Northern Ireland showing signs of growth, expansion and quietly escaping its historic restrictions

An old English friend rang me the other day and asked me about a potential placement his son was considering from a software company in Belfast (neither have any real connection I know of with either part of Ireland).

He was puzzled by the fact the opportunity was in Belfast, and wanted to know a bit about life over there and a bit about the context in which a large US software company would be settling in a place like Northern Ireland.

When I did a little digging, I found there were 104 firms offering cyber security products and services in NI, employing 2,299 full-time equivalent cyber security professionals.

As of April this year median in that industry was £48,400 per annum. For NI as a whole in 2020, median annual earnings for full-time employees was £28,000 (below the UK median of £31,000). Figures courtesy of CSIT at Queens.

I think sometimes we get so caught up with what’s gone wrong with our society the past that we miss the fact that not everything that’s changing in Northern Ireland is as unremittingly problematic as we sometimes like to think.

A perfectly well-intended piece from economist John FitzGerald in The Irish Times today paints a more traditional picture of the hopeless state of Northern Irish economy over the last 20 years. John writes:

The pattern of emigration from the North in recent decades has meant a disproportionate number of those with a good education have left, with few coming back. Over the past decade, about 30 per cent of Northern students have gone to Britain for their third-level studies, particularly those from a Protestant background, and only a third of these return to the North after graduation. In recent years, this outflow of educated young people to Britain has accelerated, while the proportion of returned emigrants per head is half that of the Republic.

I think there’s two problems with this analysis. One is that many of NI’s young people leave NI at 18 for the same reason their counterparts in Kerry and Donegal do, ie the opportunity to take up better opportunities than they’d get at home.

Indeed, a third returning (some from courses, set up to teach the Northern Irish law) is not that bad a rate. Others having gone to Edinburgh, Oxford or Imperial simply find themselves taking up greater opportunities than they’d get at home.

But the idea that more Protestants leave for GB is not the case, at least for those who leave. Indeed, the Department for the Economy’s yearly survey, shows in fact that slightly more Catholics go to study in GB:

The other factor is that Northern Ireland has one of the highest higher education participation rates in the UK, the cap on students’ attendance has remained at between 24,000-25,000 places a year for nearly a decade.

That has cut the number of places available Higher Education Institutes for local students. Increased competition has pushed up the qualifications needed to study locally. And it cuts across both communities.

A report from Pivotal Public Policy Forum expresses concern that this drain in itself is a matter for concern arguing as a result NI has fewer graduates per head of population than other parts of the UK. NI’s productivity rate is next to Wales.

On the other hand, the Belfast area is home to 84% of all NI cyber firms, highlighting its  status as a UK cyber hub with emerging tech specialisms, ranked 2nd in the UK, and 9th globally within the Top 25 Tech Cities of the Future 2020/21.

CSIT have noted that there is a…

…growing graduate market from Queen’s University and University of Ulster (specific courses include a PhD in Cyber Security, MSc in Applied Cyber Security, Higher Level Apprenticeship in Cyber Security and Networking Infrastructure, Postgraduate Certificate in Cyber Security)

And that also available is…

Alternative entry and training through Belfast Metropolitan’s cyber academy, which offers a bespoke programme and skills training to support a growing business, developed in conjunction with the Department for the Economy Assured Skills programme and Invest NI, as well as industry.

One industry doesn’t make an economic summer. But it does shows that much of this is being driven by US who employing 62% of this specific workforce. There is an appetite for rebuilding the region’s economy. As CSIT note:

  • By 2030, we estimate that the sector could generate c. £437m in GVA (if it reaches the 5,000 jobs target) i.e. 2.7x current levels.
  • This results in £2.9bn in cumulative GVA generated by the cyber sector in Northern Ireland over the next decade.

And as we’ve seen in the south during the tiger years, where there are opportunities, people will come home even after twenty or thirty years away. Indeed, those who return can bring considerable clout and influence along with them.

That requires a slow building of confidence, coming out into a fuller participation in the wider world, not continuing to hide from it. Growing up and out and leaving all bloody yesterdays behind. Time, perhaps, to put away the poor mouth?

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