Northern Ireland can become what Hong Kong was for Asia, for the UK and Europe, the Levelling Up Secretary has said.
Delivering the closing speech at an investment conference in Belfast, Michael Gove described the region to gathered delegates from across the world as “somewhere with a storied past, with an amazing present and with an exciting future”.
Around 200 investors from across the world, including the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific, were attending the summit at the ICC.
There have already been a series of jobs and funding announcements, including the creation of 1,000 posts by professional services firm EY over the next five years.
The Princess Royal was a special guest at the event on Wednesday, attended by scores of ministers including Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
While the Stormont Assembly remains collapsed, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Alliance leader Naomi Long were in attendance.
Closing the event, Mr Gove referenced firms such as Harland and Wolff, saying Northern Ireland was an “engine room for the world” in the 20th century, as well as producing writers such as CS Lewis and Louis MacNeice.
He said Belfast had transformed in the last decade with investment and leadership, adding “sometimes just as difficult a word to pronounce as it is to provide – I hope the parties are listening”, after stumbling over the word.
He compared the Northern Ireland capital with Berlin, having had division in the past, and now “a centre for tech innovation”.
“Following on from the conclusion of the Windsor Framework, Northern Ireland is on the cusp of one of the most exciting periods in its history,” he said.
“Nowhere else in Europe has unfettered access to the UK’s own internal market and the European Union’s single market as well, nowhere else has that potential for growth.”
Mr Gove went on to say that with that access, Northern Ireland could become what Hong Kong was for Asia, for both the United Kingdom and for Europe.
Earlier, delivering the UK Government’s keynote address, Ms Badenoch said she believed the event was the first of its kind in the region.
She said it was about telling a story about Northern Ireland “different from the ones you typically hear”, of “energy, creativity and innovation”.
“It is about opportunity and how the UK Government is working to create it here,” she said.
“Today in Northern Ireland there are more people employed in manufacturing than either the Republic or the UK average, and we know that long-term prosperity requires peace and political progress.
“There have undeniably been some recent challenges but this Government has restored the smooth flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and protected Northern Ireland’s place in our union.
“This certainty and stability make Northern Ireland an even more attractive investment prospect given its unique role.”
Meanwhile, Mr Heaton-Harris told delegates: “I had hoped by now that we would have an Executive back up and running, for potential investors travelling here today to be met by ministers from Northern Ireland and discuss their ideas; sadly, this has proved not to be the case.
“But my team and I have worked intensively with the DUP, and indeed all the main Northern Ireland political parties across the summer, and I’m genuinely hopeful that progress will be unlocked very, very soon.
“I know it will require courage on all sides to prioritise reconciliation and prosperity over division, but I know this can be done because it was done in spades 25 years ago to deliver the foundation of peace and prosperity here in Northern Ireland.”
The summit was first announced during events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
But it is taking place while the devolved powersharing institutions at Stormont remain dormant, with the DUP maintaining its protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
But, speaking to reporters, Mr Heaton-Harris predicted that the Windsor Framework, agreed by the UK and EU to deal with trading issues caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, would have a positive effect on trade.
He said: “About 500 of the tangible benefits are sat next door, because lots of people are in that room because they see benefits for their businesses to invest in Northern Ireland because of what the Windsor Framework is bringing.
“On October 1 the first phase of the Windsor Framework comes in and we will see a big difference in how trade flows, and indeed goods coming into this country.”
Speaking about the event taking place with no devolved government in Northern Ireland, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “It is not the most ideal situation.
“However, all these people are here given that situation. They all know about it, they all know that the UK Government is doing everything it can to get over that particular hump.
“I also think what they are seeing is a huge Government presence to demonstrate that, working together, we can bring lots of opportunities for businesses here.
“I think, based on the buzz around the place, this will work, and work well.”
A number of industry-led sessions at the summit were focusing on advanced manufacturing and engineering, technology, financial and professional services, the green economy, and the life and health sciences sector.
Nineteen companies from across Northern Ireland were also exhibiting to global investors, including Derry-based Respiratory Analytics, Collins Aerospace in Kilkeel, and Ballymena-based Wrightbus.