First Minister Peter Robinson: Corporation tax deal is just weeks away
First Minister reveals authority to cut business levy is imminent
Peter Robinson has predicted that Northern Ireland's long wait for new powers to set corporation tax is almost over.
In an upbeat assessment just ahead of the DUP annual conference, the First Minister and party leader said believed the move will be heralded next month with a visit from the Prime Minister and Gary Hart, the new US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland.
David Cameron had promised to make his much-anticipated decision over the devolution of powers to set the key business tax after the Scottish referendum on independence.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Robinson also said:
He believes Sinn Fein will agree a budget;
The Government should hand back £100m that Stormont has paid out in fines for failing to implement welfare reform;
He wants a "smooth transition" when he steps down - which could be before the next Assembly election; and
There are still "issues" within the DUP, which no longer appears as united as it once did.
Mr Robinson dismissed claims that pressure from other devolved regions would make it more difficult to give Northern Ireland control of corporation tax, which is levied on business profits.
"I don't think Wales wants corporation tax, and I think even if Scotland were to be given corporation tax they would make very minimal change," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Northern Ireland alone has the case to have power over corporation tax devolved because of our closeness to a jurisdiction [the Republic] that has a lower level and because of our need to rebalance the economy."
He said: "I think it will be announced around the time of the autumn budgetary statement on December 3 and there is the potential to have a visit from the Prime Minster near then and Senator Hart is coming back, he told me. I think the United States has played a fairly positive role in Northern Ireland, particularly in terms of investment, but I don't think he will want to stick his nose into the negotiating process."
Stormont is mired in a financial crisis as a result of failing to implement welfare reform. Major changes have been made to the benefits system in Great Britain but Sinn Fein and the SDLP have so far ruled them out here, arguing that it would have a major impact on the poorest.
As a result the Treasury has clawed back the difference between what Northern Ireland spends on benefits, and what the Treasury thinks we should spend.
Mr Robinson believes Westminster may help us out financially if we agree an enhanced benefit package which would blunt some of the effects of the reforms. For instance, Stormont has set aside a £70m fund from its own resources.
"We have asked for support," he said.
"We have indicated that they should give us back the penalties that have been paid already. That is £87m and £13m the year before, which is £100m. We have £70m already left for the enhanced scheme within the agreed budget, so that is a start. They might put it over several years but if we agree to the enhanced scheme it is a reasonable ask that we get our penalties back."
Mr Robinson's keynote speech at the DUP party conference on Saturday will focus on May's general election. He hit out at smaller unionist parties which he felt could run "spoiler candidates" in seats held by fellow unionists and perhaps let nationalists in.
Mr Robinson also gave a hint that he may retire before the next Assembly election in May 2016. "If everything operated according to my script I might have gone in 2011," he said.
But he added that "there are still issues in the party and issues in the Union that I want to be in the right shape before I leave. I want a smooth transition".
It was put to him that if the DUP won back East Belfast and the issue of welfare reform was settled then this would be a pretty good note to quit on. "I hear what you say," he replied.
Supporters of devolving corporation tax powers say the ability of local politicians to set the rate will enable Northern Ireland to compete more strongly against the Republic, where it is just 12.5%, compared to 21% in the UK. They argue that this would help create jobs and help rebalance Northern Ireland's struggling economy, which is heavily dependent on the public sector.