For regular visitors to this site, that question will seem odd – and redundant! But it has just been asked. I stumbled across it a few weeks ago in a headline in The Telegraph (15 July) above an article written by former Scottish Labour MP Tom Harris.
We’re given Harris’ answer upfront: ‘Only if he ignores the hard-Left’. Locating his piece, Harris adds: ‘Labour has a chance to establish a presence in Northern Ireland, and unequivocally reject the pro-unification SDLP’. The background of course is the longstanding comradely relationship between the UK Labour Party which doesn’t stand candidates in NI elections and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a NI only party.
Labour leader’s visit to NI
The profile of Labour’s position on NI and the SDLP has been raised by Starmer’s pronouncements during a recent visit to NI. According to Harris, the Labour leader gave what appeared to be a fairly unequivocal answer to the question of whether NI should vote to become part of Ireland and sever its historic ties with the UK. He is opposed.
The National addressed Starmer’s views on NI in an article on 11 July noting: ‘Speaking to BBC NI, Starmer was questioned by political editor Enda McClafferty on what his stance will be should the north decide to vote on a border poll.’
We learn that McClafferty pressed the Labour leader ‘asking him to clarify that he would not remain neutral should there be a border poll, that instead he would be “very much on the side of Unionists, arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK” even if he were to be Prime Minister at the time.’ Starmer responded: “I believe in the United Kingdom and I will make the case for a United Kingdom.” (my emphasis – this is relevant given the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and a Westminster government’s role in sanctioning a border poll.)
On 9 July 2021 the Irish Times reported: ‘British Labour leader Keir Starmer has ruled out the prospect of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future, saying that such an eventuality is “not in sight”.’
‘Speaking to The Irish Times in Derry at the end of his three-day trip, Mr Starmer put himself at odds with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s recent remarks that he could see the reunification of Ireland within his lifetime.’ Starmer is quoted saying: “I think it is not in sight, frankly, and the obvious priority at the moment, particularly coming out of the pandemic, is the economy, health and education and longer term issues.” And: “These are very important priorities and I think a border poll is not in sight. It is not in sight as far as I am concerned”.
Candidly, given where matters sit in NI at present, post-Brexit, it’s hard to conceive why the issue of NI’s constitutional future is anything other than crucially linked to the development of NI’s economy and to ’longer term issues’!
As an aside: the same Irish Times article refers to Starmer’s remarks on Anglo-Irish relations. His remarks are revealing in perhaps an unintended way. He is reported as saying:
“This is a close partnership with a very important country (i.e. with Ireland), as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, with a shared history and a shared future, but I fear they are at an all time low and responsibility lies at the door of Number 10 (Downing Street).”
It is ‘reassuring’ to learn, is it not, that an independent nation-state located on ‘these islands’ can still be considered an ‘important country’ to the other, adjacent nation-state, the one governed from London? And is it not revealing that the two nation-states currently located on ‘these islands’ have a ‘close partnership’ characterised by their ‘shared history’ and a ‘shared future’ even whilst existing as independent nation-states, and even though one is now outside the EU and other inside?
All this positivity – and despite traumatic 20th century history! Why would, why should the independent nation-state of Scotland and the independent nation-state of the Kingdom of South Britain (with or without NI) not be similarly characterised – not least if the dissolution of the present Union is achieved democratically and peacefully? Puts the scare-mongering of Unionists in Scotland over future relations with our neighbours in perspective! Thank you for these insights Mr Starmer!
Labour and the SDLP
For a long time the UK Labour Party has had a close relationship with the SDLP. For example, Labour List in December 2019 welcomed the success of the SDLP in the UK General Election, referring to it as “Labour’s Northern Irish sister party”. There are various references over years to the SDLP as ‘affiliated to the Labour Party’.
It’s relevant to revisit what leading Labour figures said relatively recently about these matters. During the Labour’s leadership election in 2020, the Labour Party Irish Society posed a series of questions to the candidates. One of the questions is especially interesting in the present context: “What is your view on the Labour Party standing candidates in Northern Ireland?” and thus essentially competing with the SDLP. (See http://www.labourirish.org.uk/candidates )
This was Starmer’s answer: “I don’t think now is the right time for Labour to stand candidates in Northern Ireland, …”
“I also think we should work shoulder to shoulder with our sister party, the SDLP, and I am delighted that we have SDLP representatives in the House of Commons again. During the General Election I endorsed Claire Hanna in her Belfast South seat and if elected Labour leader I look forward to working with the SDLP in Parliament.”
This was Angela Rayner’s (now the Labour Party’s Deputy Leader) response to the same question: “I support our Party’s current, longstanding position on this which is that we should not stand candidates for election in Northern Ireland at this time. This acknowledges the unique political environment in Northern Ireland and the need for a future Labour Government to be an honest broker in any future talks.”
Rayner added (and dear reader take care not to spill your cup of tea at this point): “I support the principles of localism and political pluralism, and the need to place trust in people to identify their own priorities and the role of government at all levels to support that. …. I also greatly welcome the election of new SDLP members of Parliament and I look forward to working with them.”
The reference to being an ‘honest broker’ in NI now that Starmer has nailed his Union flag to the mast rings hollow!
About the SDLP
So what is this party that Starmer wishes to stand shoulder to shoulder with in a sisterly relationship and does NOT compete against in elections? Presumably nothing like the SNP!
In terms of the politics of the island of Ireland, the SDLP is an avowedly nationalist party seeking Irish re-unification. Presently, the SDLP takes care to spell out in detail what its Irish nationalism is about. (See: https://www.sdlp.ie/issues/progressive-nationalism/ )
Here it states: “It is time for a new type of nationalism. The SDLP’s new vision of Progressive Nationalism will move the ground upon which the constitutional debate on this island rests.
“Our aspiration to share political union with the rest of the island is now inextricably linked with our ability to build a shared and successful social and economic framework here in the North. Unity will be achieved through the success of both jurisdictions, not by their failure. We must ensure that our vision for the reunification of this island becomes a demographic of belief, not a demographic of birth.”
And adds: “Ireland’s political re-unification remains the biggest and the best idea around. It needs huge preparation. Big ideas deserve better than being reduced to a numbers game.” Some way away from Starmer’s view, to say the least!
The SDLP has now established a ‘Commission for a New Ireland’ (https://www.sdlp.ie/new_ireland_commission ). It points to Scotland’s plan for independence in 2014 noting: it “contained 670 pages of work. It scoped out and modelled what a new Scotland would look like. Irish nationalism must match that level of practicality. We must do the same. The Commission for a New Ireland will attempt to escape from merely talking about unity by actually putting in the hard yards of research which will see it delivered.”
So the SDLP’s commitment to action now to achieve Irish unity is crystal clear. How is its sister party, the UK Labour Party going to continue in a relationship with such (presumably?) very bad, divisive, narrow nats? Well, it seems we now know the direction of travel: the indications are that Labour will be in opposition to the policy of the SDLP because Starmer’s Labour will oppose Irish unification.
It has seemed for some time to reek of hypocrisy for Labour to maintain a close relationship with a party whose constitutional and progressive nationalism closely matches that of the SNP and wider Yes movement in Scotland. This is especially so given the outright condemnation and frankly, disdain which leading figures in the Labour Party direct towards those seeking self-determination for Scotland.
In yet another twist, this is from the Labour Party of Northern Ireland’s website (the Party seems to have over 1,000 members in NI):
‘The Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI) supports the traditional ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) stance of being neutral on the border question’ (statement dated 26th July, 2021)
And from the Mission & Objectives statement of the ICTU itself, from its website: ‘Congress is the largest civil society organisation on the island of Ireland, representing and campaigning on behalf of some 800,000 working people. There are currently 44 unions affiliated to Congress, north and south of the border.’
On the Congress Vision: ‘Congress seeks to achieve a just society – one which recognises the rights of all workers and citizens to enjoy the prosperity and fulfilment which leads to a good quality of life. Quality of life embraces not just material well-being, but freedom of choice to engage in the arts, culture and all aspects of civic life. This vision applies in the context of Ireland, Europe and the wider world and challenges the existing economic order.’
So the constitutional neutrality of the LPNI and the ICTU (an all Ireland trade union organisation – who would have guessed that is even feasible from Unionist scare-mongering?) is at odds with Starmer’s recent pronouncements on a border poll and re-unification. He is NOT neutral, he will oppose re-unification. So when will he and his deputy resile from their warm support for the SDLP stated during the 2020 leadership contest? Will they convince the LPNI to shift its position away from neutrality over Irish re-unification to a Unionist one: will they take on the SDLP at the ballot box?
Labour is already a Unionist party, at least its leadership is as we in Scotland know only too well. It is a party willing to campaign on the constitution (and enter into local government administration) with the Tories in Scotland. For Labour’s leadership, it seems in Scotland at least, its Unionism trumps all.
Starmer’s Labour seems intent on turning away from the long-standing empathy and more of many of its members for the cause of Irish unity. Presumably this is in order to burnish its British nationalist/patriotic credentials with voters who would it seems just as readily vote Tory as Labour!