Northern Ireland’s new Secretary of State has insisted that she hasn’t been parachuted in to kill off plans for the devolution of corporation tax powers.
Amid growing doubts over the likelihood of Stormont being given the power to vary the business tax rate, Theresa Villiers has publicly pledged that she “would like to see it happen”.
Ms Villiers insists it can occur if “technical difficulties” including the cost to our block grant can be resolved at ministerial meetings.
The new Northern Secretary was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph in her first print interview since joining the Cabinet.
“I am absolutely not here to kill this project. I am making the case across Government. I will continue to do that,” she said.
“I recognise the support for this move in Northern Ireland and I would like to see it happen.”
But she also warned: “We have yet to be able to decide whether that is going to be possible.”
Business leaders and Executive parties all believe that cutting the tax on business profits would lead to rapid industrial growth.
The UK rate is currently 26%, but will be reduced to 22% by stages over the next three years.
In the Republic of Ireland it is only 12.5%.
The Republic’s lower rate has been credited with attracting key US multinationals like Pfizer, Apple and Google, who have all set up their European headquarters south of the border.
It has been officially estimated that cutting our rate to the Republic’s level would create 58,000 new jobs by 2030.
A committee of Executive and Treasury ministers has been trying to agree the cost of a reduction to our block grant, with the Treasury demanding more than the Executive is prepared to pay.
The group, including David Gauke, a Treasury minister, will meet again on October 18.
“Price is one of the issues to be determined before we know if devolution is possible or not” Ms Villiers said.
Owen Paterson, Ms Villiers’ predecessor, was an enthusiastic promoter of the idea and is credited with pushing it up the Westminster agenda.
While Ms Villiers uses more cautious language than the ebullient Mr Paterson, both Peter Robinson, the First Minister, and Irwin Armstrong, the leader of the Northern Ireland Tories, have said that in private meetings she had indicated support.
However, in the Assembly recently Mr Robinson bluntly stated that he still needed to know for sure which side she was on.
Ms Villiers responded: “I think it could be very beneficial for the Northern Ireland economy. A lot of work has been done... and that is going to continue with the ministerial working groups.
“I am happy to put the case for this change to my colleagues in Government, but we also know that there are some significant technical issues to be resolved — not least of which is assessing the cost of that kind of change.”
In her support of the plan and her assertions that the difficulties are technical, Ms Villiers is allowing expectations to build.
It is over the next few days that she will meet to discuss the subject with business leaders.
Stormont ministers could soon have an extra voice on business missions
Thenew Secretary of State wants to act as an economic ambassador for Northern Ireland and would like to join local ministers on international trade missions.
This is something which has never been done by any other Secretary of State during the period of devolved Government.
However, she cites the example of Hugo Swire, the Minister of State under Owen Paterson.
“The previous Minister of State Hugo Swire went on a trade mission with Arlene Foster (the Enterprise and Investment Minister at Stormont). This is very important. For the first time a minister of the Government was directly on a visit with a devolved minister. I think that was ground-breaking. Those kinds of things are going to be crucial to bringing prosperity to Northern Ireland.”
Mr Swire was more popular with the DUP than Mr Paterson, who the party accused of meddling and who frequently gave strong political advice.
Ms Villiers is clearly hoping that she can build a better relationship with the local parties than Mr Paterson and that she and Mrs Foster can make a good double act abroad.
Her main focus so far has been on the economy. “I am interested in looking at ways we can promote foreign investments in Northern Ireland,” she said.
She has picked out issues which can be used to promote the province and central Government measures which can be exploited here.
“I think the roll-out of superfast broadband in Belfast as one of the nominated super-connected cities supported by the UK Government is very important.
“I think there are interesting developments in the creative industries in Northern Ireland and I think, again, that the key part of delivering that is the film tax credits which are decided at a UK Government level.”
She advocates creating more apprenticeships to raise our skill levels and was supportive of the Belfast Telegraph’s successful 100 Jobs In 100 days campaign.
“I am particularly interested in apprenticeships as well,” she said. “I see that as a crucial way not only to make us competitive, but also to provide opportunities for people.”
She is keen not to put her foot in it, so trying to pin her down can be frustrating. Eventually I got tetchy and said: ‘Is there anything you can tell me straight?
By Liam Clarke
’Comparing her to the previous incumbent as Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, one Conservative Party insider said of Theresa Villiers: “She is not like Owen Paterson, waving his arms about, that’s for sure.”
Mr Paterson could be a delight for journalists. He was full of soundbites, he had an opinion on most things and he spoke with an enthusiasm and commitment that was infectious.
In his new job at the Department of Agriculture he has plunged right in with a no nonsense, no grey areas approach to support the controversial issue of culling badgers.
Ms Villiers is more cautious. She hedges her bets and is obviously keen not to put her foot in something nasty before she knows the local landscape. At times trying to pin her down was frustrating.
Near the end of our interview I got a bit tetchy with her approach and asked: “Secretary of State, can you give me a definite answer on anything? What are your priorities? Is there something you can tell me straight?”
She smiled disarmingly, not a skill of Owen Paterson.
“Well, absolutely, I want to be part of a boosting of the Northern Ireland economy. Making it a great place to do business, attracting foreign investment, and cementing the results of the peace process, supporting the devolved administrations, supporting the devolved institutions, helping make them work and being a strong and effective voice for Northern Ireland in the Cabinet.”
Not a bad list, and I have it on tape, but the mental note I made was “another dollop of motherhood and apple pie”.
Ms Villiers is a pleasant person to meet and easy to talk to. She is tall and thin, and was dressed in a conservative, business suit. She has the bright upbeat manner and social skills of the well-bred former public schoolgirl she is.
There is also no doubting that she has the clear and agile mind suggested by her First Class honours degree in law.
The Northern Ireland job was a surprise to her. Until two weeks ago she was best known for her support of Crossrail, a London transport scheme, and laughed when I asked her if I should be asking her about that.
She had, she explained, only been to Northern Ireland once before and that was to a house party in Hillsborough in 1987 or 1988. She has enough sense not to feel she is an expert, a trap many newcomers from England fall into.
“I have been doing lots of reading over the last couple of weeks and speaking to people is obviously crucial.”
She wants to wait until most of the meetings are over before being too definite.
What she and her advisers want at this stage is not so much to give journalists nice, clear stories, but to avoid saying anything to damage the political equilibrium.
I asked her if Sinn Fein should be getting Parliamentary allowances without taking their seats at Westminster. Most home county Tory ladies would have an instant opinion, but she avoided a straight answer and sidestepped a potential hornet’s nest.
“Parliamentary expenses have been controversial across the political spectrum, it is certainly not just Sinn Fein that have been subject to scrutiny. I think on that I will be listening to representations made to me and it is clearly an important issue to get right... I will be wanting to look into different views on that before reaching a conclusion on it,” she said.
Her adviser, an old NIO hand, nodded. She got through that one.
The lawyer in her can make her almost too risk-averse. When asked if Northern Ireland should move towards a system of Government and Opposition, though with weighted majorities, she hummed and hawed about the need for a good discussion and broad consensus. Even when an adviser broke in to tell her that the Prime Minister had expressed support for the idea, she woouldn’t commit.
It is easier to get things wrong in Northern Ireland than to get them right, so she has a point when she refuses to shoot from the hip at this stage.
Still, driving in neutral won’t get her very far. Some time soon she must spell out goals for her period in office and see if she can achieve them.