Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Downing Street deal just a rehash of old ideas

David Cameron announced a stimulus package after meeting Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
David Cameron announced a stimulus package after meeting Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

David Cameron wanted to give something to Northern Ireland ahead of the G8. A gesture to show the world how determined he is to deliver real change to the smallest country of the UK.

So, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness travelled from Belfast to London last Friday for the unveiling of what civil servants described as "an ambitious package of economic and integration measures".

For those of us looking for something new, it was a big disappointment.

Last Friday's Downing Street photo-opportunity was an object lesson in how to recycle already-announced initiatives, sprinkled with some vague promises about jobs, investment and growth.

There was exciting news that all peace walls would be gone in a decade, almost as exciting as when that was first announced last month by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as part of their plans for a shared future.

The Downing Street spin was that their new package would "help lead" to the removal of the peace walls. Mr Cameron wants you, and no doubt his G8 peer-group, to know how much he wants to bring change to Northern Ireland. Change in the form of a temporary increase in borrowing powers to help the Executive fund the shared future programme, for example. Or an investment programme to deliver capital funding. Or targeted support for new private sector jobs.

Not to mention "initiatives to drive investment in infrastructure, promote new businesses and boost tourism". No doubt that great advocate for change, President Obama, would be impressed.

"This agreement is a symbol of our ambitious vision for Northern Ireland," Mr Cameron claimed.

If you want to know how flimsy Mr Cameron's very own 'Downing Street Agreement' is, note that it is variously described in a Northern Ireland Office (NIO) press release as an agreement, a joint programme, a package of measures, a pact and a symbol. Theresa Villiers, whose position as Northern Ireland Secretary has come under scrutiny ahead of an expected Cabinet reshuffle later this year, was enthused.

"The Government and the Executive are committed to working together to rebalance the economy and build a genuinely shared future," she said. "The pact we have agreed today will reinforce progress on both those objectives."

Her Labour shadow, Vernon Coaker, was polite enough to refer to the agreement/pact/symbol as "an important restating of some key proposals". In other words, nothing new.

With the focus this week on Northern Ireland, we should have expected more. What about a decision on the devolution of corporation tax, for example?

Politicians in Northern Ireland have long argued for it, especially as the rate in the Republic is just 12%.

While the Government has already pledged to reduce it to 21% by 2014 across the UK, the border is not a factor in Britain. Last Friday would have been a perfect time to announce a decision, but discussions between the Treasury and the Executive are still ongoing. Air passenger duty is still paid on short-haul flights. That accounts for 98% of flights from local airports.

Businesses and consumers, as well as the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, have argued that the tax holds Northern Ireland back. There was no mention of it in the "ambitious" measures outlined last week.

Politicians of all stripes agree on what Northern Ireland needs: more private sector jobs; a more competitive taxation system; fewer people on benefits; and a more integrated society.

Last week, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State gathered in Downing Street to tell us that – again.

Next week, when the G8 caravan has moved on and life returns to normal, we will have a real economic announcement.

The Chancellor will come to the Commons and announce his spending review, setting out the Government's programme of spending – and cuts – for two years beyond the 2015 General Election.

The NIO has already done a deal with the Treasury on its Budget.

Next Wednesday, we will find out the details.