‘Negligible demand, great risk: Labour shouldn’t stand in Northern Ireland’

Labour Party Irish Society executive
©Gerry McNally/ shutterstock.com

Once every parliamentary term, the Labour Party reviews its long-standing policy not to stand candidates in Northern Ireland. The review, led by the national executive committee (NEC), consults a range of stakeholders including the Labour Party Irish Society and affiliated trade unions.

We recently submitted evidence to the NEC panel as part of this review, and whilst there is no confirmed timeline, we expect the overall findings and recommendations to be published soon.

Our position: We are strongly opposed to standing candidates in Northern Ireland

To be very clear – we wholeheartedly support the continuation of the Labour Party’s long-standing policy not to stand candidates in Northern Ireland. This is a position we have always held, campaigned for, and is included as a key part of our founding constitution as a Labour Party affiliate. 

We oppose standing candidates in Northern Ireland in the strongest possible terms and have relayed this to the Labour Party and to the NEC. We have summarised some of our reasons below.

Electoral prospects: Only the Tories stand in Northern Ireland – they polled 0.03% last year

There are some, including in the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party (CLP), who argue that were Labour to stand candidates they would be a progressive version of the Alliance Party, the sister party of the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland.

Alliance is a Northern Ireland-only party that have existed for over fifty years, and do not provide a comparator for the fortunes of Labour moving into Northern Ireland. The relevant point of comparison is not Alliance, but the NI Conservatives – the only political party in Britain to currently field candidates there.

In the 2019 general election, the NI Conservatives polled 0.7% of the vote. In the 2022 assembly election, they polled 0.03% – gaining just 254 votes across the whole of Northern Ireland. And in the eleven years since their launch, they haven’t won a single council election. The evidence is clear and stark – political parties in Britain entering Northern Ireland today do not achieve electoral success. 

Unlike the Tories, Labour must be an honest broker in Northern Ireland

A major reason for this is that the political ecosystem of Northern Ireland is unique and fragile. There are many issues affecting Northern Ireland which do not apply to anywhere near the same extent in Britain. For example, issues of identity – from flags to language – are inescapable.

How you respond to them matters and determines your ability to build trust-based relationships with all communities and parties. Northern Ireland CLP states candidates would “abstain” on these issues. To abstain is to take a position, interpreted by different sides as support or opposition.

The British government is often required to bring people together and act as an arbiter on these issues. The ability of a Labour government to do so, as an electoral competitor, will be diminished. The Tories record on this in Northern Ireland is abysmal, and not one we should seek to emulate.

The role the last Labour government played in securing the Good Friday Agreement was one of its proudest achievements. It was only possible because it was able to build trust with all parties and communities. Standing candidates in Northern Ireland would have compromised its ability to do so.

We are proud to be members of the Party of European Socialists

The Labour Party is at its strongest as part of an international labour movement. At a time in Britain where successive Tory governments have sought to isolate us from the world and make our horizons smaller, our international partnerships matter more today than for many generations before.

This is especially true for the Labour Party’s membership of the Party of European Socialists (PES), a network of national political parties across Europe. We are proud of our PES sister party relationship with the SDLP in Northern Ireland, the party of the great Nobel Peace Prize Laureate John Hume.

We believe the Labour Party, working closely with its affiliated organisations including its socialist societies and trade unions, should prioritise strengthening relationships with our European sister parties. Standing candidates against one of them will not advance this cause.

Parity of esteem and equal legitimacy for different identities and constitutional aspirations

We were concerned to read assertions by two members of the NEC, including a Labour Party MP, in LabourList that people and parties who hold a constitutional position represent a politics that is “rooted in the sectarianism of the past”.

First, it is an historically lazy suggestion. The two Nobel Laureates recognised because of their work to achieve The Good Friday Agreement, John Hume and David Trimble, were avowedly nationalist and unionist politicians from nationalist and unionist political parties.

Second, it is out of step with The Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement gives parity of esteem to all identities and recognises the right to use democratic means to work for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, or to become part of a united Ireland, as equally legitimate aspirations.

Third, there is an implicit suggestion that “progress” is when people put aside or reject identity and constitutional aspirations. This is a simplistic, and somewhat patronising outlook. Progress is where people and parties can live in shared space, where difference is accepted and respected.

Labour’s priority in government must be to strengthen relationships across these islands

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. As an affiliate of the Labour Party that advocates for stronger relationships across Britain and Ireland, we are proud of the role the last Labour government and the trade union movement played in securing that Agreement.

We are just as dismayed at the gratuitous damage the Tory government has done to relationships across these islands through their reckless policies and divisive language, pursuing their own narrow agenda without concern or care for others.

We hope an incoming Labour government will prioritise strengthening Anglo-Irish relations, and work with the Irish government to find a way forward through the political impasse in Northern Ireland which is having a severe impact on every public service from healthcare to education.

Standing candidates in Northern Ireland will not help in that endeavour. The demand for it is negligible, the electoral reward is low, and the political risks are great. It is for all these reasons that we hope the Labour Party will reaffirm its long-standing policy not to stand candidates there.

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