Regaining the lost Ulster art of entreprenuerism…

Eric Waugh was in rural Provence last week, when a lorry with a once Irish name on its side went past. Of course the name is still Irish, but the brand has gone international. And, he argues it is that international mix that once built and delivering engineering that served the world’s navies, and processed the world’s teas. It also what is promised by the very public and warm rapprochement between Messers Paisley and McGuinness. But having declared war over, the next, possibly more, difficult step (since it implies releasing ourselves from some difficult long term conditioning) lies in winning the peace.

A vanishing generation in Northern Ireland was reared in school on the worldwide supremacy of Ulster industry – in ropes, linen, ships, engineering and tobacco. When the warships of the German Grand Fleet were scuttled by their crews in Scapa Flow after the armistice which ended the First World War, almost every vessel salvaged was found to have been fitted with the great ventilating fans manufactured by Davidson’s Sirocco Works in Belfast. But Sirocco, which once produced three-quarters of the world’s tea processing machinery, is no more.

The fact is that, while an older generation preened, a sinister detail was ignored. Little of the great industries clustered round the Lagan basin were home-grown: virtually all were created by outsiders. Samuel Davidson was born in Belfast and Tom Gallaher in Co Derry, but Harland came from Yorkshire, Wolff from Hamburg; the first linen men were Huguenots, refugees from persecution in France, and James Mackie, and Combe (who opened the Falls Foundry), like Dunlop, all came from Glasgow.

Northern Ireland still has its entrepreneurs, but they have had to start from scratch in a new game. The fact that the Republic’s government is putting up £400m to improve roads inside Northern Ireland, even allowing that there is a strong vein of self-interest involved, says everything about the new pecking order. So, if we are in a new ball game, it is very much in the common interest that we should play it wholeheartedly together.

That is why Ian Paisley’s new complexion of beneficence is the right one. That is why the warmer tone of Martin McGuinness will yield dividends. As we recoil from the resurgence of ETA in Spain, no one wishes to turn the clock back.

Meantime, we share our most grievous problems. In Dublin the perils of the Republic’s new affluence are clear to see. One road death in three involves a youngster under 25 – the highest proportion in the EU. There are 8,200 heroin addicts on methadone, supposed to be ‘withdrawing’, but many on the synthetic drug for years. Incidence of cancer is the third highest among 38 European countries. Poverty among the underclass is fed by expensive must-have services – electricity, gas, phones, housing, transport – where prices have increased by 27% in the last five years; and inflation is still the fourth highest in the 30-nation OECD group. As in the UK, health and hospitals remain a big problem area.

Accordingly, if, as the First Minister avers, “the war is over”, the next challenge is to generate the goodwill of peace. That is why the Armagh meeting showed promise. Neither side in what must be a new partnership has any grounds to crow: there should be none – and, pointedly, there was none. Gadzooks! The Dublin ministers forswore their Mercs and came in a bus! What more can one ask?

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  • Pete Baker

    According to Martin McGuinness the amnesiacs’ deal will provide the inspiration..

    The political developments will create a spirit of entrepreneurship among our own people,” he said.

    And for the amnesiacs.. a reminder of some of the reasons why there’s a need for an economic recovery.

  • Sean

    Yeah Pete the IRA is responsible for everything bad that has ever happened in northern Ireland

    They shut down Harland and Wolf, they killed the textile business, they didn’t have a sweet tooth so they killed sugar processing, they caused global warming, even recently they caused flooding in Belfast I bet the bastards will have Christmas canceled as well

    If the big house prods were responsible for the IRTA and the IRA is responsible for the collapse of industry in northern Ireland then ipso facto big house prods are responsible for the collapse of industry in northern Ireland. Sure its a stupid half baked suposition but no worse than yours

  • Chris Donnelly

    You forgot to mention they also turned on the lights to help the Germans bomb their homes


    Is there any truth to the rumour the IRA’s Border Campaign guns were also used to kill the Brothers Kennedy?????

  • Cruimh

    “Yeah Pete the IRA is responsible for everything bad that has ever happened in northern Ireland

    They shut down Harland and Wolf, they killed the textile business, they didn’t have a sweet tooth so they killed sugar processing,”

    Sugar beet production and processing was in the 26 counties, not NI …..

  • Turgon

    Slightly off thread I know but the time Mick harks back to with Belfast building ship etc and having heavy industry is scarely believeable today. Of course the workers in those industries had very significant problems (asbestos exposure as only one example).

    Now so much manufacturing is based in low wage economies where again workers seem exploited. Can anyone explain how France and Germany (I know they have very significant problems) have managed to preserve a significant manufacturing base with a highly skilled working class population producing high value goods that seem to sell very well; German cars being the classic example. Or is that bound to disintigrate in the near future?

  • willowfield

    Do Sean and Chris Donnelly think that the Troubles had a neutral impact on the NI economy?

  • Cruimh

    Chris will doubtless like to gloss over the IRA campaign against business in NI, especialy where they deliberately prevented jobs going to nationalist areas – killed a few businessmen in the process.

  • willowfield

    He’ll probably argue that businesses welcomed the bombs.

  • Cruimh

    More likely crocodile tears over murders like Thomas Niedermayer and Jeffrey Agate.

  • Garibaldy


    They never had the government deliberately wreck the industrial base of the country for a combination of political reasons – to wreck the labour movement – and to please finance capital – the growth of the City and south east was at the cost of the manufacturing north.

  • Mick Fealty

    After a short bout of whataboutery, anyone like to discuss Waugh’s article?

  • willowfield

    Eric Waugh was in rural Provence last week, when a lorry with a once Irish name on its side went past. Of course the name is still Irish, but the brand has gone international

    Is the brand name a secret?

    As for his point about heroin use in Dublin being a result of affluence – nonsense, surely? Heroin use began in the 1980s when Dublin was a basket case. Similarly in inner cities in the UK at the same time – a symptom of economic decline.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Cruimh and Wallow

    Sorry to disrupt your love-in. I realise it’s hard for you two come to terms with the fact that the ‘protestant work ethic’ more accurately depicts southern catholics than northern prods these days, but pining for bygone eras ain’t gonna bring back the ‘glory’ days of Ulster’s now dead great industries.

    Of course the conflict affected the economy here, not just in the past 30 years but from partition, when many catholics were chased out of their jobs in the ‘great’ industries here.

  • Chris Donnelly

    On the article, I find little to disagree with. Indeed, it’s Waugh at his best in terms of providing useful gems of information and twisting those out into an article.

    I think Waugh is also correct to highlight the negative side-effects of a successful economy as we would do well to take on board the lessons from the south as we go forward in the north.

  • willowfield

    I think I detect – tucked inside the irrelevant and untrue suggestion that we are “pining for bygone eras” – an admission in there that the Provo terror campaign was destructive of the economy.

  • Garibaldy

    Waugh’s description of the old Northern Irish economy is somewhat rosy but his description of some of the faults of the Republic are spot on. He might also have added the crass individualism and greed, as well as the drugs problem among the bourgeoisie, who hyocritically harp about the violence of those their dinner-party cocaine comes from.

    There was a story earlier on the BBC website with comments from Martin McGuinness saying that the new political dispensation will solve the lack of dynamism in the economy by enabling entrepenurialism will emerge. Nonsense. Soundbites, shallow discussions of the need for entreprenurialism etc ignore the basic fact.

    The structural problem with the NI economy is not the size of the state sector, rather it is the way that the state intervenes in the economy, through the absence of job creation and the creation of a sustainable base. Why pay fortunes to subsidise foreign companies for short term jobs when the same amount of money could have created lasting state-owned concerns.

  • Mick Fealty

    Willow. The name is mentioned in the first para of the article. I thought I’d leave to the enterprise of the readers to get to that bit.

    Waugh is partly arguing that prosperity will not come because there is an absence of war, but that there is an actively pursued peace.

    As the current US Consul is fond of saying, “Capital is a coward”. With capital comes talent and expertise we can’t grow at home.

  • Sean

    crumb trust you to be frigging nit picker

  • willowfield


    Sorry – I only read the part of the article that you chose to blog.

  • Sean

    WHy have Germany and France prospered while northern Ireland languished? Thats simple enough France and Germany both actively pursued new products and methods, they did not try to run a 20th century economy on a nineteenth century manufacturing economy. Ship building has virtually ended in every major modern economy because the cost of labour is too high compared to China, India ir any eastern country. The only place that bucks that trend is the US and thats only because they build war ships for their war machine.

    The same applies to virtually every industry that supported northern Ireland they moved to low wage economies where they can prosperon the backs of the poor

    The only industry the IRA helped to kill(and I mean helped as they were not alone) was tourism.
    of course those riot up the Shankhill helped alot as well

  • Cruimh

    “Sorry to disrupt your love-in. ”

    Care to address the points made Chris rather than cheering on Sean who evidently thinks Carlow is in Northern Ireland ?

    It ill-behoves you to sneer mate – after all a big part of the reason so many natonalist areas were job-starved was the activities of people like the Deputy First Minister.

    The murders of Jeffrey Agate and Niedermeyer.
    The Sinn Fein backed IRA campaign against businesses and industry in Northern Ireland.

    “The only industry the IRA helped to kill(and I mean helped as they were not alone) was tourism.”

    Grundig were planning to expand in Newry – that, unlike Carlow, is in NI Sean – until the IRA abducted and murdered Mr Niedermeyer.

    Jeffrey Agate’s Murder – for which Raymond McCartney was jailed.

    Strathearn ?

    “crumb trust you to be frigging nit picker”

    It’s hardly nit-picking to point out that Carlow is NOT in Northern Ireland – it just shows how little you proxy-paddies know about this Island!

    It’s ironic – NI after all the years of Sinn Fein and loyalist terrorism is still in a lot better shape than the Gaeltacht bog-reservations ( people like Chris would like all of Ireland to become one big Gaeltacht!) – and one of the main reasons that the ROI has prospered – as admitted by the Govt of the ROI – is that it has an English-speaking workforce 🙂

    TAL 😉

  • parcifal

    my oh my from plastic-paddies to proxy-paddies, whatever next?

    wonder if TAL refers to the great Mikhail

    I doubt it, that would hint at traces of intelligence hitherto unfound when tested at the forensic laboratories. lol

  • McGrath


    After a short bout of whataboutery, anyone like to discuss Waugh’s article?
    Posted by Mick Fealty on Jul 23, 2007 @ 10:44 PM

    Smufit were at one stage an entrepreneurial enterprise, same for Powerscreen etc. but they certainly are not now. Same applies to H&W and much of NI heavy engineering.

    I think there is some general confusion about what entrepreneurship is within the article and NI.

    If you take away retail enterprises (that have been in place for generations) and enterprises subsidized by way of LEDU (and its successors), there is not very much honest entrepreneurship left.

    You mentioning “conditioning” in the first post, if you were referring to business organizations in NI expecting handouts from the government to get started then you have hit the nail right on the head. True entrepreneurial organizations reject bureaucracy, I have always been amazed at how small business in NI embrace the bureaucratic burden placed upon them when they take the government on as a partner.

    Solid startup business’s do not need subsidies, the subsidization mentality within NI has lead to the creation of much unsustainable business and all the problems that come along with it.

    When NI small business starts to focus on valuable sustainable business and developing a unique selling strategy to go with it, then true capitalism will begin to gain traction.

  • Harry Flashman

    Whilst the IRA certainly did their damnedest to destroy the Northern Ireland economy, to blame the economic decline solely on them is not accurate. Newcastle, Glasgow, Durham, Middlesborough, Liverpool etc did not suffer from an IRA campaign but in those places too the collapse of once world beating heavy industries was profound.

    It is also far too simplistic to blame Thatcher, Thatcherism was a reaction not a cause of the decline of heavy engineering, coal mining, steel making and ship building. There are many who hanker after the glory days. Although it’s a curious fact that I have never actually encountered such a person who actually wanted to work down a mine themselves, no they wanted to work in nice clean offices it’s just that they think it would be nice if other people dug coal two miles underground. I once met an ex coal miner who owned a bar in Tenerife, he spoke of the miners’ strike of ’84 and I suggested he must dislike Margaret Thatcher, he snorted, “Are you joking? Her redundancy package bought me this place! I raise a glass to her every day!”

    For those who get misty eyed about the glory days, it’s an unfortunate fact that outside of the realms of Guardian editorial rooms and Academic Common Rooms many of her reforms were hugely popular. Most people don’t actually like mind numbing, back breaking manual labour, most people like having nice 9 to 5 jobs and two weeks holiday in the sun every year.

    As to France and Germany, well for anyone who belives that in twenty years they will have any sort of competitive manufacturing industry against China, I’d like them to have a look at this bridge I have for sale.

    The only thing unique about post Thatcherite Britain is that they got there first, look at the Republic if you don’t believe me.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    I think the whole article misses the negative impact that government has on entrepreneurship.

    The cost of regulation to companies is staggering to name but a few VAT, equal opportunities, sick pay, maternity leave, health and safety etc etc. These are all reasons why smaller companies cannot concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing ie making profits for further expansion.

    Does anyone think that the companies mentioned had to contend with a continual barrage of paper just to fulfil government regulation or does anyone think it exists in China or the US today.

    New companies in Europe are being regulated out of existence as they are strangled at birth by government red tape.

  • Cruimh

    “Whilst the IRA certainly did their damnedest to destroy the Northern Ireland economy, to blame the economic decline solely on them is not accurate.”

    Nobody has Harry.

  • DK

    Have I missed something? Northern Ireland has been one of the fastest growing UK regions for a long time now.

    Do we really want to jepordise this growth with some risky leap towards entreprenuerism?

  • Gréagóir O’ Franclín

    Gas how a topic of Ulster’s past entreprenuers turns into the usual bickering and heckling regarding tribal allegiance. Kinda a bit tiresome and juvenile given the new climate of goodwill and optimism in NI among the political folk!

  • Baudrillard

    DK: ‘Have I missed something? Northern Ireland has been one of the fastest growing UK regions for a long time now.’

    While it’s true to say that NI is one of the fastest growing regions in the UK it is only because we started from a very poor base.

    Our economy was so bad, circa early 1990s, that any relative growth now looks astonishing. ‘Actual’ growth is still quite small.

    However, I think NI – and Belfast in particular – can come to the aid of an overheated southern economy.


    There is huge, almost unmanageable, growth in the south – expensive commercial land, not enough trained workers, not enough accommodation, creaking public transport and other services, etc. While here in Belfast – only 98 miles away – we have a underpopulated city (we need another 140,000 people just to make the city function efficiently), closing schools, hospitals and other services due to this falling population – and a very well trained but underemployed workforce.

    Am I missing something here or doesn’t this have the makings of a mutually beneficial relationship? Get our economic and planning aligned; build high speed rail and road links between the two cities and Belfast gets a bit of Dublin’s growth while the south gets to take a bit of steam out of its overinflated economy without sacrificing expansion?


  • snakebrain

    “Have I missed something? Northern Ireland has been one of the fastest growing UK regions for a long time now.

    Do we really want to jepordise this growth with some risky leap towards entreprenuerism?”

    Have I missed something?

    In what sense is NI one of the fastest growing UK regions? I suspect you refer to the recent irrational growth in house prices, which is hardly indicative of general economic growth, and which, as a story, has yet to reach its denouement.

    There’s a real risk of a lot of people getting their fingers burned in the not too distant future. Concerns in the global debt markets have been triggered by the US sub-prime debacle, but there are going to be further ramifications as hedge funds, etc, attempt to divest themselves of debt assets which are now viewed with distrust. Trust, or confidence, is what fuels all debt markets, and is currently evaporating fast.

    As for a “risky leap towards entrepeneurism”, that’s quite amusing. Entrepreneurism is wholly concerned with risk. It’s at the core of the concept. To argue the risk-element of entrepreneurism as a negative is like arguing the wheels of a car are a liability.

    All in all, Northern Ireland has a lot to learn, and unless it learns to embrace the same risks that the rest of the world has done for many decades now, in a subsidy and cotton-wool free environment, it will fail spectacularly.

    Personally, I’m not that confident the will and imagination are there.

  • DK


    I was referring to private sector growth, but house prices are also growing:

    “Northern Ireland’s business sector has been growing every month for the past four years, according to a survey.
    The Ulster Bank said the rate of growth in May was below the UK average but was outstripping the Irish Republic”

    In previous months we have been ahead of other bits of the UK and either ahead or behind the RoI.

  • George

    according to the same Ulster Bank, the total workforce in Northern Ireland increased by 10,770 in 2006.

    In same period, according to the CSO the Irish Republic’s workforce increased by over 86,000.

    This is from management today:

    “According to a recent European study, there are now 324,000 entrepreneurs on the island, but only 71,000 are in Northern Ireland.

    In the younger age groups, the gap between the two countries is stark: 12% of 25-34-year-olds in the Republic are entrepreneurs compared with just 7% in Northern Ireland, while there is double the percentage of female entrepreneurs in the Republic.”

  • Eoin

    I am from the North originally but moved south 15 years ago. I have my own business. The south is business friendly. If you are willing to take risks the rewards are very good. This is an excellent place to do business. Sorry to sound like the IDA but it is my experience. NI needs to get away from the subsidy culture which permeates the place – fast.

  • ND

    When you read slugger some of the norths economic problems are wrapped up in the energy and effort that goes into spinning mutual sectarianism with sickening whataboutery. Will we ever escape the sectarian start the island got with partition? Can we redirect the energies we have always used to deal with constitutional questions now that that has been resolved?

    An entrepreneurial challenge in northern ireland inevitably leads to our habitual demands for bigger more intrusive government which can be held to account and criticised/ridiculed easily.

    We need a change in attitude at a personal not government level, a can do, will do and must do attitude. The handy government job also stopped innovation in the north. When you could so easily have a great lifestyle, nice home, car etc on a teachers/ civil servants salary why would you bother starting your own business.

    Necessity is the mother of invention, the house price rises in the last two years mean that the handy job can no longer guarantee the great lifestyle it has meant in the north for the last 20 years.

    The economy is fairly poor (although encouragingly there are some stories of how it can be done) and the housing market and driving consumerism this drove are interpreted as growth by the statisticians. We also boast of our great education system, so we should all see through these statistics then.

    Entrepeneurship starts with necessity. Brown should cut the purse strings by the time the next assembly is bedded into the talking shop. People will by that stage be carrying unprecedented levels of negative equity in housing stock (me is a tad bearish), while housing costs will remain at alevel where the nice lifestyle requires a bit more adventure on the business front.

    And could we please cut the number of agencies encouraging job growth? Government support doesn’t make a good business,its a distraction. Take that cash and put it into a science or something like museums for boats that sank on their first trip so the world will know of our craftmanship.

  • Sean

    I had a cursory glance at starting a business in northern Ireland and the reams of red tape were very daunting. It seems you need a permit to get a permit to consider starting a business and then you better have a lawyer on speed dial

    I am a business man in Canada and I thought our red tape was daunting

  • snakebrain


    I echo that sentiment resoundingly.

    Clear the path of a little of the red tape and it would be a much more enticing prospect. I’ve seriously looked at starting a business here, and haven’t altogether rejected the idea, but to be honest, Dublin looks much more attractive, and it’s only two hours drive away.

    Where will my tax revenue go?

  • Sean

    lol the wee brown haired beautty I had my eye on doesnt live in Dublin lol

  • DK


    That article you quote from is 15 months old and uses stats from 2003.

    The Ulster Bank report (2007) says that growth has been continuous for the last 4 years – that is, from IIRC April 2003 to April 2007.

    The South is better than the North, but the North is not bad either. The point is, with 4 years of solid growth – usually at the top of the UK Regions – maybe we are OK and seeking the “lost Ulster art of entreprenuerism” is seeking something that is either irrelevant or no longer lost.

  • George

    the workforce figures are for the most recent year – 2006.

    I can give you stats from the end of 2005 on entrepreneurial activity from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), the latest I can find:

    “The GEM research consistently points towards an “entrepreneurial deficit” in Northern Ireland compared with many other regions of the UK – and indeed the Republic of Ireland….

    …The rate of early-stage entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland for 2005 is 4.8 per cent… broadly similar to 2004 (5.0%).

    The rate of early-stage entrepreneurship for the UK as a whole in 2005 is 6.0 per cent. Northern Ireland ranks 10th out of the 12 UK regions, a position largely unchanged since 2003.

    The gap in TEA between Northern Ireland and the UK has narrowed over the last 3 years and the Northern Ireland TEA is currently 80 per cent of the TEA for the UK (60% in 2002). In Scotland early-stage entrepreneurship is now almost on a par with the UK average.

    Early-stage entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland is around 40 per cent of the US and half that of the RoI, a position which has improved since 2002. Northern Ireland is also placed above some EU countries including the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium and has improved marginally in terms of EU ranking since 2002….

    Education: Just over 7 per cent of graduates in Northern Ireland are entrepreneurially active placing it in the bottom half of the regional rankings….

    … The average for the UK is 8.4 per cent. The level of graduate entrepreneurship in the Republic of Ireland is around twice as high compared to that in Northern Ireland, and by implication the UK overall. It is, in fact, equivalent to that recorded in London.

    Income: Northern Ireland has one of the lowest levels of entrepreneurial activity of all UK regions in the low income group…

    A lot done, a lot more to do.

  • Sean

    What NI and the UK need is a wholesale deregulation especially health and safety bull crap

    No one honestly wants to injure their employees but over regulation is a nuisance for both the employer and the employee

  • Rob

    Matbe there never has been an history of entreprenuerism. Shipbuildong arrived due to the large expanse of water and later close proximity to coalfields and iron and later steel.