Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Take risks for progress, urges PM

Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at the Invest Northern Ireland investment conference at the Titanic Belfast
Prime Minister David Cameron at the Invest Northern Ireland investment conference at the Titanic Belfast
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson at Stormont Castle in Belfast

Politicians in Northern Ireland who took risks to secure peace must now take further risks to secure economic progress, the Prime Minister has urged.

David Cameron laid down the challenge to ministers in the devolved administration after he told a gathering of influential foreign business executives that the region was a great place to invest in.

Mr Cameron, who was keynote speaker at the high-profile investment conference in Belfast, said there had been significant economic achievements in Northern Ireland in recent years - noting that, across the UK, only London had attracted more overseas investors - but he said there could be further gains if traditional sectarian divisions were finally bridged.

As the event took place in a tangible symbol of post-conflict Northern Ireland - the £90 million landmark Titanic Belfast visitor attraction - there have been stark reminders that not everyone has embraced a peaceful future.

Two men were murdered in gun attacks in Belfast and Londonderry earlier this week, with dissident republicans suspected of involvement in at least one of the killings, and a mortar bomb was found near a police station in Derry this morning - another incident blamed on dissident extremists opposed to the peace process.

After attending the conference, which has been predicted to deliver potentially thousands of jobs to the region, Mr Cameron held talks with First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

At the conclusion of the meeting at Stormont Castle, the Prime Minister said: "I think there is a huge potential in Northern Ireland if we can break down barriers, if we can bring people and communities together.

"These two men have taken great risks for peace and I think now we need to consider taking great risks for progress, risks for economic progress, risks for social progress, risks for progress right across Northern Ireland.

"They will have my support, the British Government/United Kingdom Government's support as they do so.

"But I think it's vital if we are going to build a really strong and prosperous and safe future for everyone in Northern Ireland."

Mr Cameron insisted that the violent incidents of the week had not undermined efforts to attract investors.

"All murders are despicable and of course you have to find those responsible and bring them to justice, and I am sure that will happen," he said.

"We have to focus as well on the big picture here in Northern Ireland."

He noted that a senior executive from a high-profile recent investor - US TV production company HBO, which films the popular Game Of Thrones series in the region - had hailed Northern Ireland as one of the safest places to work.

"So we should keep these things in perspective," the Prime Minister added.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, whose respective parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, head up the mandatory five-party power-sharing coalition, have committed to a series of initiatives to deliver more integration between divided communities, among them a target of tearing down the notorious "peace walls" which separate some Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods within 10 years.

But community relations have arguably taken a backward step over the last year, with numerous outbreaks of street disorder, primarily in Belfast, sparked by tensions over the thorny issues of flags and parades.

Political relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Stormont are at a low ebb as a consequence, with some projects having been stalled, such as a controversial peace centre at the former paramilitary Maze prison.

Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass has been called in to chair talks in a bid to find an agreed way forward on the main issues as yet addressed during the peace process.

Despite recent difficulties, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister presented a united front for the visit of the international investors.

"I have no doubt, I am absolutely certain, that as a result of the investment conference there will literally be hundreds, if not thousands of jobs coming to Northern Ireland," said Mr Robinson.

The DUP leader insisted there was "no likelihood" of the power-sharing coalition falling apart.

"We have difficulties, big difficulties, but we will do as we always do - and continue to talk and be involved in dialogue until we resolve the outstanding issues," he said.

Mr McGuinness said current investors, who had been invited to the conference to share their experiences of the region with those considering joining them, had provided assurance that it was a good place to work.

"I think we can say with great confidence that jobs will flow from this conference," the Sinn Fein veteran said.

"It has been very exciting to talk to people who have been very energised by their visit to the north."

He added: "They (conference delegates) come here understanding that we are still a society in transition. We had a useful discussion about the events of the last couple of days, and the most prominent advocates of people coming here are those who have been here for the last three or four years, who gave their testimony to those who are thinking of coming that this is one of the most peaceful places on the planet."

This morning Mr Cameron cast himself as a salesman for Northern Ireland as he made a vigorous pitch to the conference floor for further foreign investment.

He told 350 delegates from a range of countries around the world that they would benefit greatly from setting up in what he described as a "very special part" of the UK.

"I make no apology for being a bit of a salesman today," he said.

"I know some people think it's a bit undignified for a Prime Minister to make a sales pitch.

"But I am saying that's nonsense.

"I am passionate about the power of business to create jobs and growth.

"And I am passionate about what Northern Ireland has to offer.

"So I'm here today with one simple message: Put your money in Northern Ireland and be part of this incredible success story.

"Because investing in Northern Ireland makes business sense."

The conference was organised to capitalise on the positive global publicity the region generated with the successful hosting of the G8 summit in June.

Around 120 current investors in the region were invited to the conference to give their perspectives on the region to the 55 would-be investors who attended.

Mr Cameron also visited the nearby Bombardier aircraft factory on a day of engagements in the city.

The Canadian company, which has a long-term presence in Northern Ireland, has over recent years been rolling out a £520 million investment in its Belfast facilities to design, manufacture and assemble the wings for its new C Series commercial aircraft.

It marked the Prime Minister's visit by announcing the creation of 250 further jobs in Belfast over the coming year.

Mr Cameron, who was accompanied throughout the day by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, said the company was exactly the sort he wanted to thrive in the UK.

"What we need in our country is more businesses and jobs like this," he told workers on the factory floor.

"We need to make more things, we need to export more things, we need to design more things. We want the high-end, high-tech, high-paid, high-skilled jobs that companies like this bring to our country."

Addressing the conference earlier, he had described the peace process as one of the "most inspiring political stories of our time".

But he said the recent economic story also had positive elements.

"Northern Ireland has a track record of attracting inward investment," he said.

"With over 800 foreign investors, Northern Ireland is now second only to London as the top UK destination for inward investment, with almost 8,000 jobs from foreign investment in the last three years alone."

But he stressed that more work was needed to "re-balance" the economy from its traditional reliance on the public sector.

Mr Cameron also acknowledged that political problems remained unresolved at Stormont.

"To make new investments, you want to know that the political progress we have seen in Northern Ireland will remain on track," he told the conference.

"It is a remarkable story that politicians who were adversaries are now working together.

"And I can say this as Prime Minister, having worked with Peter and Martin, the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland over these past three years, no-one should doubt how serious these politicians are about working together.

"To anyone who asks whether this can endure - there is a track record in Northern Ireland of more than 15 years of progress.

"Of course, there are big political issues that still need to be resolved.

"And I know myself coalition government isn't easy. I know that first-hand - and we've only got two parties sharing power in Westminster.

"It's simply not possible to agree on everything. But we're committed to working closely with you as you tackle these issues.

"And I know that you are determined to find lasting solutions in the interests of the whole community."

Mr Cameron has vowed to make a final decision next autumn on the long-running saga of whether corporation tax powers should be devolved to Stormont.

If powers were transferred to the Executive, it could consider cutting the rate to compete better with lower business tax levels in the Republic of Ireland.

Asked about the specific issue of the troubled peace centre at the Maze, which has resulted in the offer of £18 million of EU funding being withdrawn, Mr Cameron said agreements could not always be reached between coalition partners.

He added: "But because you don't achieve an agreement on every occasion doesn't mean you give up - it means you press forward and you keep working together.

"And that is the spirit I see in Peter and Martin. They come from very different political parties, very different traditions, but they work together for the good of people in Northern Ireland."

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