Good afternoon. Thank you very much for coming. Owen Paterson and I have just had a very good meeting with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and I wanted to come to Northern Ireland as early as I could as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for two very good reasons. First of all, to demonstrate my commitment to our United Kingdom. Just as I’ve been immediately to Scotland and to Wales I wanted to come here to Northern Ireland as well. But secondly, I wanted to reassure people of my support, [party political content] and our coalition government’s support for the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland and for all the agreements that have been signed to make sure that we have peaceful progress here in Northern Ireland.
We had a very good meeting. As well as stressing our commitment to the devolved institutions and making them work, I also wanted to stress my commitment to getting the economy here in Northern Ireland going. It’s an absolutely essential task that we have a strong recovery, good growth and a strong commercial and private sector here in Northern Ireland.
I also want to stress that one of the aims and ambitions I have with this coalition government that I believe can last for a full five years is I want to make sure that as we make progress in Northern Ireland, as the economy grows in Northern Ireland, as we tackle some of the deep problems in Northern Ireland, it will be a part of our United Kingdom where everybody feels that they belong, everyone feels they are part of it, everyone feels they have a home.
But let me say this to those people who still want to wreck progress and peace in Northern Ireland: that taking part in terror will not achieve anything apart from misery. Our commitment to Northern Ireland, our commitment to the devolved institutions, is absolute. Acts of violence, acts of terrorism will achieve nothing except misery. We are committed to the peaceful progress where such big steps have been taken over these last 13, 15 years. We want that to continue. That is the future for Northern Ireland that my government wants, that people in Northern Ireland want, that the Deputy Minister and the First Minister want so badly and that we are all, together, committed to achieve.
I’m happy to take a couple of questions.
Congratulations on your election. When you’ve visited us over the last couple of years you’ve been in campaigning mode and you’ve sometimes made pledges that would be considered contentious within local politics here. For instance, doing away with the allowances currently paid to abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs. Now you’re in government will you make good on those pledges or will you charter your usual course?
Well, what I’ve always said, including when I was campaigning in Northern Ireland, is that if I became Prime Minister I would make sure that I dealt with the different parties in Northern Ireland, with the institutions in Northern Ireland in a proper and impartial way. I would argue I demonstrated that in opposition over the issue of devolving policing and justice, a vital issue. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Prime Minister Gordon Brown over the importance of making that happen even though a party we are allied with here in Northern Ireland took a different view. That was a demonstration of the sort of impartiality that I have brought in the past and will bring in the future.
As for the issues that you raise, those will be issues for the House of Commons. They are House of Commons matters and the House of Commons, if it so wishes, will be able to make its own views known.
[Party political content]. On the occasion of your visit here, the first time as Prime Minister, is it a case of smiles today, cuts tomorrow?
[Party political content]
In terms of the deficit, let’s be in no doubt about this. This is a huge threat to the whole of our economy, Northern Ireland included. Look around Europe today and you can see the dangers of excessive deficits. Some people talk about action on the deficit as if it is an alternative to economic growth. It isn’t. It goes with economic growth. The risk of inaction on the deficit, as the Governor of the Bank of England said, is much greater than the risk of action.
Now, let me be clear. Northern Ireland will not, no part of the United Kingdom will be singled out for cuts. Of course not. But we all are in this together. We all have to deal with the deficit together, but we should show respect to the different parts of our United Kingdom and, as with all the devolved areas, they are able, if they want, to delay these things until next year. That is important, but we’re all in it together, we all have to deal with the deficit together.
Prime Minister, while accepting that you’re pledging your support to the administration here in Stormont and so forth, people I think will be saying ‘what are these cuts going to mean to us in the future’, as in other parts of the United Kingdom. Secondly, what’s your view on the corporation tax here in this part compared to the Republic?
Taking the second question first, I do want to see a strong private sector, commercial sector-led recovery in Northern Ireland. Everybody knows - whichever party you speak to in Northern Ireland - everyone accepts that we need to have that sort of recovery. Can corporation tax, can the idea of an enterprise zone play a role in that? Yes, we believe that it can and if you look at our coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats published today, there is a clear commitment there to produce a paper on these issues and to try and resolve these issues.
In terms of getting to grips with the deficit and what does it mean to ordinary families, well, the first point is what does the alternative mean? If we do nothing, the dangers of higher interest rates, the dangers of our economy actually turning down are much greater. You will see on Monday how we’re going to be going about the in-year reductions in spending that we believe are essential to get to grips with the deficit and you’ll see how much of that can be delivered actually by cutting out waste and inefficiency and doing things better.
But let me just make this very important point: the government I lead, yes it wants to deal with the deficit and get our finances under control, but it is not a government of accountants. It is a government that wants to do things differently and better and try and save money at the same time, and that matters in Northern Ireland as in every other part of the United Kingdom.
During the Major years and the Blair and Brown era relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic improved dramatically. Will you invite the Taoiseach to Downing Street and have you done that already? And would you like during your term in office to see the Queen pay an official visit to the Republic?
Well, the answer to both those questions is yes. I had a very good conversation with Brian Cowen I think in the very first day. I became Prime Minister a little bit earlier than I expected, but I think within 24 hours we’d had a very good telephone conversation and I gather he’s spoken about that today.
In terms of the other issue you mention, yes, I think that it is an excellent idea. All sorts of things have to be dealt with, but I think the concept is a very, very good one. I want to see very good relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. There have been those strong relations, there should be under this government as well. We will also be meeting at the forthcoming European Council if we don’t meet before that. But the telephone lines will be open and I’m sure often buzzing.
Given the historical deficit from an infrastructure point of view and centrally in the context of the United Kingdom, will there be a derogation for Northern Ireland? These people, it’s just anathema to them the idea of any frontline cuts. Will there be a derogation for Northern Ireland?
Well, what I’ve said is that as with the other devolved institutions who have set their budgets for this year, if they want to delay action until next year then that is a matter for them. That is part of the respect agenda that I believe in, that the different institutions of the United Kingdom should respect each other. But we are a United Kingdom, we are all in this together. The massive budget deficit we have is a United Kingdom budget deficit. It’s a threat to all of our economies and this idea that somehow you can do nothing about the deficit, hope that everything will get better and will go away is, as you can see in Greece and potentially in other European countries, a very, very dangerous idea indeed. So, yes, we have a job to do to explain to people the dangers of the deficit, but I don’t think it is that hard. We all know from our own lives if you build up very big debts, the longer you leave them the worse the problem gets and I think people understand that in Northern Ireland as in every part of the United Kingdom.
Can I just make one last point while thanking you all for coming? And that is how proud I am of the team of ministers I’ve sent to be here in Northern Ireland to work hard for people in Northern Ireland. I think Owen has shown in opposition enormous commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devolved institutions and to working with every party and with every part of the community in Northern Ireland. And I know the same goes for my colleague, Hugo Swire, who will work extremely hard in making sure that we make the peaceful progress, the strong economic growth and the building of the good and big society here in Northern Ireland as elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Thank you very much indeed.