PM unveils economic package for Northern Ireland

Chris Buckler reports on a new economic package for Northern Ireland

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Prime Minister David Cameron said an economic pact unveiled on Friday should be crucial for improving the Northern Ireland economy.

The pact also guarantees Northern Ireland will retain its European Union Assisted Area Status.

This enables its job creation agency, Invest NI, to offer attractive grants to potential investors.

Part of the deal includes a £20m fund for research and innovation that will focus on the aerospace industry.

The Stormont Executive is also to be allowed to borrow an extra £100m to help build new shared housing and schools.

Another element of the pact will look at the potential to gift up to 350 surplus MoD houses and bases for use in shared future projects.

In the past 10 years, Invest NI has offered more than £564m in regional aid support which is said to have promoted the creation of 50,000 jobs.

This aid can be a big factor in luring overseas companies like the US bank Citigroup to Belfast.

Northern Ireland was able to do this by having 100% assisted area status, which helps economically weak regions of the EU.

This had been under threat of being cut back by how Westminster allocates European cash.

But now, thanks to this deal, Northern Ireland will not suffer.

Any loss of 100% status would have impacted on business growth and job creation, not just for foreign companies in Northern Ireland, but local ones also.

There is no doubt it is one of the most significant aspects of what was announced.

Mr Cameron also praised what he described as the "ambitious and laudable plan to rid" Belfast of its peace walls.

Speaking after meeting Northern Ireland's First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, David Cameron refused to put a figure on the pact.

But the prime minister insisted that the measures should, taken together, have a significant impact.

"The package of measures we've agreed today: more support for business, for infrastructure, guarantees for start up loans, research and development investment plans of £20m, all of these will be crucial in gearing up Northern Ireland," he said.

The proposals were warmly welcomed by the first minister and deputy first minister who travelled to London.

Peter Robinson said it showed that the policy of the Westminster government was in alignment with the executive and he said it was important that Northern Ireland became less dependent on London.

Martin McGuinness said the plans were a "vote of confidence" in the work being done at Stormont.

Mr Cameron also confirmed he plans to host an international investment conference in Northern Ireland in October 2013.

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