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Northern Ireland Labour risks party's ire over bid to field candidates

By Noel McAdam

Labour activists in Northern Ireland look set to defy the party leadership by running candidates in the Assembly election.

The local Labour branch is launching a petition seeking public support here for the right to contest all local polls.

It includes taking out adverts in the Belfast Telegraph this week - signed by around 1,000 members and supporters - to highlight the campaign.

Signatories include Baroness May Blood and Monica McWilliams of the former Women's Coalition.

Labour Party general secretary Iain McNichol has insisted: "We do not stand candidates in Northern Ireland, and (NI members are) not empowered to reverse this position."

He warned the NI branch, whose membership is said to have more than tripled since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader, that it risks breaching rules.

The adverts argue: "There are now over 1,700 Labour Party members and registered supporters in Northern Ireland. Many more help directly fund the Labour Party through trade union contributions. Despite this, members are currently not allowed to stand for election in Northern Ireland.

"Accordingly, we the undersigned, mostly members and supporters of the Labour Party and trade unions, together with individuals from other parties and those who are not members of any party, call on the Labour Party to allow members in Northern Ireland to stand as candidates in all local, Westminster and European elections to help move beyond sterile sectarian politics." The action comes ahead of this weekend's NI branch annual meeting.

Historically, Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) has regarded the SDLP as its sister party in Northern Ireland and declined to run candidates.

Mr McNichol added: "Attempts such as this to force the hand of the NEC are unlikely to be looked upon favourably.

"The Northern Ireland (branch) does not have authority to select candidates and must desist from this course of action."

In its adverts, the local party set out its policy ahead of potential formal selection of candidates in the next few weeks.

It said: "We believe there is now a need to move beyond the 'two communities' model that underlies the Belfast Agreement and tribal politics where political affiliation is seen as prescribed at birth. We believe that sectarianism can be overcome by a recognition that people in Northern Ireland can consider themselves to be British or Irish or both and that such identities should be recognised and respected. In the spirit of the Belfast Agreement we want to build good relationships between all communities and we support devolved government and the ongoing development of positive North/South and East/West relations."

Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and senior figure Andy Burnham, one of those whom Mr Corbyn defeated in the leadership contest, had pledged to review the party's position.

However, Mr Corbyn has said there is "no great wish" in the rest of the Labour Party to organise here.

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