A Government decision to make the delivery of a new economic aid package to Northern Ireland dependent on progress tackling sectarian divisions is not an attempt to blackmail the region's politicians into action, the Secretary of State has insisted.
Visiting Belfast on the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, Theresa Villiers said linking measures to boost the private sector economy with the implementation of shared future initiatives was a demonstration of how strongly Prime Minister David Cameron felt on the issue of reconciliation.
Ms Villiers, who this morning met with community groups on both sides of one of the city's infamous peace walls, said great strides had been made since the historic power-sharing accord, but said there remained an urgent need to address the divisions that continued to blight the region.
She said: "Huge progress has been made in the 15 years since the Belfast Agreement was signed and we need to give an enormous amount of credit to Northern Ireland's politicians for delivering unprecedented peace and stability. But I think they acknowledge that there is unfinished business, there is further work to be done, and a key area for that is healing sectarian divisions."
The Government is in negotiations with Stormont Executive ministers on a range of potential economic measures. It is understood these include Treasury incentives to boost the region's flagging private sector, including the creation of enterprise zones, greater support for business start-ups and improving access to loans.
Ms Villiers, who said the package could potentially go beyond what has been offered to other parts of the UK, said it made "good sense" to link the economic support with action on sectarianism.
"If we can't agree the package it's a fact that we may not be able to deliver some of the things that we are talking about and discussing on the table at the minute," she warned. "But I think there's every chance that we will be able to agree that because, as I say, the Executive are already doing some excellent work on building a shared society and I am optimistic that we will be able to come up with something that they are happy with and we are as well."
Sinn Fein heavily criticised the Secretary of State's comments, claiming it highlighted the need for the region to gain its own fiscal autonomy.
Assembly member for the party Daithi McKay branded her remarks as "nonsense".
"We have seen decades of under-investment in the North and if the British government believe withholding funding is going to make people integrate more, they clearly have lost the plot," he said. "These comments from Theresa Villiers will not quicken the resolution of these issues but only show the arrogance and ignorance of fly-by-night British ministers who are posted here."