Belfast Telegraph

Liam Kennedy: Why a more fundamental value than your position on Europe in this election is that of your explicit rejection of political violence

There is no equivalence between the DUP and Sinn Fein when it comes to the bedrock issue of politics, that of an unqualified commitment to the democratic process, writes Liam Kennedy

John Finucane
John Finucane

By Liam Kennedy

I love general elections. This is not because I stood in two general elections as an independent human rights candidate. That, by the way, was a remarkably cost-effective way of getting a political message across as there was free postage to 33,000 households in West Belfast, all at a cost of £700-£800. In 2005, our group netted a total of 147 votes, which I am told is the highest possible score possible in snooker. Wrong game, I suppose.

The messages in this election have been on the blunt side: Get Brexit Done, or let Labour renegotiate the deal and save the NHS; and in Northern Ireland, support Brexit (but not Boris' Brexit), or reaffirm a European identity. In Scotland, the SNP is passionately pro-European, but the real prize is a referendum on Scottish independence.

I've never been in this position before, but for once I am deeply conflicted as to the outcome I'm hoping for. My first general election was in 1969, when as a university student in Cork, I campaigned for the Irish Labour Party. Our leader, Brendan Corish, assured us, "The Seventies will be socialist". Labour went on to lose four seats in that election and we are still waiting.

When living in Yorkshire in the 1970s, I marvelled that an Irish citizen could vote almost immediately in British elections (the privilege did not work the other way round then) and I transferred my allegiance seamlessly to the British Labour Party. I've remained with both parties ever since.

Old behaviours die hard - economists call it "path-dependence", so I suppose I hope for plenty of tactical voting, a Labour-led alliance of the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. But, for once, it is with a heavy heart. While I feel there is much to commend in the Labour Party manifesto, I cannot forget Corbyn's lackadaisical performance during the 2016 referendum on the European Union. That said, an urgent critique of the neo-liberalism that has dominated Western politics is long overdue, as are new social and economic policies.

But Corbyn as prime minister? I can live with grumpy and inflexible. But to have reached the point where racism, particularly anti-semitism, has taken root in the party is bad. For a party of the progressive forces in society to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for anti-semitism is disgraceful.

Some of us would add two further problems that relate more specifically to Northern Ireland. The British Labour Party has recently confirmed its stance that members of the party cannot stand for election as Labour candidates in this, or any other, election in Northern Ireland.

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One of the more risible reasons given for this denial of rights is that it might "increase sectarianism". It is, indeed, the case that this is a party for the many, but not the few (who happen to live in Northern Ireland). So, while still hoping for a Labour alliance and the prospect of a second referendum on the EU, I must admit I am repelled by Corbyn's right-on, Left-modish dalliance with terror groups, ranging from Hamas to the Provisional IRA.

It is disturbing that a fellow traveller might be prime minister of this state. My hope is that his tenure would be short-lived within a multi-party alliance and that a new Labour leader would be quickly found.

For once, there is an air of excitement and uncertainly around many of the contests in Northern Ireland. The outstanding figure among local politicians is unquestionably Naomi Long of the Alliance Party. I listened to her give a powerful, well-reasoned speech at the Ulster Hall some weeks ago on why we should remain within the European Union. The odds are against it, but her presence at Westminster would add a formidable voice to the anti-Brexit side.

Her success would also help shake up the DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly that has done so much to alienate young people from politics here.

A good showing by Gerry Carroll and People Before Profit in West Belfast would dent one of the old sectarian parties and bring more focus on social and economic issues.

In South Belfast, the outstanding candidate, to my mind, is Claire Hanna, who would truly represent the anti-Brexit bigots like myself in parliament. More generally, success for the SDLP, Alliance and the Ulster Unionist Party would contribute to de-sectarianising politics in this society and help, at least, in chipping away at the duopoly that makes our politics so abnormal.

The vitally-relevant Greens may yet have their day in the sun, but not under an electoral system where, like horse-racing, first past the post takes the winnings, even if only by a nose. Fermanagh-South Tyrone comes to mind.

We must pity the voters of North Belfast, faced with a choice between an unsmiling Nigel Dodds and the seemingly dull John Finucane. At least, that was what I thought initially. I was "idir dha intinn" ("between two minds"), as they say. Then, I pulled myself together. Dodds may be a Brexiteer, but so are many other principled people, of Left and Right, in this society. Brexit is a minority position, but hardly a life-threatening condition.

A more fundamental value than one's position on Europe is that of commitment to democracy, including an explicit rejection of political violence. I applaud the ad-hoc platform group (PEP), who have been encouraging tactical voting. PEP's advice was to support the candidate most likely to defeat a pro-Brexit incumbent, or front-runner.

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds

But could I vote for a candidate who refused to condemn the Shankill bombing and mass murder in his own constituency? I could not. Could I vote for a candidate who had a mass-murderer canvassing door-to-door for him? I could not. That is, unless I was assured the retired killer was contrite for the butchery he and his mentally-challenged accomplice had inflicted.

I can feel friends falling over backwards at this point, but I have to go on to say there is no equivalence between the DUP representative and the Sinn Fein representative when it comes to the bedrock issue of politics, that of an unqualified commitment to the democratic process.

So, peering past Christmas into the New Year, I would like to see a rainbow-Left coalition at Westminster, inaugurating radical social and economic policies, and including in the package a referendum on Brexit. Now that we have a much better idea of what is involved in breaking with the European Union, let the people, not the politicians, have the final say in getting Brexit done, or, indeed, undone, as the case may be.

Shankill bomber Sean Kelly has been canvassing for John Finucane
Shankill bomber Sean Kelly has been canvassing for John Finucane

In Northern Ireland, is it too much to ask for a return to Stormont, a go-slow on identity politics and an engagement with the manifold challenges we face after three years of posturing to the partisans of Orange and Green? Because, out there in the cold, are the nurses, on strike because of the political neglect of our healthcare system.

That is a social reality that sentimental images of the season that's in it cannot wish away.

  • Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of History at Queen's University Belfast

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