'Salesman' for Northern Ireland Brings Belief, Zest to His Economic Envoy Post

Declan Kelly describes himself as "a salesman for Northern Ireland" and like any good salesman, he comes to the job armed with facts and figures - and brimming with energy, determination, and ideas.

Kelly also has the great advantage of selling a product he truly believes in - and his enthusiasm may surprise those who still think of Northern Ireland as an economic basket case, a place ravaged by three decades of conflict and strife. "This is a place with real momentum," Kelly said, speaking in Boston at a recent business lunch. "This is going to be a place that will show the world how to do it differently."

In a subsequent interview with the Boston Irish Reporter, Kelly, the U.S. government's new economic envoy to Northern Ireland, said there are many reasons to be impressed by Northern Ireland's current economic performance and to be optimistic about its future.

"Northern Ireland is much further ahead in reality than people perhaps first appreciate," noted Kelly, who said the six-county region's economic assets include: "a very young, dedicated workforce with about 2,000 business graduates a year coming out of two of the finest universities in Europe, a very significant and modern telecommunications infrastructure, an airport with multiple access points to Europe and a daily flight to the United States, and a very low churn rate when it comes to employment."

Evidence of Northern Ireland's new economic strength can be found in its ability to weather the global economic storm more readily than other economies. According to Northern Ireland government statistics, the North's unemployment rate late in 2009 was 6.6 percent, up from the 4.4 percent mark it occupied on the eve of the global meltdown, but about half of the Republic of Ireland's 13 percent unemployment rate and considerably lower than the European Union overall rate of 9.2 percent.

Northern Ireland lost jobs in 2009 but the employment situation was turning around as the year came to an end, something that Kelly attributes to the region's strong educational and technological foundation and to sound governmental policies. And to an intangible factor: a visceral desire to beat the swords of the past into the ploughshares of the future. "There's a real can-do attitude up there because they really want to succeed."

Bringing jobs to Northern Ireland is a key part of Kelly's portfolio as economic envoy to Northern Ireland. But he's also interested in developing trade opportunities for U.S. companies and in encouraging companies from Northern Ireland to invest here. "It's a two-way street," he notes.

Kelly, 41, an Irish-born journalist turned business CEO, was appointed to his new post last September by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the Obama administration continued to chart its course in the North. Clinton, whose presidential campaign he advised and supported, buttressed the appointment by visiting Belfast shortly after he was was named.

Getting the chance to serve as U.S. economic envoy to Northern Ireland was "a once in a lifetime opportunity that I knew I had to take," said Kelly, who is now fully involved in his salesman role. He notes that foreign companies - most of them American - brought about 800 jobs to Northern Ireland during the final four months of 2009, 400 jobs attributable to the New York Stock Exchange's decision to open a technology service center in Belfast and 60 new jobs being created by NaviNet, a Cambridge-based healthcare communications company.

Both of those deals involved subsidies from Invest Northern Ireland, a government agency responsible for creating jobs in the North. Kelly describes Invest Northern Ireland as another of the North's key economic-development assets. The agency's Boston office sponsored the downtown lunch where Kelly spoke.

Clearly, American companies considering Northern Ireland are aware of the Troubles and of the North's long night of bloodshed and violence. "In my discussions with any of the American companies that I'm hoping to interest in Northern Ireland, it is not the first, second or third question that comes up," Kelly said. "Eventually, people do want to talk about it [the Troubles], but when you present the statistics and when you bring people there, they understand the reality that the region has moved on and it's not a factor."

Kelly says he has a two-track approach as economic envoy. The first he describes as a "momentum track," and that is under way as he speaks to business groups, works the phones, and brings potential investors to Northern Ireland. He also has a longer-term track that will involve "literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of conversations with many, many leading companies all over America. We need to make sure that Northern Ireland is up there in people's considerations every time they think about where they are going to place offshore jobs."

Kelly adds: "The [American] government is very committed to seeing this through, and I'm hoping that we can make a difference. This place will not fail."