Party must been seen to be taking strong stance due to Scots issue
The news on Monday night that Louise Haigh MP had been reshuffled from her post as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to become Shadow Transport Secretary is hardly surprising, given her recent interview on GB News.
In that muddled interview, she declared that a future Labour government would remain politically neutral in the event of there being a referendum on a united Ireland.
Not the sort of comment that her leader, Sir Keir Starmer, a publicly declared unionist, would have wanted to hear.
He certainly would not have been pleased with the stormy reaction from unionist politicians that her comments provoked.
Her reasoning was that a border poll on a united Ireland, arising out of the Good Friday Agreement, was a matter for the people of Northern Ireland alone to decide.
She emphatically stated: “It’s not my job to be a persuader for the Union.” And she elaborated: “The principle of consent is still very much intact and it is only for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own constitutional future and polls still suggest that there is a very firm majority in favour of remaining in the UK.”
By way of balance, she asserted that the British Labour Party was a unionist party. For many, this description of the British Labour Party being unionist is surprising and, indeed, for some like myself, disappointing.
I always believed that the Labour Party’s broad membership was instinctively for unity, albeit on the basis of peaceful persuasion.
Alternatively, it was always my hope that the Labour Party was at least neutral on the issue and certainly not pro-Union.
In fairness, Louise Haigh also declared that she herself believed in the Union and added that: “We are stronger together.”
Presumably, she meant the people of Britain and the people of Northern Ireland.
However, having been together with Britain for the past 100 years, there is no convincing evidence of the strengthening of the relationship between the two peoples. In fact, the opposite is true.
Her views were obviously well intended, but the more you examine them, the more muddled and contradictory they appear to be.
Keir Starmer, no later than last July, publicly stated that he personally would be on the side of unionists arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the Union, in the event of a border poll.
Presumably, Starmer would do the same if he was Prime Minister in Number 10.
Louise Haigh’s statements were clearly off-script and directly contradicted her leader’s unequivocal unionist view and thereby sparked his decision to remove her from her position.
I suspect that the British Labour Party finds itself in a political quandary over the Union, not because it is ideologically pro-unionist, like the Conservatives, but because it fears being seen to be weak on the Union nationally, as that would further undermine its political position in Scotland, where it is very definitely a unionist party. Therefore, Labour believes that it has to be seen to be pro-unionist here.
Labour still harbours hope that in the event of the SNP’s balloon bursting, they will be in a position to recover their former pre-eminent position in Scotland. Despite all her talk of being pro-Union, Louise Haigh’s remarks about being neutral in the event of a border poll clearly rankled unionists and they responded with great irritation.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson replied by saying that there was “absolutely nothing in the Belfast Agreement, or elsewhere, that prevents the Government endorsing the Union”.
Steve Aiken MLA, a former Ulster Unionist leader, observed that her approach was “very puzzling and her comments are contradictory, to say the least”.
He correctly argued that: “Nobody considers it even remotely likely that the Republic of Ireland’s government would adopt a stance of neutrality.”
Aiken is absolutely right that the Irish government would not be neutral, because it is mandated by the Irish constitution to support Irish unity.
Quite apart from that, it would be politically inconceivable for any Irish government to remain neutral whenever, at the same time, it would be holding the same referendum on unity in the south as the one in the north.
In doing so, it would be acting in the same manner as the Irish government did in 1998, during the concurrent referenda held north and south on the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish government has not just a right to campaign for unity in any referendum campaign, it also has a political duty to do so, whenever the time comes.
In the meantime, the Irish government has a vital role in preparing the way by building a persuasive case — politically, economically and socially — for reunion and, crucially, acting as a persuader for peaceful reunification.