The absence of a functioning Stormont Assembly while a major investment conference takes place in Belfast is a disappointmen, but will not spoil the occasion, a Government minister has insisted.
Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker said businesses from around the world are coming to Northern Ireland because they want to invest in the region.
Meanwhile, a business umbrella group also said that investors value certainty and that it is optimistic about the prospect of “more positive discussions” around the restoration of the powersharing institutions.
Around 120 businesses and investors are gathering for the conference, with the two-day event in Belfast being hosted by the Department for Business and Trade, the Northern Ireland Office and the business support agency Invest NI.
Investors from the US, Middle East, Europe and Asia Pacific regions are attending.
Speaking during a visit to a Belfast business, Mr Baker said: “We would love of course to have a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister here, joining me, joining the Secretary of State and others promoting Northern Ireland – of course we would.
“It’s a bit of a disappointment but I’m not going to let that dampen the occasion.”
He added: “You can feel the energy and enthusiasm here behind me, and all of the investors coming over are coming for a reason – they want to invest in Northern Ireland.
“They’re not coming because they want to say no, they’re coming because they want to say yes.
“So what I’m not going to do is let that spoil our prospects here for the summit, it’s going to be a great occasion.”
Mr Baker said Northern Ireland had a thriving private sector despite the instability of its politics.
“Twenty-five years on after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement we know we’ve got peace, but what we haven’t had is a sufficiently stable government, and people are aware of that, yet Northern Ireland’s private sector is amazing, full of people able to flourish and innovate, and do right by their communities and the environment, and people do it very naturally here.
“We’ve got so much to be proud of, but if you’re asking: ‘Would it be better if the Government was back?’ Yes of course it would but the private sector flourishes anyway.”
The investment summit will send the message around the world that Northern Ireland is open for business, industry leaders have said.
The Northern Ireland Business Alliance said the region has “exciting and unique opportunities”.
A statement said: “The focus on investment is welcome and we look forward to the summit, where the clear message is that Northern Ireland is not just open for business but is poised for growth and has significant potential.
“It is a chance to showcase the compelling success stories of our homegrown and newly located businesses, alongside the features that make Northern Ireland stand out as a place to grow and invest.
“Importantly, we are now uniquely positioned as a gateway to two of the world’s largest markets; unfettered and flexible access to the EU and UK makes this the only jurisdiction in the world from which business can sell into GB and the EU free of customs and regulatory barriers.
“Our success in advanced manufacturing, finance and professional services, fintech, cyber, health and life sciences, aerospace, engineering, agrifood and creative and digital industries has been transformative.
“This has been underpinned by a world-class digital and communications infrastructure and our proven propensity for innovation, along with a strong skills base and talent pool developed by excellent universities and colleges.
The Northern Ireland Business Alliance has welcomed a focus on #investment saying:
— NIChamberofCommerce #heretohelp (@NIChamber) September 12, 2023
“Of course, investors and businesses alike value certainty and the Business Alliance remains optimistic about the prospect of more positive discussions around the restoration of the Northern Ireland executive.”
The Alliance is a partnership between the Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland, the Centre for Competitiveness, the Institute of Directors Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he believes the event will lead to a more prosperous future for the region.
Mr Heaton-Harris said: “Leading investors and international businesses will arrive in Belfast for the Northern Ireland investment summit as we bring together one of the largest groups of investors Northern Ireland has ever seen.
“This in itself is testimony to the huge progress made over the last 25 years and I am proud I am able to promote the unique economic strengths and opportunities in Northern Ireland on a global stage.
“I have no doubt that the partnerships formed in Belfast this week will lead Northern Ireland to a more prosperous future.”
The investment summit is expected to highlight Northern Ireland’s record of innovation and technical strength in a number of areas, including advanced manufacturing, software and technology, financial and professional services, and emerging health and life sciences.
It is also expected to highlight the region’s unique dual market access to the UK and EU markets, following the signing of the Windsor Framework earlier this year.
Speakers at the event will include Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, Mr Heaton-Harris, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove and US Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland Joseph Kennedy.
US multinational financial group Citi is the event’s principal partner, with chief executive David Livingstone to give a keynote speech.
The summit was announced during events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, it is taking place while the devolved powersharing institutions at Stormont remain dormant, with the DUP maintaining its protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.