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First Minister points US investors to NI’s dual market ‘unique selling point’

First Minister points US investors to NI’s dual market ‘unique selling point’

Stormont’s First Minister has pointed to the considerable opportunities created by Northern Ireland’s “unique” dual market access as she urged US companies to invest in the region.

Michelle O’Neill insisted the return of stable governance in Belfast was interconnected to economic growth and fostering the right environment to attract more foreign direct investment.

The Sinn Fein vice president made the pitch to would-be investors at a breakfast event in Washington DC alongside deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly.

Her DUP counterpart Ms Little-Pengelly told the NI Bureau Breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that it was an exciting time for Northern Ireland as she portrayed the region as a fantastic place to invest.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (Niall Carson/PA)

Their comments came hours after the two leaders were the star attraction at a major dinner for Irish Americans in the US capital.

Addressing the Ireland Funds national gala on Wednesday evening, they proclaimed that Northern Ireland is “open for business”.

Reflecting on the event on Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who also addressed the dinner, said the joint appearance of Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly was a “powerful” personification of the Good Friday Agreement institutions back working again.

The gala dinner is a key element of the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US city. The NI Bureau Breakfast has also become a fixture in the week running up to St Patrick’s Day.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework post-Brexit trading arrangements, Northern Ireland businesses can sell freely into both the Great Britain market and the EU single market.

Brexit barriers on moving goods from GB into NI was at the heart of a long-running political dispute that saw the DUP boycott powersharing at Stormont for two years ago.

A deal with the UK Government aimed at reducing some of the red tape associated with the so-called Irish Sea border led to the DUP ending its blockade six weeks ago, with the ministerial executive being restored thereafter.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media at the Salamander Hotel in Washington DC on Thursday (Niall Carson/PA)

That breakthrough has allowed Ms O’Neill and Ms Little Pengelly to travel to Washington as First Minister and deputy First Minister.

With two long powersharing impasses coming either side of the Covid pandemic, it is eight years since a first and deputy first minister have been together in Washington for the St Patrick’s programme.

Ms O’Neill told the breakfast gathering that she and Ms Little-Pengelly were determined to work together to create “hope and opportunity”.

“We’re determined to help to work with all sectors to secure good jobs and ensure that we invest in our people,” she said.

“And these close economic ties that we have with US companies, that we’ve developed over the course of the past two decades, who have chosen the North as their gateway to Europe, in creating thousands of good jobs, is only something that we will are determined to continue to build upon.

“And we will begin to see the considerable opportunities that are created now by the Windsor Framework to use our dual market access, our unique selling point, to grow our exports, to attract further FDI and to drive the all-Ireland economy.”

Ms O’Neill added: “Peace, stability and economic opportunity are all interconnected. And the onus is on all of us as political leaders to work together, to work with each other and to ensure that we work with all of you and we are determined to do that.

“I said last night at the dinner that we’re in a new era in the north of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, whatever you’re most comfortable with calling our home.

“And I think that this new era represents, a whole changing portrait in terms of the picture. And there are a new generation of leaders at the helm now, and that’s something that I am very proud of – two women leading the way in our executive.”

Northern Ireland politicians visit the US
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly speaks as Michelle O’Neill looks on (Niall Carson/PA)

Ms Little-Pengelly said Northern Ireland had an “incredibly important story” to tell about what it can offer to investors.

“Northern Ireland has come such an incredibly long way,” she said.

“I know that so many in this room will recognise that, because I know so many in this room have been involved for many, many decades. And I feel incredibly excited about where we are. I feel a real sense of hope. But more than that, a sense of opportunity, an opportunity for what Michelle and I can build by working together, working together constructively, with respect, but with a focus on delivery.

“I think it is, and Michelle and I have said this many times, it’s important for us to stand up here and show leadership. And I’m incredibly proud that we are both women in these roles showing leadership.

“But, more than that, what we really want to do is to deliver and to deliver on the big things that matter for people. And one of those that is absolutely key around all of that is building a thriving Northern Ireland, the improvement in our economy, creating those good jobs, those fantastic jobs for our young people, because we know that young people living in Northern Ireland, working in great jobs, that is the future, that is the future for stability for this wonderful place that we call home.”

The DUP MLA added: “You know, winning the peace has been very difficult, stabilisation as we all know has been a challenge. But I believe that we have an opportunity now to look into the next number of years, the next 25 years of prosperity for Northern Ireland.

“This is an exciting time for Northern Ireland.”

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, Mr Varadkar hailed the significance of the speeches from Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly at the Ireland Funds dinner.

“I think that was powerful,” he said.

“To see them take the stage together, to make the speeches they did, to demonstrate the very good chemistry that I think they have, they’re working well together.

“For people at the Ireland Funds dinner, you know people who’ve helped to raise 600 million dollars for Ireland over the past few decades, I think for them to see that and to see that the Good Friday Agreement is working again, personified in Michelle and Emma, really was my highlight last night.

Ms Little-Pengelly’s party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said US investors were showing “a lot of interest” in setting up in Northern Ireland.

He acknowledged dual market access was a factor in that.

“I think what we have delivered in terms of unfettered access to the UK internal market and privileged access to the EU single market gives Northern Ireland a competitive advantage,” he told reporters at the breakfast event in Washington.

Sir Jeffrey said changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol meant the region could also now benefit from UK free trade deals.

“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made and we’re now going to exploit the opportunity for Northern Ireland to build our economy and deliver prosperity for everyone,” he added.