Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Ivan Lewis was updated on the Greenisland flag controversy during a visit to the borough.
Hosted by East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, the senior Labour figure met community and education representatives on an itinerary that included a sneak preview of the restored Churchill tank at the Cenotaph and an insight to the work of Carrickfergus YMCA.
In an interview with the Carrick Times, Mr Lewis, who took up his new role in October, said: “It’s important I get to meet people at a grassroots level, at the sharp end, which is one of the reasons I’m here. I’m going to meet the YMCA soon, going to Greenisland to meet some community leaders and Sammy very kindly has - obviously an excellent local MP for the area - offered to show me around and introduce me to people. It’s a great opportunity to both hear and learn about some of the challenges.”
His visit came amid discussions between police and community representatives over the erection of paramilitary flags on Greenisland’s Station Road and part of Woodburn.
Asked for his views on the flags issue, he said: “It’s important I listen to how people feel about it. There’s obviously very, very strong feelings. People feel very passionate about these issues. It’s very important I understand those feelings. In a wider context at the moment, it’s crucially important that Northern Ireland’s politicians make progress on parades, the past and flags. I think as long as there’s stalemate and logjam, first of all that leaves a vacuum and that vacuum is filled by people who tend to be extremists who perhaps want to foster division.”
Turning to the economy and employment, Mr Lewis continued: “Where we want to get to in Northern Ireland is a big focus on jobs. I think it is a combination of attracting inward investment globally, which I think is improving, and the image and the reputation of Northern Ireland, which is getting better, which is a good thing. Which is why when we have setbacks like the flags protest what people underestimate is that damages investment and damages the economy because it sends a message about Northern Ireland that really we want to put behind.”
On his prospects of becoming Secretary of State after the next election, Mr Lewis said “we are confident but not complacent”. He added: “We are ahead in the polls but we are not complacent. It’s going to be a close election and it’s about offeirng people a compelling vision for the future.”
Mr Lewis who set up a charity working with people with learning disability as a teenager, is an avid Man City fan still savouring their Premiership triumph. He also got his teeth into the Luis Suarez controversy. “What message does that send out to kids?” he asked of the Uruguay striker’s alleged bite on an Italy defender. As for England’s World Cup? “We’ve got to ask some serious questions about why we didn’t make it.”