LABOUR’S shadow chancellor said yesterday that he is strongly unionist but declined to throw his weight behind the Labour Party organising here.
Speaking to the News Letter at Stormont on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, Ed Balls said that there was a “longstanding history of close ties between Northern Ireland and England and we want those ties to continue into the future”.
He said that it was possible to have diversity and different traditions within the United Kingdom, but “also be stronger together than standing apart”.
But it was for local communities to decide their future within the UK, he said, emphasising that he was “strongly” unionist, and adding: “But I hope that Scotland stays in the United Kingdom and I think that the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is a strong one.”
Asked if the failure of one of the biggest political parties, Labour, not to organise here put a barrier between the Province and the rest of the UK, he implied that the matter of local organisation here by Labour was not settled.
Standing beside Vernon Coaker, the Northern Ireland Shadow Secretary outside Parliament Buildings, Mr Balls added: “There is a process going on discussing that which Vernon is involved in and I have to say I am not sure that for David Cameron and the Ulster Unionists it quite worked out so well stepping in from London into the complexity of Northern Ireland politics.”
He added: “We are strongly committed to working closely with the region and with the [Stormont] executive, and I think a Labour government is strongly committed to the Union but I am not sure that that necessarily translates into party political organisation here for us.”
When it was put to Mr Balls that there was a tradition of left-wing unionists who resented past Labour Party suggestions that they should vote for a nationalist party such as the SDLP, he replied: “I think you have to be quite careful about stepping into decades of political history and suddenly deciding to do things a different way.
“Because what I actually care about is the relationship a Labour government could have with the executive to get jobs and investment here into the Northern Ireland economy and to sort of cement the peace process through prosperity for the future.
“I think if we allow an impression to be created that Labour party politics is bigger than that wider task of Northern Ireland, I think maybe people would think we have got our priorities wrong.”
Mr Coaker said that he was “strongly in favour” of the commitment that “the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland is a matter for as long as the people of Northern Ireland want to remain a part of the Union then we respect and will work with that”.
Labour Party supporters who want to organise in Northern Ireland have been infuriated by recent comments of party leader Ed Miliband that while he wished Labour members standing for election in Northern Ireland well, he feared it would compromise the British government’s status as an “honest broker”.