How ‘international relations’ are helping to shape Belfast

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5 minutes

How ‘international relations’ are helping to shape Belfast

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It’s fair to say that Belfast has undergone considerable change in the past decade. The city has been transformed and is poised for another major transformation. Whole new areas have been and are continuing to be developed – complete with modern facilities suitable for global companies and industry conferences as well as hosting major events of all kinds. Tourists are flocking in from all over the world. There is a positive and new confidence.

Some might say ‘so what’ or ‘big deal, we should have these’, but the fact is that, in the past, the absence of such infrastructure might’ve acted as a barrier to good things happening 

Belfast now has a new 20 year plan to take its economy onto another level and build on the
outstanding success of Titanic Visitor Attraction (voted the World number 1 tourist
attraction). Large corporate business such as Citibank, Allen & Overy and All Sate have
1000’s of staff based here. Belfast has hosted world class events such as the start of the
Giro d’Italia and the MTV European Music Awards. The plan will see Belfast bidding for the
European Capital of Culture, an ambitious capital investment programme and a global FDI

Courtesy of Presseye Ltd. Northern Ireland
Courtesy of Presseye Ltd. Northern Ireland

  What we do know is that Belfast is changing for the better…

Events, investment and development like this don’t just happen overnight. Normally they’re the result of years of work behind the scenes. That’s why we decided to catch up with Belfast City Council’s Director of Development, Donal Durkan to find out more about the unseen international relations work that has underpinned the city’s transformation.

NIC: Firstly Donal, thanks for talking to NI Connections. Can you start by telling us a little bit about the importance of international relations to Belfast City Council.  

DD: Absolutely, Belfast City Council has been involved in European and international activity for several decades but I think it’s important to start by providing some context around how the council’s role has evolved following the restructuring of local authorities back in 2015. This reduced the number of local authorities in Northern Ireland from 26 to 11, of which Belfast is one. As part of that reform councils have increased responsibilities to help shape and develop their areas; such as planning and economic development powers, for example, business start–up and social enterprises and community planning.

The Belfast Agenda is our first community plan, created by a strong city partnership led by Belfast City Council which sets out a 20 year vision for Belfast. It is an ambitious agenda for the city and as part of that vision there is a number of key strategic priorities

  1. Create 46,000 new jobs

  2. Increase population by 66,000 new residents

  3. Every young person leaving school has a destination that fulfils their potential

  4. Reduce the life expectancy gap between different wards in the city by 50%

The Belfast Agenda is not simply a strategic plan for Belfast City Council but for the entire city. While Belfast City Council is the convenor, a strong city partnership is at the core of the Belfast Agenda as many of the commitments it contains are long term and not necessarily the responsibility of any single organisation.  Success will depend on the collaborative commitment of people and organisations.  We will work in close partnership with those other organisations and government departments to improve the city and deliver those strategic objectives going forward.

NIC: How will the international relations work you’re doing help achieve these goals?

DD: International relations is a fundamental part of our overall strategy which helps re–position our city, ensuring that we can promote Belfast internationally as a place where people can live, work, visit or study.

DD: It’s about making Belfast a better place for investment, business and for education –  which means attracting more international students back into the city.  It’s also about positioning Belfast as a cultural and tourism destination, including increasing the number of cruise ships that visit Belfast; and increasing our business tourism where the redevelopment of the Waterfront Convention & Conference complex and the new Titanic Exhibition centre have already made a significant difference to our offering. 

NIC: Belfast has a number of Sister City Agreements in place. What role do they play?

DD: We currently have three formal Sister City Agreements in place. These are with Boston and Nashville in the US and with Shenyang in China. We signed our Sister City Agreement with Nashville back in 1995 and with Boston in 2014 which was the first Sister City Agreement signed by Boston’s current Mayor, Mayor Walsh. In Shenyang we had a ‘Friendly City Agreement’, it was formalised into a Sister City Agreement last year. We also have a memorandum of understanding with Dublin and a Friendly City Agreement with the City of London where the financial capital markets are based.

Former Lord Mayor Arder Carson with the Mayor of Shenyang, Pan Liguo
Former Lord Mayor Arder Carson with the Mayor of Shenyang, Pan Liguo

DD: What we have been doing since 2015 is working with those sister cities to look at where there are opportunities from our point of view, where there are opportunities to promote Belfast as an investment location, tourism location, an education location.  Equally we are working with those cities to see where we can work in partnership to foster stronger economic development, trade and investment, tourism, youth, cultural and educational linkages.

For example, in October last year there was a medical health and technology workshop. It took place in Boston and we facilitated that with companies from Nashville, Boston and from Belfast. So part of what we’re trying to do is to collaborate and provide opportunities for businesses to engage with one another, for academia to engage with one another through research and also to share tourism knowledge and experience.

NIC: And Shenyang?

DD: Well, we recently developed a Smart Cities framework for Belfast which is aimed at using smart technology to improve life in the city. Shenyang are also particularly interested in smart city technology, so there is a platform and opportunity for us to share knowledge and ideas.


DD: Our smart cities framework has now been translated into Chinese and we will share that with our colleagues in Shenyang later this year. We have people going from Belfast to Shenyang in September to speak at a conference on smart cities. This gives us the opportunity to find out what the key issues the people in Shenyang have and explore what technology we have developed that might be of use there.

NIC: Can you give me any real tangible examples of how Belfast has benefited directly from these kinds of formal relationships with other cities?

DD: The Friendship Four ice hockey is a really good example that the public will be familiar with. You have four colleges from the North East part of the US who come across at Thanksgiving each year and play NCAA league games in Belfast. This is now in it’s third year and was facilitated by the Sister Cities agreement we have with Boston.

DD: Based on this success, we’ll also have four college basketball teams coming to Belfast to compete this year. So we’ll have four US colleges playing ice hockey on the Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. The following Friday and Saturday there’ll be another four college basketball teams playing competitive league games in the city. Next year, it is set to increase to eight basketball teams.

Rich Ensor (Commissioner, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), John Doleva (President and CEO, Basketball Hall of Fame), former Belfast Lord Mayor Brian Kingston, Mayor Sarno (Springfield, Massachusetts) and Gareth Maguire (CEO, Sport Changes Life) at the Basketball Hall of Fame
Rich Ensor (Commissioner, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), John Doleva (President and CEO, Basketball Hall of Fame), former Belfast Lord Mayor Brian Kingston, Mayor Sarno (Springfield, Massachusetts) and Gareth Maguire (CEO, Sport Changes Life) at the Basketball Hall of Fame

DD: So there will be a large number of college students coming into Belfast but it also brings people from the wider college environment and universities into the city as well. It’s an opportunity to connect, whether for academic engagement or from an economic perspective, where we can start to build mutually beneficial, long term relationships.

As I said earlier, getting people here in the first place is often the hardest job.  We have to proactively promote Belfast internationally to encourage people to consider it as a city to visit or invest in, so using these events as a vehicle to showcase the best of what Belfast has to offer is really important.Belfast City.

NIC: How big a role do the diaspora play in promoting international relations?

DD:  The diaspora are critically important. People who are either from Belfast or have an affinity with the city can actually act as key ambassadors for us.


DD: We fully understand that if you’re trying to develop relationships with people in key international markets you have to have a consistent presence on the ground on a regular basis. The diaspora help provide that connectivity and continuity with key organisations and individuals in those markets when we’re not actually there ourselves. So the diaspora play a crucial role.

NIC: Is it a hard sell to involve the diaspora or are they generally keen to be involved in what you’re doing?

DD: We normally find that our diaspora are very keen to be involved. People from here will nearly always maintain a strong connection with the place. Understandably, people are not on top of everything that’s going on in terms of news and current affairs but they can see that not only in Belfast but across Northern Ireland there has been considerable change in the last five to ten years.

DD: When you find diaspora who haven’t been to Belfast in a while the initial reaction can often be one of surprise. Maybe they didn’t know that there is as much construction going on as there is, maybe they didn’t understand the amount and profile of global companies now operating in Belfast or even how dramatically the cityscape has changed.-->

NIC: Thanks for talking to us Donal. Keep up the good work!

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