David Cameron has insisted Northern Ireland’s economic recovery is well on course ahead of a meeting with Stormont’s political leaders in London.
The Prime Minister’s positive assessment came a year on from the implementation of a Government-backed stimulus package aimed at cementing political gains made in the post-conflict era.
“It is great news that the long-term economic plan is working for Northern Ireland,” he said.
A mainstay of the package was giving the Northern Ireland Executive the ability to borrow an additional £100 million from the Treasury.
Ahead of Mr Cameron’s meeting at Downing Street with Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, it was announced how the additional funds would be spent in the coming year.
It comes as politicians from the five main parties are set to enter talks in Belfast today aimed at resolving disagreements over flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles – the same issues which formed the core of the Haass negotiations.
Prior to the Downing Street encounter, the Government also confirmed that the long-awaited decision on whether Northern Ireland would be given the power to set its own rate of corporation tax was still on course to be made in the autumn.
The announcement on how this year’s allocation of the borrowed funds would be spent includes the following details: £8m to prioritise investment in integrated primary schools at Omagh, Portadown and Corran in Larne; a further £30m to fund more development at the Lisanelly shared education campus in Omagh; £15m to develop a new shared mixed-tenure housing scheme; and an extra 300 homes in a shared environment at sites including Belfast and Newtownabbey.
The Green Investment Bank will also make investments totalling £3.2m to increase the efficiency of the agri-food sector.
The Northern Ireland economy grew by 2.6 per cent last year, and Mr Cameron said: “In the last year output, employment and exports have increased; access to finance for small and medium sized enterprises has improved, and independent forecasters have revised up their outlook for the region.
“This means more financial security for hard-working people and businesses in Northern Ireland, who can be more confident about a brighter and more prosperous future.”
Mr Robinson said the update on the economic package showed commitment to re-balancing the Northern Ireland economy.
“We have worked together to address a range of issues facing our economy and we are now starting to see clear signs that it has begun to recover,” he said.
Mr McGuinness added: “Twelve months on, we can reflect on the progress made with the commitments in the economic pact and consider the challenges that still lie ahead.”
Ms Villiers said there were clear signs the economy had started to improve, and that the Executive has been committed to tackling community division, adding: “But the Government and the Executive recognise that more needs to be done.
“We will continue to work with the Executive to build on the progress already made, and to deliver the measures agreed in our pact last year.”
There was a call for politicians to reach agreement when renewed talks begin today on the same issues covered by the Haass talks.
The five main parties will be locked in discussions from 10am to 5pm, continuing on Thursday and Friday – with sessions also planned for next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Alliance leader David Ford said the opportunities presented by the discussions “must be grasped”.
The NI Council for Voluntary Action echoed his demand for agreement, with CEO Seamus McAleavey calling on politicians to strike a deal “before the momentum and focus created by the Haass talks disappears completely”.