Belfast Telegraph

Kathryn Johnston: The fight for the soul of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland

 

The local branch has been rocked by mass resignations of committee members. Former party secretary Kathryn Johnston explains how vicious online trolls drove her out.

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. (George Orwell, 1984)

And there are few more experienced at trying to control the past than Boyd Black of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI). I couldn't believe my eyes when I read the statement issued by Mr Black on Tuesday in response to resignations from the LPNI executive committee on Monday night.

I had resigned as secretary of LPNI, along with my comrades Anna McAleavy, chair; Damien Harris, vice-chair; Peter Dynes, vice-chair membership; Keith Gray, disability officer, and Mary Sheen, women's officer.

Two other members of the executive committee had already resigned for private reasons the previous week.

In our statement we gave our reasons as "irreconcilable difficulties" faced by the 2017/2018 executive committee since its election earlier this year.

At an executive committee meeting in Belfast on Monday, July 3, Damien Harris, a young gay man from Fermanagh, raised some issues about the organisation of the LPNI presence on the previous Saturday's pro-equality march.

Peter Dynes raised similar issues.

True, there had been an unusually large crowd at the rally. True, it had been difficult to find LPNI.

But these issues, which our chair Anna McAleavy, vice-chair membership and vice-chair stressed were not personally driven, reflected a collective failure to get our act together and a determination to organise ourselves better in the future.

At one stage the meeting was dominated by three members shouting down the chair and accusing the vice-chair and vice-chair membership of transphobic and racist bullying. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

My comrades and I were also being subjected to unbelievable levels of bullying on Facebook. We had no option but to resign.

As yet no complaint has been lodged with UK Labour or the LPNI executive committee about alleged "transphobic and racist bullying". Yesterday I put UK Labour on notice of my own complaint about the egregious material published about me online. I believe other members and officers are in the process of submitting complaints.

Our lawyers' initial advice was to complain to Facebook, which we did. The material was quickly taken down. But the damage had already been done.

Luckily we had the wit to take screenshots of the offensive material, which is currently lodged with our lawyers.

That was why you could have knocked me down with a feather when I read the Press statement issued by Mr Black, which suggested that policy differences, driven by anti-Corbyn feeling on our part, is behind our resignations.

Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

I am proud to give my voting record for UK leadership elections. I originally, like Mr Black, voted for Andy Burnham - as I have said publicly on many occasions, including BBC interviews. In those self-same BBC interviews I have been proud to announce that I had changed my mind. LPNI had a general members' meeting to discuss whom the Constituency Labour Party should endorse. I am proud that I was one of the 73% of members who voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Who did Mr Black's vote go to?

As my old granny would have said: "Fine words butter no parsnips." And it does not sit well with those of us who have consistently backed Jeremy Corbyn against bitter opposition from a minority view that Mr Black is now posing as Big Brother trying to rewrite history.

His statement on Tuesday that LPNI "remains fully committed to Jeremy Corbyn's For The Many, Not The Few policy manifesto" echoes hollowly in the ears of those of us who were at the LPNI debate in which he savagely attacked Jeremy Corbyn's bid for the leadership.

Mr Black repeated this line on Talkback yesterday.

Not your finest hour, Boyd.

Those members and officers who resigned reflect the views of LPNI members. Most of us voted for Corbyn. Most of our new and growing membership joined because of the shot in the arm delivered by Jeremy in the first leadership election.

The general election manifesto put the seal on his place as the best leader we have had for years. Jezza nailed it.

Some on the executive committee may have voted for other candidates or abstained. That is up to them.

That is what political democracy is all about.

While I am pleased that Mr Black is advocating "reinvigorating the development of a grassroots-driven Labour Party in Northern Ireland", I am duty bound to point out that, in my view, he is going about it the wrong way.

He and the secretary of the LPNI need to take heed of the words of UK Labour staff, who yesterday advised them that they cannot simply assume positions.

There will have to be properly regulated and administered elections by ballot for any vacant positions.

I hope that Mr Black and the other remaining members of the executive committee have the wit to realise that they have a small window of opportunity before UK Labour imposes executive committee elections.

In a late passage in 1984, Orwell rewrites the words to a popular song, which come up on the telescreen. This is Orwell's version.

Under the spreading chestnut tree

I sold you and you sold me

There lie they, and here lie we

Under the spreading chestnut tree.

That's how it will end. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Mutually assured destruction.

Kathryn Johnston was secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland until her resignation on Monday

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