by Henry Hill
Monday, 12
July 2021

Why won’t Labour stand in Northern Ireland?

Keir Starmer could offer Ulster a non-sectarian, progressive pro-Union voice
by Henry Hill
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer attends a press conference at Stormont. Credit: Getty

Sir Keir Starmer’s remarks in an interview that he would support the pro-UK campaign in the event of a future border poll in Northern Ireland ought to be a watershed moment for his party.

Labour are proud of their role in delivering the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. But for the two decades since 1998, they have conspicuously failed to live up to its spirit.

Under the terms of the Agreement, both Britain and Ireland are supposed to respect whatever choice Northern Ireland makes — including the choice to stay British.

But Labour has time and again treated our fellow citizens in Ulster as an afterthought.

Unlike the Conservatives, it refuses to contest elections in the Province. Worse, for a long time it refused even to allow Northern Irish residents to join as members — even trades union members who were indirectly financing it.

Instead, prospective applicants were directed to Labour’s ‘sister party’, the SDLP. The problem? That the SDLP is a nationalist party, committed to ending the Union.

It took a court order to force Labour to admit Northern Irish members. The local branch now has hundreds signed up. But even now, it still refuses to organise.

This is a dereliction of duty, for two reasons. First, because people in every part of our country deserve an opportunity to vote for both parties that are likely to lead a national government — and for those parties in turn to put some effort into how they might actively improve life in Northern Ireland, rather than merely ‘manage devolution’.

Second, because Labour specifically has the chance to offer the Ulster electorate something important: a non-sectarian, progressive pro-Union voice.

Such an option is sorely lacking. The only explicitly Left-wing unionist party, the Progressive Unionist Party, has paramilitary connections. The titularly social democratic SDLP is nationalist.

Moreover, many of the Province’s deepest divisions go hand-in-hand with deprivation. It is working class estates where the murals and paramilitary flags crop up.

On Friday night, I was invited to attend one of the (in)famous bonfires in Portadown. From afar it’s a towering symbol of sectarian intent. But on the ground — at least on this occasion — it was a big night out for a community that neither the British nor Irish governments seems to have any idea what to do with.

The Irish Sea border has revived once again fears that promises made to unionists are made with fingers crossed, and that the country to which they are so performatively loyal doesn’t care about them. This is a toxic, and indeed dangerous, position.

Starmer isn’t likely to tear up the Protocol. But for the leader of the Labour Party to make a genuine effort to reach out to the Northern Irish working class, and put some meat on the bones of his party’s lip-service to respecting Ulster’s place in the UK, would be a very powerful thing.

He has activists on the ground raring to go. His party’s relationship with the SDLP makes no sense in light of his commitment to the Union. It’s time for Labour to stand in Northern Ireland.

Join the discussion

  • _Very_ well said, Henry.
    And, while we’re at it, full marks for having the bravery to go along to that bonfire in Portadown. I expect you had to overcome quite a few inbuilt prejudices along the way. I had the same kind of experience last year, just before lockdown, when I had a very civilised cup of coffee with a gentleman who had been convicted in court of Islamist terrorism.
    So what should be the politics of Northern Ireland (and Scotland)? Will it be the sterile nationalist/unionist cleavage, or the more productive conservative/progressive cleavage? Will it be the politics of identity or the politics of aspiration?
    Labour should hold its head in shame that Belfast is the only industrial city in the UK which has never, not once, returned a Labour MP to Westminster.

  • They’d have to decide that they were, and commit to actually being, Unionist first.

    Diane Abbott (yeah, I know!) seems to be telling people that they’re not.

  • I always thought that the Allian ce Party was the non-sectarian, ‘progressive’ party of choice in Northern Ireland and seemed to be doing quite well electorally? Surely Starmer’s Labour Party is identitarian politics personified and would go down like a lead balloon in working class areas of the North of Ireland, just as it has done so in the grittier working class communities of the North of England and elsewhere….

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