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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: Why is Labour standing clear of Northern Irish politics?

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

I’m going to start this column by praising something said by Tom Watson. Don’t worry, I won’t be long. Here it is:

"On Saturday, Ed set out his One Nation vision for Britain and a Labour Party fighting for fairness in the North, South, East and West - in Scotland and in Wales. There will be no 'no-go areas',".

Set aside for a moment the fact that Labour pledging to fight in Scotland and Wales is akin to the Conservatives pledging to struggle on in, say, Knightsbridge or Hertfordshire. It’s still an admirable sentiment, isn’t it? Putting some flesh on the notion of ‘One Nation Labour’ by pledging to take the fight to every corner of Her Majesty’s Kingdom of Great Britain.

Except when you think about it, that’s not actually the name of our country, is it? To be fair, he does only claim to have a “vision for Britain” rather than the United Kingdom, but outside the offices of constitutional scholars that distinction is ordinarily the province of pedants. Yet on the very day that this ‘One Nation’ vision was being sent out (inevitably accompanied by a request for money), the Labour Party executive was ruling against the latest bid by the party’s tireless Ulster wing to contest elections.

This produced the sort of bracingly honest press release one doesn’t often encounter in modern politics. I encourage everyone to click through and read the whole thing, but the choicest section is surely this:

“The Labour Party is continuing to deny people in Northern Ireland their fundamental democratic rights in a discriminatory way.  We remain unable to vote for the party that aspires to govern us and which, if successful in the next general election, will set our taxes and determine the level of our public services and benefits.  We are all effectively disenfranchised by the Labour Party.”

But the more interesting part, for me at least, was this:

“We regret that the suppression of our democratic right to vote Labour is based on opposition from other parties.  Sadly, the SDLP, a party that developed out of the civil rights movement, now wants to deny people the most basic civil right of all, the right to vote for the party which may form our government…  The SDLP is being kept on ‘life support’ at the cost of our democratic rights.”

A bit of background for those unfamiliar with Ulster politics: the Social Democratic and Labour Party, although established with the idea of being a non-sectarian, anti-union party of the left, swiftly ended up just replacing the old Nationalist Party as the vehicle for constitutional, overwhelmingly Catholic nationalism. And as the UUP were eclipsed post-peace by the more hard-line DUP, so the one-dominant SDLP have been overtaken by Sinn Fein.

But where the UUP’s dwindling voter base is being greedily cannibalised by the DUP and the Alliance – with a few tentative nibbles from us – the SDLP is holding up rather better. The Alliance isn’t taking much of its vote, the only centre-left ‘Protestant’ party are the Progressive Unionists (who have a rather unsavoury historical link to loyalist paramilitaries), and it is being kept on ‘life support’ by Labour abstentionism.

This despite the fact that, for Labour, moving into Northern Ireland would probably be much easier than it has proved for us. For a start there’s a viable voter base – pro-union, left-wing voters, especially Protestants – who don’t currently have a representative choice on their ballot. Second, Labour would almost certainly find it easier to reach out to the persuadable Catholic voter, a species which issue-based polling suggests exists in some numbers but who are totally alienated from either the DUP or UUP, and even from us.

So why aren’t they?

First, the cynic’s answer. It might strike those unfamiliar with Northern Irish politics as surprising that the Labour Party – the party of ‘reunification by consent’, who had to be taken to court to let Northern Irish people even join it – actually gains the effective support of no less than four of the province’s 18 MPs, whilst for all the time and treasure we’ve put in to date the Conservatives get none. These four are Lady Sylvia Hermon, the independent former-UUP MP for North Down who is essentially ‘Independent Labour’, and the three MPs for the SDLP.

If we truly are entering into an age of hung parliaments, those four votes are important. Whilst Hermon would probably be willing to stand for Labour if they entered the province, the nationalist SDLP would not, and Labour would thus be jeopardising allied MPs – albeit MPs who have no prospect of sitting on the government benches or exercising ministerial responsibility, and who are committed to breaking up the UK – for an uncertain return.

That Ed Miliband isn’t in favour is no surprise to me – I actually posed the question to him during the Labour leadership race, and by way of reply he offered a line about how awesome the peace process was and how he wouldn’t want to jeopardise it – the real threat to the peace process, in this analysis, being non-sectarian parties. Hm.

Personally, I suspect (and I concede this is only speculation) that much of this hesitation, both on the part of Miliband and the Labour executive, stems from the historical sympathies between the British left and Irish republicanism. It was after all Labour who, after their 1907 party conference in Belfast, voluntarily abdicated all attempts to represent even the loyal portion of the island. For most of the 20th Century much of the left viewed unionism as a right-wing, reactionary, Protestant and rather Telegraph phenomenon, whilst official Labour policy supported voluntary exit of Northern Ireland from the union.

I’m not sure to what extent the Labour Party in Northern Ireland want or appreciate the support of a Conservative writer, but I sincerely hope they keep it up. Northern Ireland deserves the full brace of mainland parties and the chance to vote for a member of a national government – of the left or the right.


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