The Labour leader needs to think again on Ireland

By Nadine Finch

Keir Starmer and Louise Haigh paid a short visit to Northern Ireland last week in the run up to the annual commemorations of the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne. The fact that this victory was as long ago as 1690 has not dimmed its significance for many in the community, who define themselves by their loyalty to the United Kingdom, and who have adorned some of the 160 bonfires constructed this year with Irish flags and posters of politicians from Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party so that they can be consigned to the flames.

This year one complete bonfire was painted to represent the Irish flag and a number were constructed at community interfaces between Loyalist and Nationalist areas. Belfast City Council employed contractors to remove a bonfire in the Tiger’s Bay area, but the contractors needed protection from the Police Service of Northern Ireland to do so.  The PSNI refused to assist, stating that it had taken an operational decision decline to do so, as this would provoke disorder from the Loyalists who had built the bonfire. On 9th July 2021, the High Court refused a judicial review brought by two Members of the Legislative Assembly, Nicola Mallon (SDLP) and Deirdre Hargey, to require the PSNI to assist.

The impartiality of the new PSNI was one of the goals of the reforms due to be introduced by the Good Friday Agreement. But its recent role in opposing the listing of legacy inquests and the disappearance of key evidence of collusion indicates that progress has stalled. In addition, Loyalist parties have continued to block provisions for the recognition of the Irish language, despite the provisions of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and the 2020 New Decade, New Approach Deal.  The stalemate was only resolved in June this year when Sinn Fein asked the Westminster Parliament to keep its part of the Deal and to bring into force an Irish Language Act, which it undertook to do in October 2021.  

There is also considerable concern in Northern Ireland about the failure to prosecute those responsible for the killings on Bloody Sunday and at Ballymurphy or in the incidents attributed to the Glenanne Gang.

The Labour leadership does not appear to have made any public comment on these human rights issues, which underpin the principles of the Good Friday and Stormont House Agreements. Neither did they appear to connect these issues with the growing support for constitutional change in Northern Ireland, which is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement by a border poll. When Keir Starmer was interviewed on BBC NI by its political editor, Enda McClafferty, on 10th July 2021, the key questions asked concerned a border poll and Irish unity but Keir’s bare assertion that he would respect and uphold the Good Friday Agreement, without mentioning the extent to which many aspects of it had not been implemented, was an indication of his continuing inability to address issues of contention and complexity.

When pressed on whether he thought Irish unity was in sight, he characterised this question as merely hypothetical. By doing so, he not only ignored centuries of aspiration by Irish nationalists, he also chose to dismiss as irrelevant the very vibrant and wide-ranging discussion presently taking place throughout the island of Ireland on the need for and prospect of a New and Shared Ireland in the wake of the Brexit settlement he now embraces.  When doing so, he showed little respect for the views of a wide range of academics, members of civil society, political parties and politicians, including the Irish Tanaiste, Leo Varadkar.

Instead, he sought to diminish the prospect of Irish Unity to fit in with his own wish for the Labour Party to achieve electoral success at the next election by being seen as the party which best wraps itself within the Union Jack and campaigns for the continuation of a United Kingdom. He gave no clear explanation for his commitment to make the case for a United Kingdom in the context of Northern Ireland. His assertion that in the wake of the pandemic, the economy, health and education would be the issues was a truism that did not recognise the history and particularities of Northern Ireland.

He seemed oblivious to the cross-border co-operation which had been necessary during the pandemic in relation to health on the island of Ireland or the very real economic ties between the north and south of the island. He chose an integrated primary school for one of his photo opportunities but failed to address the social and economic discrimination suffered by the nationalist community in the past, which had led to them relying on segregated schools for the safety of their children and their entry to higher education and white-collar employment, as a consequence of Catholics being denied jobs in the shipyards and other major industries and trades in Nothern Ireland.

His remark also ignored the fact that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which underpins, in part, the present discussion of the need for Irish unity, was based on the fact that at that time the nationalist community was denied equal access to the employment and housing necessary to promote health and achieve educational potential. It also ignored the choice by the UK government in recent years (and in the past) to rely on Loyalist political parties to shore up its own parliamentary base and to reward these parties by overlooking their failure to support social reforms in their own part of the United Kingdom and to continue to block measures designed to combat discrimination against women and LBGTI and minority communities as well as nationalists.

What he did explicitly state was that he was a believer in the United Kingdom and that he would support the United Kingdom and make the case for the United Kingdom, both personally and as the leader of the Labour Party. Article 6.1(ii) of the Good Friday Agreement, which Keir professes to support, “recognises that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.” 

Keir did not explain how using his position as the Leader of the official Opposition in the Westminster Parliament, or as a Prime Minister in the future, would not amount to an “external impediment” to the exercise of self-determination exemplified by the border poll and thus a breach of an international treaty.

His statement also fits well with his views on federalism, as expounded on 21st December 2020 in a speech entitled “A socially just Scotland in a Modern United Kingdom”. In this speech, he characterised those wishing to see an independent Scotland as “separatists” and did not acknowledge the very different views of Scotland on international and European issues, migration and even on the pandemic.

He also failed to acknowledge that the devolution brought about by the Good Friday Agreement was not a final settlement of the constitutional question of Ireland’s future. It was a settlement to bring about peace and to create the institutions necessary for the island of Ireland to make a decision about its own future at some future date without resorting to violence.

Unless the Labour leadership undertakes the necessary steps to understand the realities of United Kingdom’s colonial past and ongoing involvement in Northern Ireland, it will not assist any community there to move on to a future which all communities can share and benefit from. It will also alienate many Irish people living in Britain and traditionally voting for Labour. 

Nadine Finch is Co-Chair of Labour for Irish Unity.

Image: William of Orange. Source: This file comes from Science Museum Group, in the United Kingdom., licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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