Economy Minister Diane Dodds has said dealing with Brexit has overtaken cutting the rate of corporation tax as a priority for her department.
Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster, the DUP MLA said a tax cut was still “a policy idea” but that dealing with Brexit was more urgent.
Parties in the Executive had previously united around a policy of implementing a lower rate of corporation tax to help Northern Ireland compete for investment with the Republic, which has a rate of 12.5%. The current main rate across the UK is 19%.
But the minister said: “The most important thing we need to do right now in the next number of months, not even years, is to look at Brexit and how the outworkings of Brexit will impact on Northern Ireland economically, particularly the protocol.”
The Northern Ireland - Ireland Protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement sets out that Northern Ireland should have “unfettered access” to trade with the rest of the UK — a promise also made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement which restored devolution.
That document adds that “the government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market”.
And Mrs Dodds said the Executive now needed to unite to ensure that the promise of “unfettered access” was maintained.
In the Commons during Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed an assurance from Boris Johnson of unfettered access for goods travelling from NI to GB after the UK leaves the EU. He asked for that commitment to be the same for goods travelling in the other direction.
"Emphatically it does," the PM replied.
Minister Dodds said whatever position the local parties took on Brexit, "the fact remains a reality... we will leave on January 31 and Brexit will be a fact".
“Therefore the job of the Executive and each minister but particularly the economy minister is to ensure that the promises made in the new deal document are actually delivered upon by the government.
“The government has promised that there will be unfettered access to the rest of the UK’s internal market.
“There will be no barriers between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales. That is a huge promise that the government must deliver on and I intend to hold them to that promise.”
Unfettered access was crucial, she said.
“Remember that two thirds of everything that we use either for manufacturing or in the high street is actually comes from Great Britain. It’s by far our single biggest market and it must be protected.”
She said the department was preparing papers for an Executive subcommittee which would tackle issues relating to Brexit.
She added: “Tomorrow I will talk with colleagues and Minister Conor Burns in the Department for International Trade about how we can input into not just trade in the UK but how we can have access to trade deals which the UK will do after Brexit.
“People have said that the disadvantage has been that Northern Ireland had no minister at the table. That stops now.”
The former MEP said a corporation tax cut was still an attractive policy lever. Finance Minister Conor Murphy ruled out the measure on Monday.
“It’s always there that we would like to see a lower rate of corporation tax that would make us more competitive with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland who have an incredibly low rate of corporation tax.
“Coming from the European Parliament and institutions, I can tell you it’s both the envy and the talk of many other countries around Europe as to how they continue to do that.
“Cutting corporation tax is always a tool that we will need and should look to do in the long term to make our economy more competitive.”
She said the department was also waiting the outcome of a report by the inquiry into the renewable heat incentive scheme but said she had not seen any preliminary indications of what the report might contain.
“I have had no sight of any preliminary response or any contact with the inquiry and that is as it should be. The inquiry must be free and independent to report, free of political control, and I have had no contact with them.”
But she said that after the report is released, the department will make recommendations to the Executive about a replacement scheme to cut carbon emissions.
“We will do that, learning the lessons of the past but looking forward to actually having a new and vibrant energy strategy to move us to a net zero carbon position.”