High-level delegation of US investors lined up for Ulster visit in spring, says Villiers
A high-powered delegation of US investors is being lined up for a visit to Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State has said.
Theresa Villiers told the Belfast Telegraph she has been told to expect a major trade delegation here in the spring, as well as strong US support for the peace process.
The Northern Ireland Secretary was speaking ahead of a meeting today to review the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA), the deal hammered out by the parties in December to keep the Assembly on track.
Ms Villiers said the US ambassador to the UK - dotcom millionaire Matthew Winthrop Barzun - had told her an announcement on the visit is due.
"I was just talking to the US ambassador this morning and there is great enthusiasm for bringing potential investors and playing their part in promoting Northern Ireland for inward investment. They will have an announcement on that in due course," she said.
"They are very keen to build on the progress made in the Stormont House Agreement."
Ms Villiers said Gary Hart - the US special envoy to Northern Ireland - was keen to get back to the province. Mr Hart was personally appointed last October by Secretary of State John Kerry, who described the former Senator as "a problem-solver, a brilliant analyst, and someone capable of thinking at once tactically, strategically, and practically".
His supporting role in the talks running up to the Stormont House Agreement was a clear indication of continuing US interest in Northern Ireland.
Ms Villiers said Mr Hart and the US administration were delighted that a deal had been struck by our politicians.
"I know Gary Hart is keen to come back soon. He wants to come back with an economic and prosperity focus to see how the US administration can support and strengthen the Northern Ireland economy," she said.
Mr Hart recently told an audience in Denver that he hoped to bring a congressional delegation to Northern Ireland, either in February or April, and also an investment business group of American companies to "explore the markets" here.
Ms Villiers said: "Timing is under discussion at the moment. I know they would like to do it soon."
An April visit could coincide with the passage of legislation enabling the devolution of corporation tax powers.
The plan is to lower this levy on businesses from 21% to the 12.5% charged in the Republic.
The cost to the Executive has been estimated at around £300m a year. However, Ms Villiers stressed that the actual use of the new powers would be in the hands of the Executive.
"There isn't an absolute deal that these powers get switched on but I think it is highly likely that they will be, because the Executive is demonstrating its maturity, demonstrating with the SHA that it is prepared to take tough decisions to ensure that its numbers add up. I am confident that I am going to be able to do this," she said.
Ms Villiers said she expected the meeting to review the implementation of the SHA to be positive, as the Executive had made "excellent progress".
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April is thought the most likely date for a trade visit and investment conference for potential US investors. By then, corporation tax powers may be devolved. Before that, President Obama is expected to meet local party leaders for the White House's St Patrick's Day party. Last year, with Stormont in the doldrums after the Haass talks fell apart, a disappointed Mr Obama did not meet them formally.