It was a great pleasure to represent the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce at the 2019 Belfast International Homecoming in October. A jam-packed schedule of events catered for all interests – fintech, tourism, legal interests, entrepreneurship – and the arranged social events ensured that there were plenty of opportunities for networking: the prime reason for events such as these from the delegates’ point of view. A highlight of the programme was the presentation of the young Belfast Ambassadors Medals at the Ulster University. Words fail me except to say Belfast’s future is bright and in good hands if we judge it on the calibre of these young people.
Obviously the purpose of the Homecoming was to present the best of Belfast to its far-flung diaspora and this it did with aplomb. The regeneration of the city was certainly an eye-opener for me. I travel home regularly but to see the ‘insider’ view with respect to the growth of industry and certain sectors was worth the 27 hour trip to get there. Many of you would of course know of the Titanic Quarter and as a tourist or visitor we view these attractions for our entertainment but they can be the lifeblood of a city or a region. To hear that the target of 400,000 annual visitors for the Titanic Quarter was far exceeded and reached over a million people last year is just one indicator of the area’s success and the hope of this New Belfast. The entire Belfast Harbour Estate area is undergoing regeneration and expansion and aims to become green, clean, smart and connected and to capitalise on the growth in cruise liner traffic in coming years. The city’s hotel industry is responding and you can now find what are arguably some of the world’s best in accommodation and dining. It was a pleasure to hear from Howard Hastings of Hastings Hotels and Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland at the (very early!) Tourism Breakfast at the Titanic Hotel. While I was lucky enough to be seated at the American breakfast table I didn’t get to taste the kangaroo sausages but all attendees were also treated to a fine full Irish breakfast so no one missed out! The message from this event was clear and strong – tourism is everyone’s business. Collaboration, confidence and investment in people are what drive and support industry. Public and Private partnerships are vital. The recognition of the importance of women in the Women in Business forum at Ulster Bank was simultaneously depressing and inspiring. While the research indicated that women are more diffident then men in general about starting a new enterprise the skills and achievements of the female panellists showed what can be achieved when someone is supported in a new venture. I was slightly bemused that the three contestants in the Dragon’s Den were male but each would have been a worthy winner.
Some of my new-found Bostonian and New Yorker friends and I accompanied the very knowledgeable Joe Austin of Failte Feirste Thiar on a tour of West Belfast which encompassed Clonard Monastery, the ‘Peace’ Wall and Milltown Cemetery before visiting the impressive James Connolly Visitors Centre - Aras Ui Chonghaile. This was followed by a very relaxed and entertaining reception at the US Embassy. I then took myself off to one of Belfast’s premier live music venues to catch up with some old friends and see Black Star Riders play but Shhhh!
The following morning was an early start and the conference proper. A numerous and diverse group of delegates filled the Belfast Harbour Commissioner’s grand hall to hear a number of excellent speakers before the panels on Brexit, Fintech and diaspora engagement took place in the afternoon. The highlight of this day was by far the Young Belfast Ambassadors panel - they were inspiring, confident, articulate, intelligent. The most heart-warming moment was when this panel’s Chair, Mike Nesbitt, thanked Máirtín Ó Muilleoir for his friendship and stated that though there were people who might like to bring Northern Ireland’s dark days back, Máirtín and he would be the first to lie down on the road to stop them.
The evening saw delegates and a great many others gather at City Hall for the Belfast International Homecoming Gala Dinner. Another opportunity to showcase the region’s fine foods was not missed and the entertainment by Belfast Story was excellent. It was a great honour to accept a Belfast Ambassador medal and certificate and they are truly treasured. The Homecoming renewed my love for Belfast and my passion to remain connected with it. As I said the networking at these events is an important element. A woman approached me at the dinner and asked if I could help her son out when he arrived in Adelaide. So within two weeks of my return I was able to welcome a newcomer and introduce him to some of the Irish community here who were attending a fundraising event the Chamber hosted for a sick Irish/Adelaide boy. To me, this is what being part of our diaspora is about – maintaining, renewing and forging new connections with home and with each other. Perhaps I have started to earn that medal?
Finally, many, many thanks to Máirtín Ó Muilleoir for the warmest of welcomes and to Connla McCann and Amy Dickinson of Aisling Events for their hospitality and superb organisation.