As Labour doesn’t stand in NI elections, he has no votes to lose
So, Sir Keir Starmer is a unionist. He determinedly avoided using that word, but he committed himself to the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Not every Labour leader thought the same way. Back in 1971, Harold Wilson framed the idea that Britain should announce an intention to withdraw from Northern Ireland and make way for Irish unity within 15 years.
He would have had the support of some Conservatives, including a former prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home.
In 1972, when Ted Heath was laying the groundwork for direct rule, Douglas-Home urged him to pitch for total withdrawal within a much tighter period than Wilson had contemplated, certainly less than a year.
However, no one could do it. It was never going to be possible to go against the will of a Northern Ireland majority for the Union, no matter how fed up the rest of the UK was with the routine bother of governing such a divided and difficult place.
That it would have been impossible to discard Northern Ireland seems less clear after the recent ruling that the Act of Union was “impliedly repealed” by the Brexit Protocol. No legislation is sacrosanct.
Why did anyone think it was when even the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which, we’re often reminded, was enshrined in an international treaty, were changed in the St Andrews Agreement.
There, the mechanism for the selection of First and Deputy First Ministers was removed from the vote of the whole Assembly to appointment by the largest party in the respective communities, ie the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The deft self-interest behind that idea doesn’t seem so smart to the DUP now.
After the next election, nationalism is still likely to be the smaller designation, but to have the largest party and, therefore, the First Minister’s post.
Much as the Labour movement accommodated republican sentiment, when faced with the responsibility of government it pulled back, probably more fearful of triggering a civil war than of any legal restraint.
But I digress. Kevin MacNamara, who was most sympathetic to the nationalist case, was replaced by Mo Mowlam when Tony Blair took office in 1997.
While she was personally genial in her dealings with republican leaders — to the point of exasperating unionists — her mission was to secure talks towards the Good Friday compromise, not to arrange for the ditching of helicopters into the Irish Sea as Britannia pulled in her skirts.
It is interesting that Starmer can not use the word ‘unionist’ to describe his position.
That would suggest in the minds of hearers that he was sympathetic to a unionist party or two.
One of his defenders tweeted that Labour was, of course, committed to its sister party, the SDLP, which he described by a word they never use, ‘republican’.
The SDLP does want a united Irish republic, so it is republican, but that word would associate it too strongly, and toxically in the minds of many, with Sinn Fein.
Isn’t it interesting that big political forces like these have to be coy about their intentions: Labour’s unionist intentions; the SDLP’s republican intentions?
The difficulty both create is that they concede the ownership of key political aspirations here to others.
Starmer’s bigger concern for the Union now is that Scotland might leave. Labour’s long-term hopes rest on rebuilding in Scotland. He will have to make the case for the Union in Scotland and, therefore, he has to be as committed to it here.
Which is not to say he is insincere. But if he is a unionist at heart, he should be able to say so and in doing so he would gain a new power; the power to turn on the DUP and accuse them of mangling an ideology he holds dear. That could be exciting to watch.
But how would the SDLP react? The Labour Party has done it the big favour of not competing against it for 50 years, on the flawed understanding that they are ‘sister parties’. Well, sisters may borrow each other’s make-up, but go their separate ways.
The SDLP is not a Labour party and hasn’t been since Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt left. Maybe if it had to fight a real Labour Party, properly organised from London, it would revive its old Labour instincts and sharpen up its message around social and liberal concerns. That might be a good thing.
And maybe if Labour could use the word ‘unionist’, others who also want to push a border poll back into the distant future would use it, too.
That would demonstrate that what distinguishes our current unionist parties from the huge numbers who don’t vote for them, or don’t vote at all, is not their commitment to the Union, but their more eccentric chauvinism and moral conservatism.
The language with which we discuss our tendentious politics is deeply flawed. We talk of Catholic nationalists as if there was a knowable number of people who believed in both a united Ireland and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
We talk of Protestant unionists to cover everyone from saved evangelicals to radical Methodists, people who are pro-devolution and anti-devolution.
Both categories include devout and prayerful people who are social conservatives and atheists, pacifists and those who endorse murder.
This language is useless other than for preserving sectarian perspectives and inhibiting alternatives.
Starmer had a chance to be bolder. It wouldn’t have cost him any votes.