Jim Duffy: Vibrant Belfast has come of age and is place to be

ON A recent trip across the water Jim Duffy found the Northern Irish capital alive with business and entrepreneurship

The Stormont government is helping to make Belfast a spacious, welcoming clean and modern city. Picture: T E Pierce

Having been brought up in Kilbirnie and schooled in Kilwinning, both in Ayrshire, I am no stranger to sectarianism. I recall the raging animosity between St Michael’s Academy, as it was then, and Kilwinning Academy. It was fierce and resulted in many fights and smashed school bus windows. The affinity with what was going on in Northern Ireland spilled over into my everyday life at secondary school. We were bifurcated into Catholic or Protestant, Celtic supporter or Rangers supporter.

For a young boy growing up in this caustic environment, it was, at times, a little claustrophobic. I recall the news reports on bombs going off in Northern Ireland, regularly. It was on the TV bulletins and in the newspapers almost every day. I could probably sit an “O” grade (showing my age) on the news history of Northern Ireland and get a decent B grade. But, in all honesty, I could not really imagine what it was like to live there during The Troubles. But how far has the city of Belfast come on?

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As we approach the centenary year of the 1916 Easter Uprising there are tensions around. I’ve spent some time there recently. The day after I left, I read about a prison officer’s car being targeted by a car bomb. I heard on the radio that a senior police commander stated the threat level was critical and an attack was imminent. The space we have opened in the city centre, to enable a new crop of entrepreneurs from the city, does indeed have a bomb evacuation plan. So, I am not going to tell you that all is well and that recent history has been whitewashed from memories, but it is fading fast as the huge and vocal majority of 21st century people in Belfast never want to go backwards.

They are experiencing and building a different Belfast – one that wants to be a global city for business and prosperity. I saw this new, emergent, globally aware and demonstrably different side to the city of Belfast. And I loved it…

Nothing captures Belfast like its people. They have so much energy, spark and optimism. They have a life force running through their veins that could be bottled and sold. As I walked through Donegal Square to get to work, I made eye contact with people. I counted three of them looking at me as they walked passed me and they smiled - you don’t see that in London.

The city centre has tremendous facilities and has been well designed. It’s spacious, welcoming, clean and modern. Businesses are thriving and there is a growing ambitious tech community shaping up. The City Council and Stormont are acutely aware of how they want to build Belfast and how they want it to be perceived. The message is working loud and clear. They are to be applauded for it.

I arrived at the new city centre Entrepreneurial Spark Hatchery. It’s an old Ulster Bank building that has been transformed into a Google-esqe workspace for budding entrepreneurs. It was launch day and there were 400 entrepreneurs, guests and dignitaries in the room. The atmosphere bowled me over. It felt like the climax at an Adele concert – who incidentally had kicked off her world tour in the city the night before.

The finance minister Mervyn Storey MLA was in attendance and I was really keen to meet him. As we posed for a photo on the balcony overlooking the huge Harland and Wolff cranes – Samson and Goliath – Mervyn gushed at the vibrancy of the city. He pointed out all the new buildings and talked of prosperity, upbeat and every inch the statesman. When he later addressed the crowd, not a word of politics was uttered. He was just amazing to listen to as he talked so passionately about continuing to build Belfast and Northern Ireland around business and entrepreneurship.

As I sat and recalled the horrible headlines I grew up with, I looked around the room at the hope and determination and steeliness in the faces of all those in the audience. They were aware of history and I’m sure each had their own stories and memories. But, they’ve moved on to a new level. They see themselves as global citizens – their mindsets have calibrated to a new way of thinking. The launch culminated in a pitching competition where five entrepreneurs pitch for 60 seconds. I had seen these in Manchester and Edinburgh recently, both times awesome. But, I was a little nervous. How would the Belfast start-up entrepreneurs fair in this regard? It’s a tough gig standing up in front of a huge crowd, TV cameras, journalists, Stormont politicians and your peers.

I exited the stage and announced the first pitcher – ‘E-Press’. A young lady – Becca Hume – stood up and climbed on to the podium ready to do business. Becca then delivered a perfect 60-second pitch. It was breathtaking to watch and experience. I felt a lump in my throat as the crowd enthusiastically erupted into applause and whistles when she finished. The other four start-up entrepreneurs did exactly the same. From innovation in reversing camera technology, to fresh and healthy Irish fruit juice to apps that connect the hard of hearing to the blue light services: world class ideas that could compete anywhere. I wish them every success in their journey.

My taxi driver to Gatwick airport on my way to Belfast told me it’s a city he would always love to visit. Intriguing he thought. Well he should…. he will love it. Just as I have fallen in love with it.

The Belfast Child has come of age…

• Jim Duffy is chief executive optimist of Entrepreneurial Spark, the world’s largest free business accelerator for start-up and scaleup businesses