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A greener Labour Party isn't inevitable

Irrespective of Jeremy Corbyn's personal preference for reunification, it would be a grave error for the new Opposition leader to assume everyone shares his view - even within his own ranks, writes Aaron Edwards

Published 16/09/2015

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both expressed sympathy to Irish nationalism and for calls for a united Ireland
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both expressed sympathy to Irish nationalism and for calls for a united Ireland
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both expressed sympathy to Irish nationalism and for calls for a united Ireland

The media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn's campaign and subsequent election to the leadership of the Labour Party has focused, somewhat disproportionately, on his own individual connections with Sinn Fein.

However, to presuppose that the Labour Party will automatically become "greener" in its policy towards Northern Ireland misses the point that the party has often had to make an internal trade-off in relation to the divisiveness of the Irish question.

In her political memoir - Momentum (2002) - Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, revealed that the Labour Party traditionally had two schools of thought (or wings) on Irish policy.

One wing was more conciliatory towards the unionist position, recognising the "consent principle" enshrined in the 1949 Ireland Act, and the other was more ardently anti-partitionist.

Corbyn - along with the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Clare Short and George Galloway - were among the front rank of this element in the party.

Historically the conciliatory wing of the party was incredibly supportive of its comrades in the Northern Ireland Ireland Labour Party (NILP), which meant providing an annual maintenance grant to support its sister party in the province between 1929 and 1974.

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After the appointment of Morgan Phillips as general secretary of the Labour Party in 1944, British Labour moved more closely to align itself with the NILP, which declared in April 1949 that it would "take all necessary steps to seek the closest possible means of co-operation with the British Labour Party".

Thanks to the close financial and fraternal support of British Labour, the NILP had made a serious electoral breakthrough by the late-1950s. Stormont parliamentary constituencies like Pottinger, Woodvale, Oldpark and Victoria - traditionally dominated by unionists - were stormed by the party in 1958 and consolidated in 1962.

Under Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, the NILP's manifestos were jointly agreed on by Phillips and his close friend Sam Napier, the NILP general secretary.

Disappointingly, the party's advance was halted by the unionist regime in the mid-1960s. The onset of serious inter-communal strife in the late-1960s hollowed out support for the NILP among the Protestant and Catholic working class.

Yet, for half-a-century, the NILP represented a non-sectarian, third political tradition of democratic socialism in Northern Ireland.

It attracted a membership that reflected the mainly urban-based constituencies, which included Belfast, Londonderry and Portadown, and drew both Catholics and Protestants into its ranks.

In spite of its calls for a more peaceful approach to lobbying on civil rights, its younger membership grew increasingly polarised and many left to found loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations.

After 1974 British Labour came to regard the nationalist SDLP as its "sister party" and, consequently, became greener in its policy towards Northern Ireland, thereby jettisoning support from those non-sectarian elements of the Protestant working class.

The haemorrhaging of further support from the remnants of the NILP became a fait accompli after Michael Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980, and continued under his successor Neil Kinnock. The NILP eventually wound up in 1987.

The anti-partitionist impulse inside the Labour Party would remain dominant until Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, when he moved to present the party as more of an umpire than a persuader for Irish unity.

As a token gesture to demonstrate the new policy departure Blair sacked his shadow Secretary of State Kevin McNamara and replaced him with Mowlam.

It is too early to tell whether Corbyn's replacement of Ivan Lewis with Vernon Coaker, is a reflection of another departure in party policy. Both men have served as shadow Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland since 2011 and both have been explicit in their support for the power-sharing deal at Stormont.

They have also been vocal in their opposition to violence from both loyalists and republicans and articulated the need for the rule of law to extend throughout the United Kingdom.

However, Lewis was a key architect of Ed Miliband's concept of One Nation Britain, which eventually extended Labour's membership rules to allow citizens in Northern Ireland to join the party.

This had been a demand of former members of the NILP for many years, especially those who belonged to British-based trade unions.

In fact, it was to take an aggrieved member of the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union, Andy McGivern, to bring a court case against the Labour Party to force it to extend that right, which it did in 2003.

A dozen years on, the party is still to decide whether it will contest elections in the province, denying members a democratic right shared by members in England, Scotland and Wales.

In many respects Corbyn's appointment of other members of the party's left-wing, anti-partitionist members, to key positions in his shadow Cabinet shows how difficult the road ahead may be for those in Northern Ireland who share a vision of Labour Party organising on a more inclusive UK-wide basis.

Regardless of the Corbyn shadow Cabinet's personal preferences for a united Ireland, it would be a strategic error for the Labour Party and its supporters to assume that everyone shares this outlook.

If Corbyn is serious about making Labour truly electable, then there is a need for him to engage all Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish Labour members and supporters in a dialogue about how best to rebuild and re-energise their party across the entire UK.

Even though the English political class (of whatever party political complexion) have wished to keep Ireland at arm's-length, the deep ethnic divisions and continuing political instability demonstrates that an Irish problem has always harboured the potential to become an English problem.Tired, cliched rhetoric of giving "Ireland to the Irish", which has traditionally emanated from the British Left, is devoid of an understanding of its own party's history, or of realistic political ideas aimed at resolving the "Irish question".

Dr Aaron Edwards is an academic, historian and author of A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism (Manchester University Press)

Belfast Telegraph

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