Could Labour open up a Pandora’s box by standing in Northern Ireland?

If elected leader of the Labour Party, Andy Burnham could allow candidates in Northern Ireland to stand for election. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI) unanimously endorsed his candidature for leadership only a week after Labour’s catastrophic loss in the General Election. In a press statement from 15 May, the local branch’s Executive Committee said they made the decision in part because Burnham “has loyally maintained his support for Northern Ireland CLP’s campaign to stand Labour Party candidates in elections here”. With Burnham having already gained the 35 MP nominations required to enter the leadership contest, and bookies having him down as the favourite, the party’s Northern Ireland members may finally get what they want. But who stands to benefit and what would be the consequences of Labour’s entry into Northern Ireland contests?

Any progressive in Northern Ireland who desires to see a change in the quality of local politics can understand the reasons behind the aspiration of local members to stand Labour candidates. Who wouldn’t want to see a progressive, non-sectarian, centre-left party able to reach across communal divisions and unite people on the so-called bread-and-butter issues: health, education, the economy, etc.? The argument of Northern Ireland members of the party, as summarised by the NEC in a document from January 2013, is that “only Labour [can] bridge the sectarian divide which cuts through Northern Irish politics and that the Party should seek a mandate for government across the UK”. This was my motivation for joining Labour in Northern Ireland back in 2011. It seemed to me then that Labour could open up a new era of politics in Northern Ireland. As Alex Kane might argue, post-conflict politics requires post-conflict parties. Labour, I believed, could be one of those parties.

Boyd Black, secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, recently wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the local constituency party wants “a cast-iron commitment that Labour will stop suppressing Labour Party candidates here and commit to transforming our politics as only it can do”. Burnham, who is currently courting Northern Ireland member votes for the leadership contest, would, presumably, need to offer such a promise. It’s important, however, to think through the consequences of such a promise—for the party in Britain and for Northern Ireland in general.

Progressives need to have an open, robust debate about the future of centre-left politics in Northern Ireland, indeed, across these islands. The social democratic cause across Europe is in serious jeopardy, and those of us in Ireland and Britain, especially after the last UK GE, need to be frank and honest with each other about where we go next. While I think Burnham could be a fantastic leader, offering a demonstrated commitment to the NHS, and helping the party reconnect with working-class voters, I now have serious reservations about Labour standing in elections in Northern Ireland. So, if this is the future direction of Labour, it needs to be thought through extremely carefully.

There are good reasons that the Labour NEC decided in 2013 not to allow the party to stand for elections in Northern Ireland, and they are still good reasons. The first was that if the party moved to stand, that the Irish Labour Party, who has many members based in Northern Ireland, would face irresistible pressure to follow suit. In such a scenario, Northern Ireland could hold elections where three centre-left parties (Labour, ILP and SDLP), all from the same European labour family, would be forced to compete against each other. As the NEC said at the time, “If either party [Labour or ILP] became involved in Northern Irish electoral politics it would be to the detriment of the SDLP, which is already weakened by the rise of Sinn Fein. [The ILP] had grave misgivings about harming a sister party in that way”. Even if, as recently proposed by the ILP, Labour and ILP jointly contest elections in the North, a position supported by LPNI, that still pits the joint Irish and British Labour party against the SDLP, their sister party.

No one benefits from the spurious argument that the SDLP is not a true centre-left party, a stance often taken by members in LPNI. It’s unfair to say that the SDLP, because of its stance on abortion, and its hesitancy, despite official endorsement, of same-sex marriage, is not a centre-left party. The party decides policy by democratic process and has a history of positions that many in Labour ought to look back at in admiration, not the least of which, the SDLP’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Being against abortion, as many in the SDLP are, does not preclude you from being against austerity. Opposition to abortion is the party’s policy now, but, like policy in other parties, it can move, so long as the members want it to move. It’s a position, not a value, though many in the party would say it’s a position that stems from traditional social democratic values (giving a voice to the voiceless?). On the SDLP’s constitutional stance, the party believes, like the Green Party and SNP in Scotland, that localising politics creates more dynamic, accountable governance. It’s unproductive to argue that simply because a party takes a stance on the constitution that it is inherently sectarian.

LPNI have always argued that Labour has a contribution to make to politics in Northern Ireland that the SDLP cannot fulfil. Even as someone who eventually became an SDLP member, I have to concede, this is probably true. But what Northern Ireland members of the party should also consider are the consequences of Labour standing in Northern Ireland for the party in Britain. LPNI members envision a party that unites people along similar economic aspirations while sidelining constitutional and identity differences. But consider the consequences for the whole party if it adopted a neutral stance on the constitution in Northern Ireland while running on a One Nation Britain campaign strategy in England, Scotland and Wales? Labour is a unionist party, and if it dilutes that stance, the consequences in England could be disastrous—even more disastrous than the last General Election. There were Labour members who in the Scottish referendum wanted Labour to take a neutral stance. There may be some serious questions for Labour to answer on this point, but for the time being, members in Northern Ireland should recognise that Labour, as long as it is unionist in Britain, cannot be neutral in Northern Ireland. This will be particularly true if there is another Scottish referendum in the next 10 years. The Tories in particular will use this point to relentlessly attack the party, saying Labour does not fully support the principle of a United Kingdom, seriously damaging Labour’s prospects of connecting with middle England. However much LPNI wants to see the constitution as a non-issue, it’s very much alive, and not just in Northern Ireland, but across the UK.

Any thinking about a new Labour party in Northern Ireland, as proposed by the ILP, needs to engage SDLP members and elected representatives. Further schism, as the Left is prone to, brings divisiveness and weakens the progressive cause. Labour does have a duty to provide leadership in Northern Ireland—I just don’t believe electoral contests are the right method of showing that leadership, at least for the time being. While I do think that Labour standing in Northern Ireland could attract a small percentage of non-voters, I no longer believe that such a move will have the transformative effect that local members desire.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well there are Irish Labour, NI Labour and possibly even UK Labour members within the SDLP as well, and the SDLP significantly outnumber both organisations in terms of Northern Ireland membership. Indeed while I know Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael organize have branches in Northern Ireland, and the SDLP one branch in Dublin, I am not sure if Irish Labour have any here. But certainly cross party blocks on these matters do happen, John Gilliland got a broad consensus for his campaign for example.

  • Barneyt

    Well the BlairBrown era definitely portrayed the Tories as a less dangerous prospect than they otherwise should be. They made the Tories more palatable by offering largely, more of the same…lurch to the right, more privatisation etc… The NHS was safer in Labour hands, but not by that much. As much as I pity those left behind in England, I tend to agree it will be sometime before (if ever) the UK enjoys a labour majority government.

  • Thanks for this excellent contribution, Jenny. The piece has stimulated some helpful dialogue—if not some unhelpful dialogue as well. My point it that NI needs less Left infighting and more big-umbrella centre-left politics. STV has created, as you say, far too many parties—and created far too many political/ideological purists. There’s less and less room for compromise and common aspirations. The SDLP has good people, who have worked hard, often for decades, on behalf of all people in NI. What’s disappointing is that the case for LPNI is often the case against the SDLP—and as that case is argued, the accomplishments and excellent work of the SDLP are purposely elided.

  • I completely agree that Labour hasn’t got devolution right—in fact, they don’t understand it. Just look at Scotland. But what I think LPNI members should also understand is that the party needs to look at what is best for the whole movement. There are consequences that will unfold in other regions of the UK—and Ireland—if LPNI stands. Those need to be addressed. The party doesn’t have a clear answer for why it won’t allow members to stand, which is partly the reason conversation on this topic tends to get suppressed. But there are legitimate fears. Once Labour stands, it cannot back out. That takes the party down a whole new trajectory in its relationship with Ireland. It involves a fundamental repositioning.

  • james

    Well then, if I’m wrong and SF really is trying to bring about a UI (as opposed to the theory I favour where they deliberately perpetuate a neverending opposition position where they can answer all queries with a sorrowful lament about the bad Brits whilst treating NI as a virtual ATM), can you explain why after decades and decades they have made no progress whatever on their sole goal? If you are right it can only mean incompetence on a colossal scale. Perhaps you should try voting SDLP.

  • tmitch57

    Separate but equal was an American idea not a South African one. Are you referring to the tricameral consitution of the 1980s or the complete absence of voting rights for the African majority from the 1930s to 1994?

  • tmitch57

    American abolitionists created the Liberty Party in 1840 not in any real expectation that they would affect immediate abolition of slavery through the franchise but rather to give themselves a party that they could vote for in good conscience. I believe that the motives of NI Conservatives and Labour Party supporters who urge their party to contest elections is similar. Slavery was ended only after practical antislavery men organized two mergers with larger remnants or splinters of mainstream parties when the conditions were ripe. If the electorate in NI really desired non-sectarian parties organized around economic and social issues, they would have organized them and they would receive more than ten percent of the vote in elections.

  • james

    How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that ge just doesn’t see?

  • james

    How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

  • OneNI

    You know that in effect NI was a one party state from 1921 to 1970s there was a blind eye and indifference fromLondon

  • Barbarus

    the SDLP are simply a revival of the old sectarian Irish Parliamentary Party and are a vehicle for middle-class Catholics to jump on the gravy train of devolved Government. it is outrageous that reigious bigotry in Britain has forced working-class unionists into the arms of Iain Paisley..

  • Granni Trixie

    The sad truth is that Labour did not prove to be an alternative or uniting, reforming force in the context of 60s-70s.

    I think this experience is what underlies caution in organising today.

  • Jenny Muir

    Barton, I have sent you the 2011 LPNI case for standing for election here, which I wrote. The arguments haven’t changed since then. You’ll see in particular that it provides figures for countries where there are more than one Socialist International member – about 15, I think. Three further points: (i) I don’t think the consequences you outline in your original post are realistic. They are a reflection of the obsession with being seen as being ‘neutral’, but the GFA has parked this – we all get a vote as and when a border poll is called. Current discussions are about bread and butter issues and I don’t see SF refusing to talk to Cameron due to differences on the border (ii) Another thing Labour doesn’t get is coalitions, either inside or outside elected institutions. If the way forward here is to build a broad Left, Labour may actually need to work with other parties and campaigns rather than to think it always knows best. So the assessment in London is being made about whether Labour can win lots of seats and deliver a manifesto, but informal coalitions, especially at local level, are more likely (iii) No-one is seeking to ignore the SDLP’s past, but politics is brutal like that and you also need to have a coherent vision for the future, clearly articulated, which is where the Greens score in NI (Greens here are not the same party as England and Wales)

  • Jenny Muir

    Fair enough, Kevin, I accept there is a wider agenda too 🙂

  • Robin Keogh

    James, Irish Unity is not part of this thread, I have not mentioned Irish Unity and u seem to be obsessed with it. Irish Unity is a goal, an aspiration, something to be achieved through argument and persuasion. It does not occupy the minds of even the most ardent Republican 24 hours a day 7 days a week. There are far more importtant immediate issues to be concerned about politically. Just because Sinn Fein ad SDLP are in favour of Iirsh Unity, that does not mean they are incapable of addressing wider social and political issues. SF like many other parties have a number of goals relative to time and circumstance. But just for you, let me break it down a bit. The current priority is getting as many votes as possible in the South, that’s going very well according to the polls. The hope is this will lead to SF being in government in both jurisdiction at some time in the not to distant future. there is an emphasis for us on progressing a social democratic model in govermnment in Dublin. There are also much broader issues that need to be addressed such as the national debt, job creation, managing the benefits of the new oil and gas discoveries, developing EU institutions etc. etc. Irish Unity can only come about when a majority of the the people wish it to happen, taht might be ten years from now, twenty years or thirty, it doesnt actaully matter. people like yourself who are obsessed with distraction over Irish Unity need to chill out a bit and realise that there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with until we finally get to vote on Unity.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    If I may say so, part of your criticism of the idea of Labour representation in Northern Ireland is based on a misconception about the nature of the UK. It is not England; and as you know the many people in NI who identify with the UK are not English, they are Northern Irish. The Labour Party if fielding candidates in NI would be doing so, I would hope, from the ground up, so they wouldn’t be English politicians helicoptered in, but Northern Irish politicians.

    We know we are different from Suffolk, Aberdeen and Pembrokeshire, it is a diverse country with many regional economies. Northern Ireland is one of those. We have devolution, as Scotland and Wales do, but it doesn’t preclude Scotland and Wales from having the main national parties as part of the political scene there, so why should it in Northern Ireland?

    The only thing that makes NI any kind of a special case is that the separatist cause here is supported or rejected along ethnic lines, with party politics being consequently divided on that basis. But it’s not so different as to make mainstream politics impossible – especially now as we try and move on from the Troubles. But I think the national parties have given up without trying. They have seen much more to lose than to gain from engagement in NI politics. They are terrified of being seen to be ‘taking sides’ in a bitter ethnic dispute such as ours, with a tarnishing of their brand nationally as a result. Not many votes or seats to be gained, quite a few to potentially lose. But in the process, Northern Ireland is left with impoverished “ethnic block” politics, Alliance and the Greens aside.

    It’s time I think for them to see that the risks aren’t so great for them – they can just take the Alliance line on the constitution and take a consensual, liberal, centrist approach to community relations issues – and while gains for them might be small in the short term, gains for Northern Ireland from this opportunity to do normal politics could be huge.

    It doesn’t harm Irish nationalism as a cause, nor unionism – it just says, whatever long term future you want, in the meantime let’s not live in Purgatory, let’s actually make things work as they should now. We can all have a referendum down the line on a border change if we want it. In the meantime, let’s make the UK work for us.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    that’s several political generations ago though, GT. Very different times. And Labour did have some success in the 60s, over 20 per cent of the vote at one time. And no need to repeat its mistakes in the modern era.
    Labour though needs to rediscover what it’s about at a national level, reconnect with the people in a way that makes sense and has legs over the coming decades. Finding a constituency in Northern Ireland will be only one variation on an enterprise that will be going on across the country.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You mentioned that Labour politicians wouldn’t be helicoptered in but that is precisely what NI Conservatives did in the last election for the most part. The issue of juxtaposing remains.

    This isn’t an Anglophobic rant, We are not talking about David Ford or Nuala O’Loan or any other of the English people who either live here or have some clue of what’s going on, we are talking about people who don’t even have freinds here and either see it as Little Finchley or as some sort of colony in all but name.

    The point I am making about Northern Ireland is specifically about the labour market and employment and in this regard it is a special case due to its geography, the border issue, the legacy of the Troubles such as higher mental health problems and higher rates of disability, reliance on the public sector and reliance on the military sector and heavy industry sectors before then, and being more agrarian than Britain is many of which are parochial matters not national ones or in many cases sectarian ones. They are certainly not for the most part generated by party politics. As for the local culture or indeed cultures, culture doesn’t matter too much in many workplaces in this multinational, multicultural world in a globalised economy.

    In my opinion a lot of the economic problems have to be managed locally with microeconomic approaches, “integrationalism” has been tried with several Conservative and Unionist groups and Sinn Féin groups from the other side of the spectrum but transcending the local difficulties to get the big picture play has often focused simply on expanding the tribe rather than giving people who disagree a means to work together and work to find their own solutions. That isn’t optional, it is necessary here.

    The “national” solution to Northern Ireland’s problem has been subventions it has no other domestic fiscal advantages over the rest of the United Kingdom. As was seen in Scotland people might want to remain in the UK because of subventions or other reasons but they may not feel it wise or necessary to vote for a UK national or unionist party simply on the basis that they get one. It’s not a real solution to the problems being faced at on a localised level.

    UK Labour has difficulties trying to accommodate Urban England, Middle England, Scotland & Wales particularly in a “time of austerity” where state driven solutions (not necessarily excluding or including civic driven solutions) aren’t possible. I can see why they are happy to leave the SDLP and all the other left wing groups to their own devices.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well, Labour are not the Conservatives …

    But look the point you make about the “uniqueness” of Northern Ireland: we’re all unique, aren’t we? As a region it has its own issues, but so does North Wales, East Anglia, etc etc. They all have their own stories. NI needs to find a way of processing the Troubles and in my view big money needs to be spent on that truth and justice process – but it also needs to have a vision for its future that can galvanise people. It needs to have a serious long term plan for economic development and get the investment in place to make it happen. I think the local parties with the exception of Alliance and the Greens are too caught up with ethnic grinding – and in some cases, too saturated with their own toxic pasts – to be capable of putting forward that kind of plan, credibly, for the whole province.

  • tmitch57

    Red Lion,
    NI21 had an own goal that amounted to a mortal wound. PBP is a protest vote. Only the Greens are a serious party that has some seats in the Councils–it doesn’t really register at the Assembly level.

  • Andrew Finn

    One of the concessions demanded by the Unionists to support Callaghan’s government was the increase in constituencies in Northern Ireland to increase Unionist representation in parliament, so Gerry Fitt didn’t support the government for that reason, but would campaign for them in the following election and providing the government lost the vote, which they obviously did, that would mean that the constituencies numbers were not increased.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As someone who remembers the old NI Labour party and whose family knew Jack Beattie, I think your comments about the need for “serious” political activity are spot on here MU.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well I know Justin, he is Australian, I would also say he is Irish too, but he has made it very clear his self-determination is that of an economic unionist. That’s the thing about self-determination it is self-determined. I as an economic nationalist would be happy for the SDLP was the coalition of the spectrum of constitutional labour and constitutional nationalists it originally began as. 60% of our workforce and industry have to work, trade and network within the Republic of Ireland. We have a United Ireland already in terms of labour mobility, we have an Ireland United to Britian in terms of labour mobility, it’s just whether unifying tax revenues, public spending and infrastructures and governments could ever make that better is the real crux of the constitutional question.

  • Kevin Breslin

    That’s politics. You are what you are made from. In terms of first generation or direct emigration from the Republic of Ireland living in Britian there are more Irish in the United Kingdom in this sense than the entire population in Northern Ireland currently.

  • johnerskine

    I’m a Protestant from Comber, have lived in England since 1980, and been a Labour Party member since 1981. I would seriously think about leaving the party if it stood in the six counties. Democratic socialists in the North have a party. It’s called the SDLP. If you’re not happy with it, have you taken the basic first step, and joined? If you haven’t done that, don’t complain.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Would the SDLP MPs really not vote with Labour in Westminster just because Labour had its own candidates in NI? Seems far-fetched; that would be some pique.

    Plus, the SDLP make great play of not being tied to the Labour Party anyway. So in reality, the risk of losing the “support” of SDLP MPs is a red herring, no? It wasn’t rock solid before and it wouldn’t be rock solid afterwards. They’d still agree on lots of things. Plus ca change.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Would the SDLP MPs really not vote with Labour in Westminster just because Labour had its own candidates in NI?

    Well, yeah! A fairly fundamental element of an alliance at Westminster elections is that you don’t run candidates against each other! It’s kind of hard to overlook!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you don’t need an alliance, you just need the votes

  • MainlandUlsterman

    what about the Coalition? Lib-Lab pact? What about the arrangements Labour and the SNP would probably have had if needed? I could go on.
    SDLP could have a big huff over it as you suggest, but that would be small of them, surely. And presumably if they agree with a policy or programme they’ll still vote for it, pique or no pique. It’s only currently a loose arrangement anyway, they are not obliged to vote with Labour. So not much would change, there would be a similar persuading job to do on Westminster votes, as there is now.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Irish Parliamentary Party were Sectarian? …

    An Irish “nationalist” party set up by and lead by a Protestant, a Party full of Protestants like Issac Butt, Sir John Gray, Stephen Gwynn, Henry Harrison, Jeremiah Jordan, William McDonald, J. G. Swift MacNeill, James Maguire, Pierce Charles de Lacy O’Mahony, Isaac Nelson, John Pinkerton, Horace Plunkett and Samuel Young.

    Get a British History Book or indeed an Irish one.

    The IPP were no more sectarian than the SNP are, or Ghandi’s Indian National Congress Movement. If you want to accuse every constitutional nationalist movement of being sectarian you may as well add them to the list.

    They were probably more representative of the broad spectrum of the island’s faiths than the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is today.

    And let’s be honest here, the Northern Irish Labour party was best during devolved government, even with inter-community caveat disputes within it it still was able to be a voice for working class Protestants in East Belfast who didn’t want to vote for the more Catholic SDLP.

    Under Direct Rule the Northern Ireland Labour Party collapsed, Direct rule did more to destroy the Northern Ireland Labour Party’s purpose and indeed (the Irish Labour Party’s involvement here) than all its political opponents and rivals and all the paramilitaries combined.

    NILP were still active with Devolved Government, and were still active when the SDLP had arrived on the scene. Direct Rule effectively killed it.

    Eammon McCann is a prominent left-wing voice within the SDLP’s strongest seat, Bernadette Devlin still vocal in McGuinness’ Mid Ulster, People before Profit came second in West Belfast … the absence of a loyalist working class spokesperson in strong unionist areas can’t exactly be blamed on the SDLP or Irish nationalism or even the “absence of an organised labour movement”.

    Did David Ervine or Billy Hutchinson blame the SDLP for why they took up arms rather than becoming constitutional activists for change?

    You have to ask why during the l Ulster Worker’s Strike working class Protestants and Trade Unionists let the Right-Wingers like David Trimble and Ian Paisley to their own devices without sharing their platform, without even a pragmatic voice for an anti-sectarian union that provided a Unionist or Loyalist voice for “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter” the way it might be argued that Protestant Unionist socialists like Sam Kyle, David Bleakley etc. did a generation before.

    Left-wing Protestant or unionist Voices that did support the Ulster Worker’s Strike could’ve made their name for themselves outside of the establishment UUP, the demagogues of the DUP and fringe unionist splinter groups, and those who political wing of a paramilitary.

    We’ve seen the likes of Dawn Purvis and other left wing activists still getting rejected. You have to build these movements from the bottom up, not wait to have them parachuted downward.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Labour Coalition stood, indeed so did Irish Labour at one time, you had Republican Labour as well. It would be difficult to say that any of these Labour movements opened a “Pandora’s box”.

    Even a radical socialist like Jack Beattie, an “Irish Labour” MP for West Belfast is barely mentioned as a paradigm shift in his time.

    How Jack Beattie earned and worked for his barely gets commented on, but gets replaced by a sort of Fabian Group talk-shop about how no change happens because they don’t do what we want them to do, and lament how these groups keep getting voted in anyway.

    At the end of the day politicians have to deal with people the way they are, not how they’d like them to be.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I don’t really understand what you’re saying to left-leaning people in Northern Ireland who happen to feel British instead of or as well as Irish. Without the Labour Party, what do they have? It’s not like they need a ‘unionist’ party, just a non-nationalist one, because they want to build a future for their country, the UK. And there are clearly, looking at polls on the constitutional future, many from ‘nationalist’ backgrounds who do not want nationalist politics, but progressive non-ethnically-specific politics.
    The SDLP, if it wants to be that party, needs to show imagination on the border and disavow its preference for the at best distant united Ireland cause. If it can’t move forward imaginatively to appeal to non-united-Irelanders from both traditions, then it surely can’t complain about another party of the left stepping forward to do that. If Labour hurts its friends in the SDLP a little, then so be it – there is a duty to cater for the people, not just politically back-scratch. The SDLP has a choice.

  • Paddy Reilly

    So you do make predictions! And wrong ones too!