Belfast Telegraph

Labour document rules out running candidates in NI as ‘irresponsible’

Disenfranchised: Boyd Black
Disenfranchised: Boyd Black
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The Labour Party has ruled out standing candidates in Northern Ireland elections because of ongoing Brexit turmoil and the alleged threat to the Good Friday Agreement.

In a National Executive Committee (NEC) report seen by the Belfast Telegraph, the party says fielding candidates in conditions of such political upheaval would be irresponsible.

Fears are also expressed that contesting elections would create sectarian divisions within local trade unions.

Labour Party in Northern Ireland secretary, Boyd Black, last night branded the ongoing ban as "a gross suppression of our democratic political rights".

He said: "Our voters are disenfranchised and discriminated against. The very minimum enhancement of democratic participation we might have expected is that our 1,500 members would be facilitated to set up constituency organisations in the 18 Northern Ireland Westminster constituencies.

"Shepherded as we are into one Northern Ireland-wide CLP (constituency Labour Party), our members are unable to formally organise in any way at local level. They cannot even open a bank account.

"Given the vast sums the Labour Party extracts from Northern Ireland members and affiliated trade unionists who pay the political levy, we might also have expected some financial assistance with organisation and political research and education."

The report, which was distributed yesterday, follows an extensive NEC consultation with local Labour Party activists, along with SDLP, Irish Labour Party, and union members.

In its conclusion, the document says: "There is little if any evidence that the Labour Party would find Northern Ireland fertile electoral territory.

"Indeed, given the ongoing Brexit turmoil and the continued Stormont stalemate, it may be unwise to draw any conclusions from recent voting patterns in Northern Ireland which would inform the Party's long-term strategy.

"Given how fundamentally the impact of Brexit could impact politics in Northern Ireland over coming months and years, particularly how it could contribute to the unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement, it would not be a responsible position for the Labour Party to stand candidates at this time."

The NEC says the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties had been held up as models of "what an electorally active Northern Ireland Labour Party could look like". But it notes that in competition with nationalist parties, both Scottish and Welsh Labour had adopted "their respective national flags in their logos and branding", with Welsh Labour campaigning bilingually.

"It would also be unsustainable for Labour Party candidates - and possibly elected representatives - to not take a view on contentious issues," the report states.

"This would make it exceedingly difficult to establish the Labour Party as the genuine cross-community party many participants want.

"Trade unions in Northern Ireland organise on both sides of the border and both sides of the sectarian divide. If the Labour Party was to stand candidates, and if unions affiliated to the party were to support them, there is a significant risk of causing conflict in the workplace and in union branches."

The NEC report argues that by becoming "an active participant in Northern Ireland politics", a future Labour government couldn't retain its impartiality and neutrality.

The document states that the SDLP is Labour's sister party, and both are members of the Party of European Socialists. It insists it would not "unilaterally terminate that relationship".

However, it notes that the SDLP-Fianna Fail partnership "has the potential to lead to a realignment of politics" here.

It pledges to "closely monitor how the partnership develops" and says "any response to subsequent developments should be made in close collaboration with the Irish Labour Party" and Party of European Socialists.

Mr Black said this gave him hope that the NEC could have a change of heart.

He rejected the argument that it would be difficult to establish Labour as "a genuinely cross-community party" and said Alliance's recent electoral success "gives the lie to this counsel of negativity". He denied that Labour candidates would cause sectarian tensions within trade unions and the workplace.

"The point of running Labour Party candidates is that they would take a neutral position on contentious issues and would therefore strengthen, not weaken, the trade unions' role," he said.

"The argument that Labour candidates would threaten the peace process is just ridiculous. It is the suppression of Labour Party candidates that threatens the peace process by driving Northern Ireland voters further into sectarian politics."

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