What’s going on in the Labour Party Irish Society?

Labour Hub presents two views of the internal struggles of the Society

  1. How not to organise an AGM

By Alana Heaney, Twitter: @athemis2014

I first heard about Labour Party Irish Society (LPIS) in 2017, having only been in the Labour Party since 2015. Initially, I thought, ”Cool, an Irish Society affiliated to the Labour Party” – exactly what I thought I needed: a chance to contribute to the cause of Irish Unity and other historical injustices served down to the people of Ireland by British governments.

What I discovered days later about the LPIS was hugely disappointing. I heard from several sources and read about the 2017 AGM in Skwawkbox. Members queuing for the AGM were told that the room was full and to go home. There were other shenanigans on the same night. It inspired me to join and see for myself what it was all about it and to try to make a positive difference.

My first experience of the LPIS AGM was in 2018. I received an invite by email, as I had only recently joined via their website, and I reserved my place. On arrival, my name was not on the list to gain entry, but luckily I had a smart phone so I was able to prove that I was a member with that all-important invite to the AGM. The room inside Portcullis House was quite impressive. I didn’t know anyone, except a couple of comrades from my CLP. I was nervous and excited at the same time. People trickled in through the main door.  I noticed a group of people coming in through another door and was told that they were MPs and special advisors.

I wondered why no one I knew was standing for any of the roles on the Executive Committee, only to be informed that there wasn’t any point as the right wing always controlled things and therefore it was pointless to contest. Now this really annoyed me and I thought to myself: I have to do something about it. A big task: I was reasonably new to the Party and didn’t know many Irish people in the Labour Party.

During the evening, my attention was diverted by the sight of one member physically preventing another from voting in a show of hands on motions, by holding his arm down! It was quite a scary experience. I have never seen anything like that before in any meetings. After the meeting ended I got talking to the man who had been held – he was quite shaken.

I met other LPIS comrades at the 2018 AGM, collected their contact details and kept in touch. We were all so disappointed at the way the organisation was managed and decided to work together to make much-wanted changes.

The following year, I had to miss the 2019 AGM as my membership had lapsed, I had forgotten to register and therefore I didn’t receive the invite to register for AGM. I had heard it was one of their tactics to not send out reminders to people whose political leanings they didn’t know. I didn’t let this deter me from organising for the following AGM, and I continued to build up support from everywhere, through word of mouth.

I became we: our core organising group we got in contact with various grassroots left organisations to explain that the LPIS was a top-down society, controlled by MPs, special advisors and various right wing factions. We gathered around 90 members from Liverpool, Durham and across London, who were eligible to vote. We had gathered more members but they had registered after the freeze date was announced on 14th December, 2020.

The 2019 AGM had been held on 11th February 2020 – three months late – so the next AGM was due to be held in between twelve and fourteen months.  Announcement by email arrived on 14th December 2020: the LPIS AGM date had been set for three weeks later on Tuesday 5th January 2021.

The email explained eligibility. In order to be able to participate in the AGM, you must have been a fully paid-up and eligible member of the LPIS on or before Sunday 6th December 2020. In order to attend and vote, you had to register using the link by Monday 22nd December 2020. Only eligible members of the LPIS who had registered would be able to participate in the AGM.

Now, the issues with the 2020 AGM that need highlighting on the left are set out below.

  • 5th January is during the Christian and Roman Catholic religious holiday Twelfthtide, so choosing this date was deeply offensive to many members.
  • 21 days’ notice was a rule change in 2018. However, it is not in line with the Labour Party rule book.
  • Being a member of the LPIS for at least 30 days is also not in line with the Party rule book.
  • 22nd December 2020 was in fact a Tuesday not a Monday: an unintentional error?
  • 354 members attended the AGM on the night. The total number who voted was actually 496 according to Opavote, the electronic system used to send out ballots, count and total the ballots. The LPIS constitution clearly says that the Executive Committee election is to be voted at the AGM by members in attendance. So why were there 496 votes according to Opavote, when there were at most 354 members in attendance at the AGM on 5th January 2021?
  • Many members did not receive the email sent by the LPIS on 14th December 2020 and had to chase up to get an invite to register to attend the AGM and vote.
  • Of those of us who registered to attend AGM on 14th December, only a handful of people received an email to confirm their registration was successful. Many of us didn’t and had to chase up our confirmation of registration to attend the AGM.
  • Leading up the AGM, members were still chasing their invite. Then once they received that, they had to chase up the Zoom link with their unique code.
  • The AGM Zoom link email arrived on 4th January explaining that you had to have your Party membership card ready to be verified in the waiting room. Yet nobody was checked going through the waiting room to the online AGM.
  • One member received a link to the AGM when it had ended yet had emailed several times to get the unique link to the meeting.
  • Some of the candidates’ names were completely wrong, for example, on the ballot it said Patricia Fitzpatrick instead of Pamela Fitzpatrick.

The meeting was conducted in a top-down way. An LPIS Executive Committee member spoke strongly on every motion they opposed, on behalf of the EC, directing members on how they should vote.

We got together a left slate quite late, just before the AGM. We lost this battle, but it has given us strength, confidence and the solidarity from members near and far is absolutely wonderful. The average attendance at AGMs was around 35 members before 2017. We are up against factional groups some of which emailed their thousands of members, asking them to join the LPIS to vote for the incumbent committee at the AGM.

I suppose you could say that this internal fight is a microcosm of what is going on throughout the Party, namely a left/right battle for the soul of the Party, its policies, democracy, ways of working, funding, whether it is to be a mass membership or donor-funded/top-down Party.  The socialist societies seem to be a key battleground.

We were reminded at the recent AGM by one LPIS EC Officer that the LPIS “was not a social society but a socialist society.”, Yet this is a society that usually spends over £8,000 on one annual drinks event, pre- Covid, and then gives a measly £200 to a local Irish Centre to tackle the Covid-19 situation.

In my eyes, a true socialist society would want local branches managed by local members.  It would also not oppose an Education Officer to work exclusively on the history of Ireland.  Yet the LPIS EC opposed this rule change on several occasions.

We have successfully built up a reasonable number of grassroots members. We intend to build on this positivity. I would like to thank all who stood on this occasion. It was true dedication, a fight for the soul of the Party. We look forward to meeting other Irish Party and LPIS members. The LPIS rules say you don’t even have to be Irish to join the LPIS, you only need to be interested in Irish Politics and a member of the Party. Get in touch.

2. A potential Irish Left could emerge in the Labour Party

By Austin Harney

On 5th January 2021, there was another unfair process at the LPIS AGM. But a new left wing force is emerging around the country. The leading activist, Alana Heaney, recruited so many members and encouraged, nearly 100 of us to attend this AGM. The LIPS Executive Committee panicked and set unrealistic deadlines for the right to vote and held the AGM within the Christmas period. Unfortunately, we were outnumbered more than 2 to 1.

But many of us attended this AGM. We successfully carried motions on mental health in Northern Ireland, campaigning against anachronistic laws on Disabled People in Eire, fighting for the rights of Travellers, and amending the bill on Covert Human Intelligence Sources in seeking justice for the family of Pat Finucane, who was murdered by the Loyalist Paramilitaries through state collusion.

We supported other motions such as Margaret Keane’s right to a gravestone in Irish, which was forbidden by the Church of England, and for the right of all people born in Ireland to Irish citizenship. Unfortunately, our three motions on the right to a border poll for the reunification of Ireland, including for Irish citizens to vote abroad, were lost. Even Carwyn Jones, the leader of the Welsh Assembly, spoke against these motions as he believed that the British Labour Party does not have a right to decide, despite our Irish membership. Many on the left were frustrated at the derogatory remarks made against those with Irish Republican beliefs. In addition, our motion for regional committees was lost, despite the good work by LPIS activists in Liverpool like Maire Doolin and Cate Murphy.

Nevertheless, the left in the LPIS is a new emerging force throughout Britain. It is time that the Irish left made its voice heard at Labour Against Austerity and Don’t Leave Organise conferences. We can be vital in supporting Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Representation Committee. United we stand as socialists against austerity, divided we fall!

Alana Heaney and Austin Harney are members of the LPIS.

Image: Labour Party conference. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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