Belfast Telegraph

Does the Labour Party want to take the plunge into Northern Ireland?

By Liam Clarke

An intriguing figure in the recent Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll showed that around 43% of voters would like either British or Irish parties to organise here. But will they?

Fianna Fail has pulled back to lick its wounds down south.

The Tories are here and will be relaunching next month with an apparently full commitment from the party centrally to funding a local revival.

Labour is more cautious, but there may be signs of life there, too. The UK party has around 350 members here and Irish Labour has also got a respectable presence.

The SDLP is linked loosely to both and that was enough to put them off muddying the waters in the past.

However, the main formal link was through the Socialist group in the European Parliament which, since the SDLP no longer has an MEP, has disappeared.

UK Labour can normally depend on the votes of the three SDLP MPs, which makes for some comradely feeling - though the arrangement did fall through on the recent key vote on House of Lords reform.

Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, has also said that he would not, in principle, object to Labour standing in council elections and Stormont elections here - though he would draw the line at Westminster, where votes are first-past-the-post.

It was a canny move by Dr McDonnell. It opens up the prospect of Labour transfers, which might help at the margins in STV elections, without endangering the SDLP in tight Westminster contests.

That creates room for change - or at least discussion - in the lead-up to the 2014 council and Assembly contests.

Labour sources say the next move may be the formation of a Council of Labour here, led by the British and Irish parties, with the SDLP, trade unions and other interested groups invited to participate.

The most likely outcome is a joint organisation here like that established by the unions in the Northern Ireland committee of ICTU and the two students unions.

In the past, Labour organisation has been divided by the constitutional issue.

Now that any change to partition must be decided by referendum - not a Stormont vote - they can treat this as a 'conscience issue'. In other words, members can have a free vote.

The big question is whether the two Labour parties really want to take the plunge into these unfamiliar waters.

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