Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Northern Ireland leaders split on way ahead in corporation tax battle

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have emerged from their bruising encounter with the Prime Minister over the devolution of corporation tax split on the way best forward.

David Cameron says he will not take any decision on whether to hand control of the business tax to Stormont until after the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014.

While the announcement of yet further delay has disappointed Northern Ireland's political and business leaders, First Minister Mr Robinson (right) remains upbeat and welcomed Mr Cameron's promise to give a definite decision next year.

But a dispirited Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness (far right) has made no secret of his frustration and belief that the PM has no intention of devolving the key economic power.

Mr Robinson has also welcomed a package of proposals which the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers have offered to try and help Northern Ireland's economy between now and then.

"If we are willing to wait 18 months for a decision clearly the Government are ready to help in the meantime," said the DUP leader.

The measures include capital grants for infrastructural projects and special arrangements for enterprise zones here. The precise details of the Government's package will be negotiated over the course of April.

Mr Robinson said: "The recent meeting in Downing Street was adjourned and it will be reconvened before the end of next month. In the intervening period the Prime Minister will send his officials to Northern Ireland to work on the package."

He described these measures as "good and positive – but not game changers, as corporation tax would be".

Mr Robinson's relatively positive assessment, in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, stood in marked contrast to the downbeat reaction of Mr McGuinness.

The Deputy First Minister told Sinn Fein's website he had met British Prime Ministers for 20 years. Mr Cameron had put up "the most unconvincing performance I have witnessed throughout that time by any of them".

Turning to the thorny issue of the devolution of corporation tax, Mr McGuinness said: "I have little confidence that Mr Cameron has any intention of transferring these powers even after the Scottish referendum is out of the way."

While Mr Robinson could not be completely sure either, he seemed more optimistic and determined to press on.

"Difficult though it may be, and it is an uphill task, you don't give up on it – you continue to push for it," he said.

He would have preferred an earlier decision but said he wasn't surprised by the Prime Minister's decision to delay his final call.

"My expectation had always been that it wouldn't be implemented before 2016 anyway," he said. "I recognised that for the Prime Minister the referendum on Scotland was an issue and it is positive there was a commitment to take a decision in October next year."

The First Minister also said he would get the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to assess hydraulic fracturing – 'fracking' – for gas in Co Fermanagh's shale deposits.

There have been environmental concerns about the extraction method, which involves injecting fluid into the ground at pressure to fracture rocks and release gas.

But Mr Robinson said: "I have spoken to people to Canada where fracking is much more widespread and they don't accept the argument that it is a serious danger to the environment.

"The very least that should be happening is an extensive consideration of the value to Northern Ireland of cheaper, locally-produced energy versus any potential harm of advancing fracking as a means of extracting gas."