OPINION: 'We must grow Northern Ireland's private sector'

Conservative shadow foreign secretary WILLIAM HAGUE explains the party's view on the private sector

The past week brought the news that in March 2010 Northern Ireland was the only region of the United Kingdom to see an increase in unemployment.

This is now the second consecutive month in which this has happened. In the past year, the rise in unemployment in Northern Ireland has been the highest of the UK regions.

That is the background to David Cameron's belief that we must grow Northern Ireland's private sector. We all know that – because of the mountain of debt built up by Gordon Brown – we are moving into a time when public spending will be tight. Even the Labour Chancellor has admitted this. This means that if we want to see jobs, investment and opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland, we must grow the private sector.

To stick with the status quo, therefore, would be to betray Northern Ireland's economic future. Other parties are clearly prepared to do this. Other parties are arguing to maintain the status quo and leave Northern Ireland on the window ledge of the British economy. This is not something Conservatives and Unionists will contemplate.

While others are content to deprive Northern Ireland of the jobs and opportunities that come from a vibrant private sector, Conservative and Unionists have the policies and vision to ensure that Northern Ireland shares in a UK-wide rising tide of prosperity.

We will tackle the deficit to keep mortgages lower for longer; we will stop Labour's jobs tax that would wreck the recovery and we will cut corporation tax across the United Kingdom – allowing businesses to grow and create jobs. And here in Northern Ireland we'll look at how we create an economic enterprise zone, and bring forward plans on the mechanisms for lowering corporation tax. We will also consult on the introduction of a fair fuel stabiliser that will help every family and every business in Northern Ireland.

There is another issue that other parties in Northern Ireland irresponsibly ignore – the importance of tackling that deficit. This year the British Government will spend 42 billion alone on interest payments on what it borrows. That is more than double public expenditure for the whole of Northern Ireland. It is money that will never be invested in our schools, our hospitals or on our Armed Forces.

So we need to get the deficit under control, and that is what a Conservative and Unionist Government will do but in a measured and responsible way that allows us to protect key frontline public services. If we don't get the deficit under control, public services will be threatened. That would be the result of the irresponsible approach of the other parties. With no plan or will to tackle the deficit, they threaten the future of public services in Northern Ireland and right across the United Kingdom.

The past few days have demonstrated beyond doubt that only the Conservatives and Unionists possess the determination and policies to see Northern Ireland fully share in a prosperous, enterprising British economy. We have stated our aim of re-balancing the Northern Ireland economy by revitalising and growing the private sector. We know this will take up to 25 years, but a Conservative and Unionist government will start on this work on 7th May.

'At the heart of the Union' is not just a slogan for Conservatives and Unionists. It expresses our core belief that Northern Ireland has a right to fully participate in the political and economic life of the rest of the United Kingdom.

While other parties use the same old arguments to defend the status quo of Northern Ireland's exclusion from the British economy, Conservatives and Unionists offer a positive vision of Northern Ireland with a growing, thriving private sector delivering jobs, investment and opportunity. This is what it means to be at the very heart of the Union.