The good news – Belfast “International” Airport is indeed to become more international over the next few months. The bad news – the “international” links are to, er, Iceland and, er, Florida… oh yes, and Croatia. Iceland and Florida and Croatia are delightful and remarkable places – but this is yet again an example of setting up routes for Northern Ireland tourists to take money out, not for foreign business to bring money in. Northern Ireland will, almost embarrassingly, have direct air links to two of Western Europe’s smallest countries – Malta and Iceland – but not to its largest. No, Germany remains off the map – available only from Dublin or via Great Britain. A quick glance down Assembly questions shows that MLAs continue to miss the point. “What about the link to Toronto?” they ask. They omit to mention that the Northern Ireland ratepayer is already subsidising the link to New York – a link which does not now even operate all year round; and they omit to mention that the flight to Orlando will also be subsidised and only be open to the rich – costing as it does fully £400 more than the equivalent flight/package from Manchester. Most of those paying that subsidy gain almost nothing from it – focused as it is on taking a select few Northern Ireland people out (particularly in the case of Orlando), not the reverse. As it happens, places like Germany and Sweden are every bit as interesting as Iceland and Florida. But we’ll not be easily able to find that out as residents of Northern Ireland, because there’s no direct air route from Belfast. The problem is much more significant than the difficulty it causes us, however. The real issue is that if you are a German or Swedish businessperson planning your next investment, you are not likely to plan it for somewhere you can’t actually get to! We are therefore making it incredibly difficult for us to trade with the people who are our most obvious trading partners. In fact, Northern Ireland’s trade with the Netherlands, a country with which it has a direct air link, is worth almost exactly the same (in terms both of exports and imports) as its trade with Germany – despite the fact the Netherlands has only a fifth of Germany’s population! If we could increase trade with Germany to the same level proportionately, it would literally be worth billions to Northern Ireland – each and every year – making the whole Corporation Tax debate look like small change! We would add further hundreds of millions to this if we did the same with the countries beside or near Germany – Austria, Denmark and Sweden for example. Mixed in with this huge boost would be thousands of jobs, many well paid. Of course, it would take a little more than a direct air link to secure this (actually teaching German at our main University would be a good idea for a start); but without a direct air link, it certainly will not happen. It remains truly astonishing that our efforts are so focused on taking money out of Northern Ireland when surely the objective is to bring money in! It is time we straightened up our flying priorities!
NI needs direct links for business coming in, not tourists going out