Ed Miliband in Belfast – no gaffs, little charisma, but a definite listening ear at the Heenan-Anderson Commission

When it comes to visiting English political party leaders, the people of Northern Ireland are unexcited. The hand of history is wobbling over the shoulder of Labour’s Ed Miliband and few really expect the DUP to hold the balance of power after the May 2015 election.

However, it has been many years since Ed Miliband called in on this side of the Irish Sea, and the Labour party leader was over to sit in on the Heenan-Anderson Independent Commission’s listening session being held in the Ulster University Belfast campus. The commission is examining “how social and economic opportunities could be improved for people in Northern Ireland who are at the margins of their community”.

Last night Ed attended a business event in Titanic Belfast, and earlier this morning he spent time talking to pupils in Hazelwood Integrated College before arriving at UU to address the audience sitting around tables.

Ed-Miliband at Heenan-Anderson Commission at Ulster UniversityIt was a gaff-free speech from the Labour leader. Speaking for ten minutes without obvious notes, he avoided mention of the troublesome One Nation slogan, would support Corporate Tax (but would apply tests), deftly dodged questions about differences in abortion between NI and GB, and said the right things about supporting Northern Ireland and the continuing peace process.

He sailed close to the wind with his closing observations about Prime Minister’s Questions which “isn’t very enlightening for anyone”, adding “I’m not sure it’s made much difference to the sum of human knowledge”. But who could fault Ed for being truthful?

Eva Grosman introduced Ed Miliband reflecting that they shared a common Polish heritage but not the accent! As the son of two immigrant parents and refugees from the Holocaust, Ed explained that they knew that politics mattered and that when you see injustice in society, you can’t stand by but must do something to tackle it.

Ed Miliband clearly has the height, the heart and the brain to drive him forward in politics. He writes down questioners’ names, repeats them back when answering, and often asks them questions of his own. But the Labour leader lacks presence and his eyes don’t sparkle in the charismatic way expected in today’s political world. His body language disguises genuine engagement. He doesn’t look like a prime minister.

In his speech and during the Q&A afterwards, he suggested that “exit from the European Union would be bad for all of United Kingdom but particularly bad for Northern Ireland”.

Being an open country is part of being a prosperous country.

He advised that the peace processed needed to be kept on track to allow economic and social progress. And conversely, economic and social progress was needed to keep peace process on track as nothing would breed resentment more than languishing communities. A future Labour government at Westminster would be engaged with the people of Northern Ireland.

Ed Miliband away from podiumStrong contributions from twenty-somethings who identified as being ex-NEET, reminded Ed Miliband of some real-world problems which were “blatantly obvious” (and well worth repeating to the politicians present) and made up for the not so short essays being read out by other sectoral representatives who should have known better. Apprenticeships (including non-traditional ones) were mentioned many times, along with recognition that the UK is “miles behind” on mental health treatment achieving parity with physical health.

English and American political leaders fly in and out of Northern Ireland to chair talks and bang heads together at regular intervals. What was unusual today was to discover that correspondents from The Times and Daily Telegraph had flown across from London to cover the event. It’s an election year, and even Ed Miliband’s visit to constituencies which cannot vote for Labour candidates is worthy of column inches and analysis.

Looking down on Heenan-Anderson commissionThe full set of Heenan-Anderson commission members were present, engaging with delegates gathered around tables. There’s no great secret to why Northern Ireland communities suffer from economic marginalisation and continued deprivation. The report’s recommendations should be very familiar when it is published.

However, the exercise is worthwhile given the lack of political willpower (or firepower) to do much about addressing the root causes and turning around Northern Ireland’s unbalanced and unfair economy. Perhaps the greatest hope for the Heenan-Anderson report – due to be delivered in early March in time to feed into the Labour manifesto – will be prick the conscience of local politicians and provide a lever under their policies and decisions to persuade them to start taking coordinated action.

Ivan Lewis at Heenan-Anderson CommissionIn his own short address, Shadow NI Secretary of State Ivan Lewis played back some of the issues that he’s heard during this week’s intensive set of commission engagements.

  • Community planning – bottom up decision making required, but not yet in place.
  • Lots of programmes and projects, but people don’t have stability and certainty.
  • Early intervention and prevention is now at risk because of cuts.
  • Many projects demonstrate the importance of personalisation [not one size solution fits all].
  • Gaps between education services and labour market needs.
  • Levels of mental health issues, and particularly challenges facing ex-prisoners in NI.

There’s a gap between individual aspirations and community expectations and opportunities. Can the Stormont Executive, never mind the Westminster government grab hold of the social and economic issues? Or will political tussles and election battles continue to dominate their energies?

The Heenan-Anderson Independent Commission are accepting submissions via their website or by post until the end January.

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