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Jostling begins for moment in Westminster's spotlight

Northern Ireland's MPs will gather at Westminster this week for a debate they have been itching to get stuck into for months.

The subject, at Westminster Hall on Thursday, will be 'rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy'. This was the topic, you may recall, that we were due to debate in November, when the Northern Ireland Grand Committee last met.

The subject, however, was changed to David Cameron's Big Society, to the frustration of many elected members who wanted ministers to outline Ulster's route to economic recovery.

The DUP has secured Thursday's slot, but expect all parties to jostle for attention before a minister - probably from the NIO - faces the awkward task of talking at length about the economy less than three weeks before the Budget. It could not be more timely. Lobbying is underway in earnest ahead of George Osborne's annual showpiece.

From the Lib Dems, he is facing demands for a 'mansion tax' and the lifting of the income tax burden for anyone earning less than £10,000.

From the Right, Liam Fox has resurfaced and is demanding the Tories face down the Lib Dems and remind them who's boss.

His band of backbenchers want to see corporation tax slashed and red tape removed from businesses. All of this takes place with the UK on the verge of another recession and it's fair to say there's not a lot room for manoeuvre.

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So what will Northern Ireland's politicians be pushing for?

The DUP's Nigel Dodds wants to see VAT cuts for the construction sector.

He backs the Lib Dems' drive to raise the tax threshold and calls for new measures to get banks to lend to small businesses.

For the SDLP, Margaret Ritchie also wants to see VAT reduced, but for the tourism sector. And having organised a debate on the issue last week, she also wants to see the freeze on fuel duty extended.

Unfortunately, this is something Mr Osborne came mighty close to completely ruling out over the weekend.

The Chancellor chose to point to action the Government has already taken on fuel, costing "several billion".

He has also said there will be no extra borrowing.

The run-up to Budget day is a great opportunity for grandstanding. Factions within the Government that are usually hidden from view come to the fore, demanding cash for their pet projects.

Within the coalition, clear divisions between Tory and Lib Dem MPs are distilled. And while it might not generate the same headlines as a coalition rift, Thursday's debate will at least ensure the voice of Westminster's Northern Ireland lobby is heard.

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