Economic and social development in Northern Ireland must go hand in hand with efforts to secure the peace process, Ed Miliband has told an audience of business leaders in Belfast.
Setting out what the region could expect from a government under his stewardship, the Labour leader pledged an administration that was “engaged” with the particular challenges facing the Province’s post-conflict society.
Mr Miliband was guest speaker at an event in the landmark Titanic Belfast centre on Wednesday at the start of a 24-hour visit to the city.
He said Labour was committed to tackling “challenges of inequality” across the UK but acknowledged there were specific issues facing Northern Ireland as it emerged from the Troubles.
He said the private sector could be the “motor for change” in delivering economic prosperity, better jobs and higher wages to the region.
Labour has recently set up a commission to examine social problems facing communities in the Province.
Mr Miliband said the progress that had been made from the darks days of the Troubles inspired him.
But he added: “At times it must feel that, while Northern Ireland has moved on from the past, and what I knew about Northern Ireland when I was growing up in the 1980s, that the process is still very difficult and there are big, big challenges.
“Part of the best way we can support the process of peace is through economic and social development, that the two things aren’t separate issues – that they actually go hand in hand.
“And what I promise if there is a Labour government, and indeed in advance of the General Election, is a Labour Party that will work with the business community, that will work with civil society, that will work with the people of Northern Ireland on those challenges you face.”
Mr Miliband reiterated his party’s position that it will not oppose, and indeed will facilitate, the present Government’s freshly tabled bill to devolve corporation tax powers to Stormont before the election.
The legislative step formed part of the Stormont House political deal struck before Christmas between the Government and the Executive’s five parties.
The Labour leader will today fulfil a number of engagements in Belfast, including meeting First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont.
He is also due to visit schoolchildren and make a keynote address in the city.
Police chiefs, community leaders and political figures – among them Irish Labour Party leader Joan Burton – joined business figures at last night’s event, which was organised by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and reconciliation charity Co-operation Ireland.