Belfast Telegraph

Burying our heads in the sand is just not an option

Westminster must devolve power to vary Corporation Tax, says Sir Reg Empey

As next month's US-NI Economic Conference looms on the horizon, Northern Ireland again has an opportunity to showcase what it has to offer potential investors.

However, the Executive faces significant challenges that must addressed if economic opportunities are to be grasped.

The scale of the UK's deficit is well-known and no matter who formed the Government after May 6, difficult choices were going to be faced. Cuts, deeper than those of the Thatcher years, are predicted.

The Executive must demonstrate maturity and courage to lead Northern Ireland through this difficult time. Ignoring the issue, or provoking a confrontation with Westminster would amount to immature, irresponsible politics - we must not play the politics of fantasy island.

Of course, we must strive to get the best deal for Northern Ireland. However, pursuing a strategy of confrontation with Westminster against cuts would be reckless. Overseas and non-indigenous investors won't be attracted by an irresponsible or dysfunctional Executive.

Delay, prevarication and political cowardice will only undermine the confidence of home-grown businesses and potential investors. Politicians in Northern Ireland need to take hard decisions and start thinking of longer-term objectives.

A UK economy weakened by perilous levels of debt and debt repayments undermines the long-term economic well-being of Northern Ireland. Rising unemployment, higher interest rates and less money for public services are all that await us if action is not taken.

During the 'boom years' of 1996 to 2008, when Northern Ireland's employment level was the fastest-growing in the UK, our economy's structural weaknesses were not addressed. The skills gap, low productivity levels, over-reliance on the public sector and economic inactivity rates remained - and still remain. The coalition has made clear that it wants to rebalance the UK's economy, expanding economic activity and productivity beyond London and the South-East. This offers us a unique and unmissable opportunity to address structural problems.

Devolving the power to vary Corporation Tax to the Assembly is a potential 'game-changer' for Northern Ireland.

Rather than seek a futile confrontation over reductions in public spending, it is crucially important that the Executive impresses upon Westminster the urgent need for power over Corporation Tax. There is no other single policy capable of radically improving Northern Ireland's economic potential.

Alongside the power to reduce Corporation Tax, we need a highly skilled workforce that is capable of attracting investors - prompting another hard choice for the Stormont Executive.

Money invested in skills is not a luxury but an economic imperative. The Executive, then, faces three significant challenges. Firstly, we need to show leadership in how we manage the need to reduce public spending. Opting out of this is not an option.

The only way to protect frontline services and to boost business confidence is to tackle the issue head-on. Secondly, we must work together to impress upon Westminster the urgent need to devolve the power to vary Corporation Tax. Thirdly, we must make the decision to increase our investment in the skills of our workforce.

There is no doubt Northern Ireland faces a tough, challenging few years and the Executive can either duck their responsibilities or live up to the demands of leadership. We may stick our heads in the sand and pretend we can stop the cuts but that would be a betrayal of Northern Ireland's economic interests.

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