Vernon Coaker – 2012 Speech to Labour Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Vernon Coaker, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to Labour Party conference on 4th October 2012.

Conference. Northern Ireland is a great place and I’m very privileged to be Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State.

Let me say that one of Labour’s greatest achievements was to help bring about peace in Northern Ireland.

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

A fortnight ago I visited the new Giant’s Causeway Centre in North Antrim that already is attracting thousands of visitors. During the summer I toured the new Titanic Quarter and saw the very positive difference the regeneration of that part of Belfast is making.

I’ve been to cities, towns and villages, from next year’s City of Culture in Derry~Londonderry to the twin cathedrals of Armagh and the picturesque Fermanagh lakes around Enniskillen.

What makes Northern Ireland special is its people.

But they are being let down by this Tory-led Government at Westminster. One out-of-touch Secretary of State has been replaced by another. But changing the Tory faces at the Northern Ireland Office isn’t what counts.

They need to change the Tory policies on Northern Ireland.

Unemployment has risen to over 8%.

Nearly one in four young people are without a job. Almost half of those without work have been unemployed for over a year.

Time and again we see that this Government has all the wrong priorities.

Because when hundreds of thousands of people – families, communities and businesses – across Northern Ireland are suffering in these very difficult economic times, the Tories are giving millionaires a £40,000 a year tax break. Giving the richest more money, but at the same time taking money away from those who can’t afford to lose it.

As I told the Northern Ireland Pensioners’ Parliament, 90,000 older people in Northern Ireland – 1 in 3 pensioners – are being hit by the Tory-led Government’s ‘Granny Tax’. And 20,000 families with children will lose out because of changes to tax credits.

And businesses are suffering too.

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.

And with estimates of the cost to the block grant varying from £200m to £700m, there is still a significant gap between the Treasury and the Executive that needs to be bridged.

But rising unemployment and the recent announcements of major job losses show that Northern Ireland’s economy can’t wait. The Tory-led Government needs to catch itself on. The Secretary of State and the Treasury need to stop dithering. Northern Ireland needs action now.

Major decisions that impact upon people in Northern Ireland are still taken at Westminster.

On tax and spend, welfare reform and the overall economic direction taken by the UK. And on all of these the Government is making the wrong decisions.

That’s why Labour has a real plan for jobs and growth in Northern Ireland. We want to support the First and Deputy First Ministers, and the Executive, to build and develop the economy.

So we would reverse the Government’s damaging VAT rise for a temporary period to give immediate help to high streets and struggling families and pensioners in cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland.

We would bring forward long-term investment projects to get people back to work and strengthen our economy for the future. Northern Ireland’s construction industry needs that help.

We need to build skills through apprenticeships and training that will equip our young people for the future.

And we would give a one-year national insurance tax break to every small firm that takes on extra workers, helping to create jobs and grow local businesses that make up the bulk of Northern Ireland’s private sector.

We would reduce VAT on home improvements, repairs and maintenance, helping to create work for our young tradesmen and women and stop them having to move to Canada and Australia. They are needed at home.

And we would have a £2 billion tax on bank bonuses to fund a real jobs guarantee that would help 2,000 young people in Northern Ireland back to work.

Because I know that young people will be the driving force behind further progress in Northern Ireland. But they are being let down by this Tory-led Government.

The young men and women I meet are ambitious for themselves and their communities. But they 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.

We can’t be complacent about the challenges facing Northern Ireland. The threat from those who want to destroy the peace and progress remains high.

I want to thank the Police Service of Northern Ireland for all that they do to keep people safe and secure. I’ve been privileged to meet police officers drawn from every community and serving every community with dedication and integrity. They have my admiration and our support.

Recent weeks have also shown that sensitivities about parades are still very evident in some areas, particularly in Belfast. The reality is that many communities in Northern Ireland are still deeply divided and that sectarianism is an ingrained and uncomfortable truth across all sections of society.

But a shared future can only happen through building shared spaces and shared experiences with shared prosperity and shared responsibility.

That includes taking responsibility for what happened in the past. Because we need to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the death of 3,000 people and injuries and trauma for tens of thousands more. We can’t truly move forward until we do.

I’ve met so many people – families and friends of those who died during the terrible conflict of the past – who simply want justice and to know the truth about what happened to them or their loved ones.

Our view is clear. We need a comprehensive, inclusive process to deal with the past, and victims and survivors should be at the heart of it.

It won’t be easy.

There are many challenges and complications. And there is no consensus about what that process should look like. But then there was no consensus at the start of the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement.

The Agreement showed that you have to get people talking and keep people talking until you find a way forward.

But the Tory-led Government says nothing.

Does nothing.

Even when the Assembly asked the Secretary of State to help facilitate talks between all parties.

They did nothing.

If I’d been in that position, I’d have heeded the call of political parties and victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and convened talks to discuss how we move forward.

Because unlike the do-nothing Tories, I won’t hide away or shirk my responsibility on this or any other issue, and neither will any Labour government.

Ed Miliband and I feel strongly that we, the Labour Party, made a promise to a generation in Northern Ireland that theirs would be a better future.

Because as I said at the outset, one of Labour’s proudest achievements is helping to bring about peace in Northern Ireland.

We know that there is still work to be done.

We know that big challenges remain.

And we know Northern Ireland still matters.

That’s why I will keep standing up and speaking up for Northern Ireland, and keeping to the promises we made for a better and brighter future for all.