Belfast Telegraph

First Minister open to Labour deal

The leader of the Democratic Unionists has described Ed Miliband as someone he could do business with as he expressed hopes of exerting greater influence at Westminster in the event of a hung parliament.

Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson wryly articulated his desire for a close election as he and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness held talks with the Labour leader in Belfast.

"I hope that both the Labour Party and Conservative Party have a good election, but not a great election," said Mr Robinson, whose party currently holds eight seats in the Commons.

"It of course allows greater influence for the smaller parties if there is something to play for after the election."

But the Labour leader insisted he was not thinking about potential coalition partners, claiming Prime Minister David Cameron was the man worried about a hung parliament.

Asked about the another mooted Westminster ally - the SNP - Mr Miliband said: "My focus is very clear, I want a majority Labour government, I think a majority Labour government is what the country needs, that is what I am campaigning for.

"I think David Cameron is the one who now seems to be talking about coalitions and deals - he has clearly given up on winning an election. My task and my focus is entirely on one thing, which is putting a manifesto before the British people and winning that majority."

With Sinn Fein having made clear its unwillingness to reverse its abstentionist policy in the Westminster, the focus of interest in Northern Ireland in the event of a hung parliament will centre on the DUP's stance.

Asked if he could do business with Mr Miliband, the DUP leader, who no longer holds a seat in Westminster after a shock loss in 2010, said: "There is no question we can do business, we have done business with previous Labour administrations."

Mr Miliband was on a 24 hour visit to Belfast, which culminated with the meeting with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness at Stormont Castle.

While the exchanges were primarily on political issues facing Northern Ireland, afterwards the leaders faced questions on the general election.

Mr McGuinness said his party was committed to working, in a Stormont context, with whichever party won the election.

"I am very conscious that we stand here a matter of weeks from what could be one of the most interesting and indeed historic British general elections that we have seen in a very, very long time," he said.

"We don't know the outcome of it but obviously we are pledged that, as we have done under the terms of the agreements that we have signed up to, to work with whatever government emerges."

Earlier Mr McGuinness's party leader Gerry Adams, who held a separate meeting with Mr Miliband at Stormont Castle, was blunt when asked if his party would consider taking seats in Westminster if the Labour Party asked for its support.

"No," he said emphatically.

Prior to arriving at Stormont the Labour leader made a keynote address in the city centre, during which he warned that a UK exit from the EU would be particularly bad for Northern Ireland.

"We need to remain a country that is open to the world and engaged in Europe," he said.

"I am very clear about this.

"A British exit from the European Union would be bad for all of Britain but particularly it would be bad for Northern Ireland. Because of the land border you share with the Republic (of Ireland) you know the importance of that closeness that we have with the European Union.

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

His speech at Ulster University also touched on the challenges of inequality still facing the region emerging from conflict.

He added: "Let me promise this- the next Labour government will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to support economic change as well as supporting political progress.

"We will not leave you behind. We will take the steps needed to support the peace process and to support Northern Ireland's economic development.

"And these two challenges, securing the peace process and tackling inequality are so deeply bound up in each other.

"We need to keep the peace process on track to secure economic and social progress.

"And we need economic and social progress to keep the peace process on track."

Mr Miliband also reiterated a promise made to Belfast business leaders last night that his party would not oppose the devolution of corporation tax powers when the issue comes before parliament next week.

He told guests including schoolchildren, politicians and community sector representatives if his party wins the election they would develop "new ways" of tackling social and economic problems.

But, he added the caveat: "The reality is that the next Labour government won't have lots of money to spend, we are in very difficult times."

Even though the speech was at one of Northern Ireland's two universities, Mr Miliband called for a better appreciation for vocational qualifications and apprenticeships.

He said: "We have got to face up to the fact, that as a society, we have said too often university is the only option for young people and we haven't put a proper career path for young people who don't go to university."

Mr Miliband was speaking at the Heenan-Anderson Commission - an independent commission set up by the Labour Party on inequality in Northern Ireland - at the University of Ulster.

He started the day by visited schoolchildren at an integrated school in north Belfast.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers criticised Mr Miliband's economic pledges and accused him of doing a "u-turn" in voicing support for corporation tax devolution.

"It's clear from his speech today that Ed Miliband has no economic plan for the future of Northern Ireland other than a lethal combination more spending, more borrowing and more debt," said the Conservative MP.

"He wants to repeat the Labour policies that plunged the UK into the longest and deepest recession in memory with the largest deficit in our peacetime history and rising unemployment."

She added: "Only the Conservatives have a long term economic plan for Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK. The choice facing the United Kingdom at the election will be a Conservative plan that is working or Labour chaos and mismanagement of the economy."

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