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Labour members in Northern Ireland are the real 'honest brokers'

Boyd Black

The party's discriminatory attitude towards its membership here could fall foul of equality legislation, argues Boyd Black


Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons


Louise Haigh

Louise Haigh

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons

Louise Haigh MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is right to stress that an honest broker and a principled partner in government, helping to build a fairer, shared future built on trust, is needed now more than ever in Northern Ireland.

This is particularly so after 10 years of Conservative rule, in which trust in the UK Government as an honest broker has been depleted across all communities.

The flaw in Labour's concept of an "honest broker" is that it wrongly asserts that being an honest broker is incompatible with Labour Party electoral participation in Northern Ireland.

Labour makes this assertion to justify its discriminatory suppression of the democratic political right of the people of Northern Ireland to vote for candidates of the Labour Party that aspires to govern them at Westminster.

In truth, the opposite is the case. To be effective honest brokers, the party must fight elections in Northern Ireland in support of its core values, including the principles of fairness, anti-sectarianism and neutrality. We must be a democratically elected party of "honest brokers" on the ground and in the communities. At present, we are a party of undemocratic political overseers.

This becomes even more essential now that the SDLP has entered into a "policy partnership" with Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail is allied to the liberal-centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.

This new alliance calls into question the SDLP's continued suitability for "sister party" status and membership of the Party of European Socialists (PES).

Contrary to the false impression given by the Labour Party, there is nothing in the Statutes of the PES that prevents Labour contesting elections in Northern Ireland, whatever the future of the SDLP.

The party's current position on "honest broking" is summarised in the Outcome of the 2016-19 NEC review of democracy and participation of members in Northern Ireland: "Since 1990, the British Government has been neutral in Northern Ireland, backing neither unionists or nationalists.

This neutrality allowed the government to be an honest broker between the two sides and facilitate the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

"The agreement commits both the British and Irish Governments to 'rigorous impartiality'. It is this impartiality that has allowed successive governments to resolve problems between unionists and nationalists when they have emerged.

"Should the Labour Party become an active participant in Northern Irish politics, presumably aspiring to return MPs, MLAs and to lead councils, it is difficult to see how any future Labour government could retain its role as an independent guarantor of the peace process.

"Indeed, the current Conservative government has been criticised for undermining the Good Friday Agreement through its Confidence and Supply arrangement."

This is an extraordinary argument. If the Labour Party was to successfully run candidates in Northern Ireland in elections to the Stormont Assembly, it would immediately have to designate as a party in the Assembly: "Nationalist", "Unionist", or "Other". The Labour Party in Northern Ireland would designate as "Other".

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland has always made it absolutely explicit that it supports the Labour Party's position of neutrality, backing neither unionists nor nationalists.

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland has always been committed to "rigorous impartiality" and to resolving and overcoming inter-communal problems on the basis of Labour values and the cross-community struggle for a Labour government.

That is the primary reason for our existence.

Moreover, the Labour Party in Northern Ireland has always supported the party leadership on these matters, whether in government or in Opposition.

So, where does this idea come from that Labour Party MLAs, say, elected to the Stormont Assembly and designated as "Other", would inhibit a future Labour government in its role as an "independent guarantor of the peace process"?

Even more risible is the National Executive Committee's (NEC) suggestion that an elected Labour Party leader of a council in Northern Ireland would in some way threaten the peace process.

How can the NEC argue that a member of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, sharing the same values as party members elsewhere in the UK and elected as a Labour Party representative, with the party designated as Other" in the Stormont Assembly and committed to neutrality and impartiality, would threaten Labour's role in the peace process?

The NEC report also disrespects the 150,000 members of affiliated unions in Northern Ireland, many of whom pay the political levy to the Labour Party.

The trade unions have played a sterling role throughout the Troubles, maintaining a neutral workplace and keeping sectarianism out. The NEC - quite ludicrously - suggests that running Labour Party candidates committed to a similar neutral role could cause conflict in the workplace.

The Labour Party stands candidates in Scotland against the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Tories and sundry other parties without causing conflict in the workplace.

But, according to the NEC, there is something about the Northern Ireland members of the Labour Party and the members of affiliated unions here that distinguishes them as being not quite up to the mark and thus should be treated less favourably.

At a time when the Labour Party is considering a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on the issue of the party's institutional racism, Labour's "honest broker" stance raises awkward questions about the NEC's attitude towards its Northern Ireland members.

Why are Northern Ireland members considered by the party NEC to be less capable of acting as "honest brokers" than any other member? Is it just because they are ethnically Northern Irish?

The NEC needs to be reminded that the people of Northern Ireland are recognised as an ethnic group to be protected under race relations legislation.

Furthermore, it is quite disgraceful for the NEC to compare, as it does, the relationship between elected Labour Party representatives in Northern Ireland and a future Labour government with the recent discredited Confidence and Supply arrangement between the Conservative Government and the Democratic Unionist Party.

It is particularly reprehensible for it to make this comment, given the party maintains a "sister party" relationship with the SDLP. The SDLP is a self-declared nationalist party, now allied with Fianna Fail, which registers as "Nationalist" in the Stormont Assembly. Thus, it is far from "neutral". It is hardly a good example of "rigorous impartiality" on the part of Labour.

The language and institutional attitudes revealed in the NEC report suggest that the mindset of the NEC towards its Labour Party members in Northern Ireland is one that may well bear investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Boyd Black is secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph