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US business delegation probes post-Brexit opportunities in Northern Ireland

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden visits Northern Ireland

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) - A U.S. business delegation dispatched to Northern Ireland by President Joe Biden talked up opportunities created by the region's bespoke post-Brexit trade arrangements on Thursday, but members acknowledged a political stand-off had sown some doubts.

The trade mission, announced by Biden during a visit to Belfast in April, was designed to help sell what the president described as the "unprecedented economic opportunity" created by the region's dual access to the United Kingdom and the European Union goods markets under the Windsor Framework Agreement.

The February agreement has however so far failed to convince the region's largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to end a boycott of the regional power-sharing government due to remaining barriers on trade with the rest of the UK.

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"I think people have been excited about this. They've had their eyes opened by this trip," U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy III, who is leading the delegation of around 50 U.S. executives, told reporters.

But he also said a stable government was important for people considering investments in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. "We need to get there," he said of efforts to re-establish a system of power-sharing set up by a 1998 peace deal.

The delegation included Coca-Cola CFO John Murphy, Liberty Mutual Insurance CEO Tim Sweeney and New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

But a commitment by the New York State pension fund to invest up to $50 million in Northern Ireland businesses was the only major announcement during the trip.

One of the delegation, Alteryx Inc chief executive Mark Anderson, said an expansion by his data analytics software company in the region was "something that's really worthy of consideration" after Brexit threw a "bit of a wrench" into the advantages of their London office. He said political difficulties were not a barrier.

February's Windsor Agreement, which eases Northern Ireland's access to the rest of the United Kingdom while leaving it within the EU's single market for goods, is likely to create opportunities for manufacturers in particular, delegates said.

Some of the manufacturing-focussed firms that travelled to Northern Ireland were "intrigued by the unique market access," Stephen Kelly of trade body Manufacturing NI told Reuters after hosting a session with delegates.

Around 230 U.S. businesses operate in the region. But south of the border, Ireland's much faster growing economy has proven a greater magnet for U.S. firms thanks to decades-long pro-business policies and a 12.5% corporate tax rate, half that of the UK.

Speaking in Dublin, Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said Northern Ireland cannot fully grasp the opportunities without local government.

"The message from business to Northern Ireland leaders is clear: Deliver stability and we will deliver investment," said Martin.

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries; Editing by Giles Elgood)