Alastair Hamilton The Adrian Flannelly Show 9 September 2017

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The Adrian Flannelly Show
Irish Radio Network USA

Adrian Flannelly speaks to the CEO of Invest Northern Ireland (InvestNI), Alastair Hamilton, who is in New York City.


Adrian:   I’m delighted to welcome Alastair Hamilton who is the Chief Executive Officer of InvestNI. And Alastair, you’re not new to the job, actually, and the clock keeps ticking and you’re still (inaudible) very significantly. You’re welcome!

Alastair:   Thank you very much, Adrian, it’s a pleasure to be here. And thank you for taking the time to have a chat with me. And yeah, you do mention that time is moving on, it’s a – I’m almost nine years in the job but it’s been a really wonderful journey over those last eight and a half nine years and I have in some way have played a little part in supporting the organisations, supporting Northern Ireland, the country from whence I come and it’s my privilege and great pleasure to be able to support them.

 Alastair:   Well I suppose from our point of view, Adrian, there’s a…yes, I am here this week and my day job is to support Andrea and Gary and the team who do such a wonderful job here, not only in New York but across The States, and have been really pivotal in successfully driving significant numbers of inward investors into Northern Ireland. And normally I’m here just purely with that hat on but clearly, you mentioned we don’t have an Executive at the minute, we don’t have ministers, normally they would be doing this sort of a conversation with you but it’s right and proper that I step into that space. Northern Ireland still needs to be promoted and driven overseas – our ministers have done a super job in that over the years and I wish that they were back in the spaces doing that job and they’ve been superb advocates for Northern Ireland business every time they come to this wonderful city and I wish they were back in place.

Adrian:  Yes. So do we and hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later. It might be very difficult for those of us, particularly in the US, to understand that not since last February has Ireland had its Executive, its ministers, in the Northern Ireland Assembly and that that becomes worrying in more ways than one but perhaps particularly so because of the advent of Brexit and how that is going to affect Northern Ireland.

Alastair:  Yeah, I agree with you that it would be much better for us all had we – you know we’ve had ten years of Executive running from those early days with Martin McGuinness, the late Martin McGuinness, and the late Ian Paisley as well – right through to the year that we’re in now – and I’ve been involved and supporting those ministers the whole way along that journey in terms of the business and economic agenda. I suppose one thing, just to be clear on, that we are an arms-length body of government at InvestNI. We’ve quite a lot of power devolved to us and while we still need ministers in place to open doors and do meetings and interviews from our point of view we can keep on doing the business we’re doing. We had our most successful year ever last year with twenty-two brand new investors coming to Northern Ireland, many of them from these shores, but I am very conscious that we still need to get an Executive back in place and get it driving. Just to pick up on that Adrian, so yes, it’s been February since the ministers have not been in place. You’re right, the Assembly did have a vote but clearly we can’t put an Executive into place until there’s an agreement between the two main parties in Northern Ireland and I wish them well in trying to resolve that situation. In the meantime, I, Andrea, Gary and the team here keep on doing what we’ve been doing and doing very successfully in terms of bringing more investment into Northern Ireland. And also it’s important supporting Northern Ireland companies to trade in the US and our exports to the United States have gone up substantially over the last year probably more driven by the currency movement, I acknowledge but still, seeing our exports grow is important for us.

Adrian:  Now, unlike southern Ireland where you have Enterprise Ireland and the Industrial Development Authority that’s kind of rolled into one in Northern Ireland so you have equal interest in both areas.

Alastair:  Absolutely.

Adrian:  Can we talk just a little bit about Brexit? And obviously from our side of the Atlantic here any coverage that there is with respect to the UK is and does have to do with Brexit and the effects of that. First of all, many people I would assume in Northern Ireland and in Britain and definitely here, are still trying to get over the shock of Britain and the UK exiting the European Union (EU). And as such, how does that affect your area, both in inward investment and for that matter exports – I know you’ve already acknowledged that exports are absolutely fine, maybe to do with currency, maybe to do with the fact that you’ve had a tremendous track record before up to now anyway – but explain to us what the effects, so far, of Brexit and how that is affecting Northern Ireland, maybe in general at first.

Alastair:  Yeah, so I think there’s two stages to this conversation. Clearly, the vote has been taken last June and the work is underway now to see what that looks like so we haven’t exited yet and we’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the discussions. I think the first thing to say is that from an inward investment, I’ll break it into two parts – inward investment first trade, secondly – on the inward investment side I forecasted at the time that we would not see a big impact on that and that has played out. We actually delivered more new inward investors to Northern Ireland in the last six months of last year, post the referendum vote, than we did in the six months in the year before. And the reason for that, Adrian, is very simple: Our proposition is not based on giving people market access, unlike other parts that work in terms of inward investment, our proposition is getting people access to talent. So it’s about our people. It’s the skilled, high quality people in Northern Ireland that is attractive mainly for the US investors to come in. Brexit does not change that. So therefore, I did not expect to see and have not seen any downturn whatsoever in terms of our inward investment. And on trade we haven’t seen any downturn because we haven’t exited yet – that’ll all depend on the terms of the next part of the discussion with the European Union which is around the trade terms. And as you rightly say, our exports have gone up in the interim period and I acknowledge probably the majority of that is based on the currency movement so you can’t depend on that for the future, but we have not seen a big impact now. I do not want to pass by – you said I am a combination of both local company enterprise support and inward investment. Clearly there will be challenges for companies in the future – over fifty percent of our exports go to European, EU, destinations – therefore in the future it will be important for us to work very closely with companies to minimise the potential impact of the Brexit as it works out.

Adrian:  Dare I mention: A big concern and one that immediately jumps to mind here and that is the possibility of some kind of border. If not a hard border, which is unthinkable at this stage of the game because that would be a major step backwards and an amasing inconvenience to one of the areas that is superb as in tourism – tourism to Northern Ireland, tourism to the island of Ireland – but let me ask you about the possibility if not the probability that there will be some kind of restrictions, laws, that will affect the relationship between say Northern Ireland/southern Ireland, Northern Ireland/Europe/the European Union. How do you see that one rolling out?

Alastair:  I think we’re at the start of that journey and probably my reflection would be on some of the things that have happened over the last two months right up until some of the comments the European Union made just yesterday. Clearly there are two issues in the middle of that debate: One is the movement of people and the other is the movement of goods. And I think re-emphasised again a real commitment from the Taoiseach, from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and from (Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel) Barnier and (EU President Donald) Tusk in the European Union – all three groups all very clear around: One, the importance of getting this right therefore it’s in the first phase of the discussions and then secondly, they have all used exactly the same language in terms of the point that you have made to minimise any impact on that border. And I acknowledge and recognise and welcome the development of, first of all, the UK government clarifying ‘settled status’ for European citizens within the United Kingdom – if they’ve been there for more than five years they will be automatically given settled status. If they’ve been there between zero and five years there is, to use their words, ‘a pathway to settled status’ so I think that’s a very welcomed development at the outset of this. I think the positioning papers that the UK government have put forward on how we maintain the movement of people – thirty thousand people a day cross that border somewhere along the line to work, north, south or vice versa – and I think the comments yesterday where European Union negotiators have said they believe we can get to an agreement that maintains that Common Travel Area (CTA) for employment, for health care, for education I think is a really positive development.

And we had the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, in Northern Ireland a few days ago, and he reemphasised the importance of that. So I think we’ve made really good progress on the Common Travel Area. Clearly, there’s a journey still to be traveled on the second stage of that which is around the movement of goods and I know that perhaps the position paper that the UK government put forward on that has not been as well received within the European Union Community as the first paper on the movement of people but again, I see language in there where people are saying this is not beyond our ability to be able towork out a process. I know technology has been mentioned but that’s not the only answer in here but I think we’re in a different place in this day and age than we were perhaps twenty years ago from a technology point and we look at examples even here in this country between Canada and the United States, we look at examples in Singapore, we can look at examples in Switzerland – I think technology will play a part in that, Adrian, in terms of providing a resolution – but clearly the UK government are saying it’s not going to be possible to finally resolve that until we get into discussions on the wider trade negotiations which is in the second phase. But I think, you know, we’ve made some significant progress on movement of people – now pretty much clear path and I think there’s a real willingness amongst all parties – they’ve all acknowledged the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, of the principles that are in it, and they’ve all acknowledged they want a friction-less or near as they can get to a friction-less border and I think with that commitment we can get to a satisfactory solution.

Adrian:  We are inclined when we talk about inward investment, whether it’s Northern Ireland or to southern Ireland, to the island of Ireland, we’re inclined to rattle off a number of the extremely well-known American companies. But there are a great number of new companies in Northern Ireland that are not that well-known here. There must be a reason for their being there and so let me ask you directly like: Are companies downsizing? Are they partially withdrawing? Are they keeping the powder dry? Take the banks – take Citibank – do you notice that, are they kind of in a holding pattern waiting to see what’s happening next?

Alastair:   No, actually, that’s a really good example you’re using – whenever you’re talk about the smaller companies you’re almost reluctant to talk about Citi (Citibank) but actually you teed me up very well on that one, Adrian, because actually just yesterday the UK Chief Exec of Citi was in Belfast and was asked that very question as you would expect: What are your plans for Belfast? And he announced yesterday they’re going to put two hundred more jobs into Belfast. He said Brexit has not had an impact on the operation, the Citi operation, in Belfast. He said we’re a global business, we are in almost a hundred countries around the world, yes, Brexit will have an issue for Citi as an operation but the Belfast operation is serving a global business – so he announced another two hundred jobs. Just in case people are not aware: The original business case for Citi said they would create somewhere between two hundred and three hundred jobs – they’re now almost at two and a half thousand in Belfast and another, you know, two hundred…

Adrian:  …That speaks well…

Alastair:  …on top of it. And you’re right to move to the other end of the scale. So I should say first of all: Nobody’s downsizing in Belfast. All of our investors, for all of the reasons that I mentioned at the start, they’re there for talent – not market access – all of them continue to grow. And we’ve developed some wonderful new clusters. You know, I’ll mention the names of some US firms that people may not be familiar with, the likes of: Proofpoint, Black Duck, White Hat Security, Rapid 7 – those are all firms, US-based firms, out of Boston, New York or West Coast – that are all coming to Belfast. And the reason they’re coming is because undisputedly Belfast is the cybersecurity/software development centre of the world. And the Financial Times have told us and published information to show that Northern Ireland is the most attractive destination for US-based cybersecurity inward investment and we’ve created over five hundred jobs in the last year alone through that inward investment. And they are coming because: 1) There is an infrastructure there through Queen’s University and the Centre for Secure IT (CSIT), which is a world-class research development centre for cybersecurity and they’re coming because we are producing the graduate talent in cybersecurity in specific disciplines that sets us a world apart and we continue to invest in that, Adrian. So we’re getting it at both ends. We’re getting the Citis, Baker McKenzie will be another one to mention, great clout of having Baker McKenzie in Belfast with over three hundred staff – their only legal services function outside of the US – and it’s been tremendously successful for them.

Adrian:  The mere mention of cybersecurity raises the hairs on the necks of those who are beside themselves when you have so many breeches in security – most recently again yesterday we had Equifax, that are now admitting to or indeed – not that they had much of a choice it was going to come out anyway – but the whole area of cybersecurity and the stronghold that you have in Northern Ireland: Can you explain what actually those companies are doing? Are they processing data? Are they – what role do they play?

Alastair:  So in essence the majority of them have what they call threat-resolution centres and then software development centres on the side of that so what they are doing is they are, in real-time, managing the real issues that companies will face, such as those that you’ve talked about, they’re monitoring and capturing threats as they see them presented to those companies and then they’re developing solutions for those companies to minimise those threats. At a second level then they are working very intensively on the software solutions trying to stay one step ahead of the hackers, understanding where the potential threats are and the gaps are in people’s defences, to use those words, and then developing software solutions so that they can rule those out and development them across the company portfolio. And what they find in Northern Ireland is world-class software developers combined with really bright people who can think through those issues and stay one step ahead. And that’s what we’ve managed to capture. And you know, whatever analysis you use we’ve looked at some of them showing what the potential pipeline and skills shortage globally there is anticipated to be in this discipline and we think we’re ideally placed to continue to ramp-up our ability in this space and we’ve carved out a really strong space over the last five or six years in financial services technology with the likes of New York Stock Exchange initially coming, Chicago Mercantile Exchange now being there. We believe that cybersecurity, if we continue to support the development of the talent pipeline, can turn into that same success story for Northern Ireland. And believe me, all of our efforts across government, academia, are absolutely focused on making that come to life.

Adrian:  The tax situation in Northern Ireland and the corporate tax versus the very liberal tax structure in southern Ireland one would imagine that in the current environment it would appear like maybe one of your strongest competitors in Northern Ireland, particularly with trade and investments and everything that goes into corporate structure, it might appear, at least anyway, that you must be doing something different in Northern Ireland to make up for that gap – you know, the twelve and a half percent in southern Ireland – and where are you at in terms of rolling back your own corporate tax structure in The North?

Alastair:  So yes then, let’s talk about the tax proposition: At the present moment in time all of our inward investment, a vast majority of it, is coming because of people and that’s not a tax play it’s more around a cost play. We’re able to offer high quality people at a reasonable cost point. Clearly, I’d like to be fishing in another part of that mobile inward investment opportunity which is tax sensitive and we’re starting to see a little bit of it come so let’s build this up a little bit. So first of all, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves that while yes, there are other tax regimes, particularly the one you’ve mentioned, twelve and a half percent, that is very attractive, the UK government are on a trajectory – nineteen percent today as we sit here going to seventeen percent by 2020 so there’s a journey there as a UK region on that…

Adrian: …And that comes from a high, you know…

Alastair: …twenty-eight percent…

Adrian: …twenty-eight percent…

Alastair: …yeah, so we will end up at seventeen in a couple of years time. The second point is, on the research and development side we introduced the Patent Box which is a very specific project that allows people who develop brand new products in the UK, in Northern Ireland in our case, and they licence that within the UK that then the corporate tax that flows from the products that are made under that research and development are taxed at ten percent. So today there are people, even leaving aside where we would want to be at a mean, headline corporation tax, there are people in Northern Ireland today who are developing new products and the corporate tax on those products is ten percent. So to get to the nub of the key question you asked: A long journey. Around twelve and a half percent rate for Northern Ireland has been acknowledged and agreed. In the UK government legislation was passed a few years ago – clearly, the last step in that journey, Adrian, is to get the devolved government into place, into position. And it’s not a, some people think that’s just a ‘wish’ – we need the devolved government in place to make this happen as a legislative point: under EU ruling you cannot have a reduced tax within a sub-region of a member state without that decision being taken by a devolved government. So I await the outcome of the discussions and look forward, expectantly, to getting a devolved government back in place to take that last step and all of the main parties, all of the parties, actually, have committed to a twelve and a half percent rate and that will be another step forward for us. You know, you combine that cost-centre proposition with the profit-centre proposition such as we will have – it’ll make us a very strong and attractive place to be.

Adrian:  You’re here for a total of two days – your plane is double-parked – what’s the main purpose of this trip at this time?

Alastair: Two main reasons why I’m here, Adrian, one is – well three actually. One is to do what I’m doing with you which is keep making sure that in the midst of all the debates, whether it’s the Assembly debate or whether it’s the Brexit debate, just to ground people a little bit. There’s a lot of noise floating about out there about Brexit and its impact and I just want to make sure that, while I acknowledge there are challenges in the future, I just want to ground the situation and make sure that people are aware that actually where we are with our inward investment and our inward investment success and our trade success. Secondly, I’m here to support my team and do what we’ve been doing today – to go around to potential new investors into Northern Ireland, the team we’re working with, and make sure that I support them and encourage those companies to come to Northern Ireland. That’s been very successful over the day – really encouraged by the conversations I’ve been having. And then thirdly, I will be in Boston on Monday. We have an inward trade mission coming into Boston. Companies that are involved in sports technology, which is another area that’s really strongly developed for us, to support those firms as they seek partnerships and contracts here in the wonderful country of the United States of America.

Adrian:  You have, obviously, our good friend hears every twist and turn – very visible, very effective in representing indeed your area here in New York – Andrea Haughian and also of course Gary Hanley in Boston. The impact and the representation here in the United States – that’s a helluva a, you know, it’s a huge and significant job in covering the United States and yet somehow they manage to do that. How does the word get out? And I’m all for advertising and promotion otherwise I’d be out of business myself but how is it that – what is that magnet that draws very large companies and then some that we’re not that familiar with but what has that, on an upward swing, even you know, going back through The Troubles dating back to the Good Friday Agreement, and many would say even before that, what is the, if you had to take like the addition to talent, you know an educated structure, many of those who are in Northern Ireland appear to be really in the right place at the right time. And emigration, whereas it’s a problem not just for southern Ireland but emigration to the United States has now, if anything, it’s getting worse rather than better. What is it about Northern Ireland actually that has that major attraction in addition to, you know, those very significant areas? Does much of it, if anything, have to do with the growth of the economy? For instance, you could take Belfast, for instance, the massive growth of Belfast as a city, as a port,…

Alastair: …Absolutely…

Adrian: …that has to have – what other areas?

Alastair:  Yeah, you’ve covered a lot of ground there, Adrian, so let me try and step through it. So first of all to acknowledge the success of the team here in the United States – you’ve mentioned a few of the team and that’s right, bearing in mind we’re here in New York, but we’ve a team of people that stretches right into Chicago and had a lot of success there and on to San Francisco and the West Coast also covering Texas where we’ve seen quite a bit of investment come from there. And let me be clear: My ambition is to continue to grow that resource on the ground. This year I have committed to opening ten new offices around the world. We are a small country. We are successful in terms of what we’ve been doing but we need to get the message out there and the best way to do that is to have people on the ground doing that so we will open ten new offices around the world this year – five already announced.

Adrian:  Terrific.

Alastair:  So we’ll keep driving that. I think the ground of our success is that we ‘under-promise and over-deliver’. So we often say it to the inward investors: Our job does not stop whenever Andrea successfully gets someone to sign on the line in terms of their investment. We have a landing team in Belfast. We put our arms around people whenever they get to Belfast, Doire, Newry, wherever they come to across Northern Ireland and we make sure that we work with them to see that project that they have committed to delivered. And just coming from talking to an existing investor and you know – music to my ears – they’ve told me today that they are ahead of the plan they’ve committed in terms of job numbers in Belfast. Why? Because they were conservative in the original plan and they get to Northern Ireland, they find that the promise we have made around the talent and infrastructure is there, is absolutely there, and they can accelerate their plans. So we invest not only at the front end in terms of getting the message out there and bringing people into Northern Ireland on visits but we invest in the back-end of the processing to make sure that we put what we call an ‘account management structure’ around those companies because we want to see them deliver what we all wanted and have committed to do. So we work right across the range of those companies making sure that they get grounded and you mentioned Citi earlier on in the presentation, in the interview, and Citi have made their sixth different investment in Northern Ireland. They came to do one function – five investments later they’re still there! We’ve one of the recognised…

Adrian: …I know that this is a great feather and particularly a hot item for this week but that’s pretty standard across the other major investors as well.

Alastair:  It is, yeah, Almost eighty percent of our investors reinvest for a second or third time and it just, it is the strongest endorsement, you know – unashamedly I’m a salesman on behalf of my country and I don’t hide that but I sell things that I can deliver and therefore it is grounded on a track record of delivery for those companies – you know I mentioned Baker McKenzie. The Executive Chairman of Baker McKenzie came and opened the offices, beautiful offices on the side of the Lagan there in Belfast, just a lot of months ago and from a standing start he said Baker McKenzie Belfast sets a new standard for Baker McKenzie worldwide. Worldwide! You know, that is a wonderful accolade for what is a world-class team development in Belfast and you know, I don’t have time, Adrian, and you probably don’t have time but that’s repeated time and time again. You know, the executive team at Allstate said I came for the cost and I stayed for the people. You know, that is what grounds us as an operation and as a country.

Adrian:   One of the areas that we obviously, is of concern here, and this applies to southern Ireland as well, in saying you know all of this inward investment is absolutely terrific. How does, and I’m sure when we’re talking about investing immediately we assume that the hub is Belfast as in fact Dublin and perhaps Corcaigh and cities – that that’s where the action is. How does the investment and how does the trade end – how does that help those who are not in Belfast? Who are across Northern Ireland in the Six Counties in Northern Ireland. What do they get out of it?

Alastair:  Yes, so I think what you see is, you know, at the early stages some of those larger blue chip firms – and I’ve often said this, Adrian, and we’re often times in competitive situations and we are competing with other cities, whether they’re elsewhere in the UK or elsewhere on the islands, we’re competing with cities that have populations of two, three, four million and what companies are looking for at that stage is the travel-to-work population from which they can draw a labour pool for a two hundred, three hundred, four hundred person operation and clearly, of a scale, Belfast is our main proposition whenever we compete in those areas. Having said that, you know we’ve already talked about some of the smaller opportunities that have come through – twenty, thirty jobs – and quite a few of those were able to land outside of Belfast and we’ve secured quite a few projects for Doire this year and we had a major investment into the Fermanagh region about a year and a half, two years ago, we’ve had operations move into Newry as well so we’re very conscious of that challenge in terms of making sure that we provide an opportunity and one of the key things we’ve done, Adrian, is proactively get involved with the councils – the councils have new powers as of a couple of years ago, they’re developing economic plans – and what we committed to do is to work with the councils right across Northern Ireland, all eleven of them, to build economic plans that are tailored to the unique capabilities and USPs, the unique selling points, for each of those eleven regions and then what I’ve committed to do is take that plan and take it to market and sell it and that’s what we will do. So I think there’s a real opportunity to do that. But also, and that’s why I welcome some of the infrastructure investment plans, yes, it’s about bringing jobs to people – but Northern Ireland’s not that big a place – there’s also about bringing people to the jobs and therefore, that’s why it’s so important – and I applaud ministers and parties for what they’ve done recently in terms of securing additional funds to ensure that the main roads, the A5 and A6 and the Irish government as well for their support around that and also then some of the infrastructure work around Belfast – and I think that will help to also bring people to jobs as well as jobs to people.

Adrian:  We wouldn’t have to go back too many decades before the infrastructure in southern Ireland became somewhat of a model – and it is fantastic! Prior to that investment, and of course the European Union can take credit for much of that, when the new infrastructure in Northern Ireland – how far ahead is that? We know about the enormous success and it’s very obvious, obviously, to many of us who travel to Ireland, that you know you can get from Dublin to Galway in two hours – it used to be a nightmare of a trip wiggling in and out – how is the infrastructure in Northern Ireland, going back to that very reason you mentioned, in terms of access for people who don’t live in the immediate area say of Belfast or, for that matter, Doire or Newry? How is it?

Alastair:   There’s quite a lot of work underway at the minute albeit it’s at the planning stage, Adrian, but the commitment is there to so there’s been a piece of work to extend the M1, which flows from Belfast down to Dungannon and to extend that out now out towards the west of the province. There’s also as we sit here a piece of work going on in terms of the main road from Belfast to Doire – and I know people would like to see further work done on that road – but there’s a piece of work to extend considerably the dueling of the motorway to take that further towards Castledawson and beyond that and I think that’ll relieve some bottlenecks but also extend the road up towards Doire and I think there’s more to come. There’s been another piece of work done on continuing the duel roads towards more tourism-related areas, in terms of the Portrush and Portstewart area. We’ve seen some wonderful success around the golf courses. And then removing some of the congestion…

Adrian: …I glad that you mention golf courses because you know many might feel there’s only one golf course in Northern Ireland worth mentioning when in fact golf courses have sprung up all over the place.

Alastair:  Yeah, we’ve some of the top – you know several of our golf courses are in the top ten links golf courses in the world and we’ve seen the Irish Open played in three of those – we’ve seen it played in Royal County Down, Royal Portrush which are the two main ones, but also this year the Irish Open was held in Portstewart and the course was superb and the competition was wonderful. We have Ballyliffin next year so I think we’re starting to see some of those world-class courses come to the fore and they’ve been the testing and the proving ground for our world-class golfers, Darren (Clarke), Rory (McIlroy) and Graeme (McDowell) to name those three who have played and cut their teeth on those courses as well. To finish off on the infrastructure, basically – we talk about roads, Adrian, but broadband is a key part of the infrastructure development and again, there’s plans just been put into place in terms of some of those discussions between the parties around really accelerating their broadband infrastructure and again, I think that’s a big piece to reduce the challenges that we feel on a sub-regional basis that’ll really make it much more viable for businesses outside of Belfast to be able to conduct business and that’s been a key driving force.

Adrian:  We’re more than aware of the ever-expanding number of gateways from North America into Ireland. Many would assume that perhaps Northern Ireland, with all of the American gateways, is still pretty much focused in the Dublin area because you’re only up the road to Belfast – that it’s so easy to get to Belfast from there – that perhaps there is a downside to that and that is that the direct flights coming from America don’t see the actual necessity to go to Belfast when, in fact, you can get two for the price of one by – is that – I’m trying to get – to annoy you here and it’s not working. (both laugh)

Alastair:  Yeah, undoubtedly there’s been, and we’ve seen the numbers, a lot of the growth of Dublin Airport as the result of Northern Ireland because of that road infrastructure you’re talking about – Northern Ireland people traveling to Dublin Airport and accessing those direct flights. In a way, we have had direct flights now come back on to the agenda in Northern Ireland with the recent development of flights into the US. I think we’ll see that journey move a little bit you know as those carriers look and see the volume of Northern Ireland customers that are flying out of Dublin Airport then at a point it will become viable again for them to put direct flights into Northern Ireland and I think we’re seeing that development just now with some of the flights that come on and I think we will continue to see it as we continue to grow. Look, I’m open to all of it, you know. If it makes sense for people to fly out of Dublin then that’s fine. I know there are much more routes. You know, we have benefited from the direct flights into the Middle East as well out of Dublin but equally I think, from a tourism point of view, there are increasing opportunities for people to fly out of our airports in Northern Ireland and I would be supportive of that as well.

Adrian:  When you speak of expanding and again establishing ten new offices throughout the world is your eye on the ball with respect to what Brexit might bring and it would be good to get the jump on that before it shakes out – since nobody knows what?

Alastair:  You’ve sussed me out, Adrian, yeah. Absolutely! It is our job to do what we are doing which is: Be involved and be a voice for business at a government level in terms of making sure messages get through to the people who are discussing and negotiating the outcome and we do that from a very informed position of gathering data around our customer base and providing that in. We will then shortly move on to a stage where, once it becomes clear what settlements may look like, that we will work directly and proactively with companies to build plans, individual plans, for probably the top twelve hundred – fourteen hundred companies in Northern Ireland so that they’ve got a clear plan as to how they can manage the journey during that transition phase. But clearly – yes! Fifty-five percent of our exports go to the EU, forty-five percent are outside of that, including this country, and absolutely – the agenda is to help firms to diversify into market sites out of the European Union (we hope) as part of because everybody’s focused on with the discussions with the twenty-eight countries but there’s a world beyond that if you listen to what the UK government are saying, they want to negotiate their own trade arrangements with countries outside of that so, therefore, you know you can look and see where we are developing our presence around the world. The first five that we’ve done is in Chile, in Singapore, in Qatar, in Canada and Madrid – one in the European Union, in Madrid, but the others are outside. The five that go beyond that will be: Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa, probably Los Angeles, not finalised yet. We’ll also be putting an office in the North of England because selling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is a growing market for us as well. It’s not an export, granted, but it’s the first step for many firms to sell a product outside of their own geography. So yes, we will drive that fairly aggressively to try and support firms on diversification.

Adrian:  Finally, I just want to ask you this: In presentation whether that’s to, well particularly North America, in presentation and the top what? three points that you would like to get across is: We are, in addition to being a highly educated, great workforce available on the ground, but we are the gateway to Europe and that will not change despite whatever might come out of Brexit.

Alastair:  Yeah. I think the other point to put on to of that: We’ve increasingly become an interest for many firms and we’ve sort of concentrated our conversation about post-Brexit and what happens to European destinations but let’s not forget the United Kingdom, the sixth largest economy in the world, the number of firms who are now taking to us with a plan that, in a post-Brexit environment, may need a UK presence. Well, what better place to have a UK presence than in Northern Ireland? With all of the advantages you’ve just talked about but being part of that United Kingdom and access to that market that is the United Kingdom. So there are many opportunities for us, so we need to protect and defend those routes and those trades that people have across Europe but there are many growth opportunities for us as well and we’re absolutely in the market with firms, talking to them about how they can set up a presence in this part of the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland, to service that market as well.

Adrian:  I thank you. Actually, what you bring is great news and long may it last.

Alastair:   Well, thank you very much and I appreciate the opportunity to have a chat with you. (ends)