News - Northern Ireland

“What are the chances?”, “who would have thought?” and “can you believe it?” are just some of the soundbites we’ve all heard from friends, family and colleagues over the past week as Donald trumped Hillary in spectacular fashion to secure his seat in the highest office in US politics.

Inevitably, direct comparisons with June’s Brexit result were drawn by the UK media and it seems that, again, the mainstream pundits and pollsters were, to borrow an Americanism, ‘caught with their pants down’ as yet another result defied their predictions.

It seems that populism and a change to the status quo are at the forefront of both US and UK voters’ agendas, and many analysts would argue that these two historic results are symptoms of a wider global movement being bolstered by disenfranchisement and increasing inequality in Western economies.

Whatever the underlying causes, it is becoming increasingly clear that the geopolitical landscape is undergoing some tectonic shifts and, inevitably, in the short term at least, these will result in some unforeseeable effects for global markets. As we all know, markets hate uncertainty and lately uncertainty has been abundant.

After the Brexit waves crashed down on Sterling last month, the pound hit an impressive multi-week high against the Euro in the wake of Trump's victory and it looks like further advances may be possible. The FTSE followed suit as UK market positivity prevailed and jumped significantly in the days following Trump’s victory.

So, what does all this mean for Northern Ireland, and our commercial property market?

You’ll not be surprised to hear that the truthful answer is that nobody really knows. Where the usual ‘crystal ball gazing’ of analysts and commentators might in the past have provided good guidance, the choppy waters of UK, European and US politics will need to calm before confidence returns and informed predictions that have any level of accuracy can be made.

FDI will be at the top of most people’s question list and, to be frank, will be the most difficult question to answer. The fog around post-Brexit EU and Trump-led US trade agreements is as thick as pea soup for the moment, and it will need to clear some before any course is plotted.

What can be said, though, is that despite the squalls and storms of 2016 in Northern Ireland, our ship is still sailing ahead and it’s in surprisingly good condition. Count the cranes across Belfast and you’ll see that, compared to 12 months ago, the skyline is significantly busier.

The talk of 2015 - numerous hotels, student accommodation and office refurbs throughout the city - are no longer ‘predictions in planning’ but bricks and mortar projects, with John Bell House and the Bullitt Hotel both being noteworthy examples. City Quays 2 has also risen on the banks of the Lagan and, as it nears completion, is set to provide some of the Grade A office space that Belfast so desperately needs to meet ever-growing demand.

Throughout 2016 investment has continued through the gales and this has resulted in home-grown construction industry jobs, as well as a notable return to our shores by a number of high-profile Northern Ireland-based construction companies.

For almost a decade many have been sourcing contracts internationally, so the like of last month’s appointment of Gilbert Ash as contractor for the construction element of the £25m Marriot Hotel project at City Quays, expected to create 180 construction jobs and employment for approximately 115 people when complete, shows a positive trend.

Add to this the fact that the Sirocco site in east Belfast – a huge 16-acre site due to be developed in a £300m project - is about to complete in a deal to a new UK buyer made up of the St Francis Group alongside two other investors, and you might start thinking that 2016 was the year that Northern Ireland spent enjoying the calm in the eye of the storm.

So, on review, it seems the cautious optimism expressed this time last year was not unfounded and a certain level of momentum continues despite the headwinds. What remains to be seen, however, as we close out the year and enter 2017, is if the weather will lift. A tail wind would be much appreciated.

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