Belfast Telegraph

Villiers urges progress at talks

The opportunity for progress presented by the all-party talks at Stormont cannot be allowed to slip away, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.

Theresa Villiers said the Chancellor's decision to link the devolution of corporation tax to the outcome of the ongoing negotiations meant there was now even more at stake.

Ms Villiers said others measures announced in George Osborne's Autumn Statement would mean Northern Ireland would receive an additional £76 million via the Barnett formula for allocating money proportionally to the UK regions.

Along with the impasse over the failure to implement welfare reform in the region, the talks process involving the five parties in the mandatory coalition is trying to break the deadlock in disputes over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

Proposals to cut the size of the Assembly and change its governance structures are also on the agenda.

While no formal deadline has been set to reach agreement, Christmas is seen by many as an effective cut-off point, as political positions are anticipated to harden in the new year as the UK general election looms.

The US administration's envoy to the talks, former senator Gary Hart, has been in the region this week to add his weight to the process while Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish premier Taoiseach Enda Kenny are anticipated to travel there by the end of the month.

Ms Villiers said: "I strongly welcome the commitment to legislate to devolve corporation tax rate-setting powers to Northern Ireland.

"This is conditional on progress being made in the current talks, including the Executive demonstrating that they can agree a credible course to get their finances on a sustainable footing.

"It has taken a significant effort to get to this point and it is positive news that Northern Ireland could be on the brink of getting these powers. Today's Autumn Statement has raised the stakes in the cross-party talks and made it even more vital that the parties do all they can to reach an agreement in the short time we now have. It is vital not to let this opportunity slip away."

On the wider Autumn Statement, Ms Villiers added: "The Government's long-term economic plan has helped secure the fastest growth rate of any major developed economy in the world and delivered more people in work than ever before.

"Northern Ireland is sharing this growth, with economic activity, exports and employment all increasing."

US envoy Mr Hart tonight urged the parties to put the public good above self interest.

"The multi-party negotiations at Stormont are a test of Northern Ireland's self government," he said

"The discussions surrounding budgets and welfare reform, the legacy issues, institutional reform, and unfinished business from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement are at the centre of the devolved government's challenge to perform its duties on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

"The long-term public interest, including the interests of future generations, must be prioritised ahead of individual and party interests. This is a crucial moment and time is running out. A comprehensive settlement of these issues must be reached at the earliest possible date.

"The United States stands strongly behind these negotiation efforts and is committed to support all fair and just resolutions in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Time is of the essence and genuine statesmanship on all sides is needed."

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