As the March 29 deadline for Brexit approaches with no sign the U.K. government is close to a final deal, one region is watching the proceedings with a bit more at stake than others.
Northern Ireland, the smallest of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, has been prepping for a so-called no-deal Brexit, while hoping hard that it can avoid the reintroduction of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, its closest neighbor and an EU member. The EU and U.K. are keen to avoid the restoration of customs checks and guard posts at the border that separates the six counties of Northern Ireland from the Republic that existed during the long period of unrest known as “The Troubles.”
The issue has divided members of the U.K. Parliament between those who favor a backstop, a kind of safety net that would guarantee that the border remains open, but would also mean that Northern Ireland would still follow certain EU rules, and those who believe Northern Ireland should not get different treatment to the rest of the U.K.
The country’s main business-development agency, Invest Northern Ireland, says companies are conducting scenario planning for all eventualities but admits the issue is a headache.
“Companies need certainty,” said Steve Harper, executive director for international business with Invest NI. “There’s a lot of ‘no deal’ planning, and we’re working to help with contingency plans, but clearly the best case would be the continuation of an open border.”
Invest NI is tasked with drawing investment to the country of 1.8 million; it pulled in a record 25 new companies in the most recent year for which figures are available, and expects to match that outcome in the current year.
The country touts its young and highly educated workforce, with about 77% of high-school students going on to third-level education, as a big selling point. It also has a history as a manufacturing base, as home to renowned shipbuilder Harland & Wolff, which is best known for building the Titanic.
“It’s talent, and it’s training at university level,” says Harper, referring to the capital Belfast’s Center for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), a venture supported by Invest NI and housed in the ECIT Institute at Queens University, which aims to match researchers and Ph.D. students with experienced entrepreneurs.
Another program, called Assured Skills, offers companies the opportunity to have graduates trained in a specific, tailor-made set of skills.
With Brexit looming, Invest NI is promoting the country as a gateway to the U.K. market, and at least two companies from the Republic of Ireland have set up bases there in the last year.
Eirtech Aviation Services, headquartered at Shannon Airport in County Clare, has set up a composites-repair center in Belfast, with plans to add up to 124 jobs in the next four years. The center is to repair and overhaul components of commercial aircraft, including flight controls, wing to body parts, and overhead bins. Northern Ireland is already home to aerospace companies including Canada’s Bombardier.
Software company Teamwork.com is planning to create 85 jobs in Belfast at a development and support hub. The Limerick-based company makes online business apps to help companies increase the efficiency of teams spread around the world. The company’s customers include Walt Disney Co.
, Spotify Technology SA
and Netflix Inc.
Then there’s Silicon Valley cybersecurity company Imperva, which is expanding to Belfast with plans to create 220 jobs over the next three to five years in several areas, including product development and technical support.
“Establishing an Imperva office in Belfast will help us fuel the next phase of our global growth and expansion, as part of our goal to become the world’s leading hybrid security company,” said Chief Executive Chris Hylen.
The following is the foreign direct investment by U.S. companies announced in 2018:
|Company, U.S. headquarters||Business||Planned job creation||Northern Island base|
|Imperva, Redwood City, Calif.||Cybersecurity||220||Belfast|
|SmashFly Technologies, Concord, Mass.||Software development||70||Belfast|
|HHAeXchange, New York||Home-care management software||50||Belfast|
|Slice, New York||Provider of mobile payment platform for pizzerias||50||Belfast|
|Bamboo Rose, Boston||Software platform for the retail industry||75||Belfast|
|Applied Systems, Chicago||Cloud-based software developer||50||Belfast|
Other U.S. companies with operations in Northern Ireland include CME Group Inc.’s
Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Citigroup Inc.’s
Citibank and Allstate Corp.
in the fintech arena and Rapid7 Inc.
, WhiteHat Security, Anomali and Proofpoint Inc.
in the cybersecurity business.
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