In August this year I stood in a packed school hall to listen to Jeremy Corbyn address West Belfast Festival.
As Women’s Officer of the CLP of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI), I asked him if he would support the extension of equality issues to NI, including abortion, same sex marriage and the right to stand candidates here.
Yes, Jeremy Corbyn said, to the first two. He would extend all UK equality legislation to Northern Ireland. To the third, no, he was personally opposed to our right to electoral democracy.
That’s the context in which, last Monday night, I stood in a packed hotel room in Belfast to discuss a motion planned to ensure that LPNI ‘is equipped to engage in elections at the earliest date at which it is appropriate to do so’ and to circulate that strategy to the Party membership ‘no later than 7 days before the next General Members Meeting on 29 January 2016.
Our membership has increased from 350 full members to over 1,000, a figure that rises to over 1700 when registered supporters and affiliates are included.
Yet the UK Labour party has only allowed party membership in Northern Ireland since 2003 (and then on legal advice).
We can’t stand in elections at all. That position is to be reviewed by the NEC ‘at least once during the lifetime of each Parliament’.
A lot of our new members, many of whom joined because they were attracted by the energy of the leadership debate, are deeply frustrated.
They point to a growing democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, a democratic deficit which is compounded by Labour’s failure to stand in elections here.
Two years ago, the Northern Ireland Assembly had an approval rate of -40%, the same as Greece at the time. Now it is -60%. Over 44% of people don’t intend to vote in the Assembly Election in May 2016, a figure that rises to 55% for women.
On Monday night, CLP secretary Boyd Black said that “the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for a credible alternative to the sectarian silos of Northern Ireland politics.” He added that the LPNI’s “1,700 members and supporters made it clear last night that they are fed up”.
Matthew Doyle, Chair of the Labour Party Irish Society (LPIS), issued a statement saying that LPIS had “a proud partnership with our sister party the SDLP”, and that they would continue to “champion, not undermine” that relationship. He also pledged that LPIS would work with the NEC to block these changes:
“If local party members do not reconsider then the Labour Party Irish Society will continue to work with Labour’s NEC to block any attempts to stand candidates in Northern Ireland for local, Stormont or Westminster elections.”
Matthew, this sounds like you want to send in the Imperial Storm Troopers to keep us in line. Are you honestly saying that the largely British based LPIS has a veto on electoral participation by our 1700 members and supporters in the Labour Party in Northern Ireland? And where does this colonial attitude leave the 7 out of 10 of us who told an Amnesty International NI survey last October that we supported the liberalization of NI’s almost total ban on abortion?
The SDLP are opposed to a woman’s right to choose. And even now, some among their membership remain implacably opposed to equal marriage. How am I supposed, as a feminist and a socialist, to cast my vote for a party which refuses to uphold my rights? Little wonder 51% of women don’t intend to vote for the existing parties.
Northern Ireland has moved on.
The electorate are frustrated. They are crying out for a new way of doing things, a new type of politics here that recognizes nonsectarian politics that speak to all of us.
As one new member from a unionist background said during the leadership election “I am only interested in stopping the debate being pushed further to the right by the Tories, I think they’d melt people down for soap if they could.
“The fact that Jeremy Corbyn supports a united Ireland makes it interesting, but it doesn’t change the equation.”
The border was removed from NI politics for good and all by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Our constitutional future is not decided by a vote in Stormont but may be decided by an all-Ireland referendum in the future. Identity is a matter of individual choice. Northern Ireland citizens are unique in these islands in having the right to simultaneously hold two passports, the British and the Irish. A lot of us do.
It is time to park the border question for a while and concentrate on the issues that really matter to the people of NI. Issues like affordable housing, jobs, comprehensive segregated education. Issues like the extension of full reproductive rights to Northern Ireland. Issues like the introduction of equal marriage. Issues like being able to vote for the party of your choice.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died two years ago and is buried twelve miles from my house, has inscribed on his tombstone in Bellaghy ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’, a quotation from one of his poems which he used in his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech in 1995.
“A person from Northern Ireland is naturally cautious. You grew up vigilant because it’s a divided society. My poetry on the whole was earth hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down.”
Seamus Heaney’s last words to his family before his death were in the form of a text message to his wife, Marie. It ended ‘Noli timere’ – don’t be afraid.
Now more than ever, is the time to ‘walk on air against your better judgement’, and look up, rather than keep down. There is no need to be afraid.