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U.S. Entrepreneurs Seek Common Ground in Northern Ireland : Trade: Effort spawned by economic conference on province, where cease-fires have fueled 20% rise in consumer spending.

October 23, 1995|SHAWN POGATCHNIK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — American entrepreneurs have been touring Ireland with unlikely peace offerings: munchies from Minnesota, smokestack scrubbers from New Jersey, bacteria-zappers from Washington state.

Last week's mission to build alliances between U.S. and Irish businesses is the first concrete result of a White House economic conference on Northern Ireland in May, when President Clinton vowed to underpin the province's fragile peace with American private investment.

Organized by the U.S. Commerce Department and British government agencies, the mission coordinated interviews for 19 U.S. business representatives and about 150 local enterprises in Belfast and Londonderry, the British-ruled province's second-largest town, from Monday to Wednesday.

The Americans spent two more days exploring business opportunities in the northernmost counties of the Irish Republic.

The networking was paying dividends. Diana Todaro said she has already found a Belfast distributor for her Laguna Hills-based company, Diana's California Cookies.

"I'll go home for the weather and come back here for the people," Todaro said, enthused over the warm welcome she has received.

But the company is not ready to build a plant in Northern Ireland. First it wants to gauge demand for its cookies. Todaro said smaller, introductory-sized packages would be developed that would be more economical to ship abroad for limited distribution.

"We have to make sure that Belfast people don't say: 'Hey, we hate California cookies!' " she said.

Also looking for distribution channels rather than plant sites was food processor Land O'Lakes Inc. of North Arden Hills, Minn., which hopes to sell meat and dairy products.

Rogers Environmental Management of East Rutherford, N.J., was promoting its water purification and medical waste disposal systems.

About 40 U.S. firms already operate in the province, including DuPont Co. and Ford Motor Co.

Charles Meissner, the assistant U.S. secretary of commerce leading the mission, said the goal was to "generate job growth and economic opportunity in the areas most affected by sectarian violence over the last 25 years."

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Discrimination against Northern Ireland's Catholic minority fueled communal violence and the rise of the Irish Republican Army in the late 1960s. Today, Catholics remain more than twice as likely as Protestants to be unemployed, but Protestant joblessness has also risen.

But in the most recent statistics released Wednesday, unemployment fell again in September to 86,500, or 11.5% of the Northern Ireland work force.

Meissner said consumer spending has risen about 20% since the IRA stopped its campaign against British rule in September 1994. Pro-British extremists on the Protestant side laid down their guns in mid-October 1994.

Since then, political deadlock--over whether rival paramilitary groups must dispose of their weapons before multiparty negotiations begin--has prevented the cease-fires from blossoming into a proper peace settlement.

In a bus tour Tuesday of west Belfast's working-class communities, both Protestant and Catholic, some of the visitors said they were unnerved by the sight of the two extremes' warmongering murals, some of them freshly painted, and wondered how secure the cease-fires were.

"I wish I'd brought my camera," said Ray Smith, president of Phoenix Water Systems Inc. of Spokane, Wash., which has pioneered a new technology that uses high bursts of energy to kill even the toughest water-borne microbes.

Smith's Spokane associate, Walt Berhalter, has already founded a Dublin-based company to license the technology for its water-purification units worldwide. "We already have several Northern Ireland corporations negotiating with us for the right to develop this product," he said, noting that locating in Ireland allows him "to avoid paying tax to Uncle Sam."

Meissner said at least two more trade missions to Northern Ireland will follow after Clinton visits both parts of Ireland in late November. These are expected to focus on computer technologies, which is a strength of the southern Irish economy, and on food-processing and other agribusiness projects.

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