4th November 2019

Review 2019

Tourism Breakfast


Our global family and friends are our greatest blessing.

It’s a brave person indeed who would approvingly quote the All-Blacks just days after their trouncing of our national rugby team, but nevertheless Terry Robb of sponsor Ulster Bank captured the spirit of the Belfast International Homecoming by looking south to Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Speaking to a room full of young entrepreneurs, Terry referenced the Maori spiritual concept called ‘whakapapa’ – a long unbroken chain of humans standing arm in arm from the beginning of time to the end of eternity.

Added Terry: As James Kerr, author of Legacy, a study of leadership and the All Blacks puts it: “And the sun shines for just a moment on this, our time. It’s our obligation and responsibility to add to the legacy. Our first responsibility is to be a good ancestor.”

We had plenty of good ancestors join us in Belfast for the Homecoming 2019. All playing it forward: Jim Frawley, a business coach from NYC and member of the Irish Business Organisation whose father was a cop in the Bronx when it was in flames in the eighties. His parting words, “tell me what you need done”.

Fidelma Breen from Adelaide, Australia, representing the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce made the longest journey to be with us – she also kept the toughest pace, going straight from the after-party of the closing banquet to catch the 3:30am bus to Dublin Airport and the long haul back.

Giancarlo Di Vece, all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico, CEO of Unosquare who urged us at conference to cut him some slack as he struggled to pronounce the name of Irish medium school Coláiste Feirste which he plans to partner. “Guys, English is already my third language so don’t be too hard on me.”

Seán Somers, CEO of the biggest Irish-owned hospitality Group on the East Coast of the US, pointed to the pull of the global Irish family. “Six months ago, I hadn’t heard of the word diaspora, now it’s at the centre of my life,” he said.

Bank President Jerry Sullivan of Butte, Montana, who told the full house at the City Hall gala that his relationship with Ireland had been rekindled in the eighties when his family took in young people from Belfast under the Project Children programme.

Aisha Alnajjar of Homs, Syria, lamented the destruction of her home city in a moving address as she received her Young Ambassador Award from Homecoming Host Dr David Dobbin of Belfast Harbour: “I still miss my home city where we used to celebrate our holidays with our relatives, neighbours and friends,” she said, adding: “I also miss our house, our home street, the mosques and my grandparents there. But quiet and peaceful Belfast is now my second home.”

James Martin, an inspirational young actor with Down’s Syndrome, who brought the house down with his opening remarks – “It’s okay I’m not going to talk about Brexit”.
The All-Blacks weren’t the only rugby salt in the wounds though. Guest of Honour at the farewell dinner in the Dome of Delight was the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford who opened his address in Welsh – the language spoken in heaven as has, he assured us, been scientifically proven. Fresh back from Japan, he said he wouldn’t mention the fact that the hosts had scored “a victory which will live in the memory for many Rugby World Cups to come.”

His speech focused, not surprisingly, on the Brexit storm clouds gathering over a Wales, which, he posited, faced being more isolated than ever from their Celtic cousins in Scotland and across the Irish Sea.

Shall we allow a small matter like Brexit tear asunder Celtic connections which go back 2,000 years and more? Our ancestors would never forgive us and anyhow, good ancestors, such as those gathered in Belfast for the Homecoming, understand that our global family and friends are our greatest blessing.


On Social Media



Dr David Dobbin

“Taking part in Belfast International Homecoming 2019 has been a good opportunity for Belfast Harbour to share our development plans and have constructive conversations on how we and our local partners can continue to transform our City for the better.

We are a major economic driver for Belfast and the region and developing an iconic Waterfront District for the City is a key priority for us.

The discussions taking place during Homecoming were extremely beneficial, particularly with the diaspora who are passionate about the prosperity of our city.”

Dr David Dobbin, Chair of Belfast Harbour and Host of Belfast International Homecoming 2019


Gareth Graham

“We were delighted to take part in the Homecoming event, this was an opportunity to engage with the international business community, to demonstrate what has been achieved across Belfast in recent years and also to build new relationships and share ideas which will ensure continued growth for our city in the future. Well done to all.”

Gareth Graham, Managing Director of Oakland Holdings


Joe Aquino

“Over the years I have travelled the world over for pleasure and business and find Belfast to be one of the friendliest and easiest places to do business in. It’s no wonder that large corporations and hotel groups are calling Belfast home.”

Joe Aquino, founder of Joseph A. Aquino Commercial RE Services


Rob Walsh

“I made a point to get out in the city center and walk around to see some of the big leaps Belfast has taken since my last visit. More hotels. Enjoyable restaurants. Tourists visiting from around the globe. One of the biggest leaps that I loved seeing was the growth of the Queen’s and Ulster universities in the core of the city. These universities will have a powerful impact beyond its raw numbers of enrolment. The continued growth will strengthen the cultural district, boast the city’s research capabilities, and bring more jobs. Increasingly, we have seen how universities play a key role in providing the foundation of the start-up ecosystem of a city.”

Rob Walsh, Special Advisor to the President for Strategic Partnerships at Manhattan College


Seán O'Dowd

“The Homecoming surpassed my expectations, there was a wonderful sense of collaboration around the theme of bridge building and a very positive engagement and desire to focus attention and resources on and in Belfast. I was struck by the diversity of the participants from many countries and with a wide range of perspectives on Northern Ireland, business and politics. From a networking point of view it was an excellent opportunity to build new relationships with people from Ireland, the UK, USA and Europe.”

Sean Kennedy, CEO, London Irish Centre


Seán O'Dowd

“The Homecoming demonstrated for me a City that is open for business and investment. There is clearly a special bond that exists between the Irish Diaspora in places such as NYC and Belfast.
The event also highlighted for me an array of Ambassadors with various backgrounds who clearly have a special bond with Belfast.
However, the biggest takeaway from the Homecoming was just how committed the City and its residents are to moving forward through economic development and cooperation. In addition, it was heart-warming to see just how supportive the Irish and Irish Diaspora communities are to creating a vibrant and sustainable economic environment for future generations. This level of commitment is impossible to ignore and emboldens people like myself to continue to find ways to strengthen this bond with Belfast and the City’s residents in any way that I can.”

Seán O’Dowd, CFA, Managing Director, Silvercrest Asset Management Group LLC




Gareth Graham, the Managing Director of Oakland Holdings, addressed the Homecoming conference on the Merchant Square project, a 10 storey commercial building which is transforming the centre of Belfast and which has been let entirely to PwC in what will be the firm’s largest premises in the UK outside London.


President and CEO of Unosquare, Giancarlo Di Vece presented to the Homecoming conference on ‘Invested Belfast’, a collaborative project he is heading which underlines his company’s commitment to actively and positively impact the community.



Mark Drakeford

Mark Drakeford

Working hard in the headwinds of Brexit

The First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford AM took the opportunity at the Belfast International Homecoming to appeal for bridge-building across the Irish Sea despite the headwinds of Brexit.
The Welsh premier made the appeal at the Homecoming’s gala banquet in Belfast City Hall.
He also said he was envious of the strong global Irish American networks – which were represented at the three day Homecoming event which showcased the best of Belfast to the Irish diaspora.

Mr Drakeford praised the “well organised diaspora” of Ireland and Scotland for promoting their country’s “practical interests around the globe”, but called for better self-organisation to protect Welsh interests in the context of Brexit.

“There are Welsh people, too, around the world,” he said.

“They are just as passionate about their identity and the home from which they have sprung – but they don’t yet operate in that organised way we see in this room.

“For us, that means we have to work harder – and harder still in the headwinds of Brexit – to sustain our profile and our unique identity on the international stage. Since I became First Minister, in December last year, we have an International Relations Minister in our Cabinet – an idea completely unthinkable at the start of devolution. We have a highly regarded International Strategy, which is being discussed and debated across Wales.”

Mr Drakeford stressed the importance of forging links between people on “different sides of the Irish Sea”, particularly those from “Celtic nations”.

“Amongst us all are links of language, of history, of culture, of economic identity and, in many instances of progressive political outlook,” he said.

“We all share the presence of a powerful neighbour, with a global and dominant language and a well-developed sense of its own significance. In the Brexit context – and beyond it too – we have had the best results, I believe, when we have been able to work together, in an informal Celtic alliance, to provide a more powerful counterweight to hard line leave propositions than we could have mobilised working on our own.

“And in the difficult days ahead, I think the effort to identify common interests, to act with a sense of solidarity in their pursuit, and to create outcomes which work for us all – that effort will be needed as never before.”

The keynote speaker at the Belfast Ambassador Awards at City Hall was First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford AM who spoke of the significance of Celtic alliances in the times in which we live. The following is an edited version of his address.

“To be here from Wales, with our nearest European neighbours is a sign of the importance we attached to all we have achieved together in the past, and want to go on achieving in the future.

There is no point in pretending that Brexit doesn’t cast its long shadow and I am not going to start in the belief that everyone will share what I have to say. In fact it would not be true, in Wales, that everyone would agree. Brexit has created divisions in communities and in families wherever we live. But I do want to set out the Welsh Government’s position, on Brexit generally, and on the deal struck by the Johnson government with the EU.

We have had a long period of trying to persuade the UK Government of a deal which would leave the EU without doing economic damage, There has been a recognition that this was not going to be possible post-Mrs May.

Today, I believe that the decision should go back to the people and that we would campaign to remain.

So where does it all leave us? I want to say something on two fronts: The future of the UK and the future of Wales in the world.

Brexit does not leave the UK untouched. Of course there are parties in different parts of the UK, including Wales, who want to see an end to the UK as currently constituted. Even those parties, in my experience, want the system to work as well as it can in the meantime, because the wellbeing of our different peoples is affected.

The notion of the UK as a voluntary association of four nations, in which continued membership rests on consent, and which exercises only those functions which the component parts have agreed to locate at that level, is important.

As a Labour Government in Wales we believe that pooling our dispersed sovereignty in that way has provided real advantages in the past. It gave us the NHS. It made full employment a collective responsibility. It saw legislation passed to combat discrimination against black people and people with disabilities. It created the minimum wage.

And for us, at least, it still has the potential to pool our risks and redistribute the rewards in ways which works for the many and not just the few.

But for those who take a different long-term view, we believe proposals that we have put forward which entrench devolution, still have merit, in making what we have now work much better for us all.

And we have published our proposals in the hope that they will create a debate.

Part of the reason I am here this evening is in an effort to make that happen.

We have missed, so much, the participation of the Executive here in the many different forums, which bring the governments of the UK together. We look forward hugely to the time when that participation can be resumed.

In the meantime, we hope that progressive political parties here will be willing to consider our document, to develop the proposals it contains and to work with us in bringing about the improvement which is so urgently needed.

Let me turn now to my second theme: that of Wales in the world.

I am very envious of the audience here this evening. Both Scotland and Ireland have a well organised diaspora, well versed in promoting your reputation and your practical interests around the globe. There are Welsh people, too, around the world. They are just as passionate about their identity and the home from which they have sprung – but they don’t yet operate in that organised way we see in this room.

For us, that means we have to work harder – and harder still in the headwinds of Brexit – to sustain our profile and our unique identity on the international stage. Since I became First Minister, in December last year, we have an International Relations Minister in our Cabinet – an idea completely unthinkable at the start of devolution. We have a highly regarded International Strategy, which is being discussed and debated across Wales. We have a sense of our strengths and ambitions and as such, it is even more necessary to go on cementing links between those of us who live on different sides of the Irish Sea.

The British Irish Council spreads it net further than Ireland, Scotland and Wales and amongst us all are links of language, of history, of culture, of economic identity and, in many instances of progressive political outlook.

We all share the presence of a powerful neighbour, with a global and dominant language and a well-developed sense of its own significance. In the Brexit context – and beyond it too – we have had the best results, I believe, when we have been able to work together, in an informal Celtic alliance, to provide a more powerful counterweight to hard-line Brexit leave propositions than we could have mobilised working on our own.

And in the difficult days ahead, I think the effort to identify common interests, to act with a sense of solidarity in their pursuit, and to create outcomes which work for us all – that effort will be needed as never before.

So thank you for the chance to set up my soap box here this evening, to draw some comfort from the spirit of cooperation and celebration which this evening embodies and to bring you the warmest greetings from Wales, not simply because of what we share today, and have shared over so many years, but because of the future that, in our different ways, I believe we can still share together.


Howard Hastings

Howard Hastings

At this year’s Belfast International Homecoming I was asked to speak on the subject, ‘Hotel Investments Reflect Our Belief in Belfast’.

Before addressing that I shared a little history with the wide range of delegates at the Tourism Breakfast at the Titanic Hotel,.

I returned home to Northern Ireland 30 years ago in time to see two of our hotels blown up on consecutive nights. I was a guest at a black tie dinner the night of the last Europa bomb in 1992 – structural engineers, ironically – before we owned it.

There was no real tourism in Northern Ireland. July and August were our quietest months. When pressed, our then Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board said ‘at least we were better than Beirut’.

But since the ceasefires in 1994 we have been on an upward trajectory. Some say peace brings tourism. The World Tourism Organisation argue that tourism brings peace.
It took a while to get going. We had to work out what we wanted to sell. We settled on four rosy apples initially to put in the front of our marketing basket.

There was the Giant’s Causeway, and moreover, the Causeway Coastal Route. An East Coast version of The Wild Atlantic Way, if you like. There was the Walled City of Derry/Londonderry, our second city, and host to the UK Capital of Culture in 2013.
There was St Patrick, the patron saint all others wish they could acquire in the next transfer window. Yes, the saint who speaks to our Christian heritage, across all traditions, but moreover the saint for whom the world stops and goes green one day every year.

And then there was Titanic. It spoke to ‘boomtown Belfast’, the city that was in 1912 the third greatest in the British Empire. The tragic story that took 100 years before it could be told.

We put these products into our strategy. And we declared, without really believing it, that we would double the value of tourism in 10 years. We had to animate our products and shine a spotlight on our ambition. We celebrated 2012 as a year of tourism awakening. “Our Time, Our Place” was the cry.

MTV hosted their awards here, highlighting our musical diversity. The Irish Open came here for the first time in 50 years. We hosted the Giro D’Italia, and the World Police & Fire Games.
Our brand proposition was of a storytelling people with authentic stories to tell. Our new visitors loved it, and they wanted more.
Cynics and sceptics said the Titanic Belfast wouldn’t make its break-even target of 400,000 visitors a year. Well, it has doubled that number…..year after year.
The Irish Open came back, and then this year THE OPEN came too. And the Royal and Ancient were rewarded for extending the host club rota to Royal Portrush by one of the most well organised and commercially successful tournaments in their history.

To our authentic stories we added one more. A fictional one which has taken our tourism economy by storm. Who knew ? Who knew that the Dark Hedges and all the settings used to film HBO’s Game of Thrones would prove such an almighty draw?
It is 70 years since John Wayne starred with Maureen O’Hara in the Quiet Man. It is still a key story in drawing visitors to Co. Mayo today. On that basis I believe the Game of Thrones has some way to go yet.

So you ask, What about those targets? Well we have smashed them With two years to spare – and Northern Ireland tourism is now a £1 billion per annum industry.

And its new ambition? To go again. To redouble in another ten years. This confidence is shared by the private sector. In the last two years not only did the fabulous Titanic Hotel open, but so too did properties of scale by AC Marriott, by Dalata plc, by Hampton by Hilton, and at our own Grand Central Hotel, amongst others.

In the old days, 30 years ago, there were capital grants from government to develop and extend hotels, in order to prevent market failure. “To keep the lights on” so to speak.
By contrast, these new hotels, representing as they do an investment of in excess of £250 million, were made entirely from private funds – not a penny from the public purse.

What few people understand is that Belfast has a special position within the Irish tourism landscape. Whilst in UK terms it is the same size as Bristol or Newcastle, Liverpool or Leeds, in tourism terms, it is to the island of Ireland what Edinburgh is to Great Britain.
If you are on a short stay and are only visiting a few places, after London you will go to Edinburgh. Here in Ireland after Dublin, you will come to Belfast. That is why we are seeing more Chinese visitors for example, than any of the Great British cities I mentioned, almost 200,000 this year from a standing start, more visitors than from Australia, or Canada, or France or Germany.

Whilst tourism has doubled, our wider economic metrics have also been positive. We now have more people in employment in Northern Ireland than ever before, and are one of the better performing regions within the UK.

Our tourism jobs are here for keeps. Titanic Belfast has trebled its workforce since it opened. The new hotels have given rise to new restaurants, more tour guides, and taxi drivers.
The story I love is of when I went to visit my egg supplier. Philip Clements. In Carrowdore. How many people have ever been to Carrowdore? Philip told me that when he got my egg order, it persuaded him to build a second hen house.
When is the last time Invest NI created jobs in Carrowdore? But tourism can.

Tourism is the purest form of export earnings. In no other sector do the visitors’ dollars, Euros and yen get so completely and comprehensively recycled into the local economy.
This is blindingly obvious – I hope. However, whilst tourism has doubled, the industrial sector has only increased by 15 per cent in terms of employment. Investments by Invest Northern Ireland in some of our largest manufacturers have too often been, in biblical terms, like the seed sown on stony ground.

Governments South and North, after the Good Friday Agreement, established Tourism Ireland, by any measure the most successful of the cross-border bodies. Collaboration between our tourism agencies has never been better. I pay tribute to Niall Gibbons from Tourism Ireland, and to John McGrillen from Tourism Northern Ireland, both of whom attended the Tourism Breakfast with other industry and government leaders.
Evidence of this collaboration was there also, as they, along with Failte Ireland colleagues have spearheaded our Taste The Island food marketing initiative, amazingly the first ever concerted North South domestic campaign. It has two further years to grow and develop into the international marketplace.

If we are to deliver redoubled growth, everyone has to play. Central government, local government, and private sector alike. It is time for the Department of the Economy to look at its return on investment from the industrial sector, and compare it with the returns achieved in recent times by the tourism and hospitality sector. And to ensure best value for the taxpayers’ money they administer, by investing where it can achieve the greatest return.

A prominent civil servant from the Republic once suggested to me that coming out of the troubles we were, in Northern Ireland, good at selling, but not that good at marketing. I disagree in part. We have some superb marketeers, but we have failed to make the case to central government that sustained investment in marketing is the missing and essential piece of the jigsaw.

When Tourism Ireland was formed, Northern Ireland contributed one third of the funding. Year on year the Northern Ireland government has systematically welshed on its commitments, and now, at the very time when we are poised to redouble our earnings, our government’s share of investment in Tourism Ireland has dwindled now to well below 20 .per cent. It’s a crying shame, it’s a disgrace, and it is time to do better.

So too, with Belfast City Council. In twenty years the Belfast Tourism economy has grown by 190 per cent. It drives 44 per cent of Northern Ireland’s visitors’ expenditure, and supports 30 per cent of its tourism jobs. How much of the additional £1.2 million business rates bill borne by these new hoteliers is being reinvested in marketing the city by Visit Belfast? Not a red cent. Indeed, so short-sighted are the City Hall officials that they are contemplating adding to my annual £1million rates bill by adding a third world style bedroom tax.

So it is time to look forward. Yes, existing and proposed hotel investments reflect our confidence in the future and our belief in Belfast. Our ambition is encapsulated in the new vibrant, colourful, and captivating marketing proposition soon to be launched by Tourism Northern Ireland.

It is time for local and central government to match the ambition of those who are creating and sustaining tourism jobs, and those who are standing by to tell the world about what we have here.
It is time to commit new capital from the City Deal to bring forward new visitor attractions, and to re-engineer the existing ones to accommodate the greater footfall they now enjoy.


Aisha Alnajjar

Aisha Alnajjar

Aesha Alnajjar, a teenage refugee from Syria, who was one of our inaugural Belfast Young Ambassadors, spoke movingly at the opening event at Ulster University about her and her family’s experiences in fleeing war and resettling in Belfast.

I was so pleased and honoured to have been chosen as one of Belfast’s Young ambassadors of 2019 and privileged to receive the medal.

I’m from Homs city, the governorate’s capital, in central western Syria. Before the Syrian Civil War, Homs was a major industrial city. There are a number of historic mosques and churches in the city. We were living a normal life, my siblings and I were, as young children, going to schools and my father was working to provide the opportunities for us to learn and grow. Unfortunately, war turned Syria’s central city of Homs into a ghost town. The number of deaths and injuries has increased horribly. There are still a lot of imprisoned and tortured people in the jails of the regime. A lot of the local citizens have fled their home country to save their lives. We were one of them as we felt horrified and unsafe to stay. It’s difficult and painful to leave your own home and seek refuge in different countries with differences in everything. During the war, much of the city was devastated due to the Siege of Homs; reconstruction began in 2018 but still it takes time to rebuild the whole city. I still miss my home city where we used to celebrate our holidays with our relatives, neighbours and friends. I also miss our house, our home street, the mosques and my grandparents there.

Refugee Camps
Nine years of bombs and bullets have left thousands of families homeless and traumatized. Many of the kids in the Syrian refugee camps are quite pressured and traumatized by that time, suffering dire conditions from the sounds that they have heard, the bombings, and years of living under siege. Many of the families have lost their kids and many of the kids have lost their parents. Refugee camps have evolved for vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to host those fleeing the violence and persecution in the ongoing Syrian civil war that erupted in March 2011.
My family and I were forced to escape our war-ravaged homeland in 2012 and we made it to Beirut in Lebanon where my dear father, who had been seriously injured as result of the war, passed away. We miss him so much. With the help of the UN we immigrated with other Syrian refugees to Northern Ireland in December 2015 under the Relocation of Vulnerable People Scheme. It was difficult to leave our home, we felt like we were away from the whole world we knew.

However, Belfast is an amazing city with its fantastic people and a great diversity of cultures, nationalities and religions. When we saw people here welcoming us and smiling and that helped to make us feel safe and comfortable. Belfast is a peaceful and quiet city. While we are happy here, we would still like to go back to Syria if we could, as it is our home. We also miss my elder sister who is married with a family and still living in Lebanon. My family and I have settled well into life here in Northern Ireland. My elder brother is studying English as a second language at Belfast Metropolitan College and my younger brother is studying A-Levels at St Malachys College. I am starting a new life at Queen’s University Belfast studying for a degree in Biochemistry. I know it’s tough but it’s a quite interesting course. I would like to thank my mum for her caring and supporting to us, she is our great home. I consider Belfast is my second home here.
Thank you. Go raibh maith agat.


Susan Aitken

Susan Aitken

The Leader of Glasgow City Council, Cllr Susan Aitken of the Scottish National Party (SNP) delivered the keynote address at the business and investment conference on Friday 18 October
Read More..


Rob Walsh

Rob Walsh

Rob Walsh is a Special Advisor to the President for Strategic Partnerships at Manhattan College and a long-time champion of Belfast who was one of this year’s Belfast Ambassadors
Read More..


Fidelma McCorry-Breen

Fidelma McCorry-Breen

South Australian VP, Fidelma McCorry-Breen, represented the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce at the Belfast Homecoming
Read More..


Joe Aquino

Joe Aquino

Joe Aquino is founder of Joseph A. Aquino Commercial RE Services and another of 2019’s Belfast Ambassadors
Read More..


Jim Frawley

Jim Frawley

Jim Frawley is the founder of Frawley Coaching & Consulting and the host of Bellwether Hub, a peer-learning and coaching podcast.
Read More..


Breakout Sessions






Opportunities of Partnering the Diaspora were discussed at a Round Table session headed by Belfast Ambassador, John Lee, a communications expert and A long-time member of the Irish Business Organization of New York. Panelists included: Fidelma Breen (FB), Michael Barry (MB), James Davitt Rooney (JR), Siofra Healy (SH), Edward Montgomery (EM), Victoria Denoon (VD) and Sean Somers (SS).

JL: Has seen the diaspora in action, diverse but strong connection to Ireland

FB: Background is in migration research, focus on current Irish immigration (2000’s). Irish students coming over on a backpackers visa but highly skilled/educated. Vice President of South Australia Irish Chamber of Commerce, connected diaspora but missing resources and support from Dublin.

MB: Heads the Toronto Irish Film Festival, happy to be in Belfast representing Canada and film/the creative arts. From North Belfast, worked in broadcasting in Canada, likes having the opportunity to showcase non-political films from Northern Ireland.

JR: Boston Foundation, involved with Sister City agreement between Boston and Belfast, family roots are in Belfast. Importance of a public affairs angle on the Sister City agreement, a good way to deploy the diaspora is in public relations. “Be champions of the upside” when all mainstream media is focusing on Brexit and the Troubles

SH: Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, diaspora is very important. Connect investors with communities, support the strong and innovative community sector in Northern Ireland

EM: Cybersecurity background, as a kid went on a programme to the United States and saw the generosity of the diaspora first-hand

VD: US experience (Irish Network Boston), homecoming being back in Belfast. Center for Irish Partnerships, engaging with schools on study abroad. Sees opportunity in Belfast, knows more about Belfast from having lived in the United States, openness of diaspora to see Belfast as a vibrant destination city. Emphasis on importance of Sister City agreement. Ice hockey as a sport with no ties in Belfast, brings groups together

SS: Hospitality in Northern Ireland similar transition as what happened in the Seaport in Boston, people here can’t see it because they’re living through it so outside help is important. Special moment of seeing one-year-old son walk through the doors of the US Consulate in Belfast.

JL: Question on cybersecurity, tech sector in Belfast

EM: Success in tech in Belfast goes back to the GFA, fintech/cyber moved in. Salaries and housing have been driven up. Diaspora connections, bringing a trade mission around the US this year.

JR: Business to flourish in Belfast, potential unintended consequence of Brexit deal as NI could remain in the EU (tariffs, etc.), best of EU and UK. Could draw relocation from companies.

JL: Creative industries, what role do poets, musicians, etc. have in Irish business?

MB: “Currency in culture, value in story”. Accomplished business people have creative interests. Celebrate food, music, dance along with business success. Ireland as a nation of storytellers, fought hard for where it is today. Screened movie “Zoo” and didn’t know his own street was in it, tells a different story, moves people.

JL: Irish American diaspora from Republic, but Scots-Irish connections with earlier migration, came early and identified as Irish, Ulster-Scot identity post-famine to differentiate from new wave of immigrants. How to tap into that group?

FB: Early immigrants only just been identified, more research and education will help. Language of diaspora, policy programme in Irish government that people don’t know they’re part of

JL: Toronto mayor has Ulster-Scot roots

MB: Toronto once known as Belfast of the North, Catholic/Protestant street fights there

SH: 40 years of the Foundation, rooted in Troubles. Connected to those on the edge of society: mental health, LGBT, Travellers, refugees/asylum seekers. Not just orange and green.

Audience: NI connections complementary to other Irish networks, economic prosperity agenda

JL: Ask Jerry Sullivan to talk about Butte, Montana

Jerry: mining community established in Butte by Irish immigrant, copper mining took off with industrial revolution. Advertised in Irish for workers to move there, chain migration. Reestablished Irish language effort.

Audience: Research partnerships with universities, how to position Northern Ireland (lost between UK and Ireland)

VD: Not problem of lack of affinity by US schools, so much noise in study abroad conversation. Have particular target/programme, offer something new to schools to create a partnership. Ex. Put together a BA/MA 5 year dual degree between a US and NI school.

SH: People don’t see difference between north and south

Audience: question for Fiona, how has the diaspora connected in Australia, how do they assure they embrace multigeneration immigration

FB: GAA connects the diaspora. Intergenerational efforts through surrogate grandparent programme, build up family support for new immigrants by connecting them to an older generation of Irish in Australia. Still missing groups, generational disconnect. Take advantage of St. Patrick’s Day, people go looking for connection when they miss their culture

VD: Generational gap in Boston too. Anne Anderson (former ambassador to the US from Ireland) quote about how she loves being the oldest at an event because it shows engagement from a younger crowd. People can come home more easily, more likely to connect professionally rather than culturally when in a new place.

FB: Families bring young kids home, becomes harder as family grows

MB: Don’t pin success on only diaspora. Irish diaspora is low hanging fruit for the Irish Film Festival, working to engage others. Help people to decide to visit Ireland, draw in those who just want to see quality film. New immigrants more focused on getting a job and establishing a social life.

JL: Irish become more Irish when they move away

Audience: Appetite for local content, i.e. local newspapers

FB: Derry Girls as a key example

JL: Other groups of theatre goers driving film festivals

Audience: poetry/songs connect with diaspora, peace songs. Medium for getting message out, common bond.

FB: Northern Irish identity problem through song/poetry. Common agenda when away from home.

JR: NY Times link country music to Scots-Irish

Audience: 2nd sister city is Nashville, TN

JL: Graceland as a shrine for the Irish

Audience: Immigration from south or northwest of Ireland, Belfast diaspora bigger than is obvious






At a Round Table session on ‘Building a Sustainable Tech Sector’, Belfast Harbour board member Ed Vernon led a panel of participants which included: Giancarlo de Vece of Uno Square; Jayne Brady of Kernal; Colin Mounstephen of Deloitte; Seamus Cushley from PWC; Willie Hamilton of Liberty; Louise Kerr from Arity/Allstate; Mark McCormack of AFLAC and Elaine Curran from Invest NI.

Observers: AFLAC, ENSO, UU

In your view, what’s the ONE thing we need to do (or do much better) to ensure a sustainable and internationally competitive tech sector?

Digital Skills Action Plan:

  • Embed a grass roots skills programme in school system

Agility: More adaptive and responsive skills delivery from Queen’s, UU and Belfast Met – it has improved in recent years but needs to be better / continuously improve

  • Competition for best Talent and specifically more women – TECH vs Medicine and Law
  • Lift the ‘nonsensical’ university CAP
  • NI is tiny – can only win in a few areas – needs to pick winning areas: All about interdisciplinary tech – Bet on being a world leader here – setup an AI campus – Interdisciplinary – broad skill base as preferred starting point for recruits
  • ‘18 + Passion’: don’t need all entrants to be graduates – Assured Skills for school leavers could produce advanced capabilities over time
  • Just as schools teach sports – introduce a ‘Sport of Computing’
  • Make Software Development a mandatory subject at schools


  • Develop a long term Attract Back Programme – promote Attractiveness of NI: housing, schools, quality of life for individuals and families
  • Make NI more appealing from attraction and retention perspectives. Lack of political Executive, image of a non-progressive society, lack of Diversity/LGBT rights is negatively impacting perception of NI as an attractive place to live, work, play

Industry Vision

  • Deep and Focused – Not Wide and Shallow
  • Focus on Interdisciplinary tech – Bet on being a world leader – setup an AI campus
  • Talent and people availability will limit ability to double industry size so ambition should be to have more modest headcount growth but double the impact via higher value activities

What can the industry do to better help itself?

  • Really get behind the CBI’s Digital Skills Action Plan

The lack of a tech sector industry body leads to fragmented lobbying so form a Permanent industry sub-Group within the CBI

  • Assist with Widening Participation – create a ‘RAP Programme’ for WP

Boot camp format – if you leave you pay

  • Create a ‘RAP 2.0’ programme – there are a lot of conversion programmes today, but RAP was:
  • a gateway for many of the tech sector’s current leaders o had an industry placement component – this needs to be back on the table

  • Bigger companies in particular to have a central role:
  • promoting TECH careers in schools and to parents ahead of ‘Medicine and Law’ o promote Data Science / conversion courses to Musician and Artist types o to engage ‘with SME’s and assist with scaling, market and commercial opportunity and Proof of Concept development (as per Dainton Scheme of the past) o to help leverage the start-up community through partnering mechanisms
    What’s the one area where NI is (or could be) world class

  • Big Data – Interdisciplinary: AI, Blockchain, Cyber, FinTech, MedTech







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