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Sammy Wilson goes from figure of fun to principal player

By Adrian Rutherford

He is the motorbike-mad minister whose unorthodox views on climate change made him a figure of fun.

But a year on from becoming Finance Minister no-one is laughing at Sammy Wilson any longer.

The straight-talking DUP politician has earned widespread respect for his tell-it-like-it-is approach, his criticism of banks and ability to juggle departmental budgets.

In short, Sammy has fast emerged as one of the key players at the Stormont decision table and the figure best placed to lead Northern Ireland through the economic crisis.

And it makes the fact that he’s expected to step down from the Executive a bit of a problem.

As part of the clampdown on double-jobbing, he cannot continue indefinitely as an MP for East Antrim and an Executive minister.

Last month Mr Wilson was re-elected to Westminster, meaning he will give up Stormont for the House of Commons in the near future.

But, given the mounting economic problems, momentum is growing for the current Finance Minister to be allowed to stay in his post.

Leading economist John Simpson said Mr Wilson had demonstrated a clear understanding of key issues over the last year.

“There are obviously other people who could be Finance Minister, but he has shown a particular understanding of the demands of that job,” he said.

“He has also shown that he is able to present them in a way that takes a step back from party politics, and is the most articulate of the MLAs we have on that subject.”

Sir David Fell, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said moving Mr Wilson in line with the double-jobbing policy had to be balanced with his ministerial ability. He said there was a “clear advantage” of having an experienced Finance Minister in the post during a period of “great sensitivity” for public finance following this week’s emergency Budget.

John Armstrong, who is managing director of the Construction Employers’ Federation, said Mr Wilson was capable of taking tough decisions. “As Finance Minister he’s got some difficult decisions to make with his Executive colleagues towards the end of the year,” he said.

“Our experience is that he is a person who is not afraid to take those difficult decisions.”

Mr Wilson is now a serious player in Northern Ireland’s Executive — despite his somewhat colourful past.

In October 2008 Mr Wilson was caught driving one of his five motorbikes without tax or an MoT — even though he was in charge of road safety at the time. And as Environment Minister he angered green campaigners by describing their view on climate change as a “hysterical pseudo-religion”.

No point in hiding from the tough times that lie ahead

Minister Owen Paterson tells Parliamentary Correspondent Sam Lister that Northern Ireland will have to tighten its belt

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson has admitted he cannot guarantee the province will escape a double dip recession as a result of this week’s Budget.

Hitting back at Finance Minister Sammy Wilson’s warning that the Budget measures could plunge the local economy into crisis, Mr Paterson said the only certainty was that an economic disaster would have happened without the measures unveiled on Tuesday.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Paterson insisted he “wholly refutes” claims there was nothing for Northern Ireland in the Budget.

But he said there was “no point hiding” from the tough times ahead and everyone living in Northern Ireland will now have to “sharpen up”.

Northern Ireland’s higher reliance on state-funded jobs, which account for one third of the workforce, will mean the pain unleashed by the Chancellor on Tuesday will be felt hardest here, economists have warned.

But Mr Paterson said: “The average public sector wage in Northern Ireland is £27,000, the average private sector wage is £21,000. There is no point hiding it, this will be tough on every single person right across the UK but there are those who work for the private sector who have had a very difficult time over the last two years and everybody is going to have to play their part.

“George Osborne has gone to great lengths with things like the boost on the child tax credit, the pensions lock and taking 880,000 out of tax.

“I would also make the point the huge numbers of people that work together in the public sector in Northern Ireland, they know how they could do things more efficiently.”

Mr Paterson said it was “perfectly fair to flag up” concerns about the impact the VAT hike to 20% would have on cross-border trade with the Republic, which has a 21% rate.

He added: “Every business is going to have to tighten its belt, every retail outlet is going to have to deliver its goods more efficiently, we are all going to have sharpen up.”

Mr Paterson said he wholly refuted any suggestion there was nothing for Northern Ireland in the Budget.

“Firstly, I make the very broad point that Northern Ireland would be affected as dramatically, probably more dramatically, than any other part of the UK if we had a collapse in confidence in the British economy and a hike in interest rates and a run on the pound.

“Northern Ireland is absolutely unique in that we say we will publish a consultation paper in the autumn on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. There is no other part of the UK that is mentioned in quite such a specific manner.

“Northern Ireland will benefit more than most on the plans to reduce the headline rate of corporation tax down from 28% to 24%, so I would actually wholly refute that. Northern Ireland is unique in the UK in that it is specifically mentioned in the Red Book.

“Northern Ireland’s economy is more vulnerable already because it has lower productivity than other parts of the UK. It is less resilient, so it is particularly vulnerable to a major downturn.”

He added: “It is not an option to do nothing in Northern Ireland, we cannot leave Northern Ireland with 77.6% of GDP depending on state spending. It is irresponsible to do nothing but it is equally responsible to be too radical.”

Asked if there could be a Northern Ireland double dip, Mr Paterson said: “I can’t give any guarantees on anything. What I can give is an absolute guarantee that if we had carried on where we were there would have been an economic disaster. This is our best chance of getting out and returning to growth.

“It is not a gamble because it is an absolute cast-iron certainty that if we had continued on in the previous trajectory we would have hit a brick wall. It would have been obvious to people lending us money that we would have had difficult paying it.”

Mr Paterson also warned the cost of the way the past is dealt with will be tackled, adding he hoped it was an incentive for people to “work towards a shared future”.

Details of how much money will be slashed from Northern Ireland’s budget will be announced on October 20 as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

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