'Northern Ireland stands on brink of an incredible transformation'
Gavin O'Reilly, group CEO of Independent News -amp; Media, addressed assembled guests at Hillsborough last week. The following is an excerpt of his speech
SOME of the most vocal and visionary advocates of a lower rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland are in this room this evening.
Sir George Quigley, who made his first recommendation on this issue 35 years ago, cannot be with us this evening, but we were delighted to host him on Monday up at Galgorm when the First Minister addressed our executives and editors. We, in INM, are more recent campaigners - but no less ardent - thanks to the great interest and eloquence of our former chief executive and architect of our group, Tony O'Reilly.
While corporation tax has been a long and difficult journey with its fair share of setbacks, such as the rather inexplicable Varney report, we are fortunate that we have a Secretary of State of significant political courage in Owen Paterson who championed this issue in opposition.
And please don't take this as an insult - as it's rather refreshing for a politician - Owen has been even more enthusiastic about it in government.
First Minister Peter Robinson addressed us very impressively on Monday, and was equally enthusiastic about the incredible potential of a lower rate of corporation tax here in Northern Ireland.
He sees it as a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity that addresses the political and social imperative, and he could not be more determined to seize it. I think that when the consultation period ends on July 1, the message coming out of Northern Ireland will be loud, clear and consistent. Then, Secretary of State, it will be up to you to convince Chancellor George Osborne and all those nice people in the Treasury.
Of course, if President Sarkozy gets his way (which he won't) Northern Ireland could end up with a lower corporation tax than the Republic.
Now, I know that some people opposed to a devolvement of the power to lower corporation tax have pointed out that it did not save the Republic of Ireland from an economic meltdown. This is true.
But let me assure you that, of all the things that we did wrong in the boom years, keeping a low rate of corporation tax was not one of them. And while the Celtic Tiger may today have more than a bout of indigestion to it, all I can say is that the only thing that is preventing the Republic from slipping into the abyss is our 12.5% corporation tax rate.
As Alastair Hamilton will be well aware, Barry O'Leary and the industrial development authority, to this day, use corporation tax to attract massive inward investment into the Republic. The ability of the IDA to attract American foreign direct investment has always been particularly impressive.
A low corporation tax rate combined with a flexible and English-speaking workforce has made the Republic's per capita stock of foreign direct investment the second highest in the world, and double the EU average. No wonder monsieur Sarkozy is so bloody annoyed.
If Alastair and Invest Northern Ireland are given the same weapon of a low corporation tax rate, I - like your First Minister and so many others - am absolutely convinced that they can replicate this performance and, in some cases, exceed it.
Belfast is already the best performing regional UK city in attracting FDI, so the skillset is there. And while we may still be in the midst of an economic fog, I believe that Northern Ireland now stands on the brink of an incredible transformation. Brave and passionate people will be required to seize that opportunity, and one thing that Northern Ireland has in abundance is brave and passionate people.
The final piece in the formal normalising of relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom was the visit of her majesty.
It was a very gratifying and intensely emotional experience for those of us who live and, predominantly, work south of Newry.
But, in practical terms, the true beneficiaries of the visit will, I predict, actually be the people of Northern Ireland, as foreign investors look afresh, and far more positively, at your potential.
All you need to do is get in front of them. Corporation tax will let you do that.
As a major employer in Northern Ireland, this may smell like enlightened self-interest - and I assure you, it is... But we shall all benefit and it will finally provide Northern Ireland with the lasting economic dividend which it so justly deserves.