'Better times ahead for Belfast' says Chamber chief

BETTER TIMES AHEAD? Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton and its outgoing president Rajesh Rana at City Hall
Simon Hamilton

ONE of the things that has surprised me most since taking up post as chief executive of Belfast Chamber at the start of September was the extent of optimism that exists within the city’s business community.

Coming from the world of politics where pessimism can pervade even at the best of times, I suppose I expected the ‘double whammy’ of Brexit uncertainty and no government at Stormont to have a depressive effect on the spirits of Belfast’s business leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, the saga that Brexit has become has undoubtedly delayed or deterred investment and the absence of a local administration has held up decisions that could stimulate growth and create jobs.

But business, despite the circumstances, just gets on with what it does best – doing business.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected anything else from Belfast’s businesses. They’ve always shown a great resilience in the face of adversity. They traded through the troubles and bounced back after the financial crash and have helped to almost totally transform the city.

Indeed, no doubt because of the vacuum in which Northern Ireland has existed for almost three years now, what I’ve witnessed is businesses in Belfast partnering much more closely with other institutions in the city like the Council, the universities and college and Belfast Harbour to, as one person put it to me, ‘do what they can do’ to drive forward growth and investment.

The absence of Stormont has acted as a catalyst for city stakeholders to forge closer and stronger alliances and to start shaping a vision of the sort of Belfast we want to build together.

As we move into a new year, it is traditional to not just reflect on the 12 months that have gone but to look ahead.

Many of us have long since given up on predicting the future, but I do detect a sense of hope about 2020 amongst business leaders. The business community may not be Brexit’s biggest fans, but many will at least welcome an end to the drift.

Similarly, the prospect of a government in London finally taking some decisions will be viewed as positive.

And encouraging noises emanating from the Stormont talks processes are also cause for optimism.

But before I am accused of being too ‘tiggerish’, I know that Belfast, like the whole of Northern Ireland, faces many challenges.

Belfast Chamber took the opportunity of the recent general election campaign to publish our ‘Belfast Manifesto’. It sets out our seven priorities for a better Belfast, recognising that as well as being northern Ireland’s capital and biggest city, Belfast is also the driver of our entire region’s economy.

Helping Belfast to reach its full potential is not just good for Belfast’s citizens, but for people right across Northern Ireland.

Belfast’s recent success has not happened by accident. It has required consistent investment and concerted action on the part of government and the business community in the city over many years. That relentless focus on growing a capital city of scale needs to be maintained.

Now is the time to keep our foot on the pedal towards an even more successful Belfast where greater numbers of people want to live, work, study and visit and where companies choose to invest.

Business has demonstrated its confidence in our city. In 2020, as we enter a new decade, Belfast Chamber urges government and our politicians to continue to do the same.

:: Simon Hamilton is chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Commerce and a former Stormont finance and economy minister


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