Belfast Telegraph

Work needed in autumn to avoid winter of discontent

By Tom Moseley

Autumns are always busy times in politics. There is the frantic conference season, with its 'make-or-break' leaders' speeches and endless fringe events. All this often accompanies a reshuffle. And this year is looking no different.

At the same time, developments are due this autumn on two vital issues for the Northern Ireland economy - both of which will be determined from Westminster. They are the prospects of a devolved corporation tax rate and the province's regional aid status.

A date has yet to be set for the next meeting of the corporation tax working group, which was assembled to thrash out the small print of the proposals to hand control of the tax to Stormont.

Things have not turned out quite so straightforward, however, and, while next month's meeting is likely to be the last, the prospects of finding agreement on some key issues are looking increasingly remote.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson told me the issues of what should and should not be included in the vital calculations have been discussed "to death".

He believes the final report of the group will simply present both sides of the argument.

The matter will then end up being determined around the Cabinet table, where Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson will make the case to Chancellor George Osborne, whose Treasury has been portrayed as the key roadblock to any reforms.

While that issue is finally being resolved, the Government will come under renewed pressure over its plans to remove Northern Ireland's automatic 100% assisted area status. That might not sound enthralling, but it is important stuff, affecting the ability of governments to subsidise business growth in areas deemed in need of assistance.

We've already heard the concerns of the Northern Ireland Executive, Invest NI, Belfast City Council and the CBI (Northern Ireland), which responded to the Government's consultation, which closed over the summer.

Westminster's official response is expected in the autumn - even though the Treasury says an impact assessment, looking at the effect on Northern Ireland, will not take place until next year.

Next month, a delegation of Northern Ireland's MPs will meet Business Secretary Vince Cable to urge him to reconsider, while Mr Paterson will come under more pressure from Labour spokesman Vernon Coaker - who first raised the matter in the Commons - to speak out. Ministers insist there need be no change to the amount of regional aid given to Northern Ireland.

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