Call for merger of Invest NI with Republic's counterpart
The debate over the economic development of Northern Ireland took a new direction today after a leading business figure suggested Invest NI should be merged with its counterpart in the Republic.
Dr Alan Gillespie, a former chairman of the Industrial Development Board, Invest NI's predecessor, claimed a "fully collaborative" all-island economic development agency would help to attract more foreign direct investment to the province - and stimulate Ulster's economic growth.
"I believe that to market Northern Ireland effectively we should align the inward investment marketing activities of Invest NI with the Republic of Ireland's IDA (Industrial Development Agency)," he wrote in an article for The Irish Times.
"We should promote an all-island economy through a single, joined-up effective agency with the IDA and INI no longer competitors, but merged and fully collaborative," he said.
Dr Gillespie, who is chairman of Ulster Bank Group, said the IDA was best in class but Invest NI still had "some catching up to do".
"Surely sensible people in Belfast and Dublin could work out a mutually beneficial operating protocol to bring real benefit to the whole island? Tourism Ireland is already an operating example to follow.
"Would this be a big give-up for unionists in Northern Ireland? Such an international marketing arrangement would not compromise sovereignty."
He also said: "Would this be a big concession by the Republic of Ireland? I don't think so, as it would stimulate all-island economic growth, enhancing the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland."
Dr Gillespie, who is from a unionist background, said a joined-up agency would offer the most effective reach to decision-makers at the top of the world's multinationals.
"We could offer choices of location, jurisdiction, currency and culture, " he insisted.
"This is not a homogenous island and, even with differential tax rates between north and south, it is worth offering FDI (foreign direct investment) a well articulated case that each part of the island has its relative attractiveness.
"A joined-up INI/IDA should be a win/win for both parts of the island."
In the article, Dr Gillespie focuses on ways to stimulate economic growth in the province.
He said he fully supported the campaign to lower Northern Ireland's corporation tax rate from 30% to 12.5%, thus harmonising it with the Republic's rate.
He said such a move would give the province a strong pitch to attract FDI as there is international goodwill towards Northern Ireland at present.
Sir David Varney will shortly publish a review of business tax policy in Northern Ireland and Dr Gillespie said he hoped the result for the province would be a lower corporate tax regime.
Calls for a reduction in corporation tax here have been gathering pace since the Industrial Task Force, led by Sir George Quigley, and The Belfast Telegraph launched high-profile campaigns in 2005 urging the Treasury to harmonise tax levels with the Republic.
Responding to Dr Gillespie's views, Economy Minister Nigel Dodds said today: "This is an interesting contribution to the debate on how to stimulate economic development.
"I agree that there is scope for targeted co-operation with the Republic, however I am not convinced that Northern Ireland's interests would be best served by a merger of Invest NI and the IDA. The reality is that we are competitors."
Mr Dodds added: "The priority is for Northern Ireland to make the most of our assets and advantages, and not to be complacent."