A dinner for senior London business journalists led to the revelation that none of them was even aware that Northern Ireland’s inward investment body was being represented - at huge expense to taxpayers - by a top global PR firm, declassified files reveal.
Files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast show that in 1992 a dinner was organised by David Burnside - the Ulster-born businessman who was then a leading London PR man and who would go on to become an Ulster Unionist MP - and Tim Dickson of The Sunday Times.
They assembled a small group of “influential London-based journalists” representing “a good cross-section of press opinion” to discuss business perceptions of Northern Ireland.
An October 1992 minute of the dinner made grim reading for those responsible for promoting Northern Ireland as a place to do business.
“Not one of the journalists had ever been invited by the Industrial Development Board (IDB) or the Northern Ireland Office to visit Northern Ireland,” it said.
“Three said they had been there in a private capacity. All, though, indicated an interest in NI by their very attendance at the dinner and from specific comments made during the evening.
“Asked to identify the IDB’s London-based PR company, all participants exhibited blank looks.
“After a pause, one volunteered: ‘Burson Marstellar?’ No memories were jogged at the mention of Shandwick, whose £3 million PR contract for the IDB has been one of the most expensive of its kind.”
They said that “contact with the IDB had generally been minimal” and that no one had been invited to meet Northern Ireland Electricity in the months ahead of the point at which the government was planning to float it on the stock market.
Reflecting the journalists’ candid opinions, the minute went on: “Most admitted that they thought about NI as a ‘bad news’ story. ‘I’m ashamed to say I really only think about it when a bomb goes off’ was one typical reaction.”
However, despite the Troubles, some of the attractive elements of Northern Ireland from a business perspective had been picked up by the reporters, with “particular awareness of NI’s young, well educated workforce”.
It said that a series of “clear misconceptions” had emerged, among them the belief that businessmen would be targeted by terrorists, something the minute said was “not borne out by experience during the recent Troubles”.