Scourge of division can be ended by a renewed effort
A future Labour government's first task must be to re-engineer the Belfast Agreement to make it fit for non-sectarian purpose, says Boyd Black
Published 14/03/2013 | 09:00
The current situation in the Stormont Executive and on our streets will require a major policy response by the Labour Party when, hopefully, it returns to power in two years' time.
The Labour Party's national executive committee (NEC) has recently been consulting on whether Labour will fight elections here.
Once more, we have been told that Labour is not going to organise electorally and that it will leave us to stew in our own juices.
Labour's response has been eerily the same as in 1969-70. In August 1969, additional troops were brought into Northern Ireland following the loyalist invasion of Bombay Street and the loss of control by the Stormont government.
The response to the crisis of the then Labour government in Westminster was that, although they now were in effective control, they didn't want to take responsibility for Northern Ireland.
Tony Benn's Diaries 1968-72 make clear the stance of the leading figures in the Labour government at the time, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey.
In their view, the unionist prime minister, James Chichester-Clarke, had to be made to carry the can. The Labour government refused to assume the responsibility which went with power. In 1970, they refused a request that they should organise electorally in Northern Ireland.
Labour Party representation would have provided a vehicle for the resolution of Catholic grievances, which were felt acutely at the time. The opportunity was missed.
We are currently experiencing increasing sectarianisation of our politics within the framework of the various peace agreements. The Stormont Executive is not up to the task of delivering the non-sectarian future that many hoped would result from the peace.
While the blame is being put on the SDLP for Labour's current refusal to fight elections, in reality we have a Labour Party leadership in funk.
Talk about wanting to be an 'honest broker' is a fig-leaf for political timidity. Labour is shirking its responsibility for what it knows needs to be done in Northern Ireland.
Our task remains to persuade the Labour Party that it is its moral duty to develop Labour Party politics in Northern Ireland as an essential part of our struggle to combat sectarianism here.
The people of Northern Ireland have their arms tied behind their backs in tackling sectarianism when Labour Party cross-community electoral representation is being artificially suppressed.
The Labour Party acted responsibly and took risks as a party in government in negotiating the Good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough agreements, which brought the Troubles to an end. As a party, it is rightly proud of its enormous achievement in bringing peace.
However, those in the party involved in negotiating these agreements were well-aware that our settlement was a work-in-progress.
The agreements established the essentially sectarian structures of government we have today. This was well-understood by the negotiators, but the agreements were the best compromise available at the time. That is why we have always given them our critical support.
It is now 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement. Given the worrying pattern of recent events, it will surely be necessary for a newly-elected Labour government to rise to the challenge again and fully re-engage with Northern Ireland. They need to revisit the agreements that they hold so dear.
To preserve the achievements of the agreements for the long-term, a Labour government – in conjunction with the Irish government – must take on the task of re-engineering them to make them fit for non-sectarian purpose.
The strategic aim of a 'Mark II' agreement must be to tackle sectarian division.
A central feature of these new arrangements must be Labour Party electoral organisation and representation that will unite our divided communities.