A Missed Opportunity

, , Comment closed

1 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 1 1 Flares ×
Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Recently on South Belfast Diary I leaked the draft Section 8 of Labour’s 21st Century Commission, dealing with Party organisation in Northern Ireland. Since 2002, the Irish Labour Party has allowed membership in the North. We have actively participated in conferences and have had an NEC co-opted member, Mark Langhammer. More to the point, we have kept a branch going, despite being in the difficult position of not being permitted to stand in elections.

At the Wexford conference last November, we agreed to modify a resolution requesting that we should be able to stand candidates in local government elections only, as it had been made clear to us that it would not be passed. Instead, we agreed to participate in a Commission to look at the future of the Party in NI, running parallel to the 21st Century Commission which is looking at the overall future direction of the Party.

The Northern Ireland Commission has been at best lacklustre. Chaired by Ruairi Quinn, it has done very little except hold a meeting with the SDLP. Many of us suspected that it was a cosmetic exercise, and we have been proved right. The 21st Century Commission has now decided what should be done about NI, without any apparent input from the NI Commission. When this was raised with Eamon Gilmore, it was made clear that Northern members will not be permitted to expand their activities to include standing for election.

The draft paper does, however, stop short of making either of the two proposals that follow from its arguments:

  • When the SDLP was founded, Northern members were instructed to join. The paper should recommend returning to this position, and that separate membership of the Irish Labour Party will not be permitted in Northern Ireland.
  • Alternatively, given that the paper is heavy on the nation-building project, the most logical recommendation is that Labour and the SDLP should merge.

Of course either would be problematic, and it’s unlikely that the Fianna Fáil wing of the SDLP would agree to no. 2. But they reflect the reality of Labour’s position on Northern Ireland.

Section 8 Overview

The document begins with a bizarre few paragraphs, taking up a speech made by Mark Durkan to Labour’s 2006 conference, in which the well-known ‘cherish all the children equally’ line from the Proclamation is turned into an all-Ireland proposal for a covenant for children and young people, to be achieved by 2016. This section appears to be part of a broader covenant proposal as it refers to other chapters in the report. This strange introduction allows the authors to state firmly from the outset that Labour’s most important political relationship in NI is with the SDLP. All-Ireland policy is to be developed through a partitionist approach to political organisation.

Following a potted history of Northern Ireland and the founding of the SDLP which insults the intelligence, the paper’s most substantial section is based on the question: ‘Should the Irish Labour Party follow Fianna Fáil and consider organising in the North?’. The Commission seems unaware that Labour already has Northern members. The Commission’s view is that ‘Northern Ireland is not a fully normalised society’ (which I cannot deny) and that therefore the status quo should prevail (which does not necessarily follow).

But the killer argument here is that Irish Labour should not organise in NI even if the SDLP were to merge with Fianna Fáil. As Garibaldy points out, Labour is hoping to use some kind of unique PES mechanism to engineer a new party that would also allow dual membership of the Irish and British Labour Parties. Thoroughly confusing, but again the underlying message is clear – we are having nothing to do with political organisation in the North.

The document is obviously written by committee, so now another author comes in, I suspect, and thinks this has all been rather too negative. Having stated earlier that ‘we are not at all convinced that parties based in either Dublin or London have any real or significant contribution to make to Northern Ireland politics’, we are now told that ‘we all of us need to address rather than exacerbate the structural divisions within Northern Ireland.’ We need ‘a new accommodation, a new framework and a new form of words’, which is to be achieved by, er, working within the existing political framework and doing absolutely nothing to promote change. The overall message is that Labour will follow rather than lead in NI politics. That is why it is a missed opportunity.

Some Specific Points

‘We share the same philosophical views with the SDLP’

Is this true? Northern members see ourselves as a cross-community party and if we were in a position to designate in the Assembly, we would be very firmly in the ‘other’ camp. We are a secular party with strong ties to the trades unions, a position we believe to be shared by members in the South.

Although we recognise the historical oppression and suffering that was involved in the British colonisation of Ireland, we do not believe that a united Ireland is integral to a democratic socialist ideology at the present time, for two reasons. First, the principle of unity by consent is widely accepted amongst political parties on these islands and provides a mechanism for reunification should it be desired. Second, the choice available to Northern Ireland people today is to be part of one of two capitalist states, neither of which will intrinsically benefit the working class.

A move by the Irish Labour Party into Northern electoral politics, albeit only at local level, would have provided an opportunity to reflect on what Irish nationalism – and nationalism more generally – means in the 21st century context of globalisation, EU membership, UK devolution and the Good Friday Agreement, and in an era where many people’s identity is not determined exclusively by their place of birth.

Joint organisation and policy-making

The very odd mention of the children’s ‘covenant’ at the start of the paper does raise an important point about joint policy-making in the two jurisdictions. It is clear in post-GFA Ireland that no-one objects to a wide range of all-Ireland policies and that an all-Ireland approach makes sense economically, socially and culturally.

However, having indicated a wish to be involved in Northern policy, the paper proposes a partitionist solution, namely that this involvement should take place through a link with another party. The obvious alternative is to work with members of the same party on all-Ireland policy positions based on common value statements that can be operationalised differently in the two jurisdictions.

The hand of history

The paper provides an appalling thumbnail sketch of the start of the Troubles: ‘the civil rights movement, the Orange opposition, Stormont intransigence, the arrival of politically motivated violence and the imposition of direct rule from London’. Well, first, the civil rights movement was not initially about nationalism but about rights within NI, which the protestors wanted to gain from the British state. Presumably the offensive reference to ‘Orange’ opposition is shorthand for unionist or perhaps loyalist resistance. The opposition to the civil right movement was not restricted to members of the Orange Order but was more fundamental and widespread, and probably did a great deal of damage to Faulkner’s attempts to liberalise the NI state, which of course he lost – but the story of ‘Stormont intransigence’ is more complex than is presented here. No-one would argue with the tragedy of the arrival of politically motivated violence, but the ‘imposition’ of direct rule from London in 1972 was surely an acknowledgement in Westminster both that the Protestant-run state in NI could not be allowed to continue (for example, see Peter Rose’s book) and that closer control of the public order situation was required. We are also treated to a short, selective history of the SDLP, including the undoubted contributions of Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt but without adding that Devlin was expelled in 1977 and Fitt left in 1980, both claiming that the SDLP had ceased to be a socialist force. Surprisingly, this section says nothing about John Hume’s role in the peace process.

But what we need, and don’t get, is an analysis of the current position of the SDLP in NI politics. This omission allows the paper to completely avoid the question of the SDLP’s inability to represent socialists who are not Irish nationalists. In addition, the SDLP has no formal links with the trades unions and has been hinting at a merger with another party, which is not a PES/ SI member. These factors show the tensions within the SDLP between nationalism and socialism, which need to be acknowledged and addressed as part of any serious attempt to advocate the SDLP as the single, over-arching democratic socialist party for Northern Ireland.

The paper also needs to consider why the Labour Party has Northern members at all, which of course means reference to Democratic Left, North and South. There is no mention of the small but growing ‘third strand’ in NI politics and society, consisting of people who choose not to base their politics on territorial issues, and where Labour’s Northern members situate themselves. Indeed, the authors appear to be unaware of this.

Communal divisions, designation and ‘normal’ politics

Labour’s Northern members come from both nationalist and unionist backgrounds, and from elsewhere. What we have in common is that we are democratic socialists. We have seen the Northern Ireland Executive’s communal divisions fail to address the bread and butter issues that are of increasing concern to people at the present time, most recently through the Executive failing to meet for months due to the dispute overt the devolution of policing and justice powers. We recognise the complexity of Irish identity in the 21st century and, along with other ‘third strand’ parties such the Greens and Alliance, we see our contribution to NI politics as being to create new democratic spaces rather than to rehash the old, unproductive arguments and divisions.

The paper’s weak grasp of NI politics includes the assumption that designation is necessary for electoral activity at local level. Designation is only required in the Assembly, and we were not proposing to stand for the Assembly at this stage. The paper’s authors seem to be unaware that there is a third option for Assembly designation, as set out in Clause 6 of the Good Friday Agreement:

…members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, unionist or other…..

If Labour were to stand in Assembly elections, we would designate as ‘other’ – this is fundamental to our political philosophy: ‘part of both, excluded from neither’.

The paper is contradictory, as on the one hand it talks about the need to address structural divisions in NI but aligns itself firmly with one communal bloc. The most significant indication that Labour sees itself as having no role whatsoever in Northern electoral politics comes with the proposal that, should the SDLP merge with Fianna Fáil, a complicated system involving a separate party with optional additional membership of the British and Irish Labour Parties is proposed. Although an SDLP/ FF merger is now unlikely, the scenario is revealing. While it’s true that any democratic socialist party in NI needs good links with both parties, there is no reason why it can’t be done through membership of one and strong connections with the other.

The paper is correct in saying that NI is not ‘a fully normalised society’ and of course from this follows the fact that politics is also not ‘normalised’. However, we don’t actually know what ‘normal’ politics would look like in NI, and it would be wrong to assume that it would be structured like either England, Scotland, Wales or the Irish Republic. Politics in NI may evolve differently, and given the complexity of the territorial issue, cross-border political organising may become a feature. What we do know is that politics based on a divisive UK or Irish nationalist ideology is inadequate for dealing with the problems of the 21st century. Northern Ireland needs a party that will stand up for all working people as part of an international movement for workers’ rights – surely, Labour is that party.

What does the Party want?

Northern members have found, over the past two years or so, that grass roots members in the South have been sympathetic to an expansion into NI electoral politics. We have had resolutions of support passed by Labour Youth and Labour Women. We have always felt welcomed at conferences and, indeed, held a well attended and comradely fringe meeting at the Wexford conference where a very open debate was held.

The 21st Century Commission sent a questionnaire to all Party members including a question about organisation in the North. The results should have been included in the paper.

What next?

Irish Labour has turned firmly away from an all-Ireland political agenda, thus missing an opportunity to shape political events in Northern Ireland. The logic of the Commission’s position is that Labour should no longer allow membership in the North, unless as part of a longer term project to merge with the SDLP.

The question remains how all of Northern Ireland’ population can be given the opportunity to vote for a democratic socialist political party. The British Labour Party also allows membership but no electoral activity in the jurisdiction, and in my opinion it’s only a matter of time before they also refuse their members the chance to stand in elections. Both Labour Parties have put NI in the ‘too hard’ box, which means it’s up to those of us who live here to decide what to do next. For many, the answer will be ‘go home and watch TV’. But for others, 2009 requires much thought and discussion about the next steps.


With thanks to other members of the Northern Ireland Constituency Council, especially Mark Langhammer, Mary McMahon and David Morrison.

‘Not British or Irish’ Labour Party policy statement

The following two tabs change content below.
Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk