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Labour Party to become offical party in Northern Ireland

The Labour Party is finally organising itself as an official political party in Northern Ireland, it was confirmed today.

The inaugural meeting of a province-wide constituency association is to take place in Belfast next Monday.

Activists have been battling for years to have Northern Ireland treated in the same way as other parts of the UK by Labour.

However it will be some time before any decision is taken to stand for election - but local members have their eyes fixed on the local council elections set for 2011 for a potential first outing.

Queen's University lecturer Boyd Black - who made history last September when he became the first Northern Ireland constituency representative to address a party conference in 100 years when he took the platform at the conference in Manchester - said next week would be a landmark occasion.

"Next Monday we are being formally constituted within the Labour Party organisation - up to now we have been unofficial members.

"Now we will have a party constitution and have elected officers.

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"We will as of right have a seat on the National Policy Forum, the body which sits in permanent session and develops policy for the party," said Mr Black.

He added: "I think it is a big step forward, I am very pleased with that."

It's been a long fight, with the Labour high command - mindful of its links to the SDLP - having to be dragged along.

Some four years ago it was only the threat of legal action which led to the party agreeing it would accept membership applications from Northern Ireland.

More recently it was the issuing of another writ which led to agreement for formal organisation of a constituency association.

There was a requirement for the association to sign up 200 members and hold them for three months before it could be formally constituted.

The 200-mark was passed last summer, numbers are heading towards 300 and Monday's inaugural meeting is the result, said Mr Black.

He added: "Standing for elections is down the road a bit, we won't be standing in this Parliament or for the European elections. In an ideal world I would like us to contest the local government elections in 2011."

However what happens is likely to depend on the SDLP.

"For a spell it looked as if the SDLP was going to merge with Fianna Fail, that would have had implications for us," he said.

He added he suspected the reality was the SDLP would be around as a political force for the next general election with the potential to win three seats in what could be a hung parliament.

"We are going to have to tiptoe around all of this," said Mr Black.

Kevin McAdam, chairman of the ad hoc group which has called itself Labour Members in Northern Ireland, said there was now a great opportunity to move away from the sectarian politics of the past.

Looking forward to the Monday meeting, he said: "It brings to an end the uncertainty of the party's commitment to members in Northern Ireland.

"Since 2003 we have been entitled to membership but now we have the opportunity to play a full role in the party."

He added: "This is a great opportunity to move away from the old sectarian politics that we have so long been used to and engage in the real political debate that matters to all in our community."

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