In just two decades, Belfast has transformed from warzone to tech hub, overhauling a once-battered image.
A place where there are now plenty of job opportunities and workers have a high standard of living: it has become a draw for expats and big businesses.
It’s a world away from the Belfast of the 1980s and 90s shown to the international community through news bulletins of riots, checkpoints and streets barricaded with barbed wire. There’s still some way to go in the Northern Irish capital’s rebranding; a volatile political leadership means it still often feels mired in the past.
Most of the city’s youngest workers weren’t even born when the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed, which signalled an end to 30 years of conflict. It is one reason why they, and most of the 1.8m people living in the region, are more focused on a prosperous future than past politics.
Belfast’s skyline offers a glimpse into the makeup of its new economy. Multinationals based there – taking advantage of low operating costs – include US insurer Allstate, law giant Baker McKenzie and professional services companies PwC and Deloitte.
While Brexit and creation of a ‘soft border’ between Northern Ireland (which will leave the EU) and the Republic of Ireland are thrashed out, it remains unclear how Belfast’s economy and jobs market will be affected.
Prior to the 2016 vote, Brazilian-owned chicken processor Moy Park and US investment bank Citi – two large employers – had raised concerns. But in the wake of the decision, both have said it won’t have an impact on their Northern Ireland operations and both have added to their headcount.
More of a worry is a trade dispute that threatens Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturing employer.
Canadian plane maker Bombardier, which employs 4,500 people in Northern Ireland, is the subject of a lawsuit by Boeing in the US over the subsidised sale of its planes. Boeing wants the US government to hit Bombardier with tariffs, which could threaten the future of its Belfast plant. It would also call into question the future of the 80 local companies which supply parts and services to the Canadian firm and stunt the growth of a high-potential aerospace sector.
Cost of living
Isis Dela Pena Palamine, who moved to Belfast from near Malmo in Sweden in 2014, works as a chef in the south of the city and said the cost of living compares favourably.
“It’s very cheap to live here when it comes to food and to accommodation,” she said. “We live in a two-bedroom house which costs £425 a month; if that was in Sweden we would have paid £600 just for a flat.”
Property buyers can also find a bargain.
The latest data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency shows the average house price in Belfast stands at £128,650. That compares to £489,000 in London, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics.
Average wages – although climbing at the second fastest rate of all UK regions – stand at £26,000 a year, lower than the UK average of £28,000 and the London average of £35,000, according to the ONS.
Living costs are relatively low, although utility bills can be pricey given Northern Ireland’s need to import much of its energy needs. And some expats, particularly from London and New York, have suggested that eating out costs more, although a growing number of restaurants – everything from the Michelin-starred Ox and Deanes Eipic to the increasing number of street food vendors – are helping to boost supply.
Out and about
Many expats are drawn to city centre apartments constructed before the credit crunch in 2007 around the Titanic Quarter (next door to the shipyard where the ill-fated vessel was built) and the Cathedral Quarter, a rejuvenated warehouse area now filled with some of its best bars and restaurants
Here punters can drink a pint of locally-brewed stout in The Sunflower Bar, a perfect example of Belfast’s changing mood. It still has a security cage on the outside, used during the Troubles so the landlord could check who was coming in but now painted green, often decked out with fresh flowers and something of a tourist attraction.
The University Quarter is also popular and one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the city given Queen’s University’s global draw for students, particularly from Asia. It is next door to the leafy avenues of the Malone Road and Lisburn Road.
But Belfast is a small city and within minutes, visitors can be in the grittier areas of the Falls and Shankill Roads. These are parallel streets of yesteryear’s TV news stories, one Catholic and one Protestant, which used to be constantly at war and divided by a peace wall, which you can still see if you’re quick.
Quality of life
Shizuko Luke said she was anxious when she first moved to the city 11 years ago from Hyogo, Japan given a lack of ethnic diversity, something which has improved over the years since peace in the region, but a figure which still lags behind other regions of the UK.
But having raised two boys in the city, Luke is very positive. “It’s a good place to raise a family and the education system in Northern Ireland is of a high standard with plenty of good grammar schools,” she said.
Ronan Cunningham has lived in Belfast for the past four years and credits the city with nurturing a unique “deep tech” environment (encompassing industries such as artificial intelligence, robotics and augmented reality) which has allowed him to found his software start-up BrainWaveBank.
The Galway native worked for Boeing for 20 years and set up his own engineering company in San Diego before settling on Belfast to start his tech business.
He said the concentration of tech talent, the willingness of the tech community to share knowledge, the availability of funding for start-ups combined with the low cost of living provide a unique environment.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing in Dublin or London. People like us can work at significantly lower salaries while we’re starting our businesses and still enjoy a good standard of living in Belfast.”
Cunningham adds that the city’s cultural scene is “growing and developing with good restaurants and bars springing up all the time.”
Chee Shong Soon was born in Malaysia but moved to Belfast 19 years ago to study a degree in computer science and is now an application specialist for an energy company.
He said the city has allowed him to develop himself, both professionally and personally.
“The people here are so friendly and it has been a wonderful experience, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”