Later today, a number of the world’s most powerful leaders will start arriving in Northern Ireland for the G8 Summit. For a few days, the eyes of the world will turn to Lough Erne, just outside Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, at the far western edge of the United Kingdom. This venue will provide a stunning lakeland backdrop for a discussion of some of the most important issues facing the modern world.
Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to bring an event like the G8 to Northern Ireland, to a town like Enniskillen which was the victim of one of the vilest atrocities of the Troubles.
The fact that the G8 is happening here is a massive vote of confidence in Northern Ireland and a sign of how far we have come since the beginnings of the peace process and the political agreements that followed. The settlement isn’t perfect, as the flags crisis at the start of the year demonstrated; but we should not underestimate the progress that has been made.
It was David Cameron’s idea to bring the G8 to Northern Ireland, and it provides us with a unique opportunity to show the world the very best that the new Northern Ireland has to offer: a great place in which to do business and invest and a great place to take a holiday.
To make the most of that opportunity, the Prime Minister asked me in March to negotiate an economic deal between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to be signed in the run-up to the Summit. After three months of frenetic discussions, I was delighted to be able to meet that deadline on Friday in Downing Street, as I signed my name to an ambitious package of measures alongside the Prime Minister and Northern Ireland’s First and deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
This deal will see the Government and the Executive working much more closely than before on two key goals that we both share.
The first is economic recovery. Northern Ireland has huge potential: it has one of the best educated workforces in the world, and some great businesses like Wrightbus who are not only making London’s new Routemaster but are also exporting buses to China.
But despite success stories like this one, the private sector is not big enough. Northern Ireland remains too dependent on the public sector. Like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is in a global race, and the package agreed on Friday is aimed at helping it compete successfully in that race for jobs and investment. Important elements include greater efforts to enable business to access much needed finance and start-up loans, more support for research and development, particularly for Northern Ireland’s world class aerospace manufacturing sector, and a push to unlock progress on infrastructure schemes in Northern Ireland.
The second issue is tackling division in Northern Ireland and building a shared future. The package is aimed at complementing and supporting ambitious plans announced a few weeks ago by the First and Deputy First Minister to address sectarian division.
These include projects to enable far more children to take part in shared education and study alongside kids from other parts of the community; regeneration proposals to ensure there are more neighbourhoods where people from both of Northern Ireland’s two main traditions can live harmoniously together; and a programme to reduce and ultimately eliminate all of the so-called ‘peace walls’ by 2023. It’s a sad fact that there are actually more of these barriers now than there were when the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed 15 years ago, 41 walls and 31 gates at the last count.
This agreement reflects the maturing relationship between the Government and Executive and is a symbol of our ambitious vision for Northern Ireland: a genuinely shared society that is fulfilling its economic potential and laying the foundations for peace, stability and prosperity for the future.
Securing agreement on this package represents a good run in to the start of the G8 Summit and a real step forward for Northern Ireland. And after months of careful planning and preparation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and partner agencies, we are well prepared for the biggest security operation Northern Ireland has ever witnessed.
Around 8000 police officers will be on duty during the Summit, including 3600 from England, Wales and Scotland. All of these ‘mutual aid’ officers from other parts of the UK have been trained in special policing techniques used in Northern Ireland, and all will be subject to the complaints procedures provided for by the devolved settlement on policing and justice which delivers rigorous scrutiny of policing in Northern Ireland.
So far the protests for which the G8 Summit has become notorious have passed off relatively peacefully, with the number of protesters lower than expected (possibly due to torrential rain in Belfast yesterday!) So the stage is set for the arrival of the Prime Minister, President Obama and their fellow world leaders.
While the horrific events in Syria may mean that this subject dominates the headlines from the Summit, we should not overlook the importance of the tax issues on the agenda. David Cameron was the first of all the G8 leaders to highlight the concern felt by so many people about aggressive tax avoidance by big business.
As Conservatives, we believe in low taxes – that’s a core part of what we stand for. That’s why George Osborne has cut income tax for 24 million people. He is also bringing corporation tax down to one of the lowest levels in the G20 to help the UK compete in the global race. But another fundamental part of being a Conservative is to be on the side of people who want to work hard and get on in life; and that means making sure that multinational companies pay their fair share of tax along with everyone else.
A comprehensive answer to aggressive and artificial tax avoidance is impossible for one country to deliver acting in isolation. This is a prime example of an area where the G8 can play a useful role. The fiendish complexity of transfer pricing and international tax law mean that this issue is never going to be susceptible to overnight ‘big bang’ solutions; but we can hope that this week’s Summit will see the G8 leaders embark down a path towards a reform which will be real step forward in addressing the type of abuses that have caused so much concern over recent months.
And Northern Ireland is ready to provide a warm welcome for all those taking part in the Summit.