Realising the promise of a generation – Ed Balls & Vernon Coaker write in the Belfast Telegraph

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was one of Labour’s most important achievements in government. It promised a generation in Northern Ireland that theirs would be a better future.

Together we set ourselves the shared task of forging a lasting peace by cementing it with rising prosperity shared by all – to make it unthinkable we could return to the conflicts of the past.

That is why we are so worried by what is happening in Northern Ireland’s economy today. Northern Ireland has been hit harder by the double-dip recession made in Downing Street and forecasts suggest it will take longer to recover than the rest of the UK.

After the global financial crisis tough decisions were needed to get the deficit down. But we have consistently warned David Cameron’s government in Westminster that raising taxes and cutting spending too far and too fast would choke off economic recovery and so lead to more borrowing not less.

Sadly, that is exactly what has happened. Unemployment has risen to over 8 per cent in Northern Ireland. Nearly one in four young people are without a job, almost half of those without work have been unemployed for over a year and one in six businesses have ceased trading in the last year.

Yet David Cameron and George Osborne have refused to act to kick-start the economy. Before the general election the Tories raised the prospect of a cut in corporation tax. But after two years of talking about devolving corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland, there is still no agreement about whether it should happen and what it would cost.

We are clear – whether or not a corporation tax cut is the best way forward, Northern Ireland’s businesses need help right now.

And simply changing the Tory face at the Northern Ireland Office isn’t going to get Northern Ireland the help it needs. Whoever is the Secretary of State they will struggle to explain why the Tory-led government is cutting taxes for millionaires while raising taxes on 90,000 pensioners and cutting tax credits for 20,000 families with children in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s economy needs support, which is why Labour is calling for a real plan for jobs and growth right now.

Last week we urged the Westminster government to use the proceeds of the sale of the 4G mobile phone spectrum to kick-start the economy. Our plans would give £70m to Northern Ireland over the next two years. And if the Northern Ireland Executive were to take the same decisions as England, they could use those funds to build 3,000 new affordable homes and create tens of thousands of construction jobs.

Northern Ireland’s construction industry needs that help after shedding over 5,000 jobs in the last two years, so we would also bring forward long-term investment projects to get people back to work and strengthen our economy for the future.

We would give a tax break to every small firm that takes on extra workers, helping to create jobs and grow the small businesses that make up 90 per cent of Northern Ireland’s private sector.

We are urging the Westminster government to temporarily reverse their damaging VAT rise to give immediate help to high streets and struggling families and pensioners, and cut VAT on home improvements and repairs to 5 per cent to help create work for young tradesmen and women and stop them having to move away.

And because we know young people will be the driving force behind further progress in Northern Ireland, let’s also levy a tax on bank bonuses across the UK that could fund 2,000 jobs for young people in Northern Ireland. Young people in Northern Ireland can’t realise those ambitions if they aren’t given the chance to get on. No job, no hope and no future are no choices at all. Our young people deserve better.

When Labour took office in 1997, we committed to putting the issue of securing peace in Northern Ireland at the top of our agenda. And with our partners in the Irish government, and the courage of political leaders in Northern Ireland, we achieved together something that had eluded generations before.

We will never be afraid to say how proud we are of that and how strongly we feel about protecting its legacy. Northern Ireland has changed and changed for the better since the bad old days of conflict, violence and isolation.

But we aren’t complacent about the work that still needs to be done. That is why the next Labour government will put securing Northern Ireland’s economic future at the top of our agenda. Because we know the next stage in Northern Ireland’s development will be centred on the economy.

So we want to support the First and Deputy First Minister, and the Executive, to build and develop the economy, reform our banks, invest in infrastructure and promote innovation and new investment for the future.

Together let’s build an economy that allows the ambition and potential of Northern Ireland and its people to be realised. That’s our promise of 2012. And that will be the promise of the next Labour government.

Ed Balls MP is the Shadow Chancellor; Vernon Coaker MP is the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary.

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Posted October 10th, 2012 by Ed's team