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New parties needed to start shaking things up at Stormont

By Liam Clarke

New politics demands new parties. They may not take over, but they could at least lighten the rather stodgy orange/green mix that makes decision-making so slow and unreliable at Stormont.

It is interesting that both the DUP and Sinn Fein have said they would have nothing in principle against the Labour Party or other UK and Irish parties organising here. It could make for more shifting alliances at Stormont.

Opposition politics, rather than permanent all-party coalition, would be more feasible if there were a greater variety of voices.

At last count, UK Labour had more than 1,000 members here, and more than 1,750 if you count the £3-a-year supporting members.

I should declare an interest early on. My wife Kathryn Johnston is women's officer of the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party. Like many other Labour people here, she is also a member of the Irish Labour Party and the Cooperative Party, which is affiliated to Labour in the UK. Some members are also in other parties, like the SDLP.

Fielding of Labour candidates here, as the local members plan to do next year, would probably be in co-operation with Irish Labour, which has already passed motions endorsing the idea at its national and youth conferences. That would mimic an arrangement between the UK and Irish students' unions.

UK Labour had only 350 members here a couple of years ago. The sudden upsurge was largely down to the Corbyn effect. People joined to vote for or against him because they thought that the issue of Labour policy had suddenly become more relevant. Most probably voted for Andy Burnham, the shadow Home Secretary, because he openly backed Labour standing in Northern Ireland.

Newcomers to Labour here included Jim Gamble, the ex-police officer and child exploitation expert, Bridie McCreesh, the Unite official in Newry, and Dugald McCullough, an educationalist who used to be in the PUP. All joined because they want to stand in elections.

This is a diverse group of people who wouldn't have been at home together in one of our traditional parties.

Yet they draw on a deep political tradition going to the foundation of the State and beyond.

It is a Labour tradition that links us to Belfast's industrial heyday, when it acted as a magnet for country people seeking a better life in the shipyards, the ropeworks or the other industries that made it Ireland's industrial capital.

The possibility of working together flows in part from the Good Friday Agreement, UK and Irish Labour's great achievement here.

Now the constitutional future is not decided by a vote in Stormont; it has to be a referendum. This means that it can now be a matter of individual conscience.

The border can neither be maintained nor abolished by compulsion anymore.

Alliance has already adopted a neutral, make-your-own-mind-up stance and has not suffered electorally as a result.

A Northern Ireland Labour Party existed here from 1924 until it was largely absorbed into Paddy Devlin's Labour 1987, which failed to get elected.

For many years, particularly when nationalists were abstaining, the NILP was the main opposition voice in Stormont.

This created an incentive for unionists to try and split it on the border issue, a successful tactic that won them defections and was perfected by Terence O'Neill, the most liberal Prime Minister in the pre-Troubles Stormont.

That wouldn't be so easy or so tempting now.

Everyone knows that the border is not decided at elections here, as it once was.

It isn't going to change soon, and it is time to park the discussion for a while.

Issues like taxation, spending, marriage rights, abortion, planning laws, health and education are very much in Stormont's control and all parties recognise that these are the issues we need to focus on.

It may be easier to do so with a different mix in the Assembly.

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