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October 05, 2006

John Bew considers the New Labour legacy in Ulster - and asks what impact the decision to let Labour Party members organise in Northern Ireland might have

Posted by John Bew

What will New Labour's legacy in Ulster be? John Bew - Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge and an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century - considers if the little-reported news that Labour Party members will be allowed to organise in Northern Ireland might have major long-term implications.

In a small and largely unreported development at the 2006 Labour Party conference, senior party officials finally decided to let their members organise officially in Northern Ireland. Whether it is Old Labour or New Labour which turns up to canvas in the run down housing estates which encircle Belfast city centre is unlikely to make much difference. This gesture has been conceived in the right spirit but it is likely to prove too little too late.

Traditionally, Labour has avoided organising in Northern Ireland, largely on the grounds that it might take away electoral support from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which was led by Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume for many years. In terms of economic and social policy, the SDLP were the nearest local equivalent to Labour. But even before their rapid decline in the polls since 1998, the SDLP have only ever had a glass-ceiling appeal.

Hume's party remained, first and foremost, a nationalist and Catholic political organisation and on that basis, it only ever drew significant support from one side of the sectarian divide. By and large, serious cross-community voting has been rare, perhaps with the exception of Trimble's Catholics, whose support helped stem the tide of anti-Agreement unionism in his constituency which gathered pace after 1998.

At the very least, the Labour Party's recent decision to allow members to organise in Northern Ireland represents a triumph for the trade union movement, a largely progressive force in Northern Ireland politics which has often been marginalised at the expense of confessional identification. In particular, men such as Andy McGivern, a long-time campaigner on the issue, believe it represents a significant step forward in achieving political parity for the province.

If it were anywhere else in the United Kingdom, the socio-economic structure of Northern Ireland would provide an archetypal Labour heartland. Particularly on the north east coast of the province and the areas surrounding Belfast, the similarities with Glasgow and Liverpool, also products of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, could not be more pronounced: cities that experienced rapid growth, shipbuilding and heavy industry, with all the problems that decline has brought since. The type of sectarian trouble with which Belfast is chiefly associated also affected Glasgow and Liverpool at a number of points throughout the nineteenth century.

Northern Ireland's other constituencies also have much in common with areas of Britain where alternative political traditions are pre-eminent. The affluent constituency of North Down, for example, is as near Middle England as Northern Ireland can possibly get. Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Conservative Party made a real challenge to Unionist hegemony, briefly becoming the largest party in local elections and pushing the race for the Westminster seat to the wire in 1992.

But today, if you are a Protestant with socialist sympathies or a Catholic with conservative instincts (and there are plenty of both), there is little refuge. Certainly, support for the Conservatives has collapsed as voters have lurched to the extremes since devolved institutions were established under the Good Friday Agreement. Whisper it quietly: devolution can actually restrict choice and strangle political diversity, for all its claims to bring "power to the people".

It was not always thus. For the first eighty years of the nineteenth century, political parties in Ireland organised on the same grounds as those in other parts of the United Kingdom: Whigs, Liberals, Tories and Conservatives. Belfast's leading Conservative MP spent more time drinking with Dickens and Thackeray than in Orange Halls. One of the original founders of the Chartist manifesto, William Sharman Crawford, started life as a Liberal candidate for County Down. Ulster's MPs sat in governments which legislated for a vast and opulent Empire; their twentieth century successors sat in Stormont.

This did not stop outbursts of ethnic and confessional violence, but it did hold out the possibility of a different future. If citizens could rally around large scale popular movements - areas of shared interest, such as parliamentary reform or repeal of the Corn Laws - it opened the door to the emergence of a politics predicated on different modes of identification.

For many years, there has been a progressive case for the main British parties to organise in Northern Ireland the same way they do elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The irony of these latest reforms, of course, is that the current Labour government has done much to undermine the moderate centre ground in Northern Ireland in the last three years, by operating on the mistaken assumption that the best chance of a deal was a "Hitler-Stalin" pact between the extremes, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley.

The precise details of the latest decision will be put before an internal Labour committee and will not be published until later. Reports suggest that Labour will set up a local forum in Northern Ireland as soon as they receive two hundred applications for membership. While the forum will send delegates to the party conference, it is not yet clear if Labour members will fight elections in Northern Ireland.

Much of the damage has already been done, however. In the context of continued political malaise, it is easy to forget the extent of the achievement of Easter 1998. While it has become fashionable to suggest that the Belfast Agreement came about because the government were prepared to "talk to terrorists", the reality is that the terrorists were pulled along by the momentum of a genuine "peace process", in which the Prime Minister was a centrifugal force but in which the moderates from both sides of the divide also provided crucial momentum.

Having failed to adequately bolster and protect those who sought to make the Good Friday Agreement a sustainable and pluralist project, the Labour Party now appears to be doing little more than picking at a rocking carcass.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

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"serious cross-community voting has been rare, perhaps with the exception of Trimble's Catholics, whose support helped stem the tide of anti-Agreement unionism in his constituency which gathered pace after 1998."

Interesting - now something like the SDLP's Joe Hendron's unseating of Gerry Adams in 1992 with the support of Loyalist/Unionist voters in West Belfast is pretty much inconceivable. Replaced, for instance, by the "nationalist vote" uniting to unseat Willie McCrea.

Posted by: duderino neutrino palomino at October 6, 2006 05:43 PM

Oh, and parties from the Republic are beginning to organise in the North as well - in particular Fianna Fail.

Posted by: duderino neutrino palomino at October 7, 2006 04:36 PM
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