time we would be three times as much as Poland."

Belfast's other selling points include the lowest construction costs in the British Isles and prime office space that rents for about $22 a square foot, less than half that in Dublin.

For high-tech companies, there is a growing pool of young talent. The University of Ulster has the U.K.'s largest undergraduate software engineering school, cranking out 2,000 grads a year. Queen's University developed the compressed stereo sound used in Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.

"Textiles, shipbuilding - those traditional industries are gone," Mullan of Investment Belfast says. "We've got to compete on the basis of knowledge."

There are intangible qualities, too.

With 1.7-million people - almost half of them in the Belfast area - Northern Ireland "is kind of an incestuous place," McFerran says. "You know everybody and everybody is accessible, whether you need a government minister or a plumber."

"It's also nice and family-oriented. There's a growing middle class, which enjoys golf, boating, nice country walks. Everyone complains about the climate - we get nine months of rain and three months of bad weather - but when I talk to my colleagues in Chicago, they've got six inches of snow."

There are downsides, though, to locating here. Because the province is part of the United Kingdom, the corporate tax rate is far higher than in the Irish Republic. To ensure Catholics no longer face job discrimination, larger companies must comply with "fair employment" practices that require more paperwork and bureaucracy.

Property prices are soaring, and clothing, restaurants and entertainment are generaly steeper than in America. Gas runs about $6 a gallon.

Sharar of ASG says he's adapted well. But he's found some peculiarities.

There's a smaller selection of lunch meats but a larger selection of potato chips. "I never would have imagined prawn-flavored chips."

Tough money-laundering laws make it hard for foreigners to open bank accounts. Banks demand proof of residence in the form of a utility bill but the family initially stayed in a hotel.

"Once we found a house and had a bill come there, they said, "Okay, everything is settled.' Then a week later, they closed the account because they didn't like my old-format passport." Sharar got a new account but it took a few more months to get the check-guarantee card most businesses require before they will cash a check.

He has found Belfast "slightly more different than what I expected. It's sort of halfway between Germany and the U.S. It's a lot more of its own thing."

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 18, 2006, 20:23:02]


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