Labour has traditionally not stood candidates in Northern Ireland. But on the back of the Tory-DUP deal that might be about to change
Conversations about politics in Northern Ireland are now dominated by the Tory-DUP deal.
With all but one constituency in Northern Ireland represented by either the DUP or Sinn Fein, it should be no surprise that the Labour Party is considering fielding candidates there. After all, the DUP will vote against almost any Labour policy and Sinn Fein don’t vote at all.
One reason why Labour hasn’t fielded candidates, and why the current Conservative government’s deal with the DUP has been criticised, is that by picking a side you lose the ability to call yourself an honest broker in the peace process.
For the Northern Ireland Assembly, political parties designate as: unionist, nationalist, or ‘other’. Phil Kelly, Chair of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI), says he would designate as ‘other’.
‘Almost uniquely, LPNI draws members from across the sectarian divide and beyond in offering a political platform to Northern Ireland’s diverse and growing ethnic communities. We seek to be a party that truly reflects the voice of a diverse social majority,’ he said.
Labour traditionally supports the SDLP in Northern Irish elections. Fielding candidates would jeopardise this relationship. However, the SDLP, who lost all their remaining MPs last month, have some major policy differences with Labour. Kelly added: ‘The SDLP oppose abortion rights, support the segregation of education on religious grounds, and designate as nationalist.’
In 2016, 3,000 people joined LPNI, making it the fastest growing party in Ireland. Kelly argues the SDLP is now a party lacking identity and purpose, and, by not allowing LPNI to stand, the UK Labour Party is ‘stifling the development of a progressive, non-sectarian left’.
Kelly feels that the domination of Northern Irish politics by the Brexiteer, right-wing, unionist DUP deprives the many left-leaning unionists an electoral voice.
‘By not standing Labour effectively bolsters the DUP. Labour could, in working class, unionist areas, take some votes. But more than votes, the mere presence of Labour would offer an alternative voice that could help shift the political debate and influence parties in power.
”Soft’ [Brexit] is a meaningless term, as any Brexit deal is simply more damaging than remaining. Brexit is a huge threat to both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
‘The clear reality of Brexit is it was a delusion. From an Irish perspective, I believe we must resist becoming victims to the damaging, self-defeating rise of English nationalism.
‘My view is any deal must not undermine the Good Friday Agreement. I believe LPNI should back cross-party, cross-border calls for special arrangements.’
The Irish government will be key, as they have threatened to veto any deal that is seen as damaging to the Good Friday Agreement or to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.
If the Labour NEC vote against any measures to allow LPNI to stand Kelly believes it could ‘effectively crush’ the party there: ‘With Brexit having re-weaponised the border, it is hard to imagine the discredited ‘centre’ of the UUP and the SDLP regaining. The only way to rival the tribal blocks is through a truly radical fresh and progressive political project.’
During last year’s leadership election, 72% of LPNI members voted for Jeremy Corbyn and hundreds attended a rally at Belfast City Hall. ‘Pre-Corbyn, the LPNI had 350 members. This soared within a year to over 3,000. Corbyn has cross-community support here in Northern Ireland, despite the tabloid smears. Even pro-union LPNI members admire his core Labour principles and policies’.
Could Corbyn replicate his revival of Labour on the other side of the Irish Sea? As we have learned from two leadership elections and a general election, it would be foolish to underestimate Corbyn.
David Barker is a writer and freelance journalist based in Birmingham