Infrastructure investment could have Ireland flying high
AMIDST all the hand-wringing of late about the ending of the direct flight from Aldergrove to Newark, it's worth reminding ourselves that there are dozens of weekly flights to the States departing from just down the road.
Dublin - the major airport on this island and the fifth busiest across the UK and Ireland – is only about one-and-three-quarter hours away fro Belfast by road, and services destinations including New York, Chicago, and Boston.
That's not to diminish Belfast International Airport in any way, but I don't think we should get too fixated on having a direct flight to the US from Belfast. Perhaps there's a bigger picture that we need to see.
Should we actually be focusing our efforts and resources more on improving the infrastructure that links Belfast with Dublin, and Belfast with Derry? I think undoubtedly so.
Not only would this make Dublin Airport all the more accessible from Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, it would be something to help sell Northern Ireland to international investors. Transport and infrastructure are seen as two of the key factors in attracting inward investment.
The reality is that the Belfast to Dublin corridor is economically critical to this part of the world and something that we should be seeking to further develop – whatever the political context. With improved transport infrastructure - most significantly rail – Belfast could benefit considerably from its proximity to Dublin, which is a significant international city.
The Dublin-Belfast corridor has a population of something like 3.3 million people. The Dublin region has a GDP of over €100 billion, according to Dublin Chamber, while some estimates put Belfast Metropolitan Area's GDP at over €30 billion, giving a total regional GDP of €130 billion or more.
At present, the office market in Dublin is extremely buoyant, with significant demand, driven by the tech sector. Nine out of the top 10 global software and US technology firms have an Irish presence (largely Dublin), while all of the top 10 global ‘born on the internet' businesses operate there.
Amazon recently took 170,000 sq ft in Dublin, Facebook occupies 250,000 sq ft, Google has 600,000 sq ft and counting, and Twitter is poised to move into 100,000 sq ft of space.
Dublin actually has a shortage of space (though it has 7 million sq ft of new space in the pipeline, with half of that actually under construction). Belfast, with its lower cost-base, could be a viable alternative to Dublin, but also a viable additional location for major international companies.
Enhanced transport infrastructure would also make Dublin a more viable destination for people living in Belfast to commute to for work, therefore opening up a wider range of high value jobs. And it would make Dublin an even more viable market for local companies – including services firms – to do business in.
Whatever your political persuasion, I think it is critical that we genuinely recognise that we live in an all-island economy, and that isn't going to change.
So we need to maximise the opportunity and focus on improving links - transport and otherwise – with the other major economic centre on the island.
:: Ben Collins is director of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in Northern Ireland, which represents 4,000 cross-sectoral members comprising of chartered and associate surveyors, trainees and students.