Brown in pounds 315m bid to seal the peace

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The Independent Online
CHANCELLOR Gordon Brown arrived in Belfast yesterday with a pounds 315m investment package aimed both at reviving the local economy and at encouraging a Yes vote in the Good Friday referendums.

His appearance was regarded as an exceptional rarity, since he is the first Chancellor to visit Northern Ireland for 18 years and because other ministerial visits are not generally marked by the distribution of such largess.

Mr Brown's package consisted of a pounds 150m investment fund, a pounds 65m employment and skills fund and a pounds 100m enterprise fund. He said what was needed was the encouragement of small and medium-size enterprises and the attraction of inward investment.

The Chancellor said that Northern Ireland needed economic and political stability, improvements to its physical infrastructure and direct help for business investment.

Of the new spending, he said: "It is not conditional. What I would say is we will provide the money but the money, of course, will be of better use if there is stability, People understand they are voting in this referendum for greater stability through peace."

Tony Blair is due back in Belfast later this week for another visit aimed at boosting the Yes vote. The Government is clearly aware that while Catholics are overwhelmingly in favour of the Good Friday agreement Protestant opinion seems split down the middle.

Campaigners for a No vote warned voters not to be taken in by ministers bearing gifts, with UK Unionist leader Robert McCartney describing the Brown package as "a bribe and a bung".

But the leader of the No campaign, the Rev Ian Paisley, yesterday drew back from an opportunity for a BBC television debate on the agreement with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. Mr Paisley said it was not in the interests of the No campaign to give Mr Trimble a platform, suggesting instead that they debate in Belfast's Ulster Hall.

This was seen as an uncharacteristic change of tack for Mr Paisley, who down through the years has flung out many public debating challenges to opponents. Mr Trimble said: "Why is he not prepared to have a debate - because he knows his arguments aren't up to it. This is not a matter of standing on a platform and guldering [shouting] at a crowd. This would be a sensible serious debate in a studio."

In west Belfast the security forces defused a landmine left on the Whiterock Road by the Irish National Liberation Army. The device contained 40lb of homemade explosives.

This was seen as an ominous development in that while the INLA has carried out many shooting attacks it has not shown the capacity for many years to carry out bombings. The incident may therefore represent a significant increase in the threat posed by the organisation.

Meanwhile, following Mr Brown's announcement the Government is considering a second package to provide financial assistance to members of the RUC and Royal Irish Regiment following any reduction in security levels. This is seen as a move to soothe the anxieties of security force members who believe their jobs may be at risk.