Although only 25km apart, the towns of Armagh and Monaghan are separated by the wider chasms of history and politics. However, in recent years an initiative, the Armagh Monaghan Digital Corridor, has succeeded in creating new links between the two towns.
The Armagh Monaghan Digital Corridor has its origins in a Deloitte & Touche report commissioned by local business groups in the late-Nineties. This report advocated creating a digital corridor, installing affordable broadband and putting a business development function into place to drive forward long-term growth.
The report was widely circulated and £1.2m sterling was raised from various sources including Invest NI, the EU’s Interreg 11, Armagh Economic Development Group, Armagh City and District Council, Enterprise Ireland, Monaghan CEB and the International Fund for Ireland.
The business development function was put into place in December 1999 when Bernard Conlon (pictured) was employed as development director of the Armagh Monaghan Digital Corridor. However, the most visible result of the report was the construction of two business centres known as a:tek and m:tek in Armagh and Monaghan respectively. These centres serve as bases for high-tech companies and over the last two years, 500 jobs have been created by companies in these centres.
“It is quite remarkable really,” said Conlon, referring to the speed with which job creation has occurred. “It has also given us confidence that the model works.” According to Conlon, many of the jobs have been created through flagship companies such as Eblana and Datacare, while about 50 have been created by smaller indigenous start-up companies.
Employers, says Conlon, have been pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of available staff. Datacare, for instance, hasn’t lost any staff in the five years it has been in place. “The staff are very loyal,” said Conlon. “They have come back to the region to settle and very often when people do that they have a point to prove.”
A key factor in the success of the corridor is affordable broadband connections between the two centres. This can be a problem at the best of times, but is particularly acute in rural areas. “When Eblana moved into the region, the company took a strategic decision to locate in a:tek,” said Conlon, adding that “leased line charges, however, were based on international rates as were phone calls. Likewise for companies from Northern Ireland setting up in Monaghan.”
The good news is that with funding from the International Fund for Ireland, a technical evaluation on creating a 40MB link between the two centres has just been completed. Once this link is in place, companies located in a:tek and m:tek will be able to bypass the international charges. Eblana in a:tek, for instance, will be able to place calls over the link when they break out via m:tek.
But that’s not all. According to Conlon, the provision of this broadband infrastructure will have a major impact on local businesses. Conlon cites the case of an Armagh-based company with four offices in the Republic. “This company has astronomical call costs,” he said. “Again, it is because international rates are prohibitive. But the broadband infrastructure will help local businesses become e-businesses.”
Part of the strategic mission of the digital corridor is to develop links with universities and third-level institutions. Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Armagh College of Further Education are already members of the corridor’s steering group. According to Conlon, the corridor is now in the final stages of agreeing a supercomputing project with QUB and Trinity College Dublin.
“When the project is up and running, it will allow small and medium-sized enterprises across the country access to university resources for grid/super computing,” said Conlon.
Conlon points out that it is the combination of all of these factors rather than just the presence of the a:tek and m:tek centres that make the digital corridor an attractive place to do business. Conlon’s vision is for a cluster of information and communications technology companies running along the 25km corridor linking the two centres.
Already one company has built its own call centre adjacent to a:tek. “Three or four years ago, no one would think of the region. Now, people are coming from across the country to do business and are staying in good hotels and holding conferences,” he added.
Looking to the future, the corridor has commissioned a strategic review. “We want to make sure that the model won’t collapse as time goes on,” said Conlon. The goal is to reach a level of sustainability so that ongoing costs can be met from incoming rents. “We are also very optimistic in terms of job numbers and we hope to see the creation of a further 150 jobs over the next couple of years,” he said.
Could this model be applied elsewhere in the border region? “There are a lot of aspects that are totally unique, not just in Irish terms but in European terms as well,” he said. “We believe it could be a good model for breaking down real and perceived barriers between communities. I would like to think that it could be a model for east European democracies that have had a history of conflict,” Conlon concluded.