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Jenny Muir Quits The British Labour Grouping In The North

Green Party in Northern Ireland
Green Party in “Northern Ireland”

A minor political event which has probably passed most observers by. Jenny Muir, long-time left-wing Belfast blogger and would-be British Labour Party activist in the North of Ireland has formally quit Labour. This follows many years of campaigning to have the British political party expand from Britain to Ireland to organise and stand in the north-east of the country. Thankfully the London leadership of Labour repeatedly rejected these attempts at anschluss from the UK but its interesting to see where Jenny Muir has gone: the Green Party “of Northern Ireland”. The northern Greens are officially a regional branch of Comhaontas Glas – the Green Party of Ireland – and since the 1990s have supported an All-Ireland policy (later modified through support for the 1998 Belfast Agreement). As a left-of-centre ecological party they have been moderately sucessful with environmentally-focused Nationalist voters and liberal Unionists agnostic on continued British rule.

However of late the internal-consensus on the party’s ultimate national affiliations have been under pressure. In 2011 the  Antrim branch of the party introduced a motion to the annual general meeting in Belfast to sever relations with the southern wing of the organisation (a move which some represented as stemming from the party’s embarrassment over links to their badly discredited southern counterparts in the aftermath of the fall of the Celtic Tiger economy of Ireland). This was rejected by a majority but party tensions have been evident since then, most recently in the reluctance of party leader, Stephen Agnew, to press for civil rights legislation for Irish-speakers in the North of Ireland. These disagreements can also be seen in the very public criticisms of (former) Green councillor Cadogan Enright.

Muir, who regards the centre-left and Labour sister-party of the SDLP as another player in “sectarian politics” (and I hope I don’t misrepresent her in this summation), seems comfortable enough with the Greens’ All-Ireland status, and she will certainly be a highly valuable activist for the party. But I wonder will this and other changes pull the party in a more “Pro-Union” (if not Unionist) direction?

UPDATE 19/01/13:  Jenny Muir replies below in the Comments clarifying some points.

25 comments on “Jenny Muir Quits The British Labour Grouping In The North

  1. Am I right in saying that Ed Simpson a former “liberal unionist” is with the Green Party…in North Down? There is still a sizeable partition it’s element within the Greens. I don’t think that they will really make any progress as a grown up party until they take on the big issues…and there is no bigger issue than the constitution. In a sense they can get away with being agnostic because they are essentially one issue …and Green structures are more loose.
    There is really no hope for Labour Party in NI. It’s tokenism and grandstanding by academics and trade union activists.

    • Indeed, he was a former British Labour-leaning Unionist who joined the Greens in 2011. From his announcement:

      ““I am just about to fill in my membership form for the Green Party here in Northern Ireland. It is a decision I have come to after an awful lot of consideration and I believe wholeheartedly is the right one and I shall try and explain why.

      I consider myself to be left wing and a social democrat. I’m not feverishly so but it’s probably the easiest classification. I am also strongly in favour of maintaining Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.

      As a Unionist, I am prepared to accept the Green Party’s position on the constitutional question. It is, by and large irrelevant to our daily life and when cross community issues arise I feel the Green Party can apply genuine non tribal thinking to their resolution.”

      Officially the party is, as far as I know, in favour of a reunited Ireland on the basis of the Belfast Agreement but does not campaign for it and leaves it up to the individual members to decide their position. However they are a bit fuzzy about this in their public statements and literature so I could be wrong.

      There is certainly a small (but growing) Unionist/Pro-Union component to the party, many with former links to British parties or organisations. On the grapevine one hears of tensions.

      As always it comes down to the constitutional question (and Simpson is definitely a Unionist – more so I may opinion than the Alliance). Some supporters of British Labour in the North can annoy with their holier-than-thou attitudes and pretend non-Unionist stance, though not all are so supercilious. Thankfully the UK leadership know that Ireland is Ireland and there is no place for a British political party here (no matter how much fuss the thoroughly disagreeable Kate Hoey kicks up).

      • he spoke at the SDLP Youth Conference last year. I went along to see the Labour NI Conf 10th March which was pretty pathetic.
        by thevway I think ed Simpson might be on Green staff. I passed Agnews office in Bangor one day and saw him (possibly a volunteer).
        There’s a point to be made…but I’m not sure what it is…that people in fringe politics like Simpson and Muir can move more easily between parties than members of big church parties.
        Maybe smaller parties are more absolutist….and bigger parties are coalitions.
        the Greens now seem to have established primacy as the leading non sectarian (as they would see it) leftist s and they might take in some WP or PBP people but the agnosticism is very different from Labour NIs unionism.

        but effectively Labour in Britain are not really agnostic on Irish Unity.

        • I do believe he is a player but not sure. He is certainly vocal and writes an interesting, intelligent blog. But his commentary on the anti-democracy protests have been, to my mind at least, very much from the Unionist point of view. In recent posts he has stressed his Unionism and belief in the “UK” while criticising the Alliance and its position on the flags’ issue.

          A possible indication of a future electoral direction for the Greens in the north? Swooping up disaffected, pro-Union Alliance voters? Agnew is something of a question mark on the national question to put it mildly.

          Thankfully the Unionist rabble in British Labour are a tiny minority when it comes to Ireland (whatever about Scotland). They are, generally though, quite a dislikeable lot. As some regular readers may have noticed I have a particular dislike for some of the more prominent troublemakers.

          • I wonder if there can be a (worthwhile) legal challenge to Labour’s position – or if there have been noises about that previously?

            • The decision not to stand/organise in the north-east of Ireland? I doubt it. A political party is free to organise where it wishes. The SNP does not stand in English constituencies nor does Plaid Cymru. If they refused membership to people from the North they might face some legal challenges on the grounds of discrimination but as far as I know they accept Irish applications from north AND south. It is a formal party structure and standing for elections that they do not accept. The argument being that the SDLP is the sister Labour party, that they have an informal agreement in place with Irish Labour, and that they simply have no interest in doing so.

              If British Labour was to contest Irish elections then the SDLP might well ramp up its links with southern parties to a more official form (one would presume Irish Labour, though the former WP/DL apparatchiks might choke on that).

  2. Hasn’t Cadogan Enright left the Green Party? I’m pretty sure he’s independent now.

    • His membership was in some contention for a long while but I believe he has now formerly resigned from the Greens (sometime in late 2011, early 2012?). There was considerable argy-bargy in the local Greens about it all.

      Must add a “former” to his description above. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Jenny Muir

    Sorry to post in what I think is the wrong place, couldn’t work out how to start a comment thread. Just to point out that I am not a unionist, any more than I am a nationalist: http://southbelfastdiary.blogspot.co.uk/2007/05/me-nationalist-how-very-dare-you.html
    I am intensely relaxed about Northern Ireland’s wider geographic status (perhaps the only person living here who is) and FYI I was in the Irish Labour Party before moving into the UK LP after the ILP decided not to stand candidates in the North in 2009. And yes I do regard the SDLP as contributing to the continuing sectarianisation of NI politics although there are individuals in that party whom I respect.

    Is this post an attempt to portray the Green Party as a unionist party in order to stop defections from Sinn Fein? Although I think the score is currently one nil to SF (Peter Doran)

    • Hi, Jenny, and thanks for taking the time to clarify your views. I hope I didn’t misrepresent them in the original post and I will update it with a note at the end drawing attention to your Comment.

      When you say “intensely relaxed” about the status of the North of Ireland I presume you mean its territorial or jurisdictional status? If you don’t mind me asking is that relaxed about continued British rule or relaxed about change (from British to Irish jurisdiction or the maintenance of the current status quo)? I find it difficult to believe that anyone is truly relaxed or indifferent to such fundamental things, especially someone with an obvious passion for politics. The Alliance Party may occasionally play the agnostic card but more often than not their Pro-Union stance is clear. Everyone has an opinion 😉

      I think a few readers of this blog may object to the characterisation of the SDLP as a contributor to the continued “sectarianisation” of northern politics. Personally I challenge the idea of “sectarianisation” in the first place. All politics are sectarian or partisan. That is simply heightened where one has communal rivalry or conflict too.

      While An Sionnach Fionn is certainly Republican in tone and outlook it is not a Sinn Féin supporting site. I am not a member of SF nor have I been. In the past I have voted SF. But I have also voted Fianna Fáil, Labour and Green. Indeed at one time I was a strong believer in the Green Party and an admirer of Trevor Sargent. Unfortunately those days are now long gone. So no, it was not an attempt to portray the Greens in the north-east of the country as Unionist. I merely observed an increasing Unionist tinge to the party evident since 2011 and was interested in the news of your good self defecting to the Greens after many years of being such a vocal online presence for British Labour in Ireland. That, incidentally, is why I didn’t mention Peter Doran moving from the Greens to SF since he did not explicitly blame a Unionist wing in the party for his move. If this was an unscrupulous attack on the Greens I certainly would have spun that particular event to a predefined narrative 😉

      If there was any insult or misrepresentation of your views you have my apologies. And if you wish the opportunity to reply I’m happy enough to post anything you write or link to on your own blog.

  4. Jenny Muir

    Seamus – Many apologies for making assumptions about your political position and about your motivation for the post. I’m in no way offended by your post, and you certainly didn’t misrepresent me. Somehow I missed your blog before this post – I’ve wound up East Belfast Diary so can’t post a link, but I’ll be visiting frequently. I just tend to come back a bit strongly on the question of my attitude to the border, as it’s been a bone of contention for years. I’ll also deal in more detail with my view of the SDLP.

    Re. the border, I did mean NI’s constitutional status rather than geographic, although I’m sure there are plenty of people in GB and the RoI who would love to tow us well out to sea, especially at the moment. I would be equally happy to live in a UK or an Irish state, and also equally unhappy. All politically active people have an uneasy relationship with the state. We oppose it a lot, but we also seek to capture its power and use it for our own agenda. I used to think this was unique to left wing politics but of course it’s not. So I see no different between that ambivalent relationship wherever I might be living.

    Aha, but what about national identity, I hear you say? Well, that really doesn’t bother me and I accept that may be because I wasn’t born here (although I have a NI Protestant heritage on one side of my family, the other is English). I have dual nationality and am proud of that rather than of either component. My identity is based far more on my political views, including feminism, which connect me with other national identities rather than dividing. I think living in Belfast, and having a heritage in the city, is important to me, as is being a vegetarian and a scholar. In my blog post describing why I left UK Labour, I didn’t mention the border because it wasn’t an issue. I think what IS important is to be in a party which has a wider remit than the wee six, and like Labour, the Greens are an international movement. Structurally they happen to be attached to the Southern party in this case. Like you, I think it was politically naive to go into coalition with FF but they have paid the price. As I said in my earlier comment, I was previously a member of the Irish LP so have no problems with a link to the RoI.

    Finally on the SDLP. Before coming to the use of the s-word, I think for me the most interesting aspect of the leaked Labour NEC report was that the SDLP had been duplicitous. My respect for them as a party has gone right down as a result. By all means come straight out and say we don’t want NI Labour as competitors, and argue the case, but to sneak around saying one thing to the Belfast Telegraph and another to the NEC is low and cowardly.

    So yes, all political systems are divide and when parties in GB say ‘let’s leave politics out of this’ they usually mean let’s ignore the class implications. But in NI the parties recruit on the basis of national identity as reflected in territorial views. Perhaps ‘territorial politics’ is more accurate. But of course territorial views are linked but not identical with religious background. This leads to sectarianisation of the political environment, for example sectarian attitudes as part of opposing a political position which may be held for another reason. For example, the SDLP were very keen to label UK Labour as a unionist party. Although senior English Labour figures may be, the LP in NI was very careful to keep a balance and made it clear they would designate as ‘other’ if in the Assembly or local councils. I always used to say I would join the SDLP on the day they themselves designated as ‘other’ but unsurprisingly that day never came.

    Have gone on a bit but I hope that’s helpful. 🙂

    • Ah, I’m a very small fish in a very big pond and easily missed. Which more often than not is a good thing! 😉

      When it comes to national politics and demographics my own personal rule of thumb is the rule of thirds (or so I’ve named it). During the American War of Independence a third of the colonial population supported the revolution, a third opposed it, and a third remained fairly indifferent or wavered back and forth depending on who was perceived to have the upper hand or how their own selfish interests were served. A similar breakdown of views took place during the German Occupation of France in WWII, both in the north and the Vichy south.

      So I’m pretty sure that there any many people in the north-east of Ireland who genuinely don’t care which state is over them or only care based upon their own bread and butter needs or how they may advance their own interests. When Unionism has the upper hand or the UK delivers more bang for their buck they are Unionist. When Nationalism has the upper hand or Ireland delivers more bang for their buck they are Nationalists. There are of course other factors at play in this, noble or ignoble, but I’m fairly sure that some northern voters must fall into this kind of thinking. And that is fair enough.

      On the other hand the history of Ireland, and British colonialism in this country, gives the northern conflict a unique ethno-nationalist dynamic which defies any rule of politics. One would have been hard put to apply a rule of thirds to Bosnia-Herzegovina or other Balkan disputes. I suspect the north will remain more Balkan than Belgium (where a loose rule of thirds applies. The Wallons and Flemish oppose each other but the middle third helps the kingdom muddle along – albeit sometimes on the edge of collapse). Of course one could argue that the “Northern Irish” are the third but I – and others – have reasons for thinking otherwise.

      I will leave others to defend the SDLP (I’m more of a critic than a fan). I might ask FJH, local SDLP blogger extraordinaire, to do so 😉

      In terms of British Labour they are Über-Unionist in Scotland but very much the opposite in relation to the North of Ireland. That say’s a lot, I believe, about the reality of Irish-British relations. The island of Ireland is a foreign country to the British establishment no matter what some Unionists may believe (or hope).

      Thanks for the lengthy Comment. All very interesting and I hope to see you up and blogging again soon. All voices and views are needed in relation to the north. Even those one (sometimes) disagrees with 🙂

      • Jenny Muir

        Thank you for your kind words (again) and interesting points
        Seamus, and I find the rule of thirds very persuasive 🙂

  5. Frankly as a 60 year old nationalist, I have always regarded any manifestation of Labour in Norn Iron as a bunch of cowards. I remember Sam Napier, Billy Boyd, Brian Boyd and never was impressed. We often got pious platitudes but when Push Came to Shove they lined up with the black unions in the shipyard…got chained up with Sunday swings and the local trade unions who couldn’t be arsed about Civil Rights here invited Len Murray to Belfast to lead the workers back to work.
    meanwhile serial do Gooder David Bleakley served with Faulkner and Billy Blease went into the Lords. Useless every last one.
    yet to condemn the SDLP as sectarian is a bit rich. Didn’t Vivian Simpson MP for Oldpark get the invitation? How different would it have been to have him on board?
    They condemned themselves and the working class to oblivion.
    Essentially Ms Muir sums it up.
    I was at their 2012 conference and reported it on the time in my own Blog. What was it…150 members…180?
    But the Labour Party in Norn Iron is to Politics what British Tennis is to Wimbledon. well actually that’s an outdated reference but the point I’m making is that in Britain tennis is a social activity NOT a competitive sport.
    And in Norn Iron, the Labour Party such as it is…is a social gathering not actually involved in Politics. academics and trade union officials who don’t have the guts to join the only social democratic/socialist party as defined by the British Labour Party they effect to love or the Irish Labour Party they effect to admire.
    They can’t actually accept that British Labour wants nothing to do with them.
    Of course plenty of people from Norn Iron…usually nationalists have gone to Britain and furthered the aims of the Labour Party there…in councils or whatever…not actually sure if Ruth Kelly or the young lassie Smith from Morcambe is Labour Norn Irons kinda Labour person.
    oddly Kate Hoey is their hero. does anyone seriously think that if she had stayed in Norn Iron she would be a member of Labour Norn Iron? No I don’t think so either.
    point is that even Labour in Britain is a coalition.
    Say Bliar,Mandelson, Milliband, Milliband…doyens of Islington but representing Sedgefield, Hartlepool, Doncaster and South Shields…champagne socialists.
    And Livingstone…classicly bed-sit London socialists.
    And West of Scotland socialists….McFaul, Reid, Brian Wilson type.
    and not forgetting the Western Isles. Try getting a champagne socialist elected there? Or a Campbell?
    In fact Labour have done few favours to the working class in South Lancashire back to the days of Bill Brand.
    But ultimately when Belfast trade unionists have an issue who do they contact for support up on the hill. They might be too saintly to be unionist or nationalist and they might be so respectable that they join the Labour Party but when they need something done at Stormont, they check their Filofax and phone SDLP.
    That’s how it’s worked for thirty odd years.

  6. If it’s ok, I’d like to respond to a few points made, and a few questions raised:

    1. I’m not a former liberal unionist. I am a liberal unionist. My membership of the Green Party did not require I abandon either of those political positions.

    2. We are not “essentially one issue” and I’m surprised that someone as informed on NI politics as FJH would make such a ridiculous claim. We are certainly perceived by many as one issue, but that’s the crucial difference.

    3. The party is not in favour of a reunited Ireland, it fully supports the principles of consent within the Good Friday Agreement. In any referendum on unity, members can make their own decisions.

    4. I am on Steven’s staff and yes, it was most likely me you saw when you passed the office, FJH (especially if the chap you saw was exceptionally handsome).

    5. “But his commentary on the anti-democracy protests have been, to my mind at least, very much from the Unionist point of view. In recent posts he has stressed his Unionism and belief in the “UK” while criticising the Alliance and its position on the flags’ issue.” – I’m disappointed that you have viewed any commentary from me in that way. I have tried to look at things from a left wing point of view. Any stressing of my unionism has been minimal and besides, my unionism has always been very pragmatic and not based on any UK nationalism or great loyalty to my accident of birth.

    Finally, I would just like to comment that I have yet to notice either a Unionist or Nationalist ‘theme’ in the party. Whilst I may be a unionist, it doesn’t define me and if the people of NI decided unification was the way ahead I would gladly accept that and get on with life in a united Ireland.

    • Hi Ed and thanks for taking the time to clarify your views. It is much appreciated. I did describe you as a “former British Labour-leaning Unionist” so I think I’m okayish on that one (?). I’ll lave FJH to answer for the “former liberal Unionist” 😉

      I personally wouldn’t describe the Greens as a one-issue party. Even if one places an emphasis on environmentalism that is a subject that impacts so many areas that is truly a multi-issue one. And I say that as a Republican Green and former Green Party voter in this part of the country.

      I thought the Greens favoured a reunited Ireland via the mechanism of the Belfast Agreement, though individual members were free to vote either way or not at all?

      So you are a liberal Unionist but also a pragmatic Unionist. I take that to mean that you support continued British rule over the north-east of Ireland because it better meets the needs of yourself, family, friends and community? Fair enough. As I said to Jenny above I’m sure such people exist, though very much a minority. And at the end of the day such people are still pro-Union and given to pro-Union sentiments.

      So are you open to be persuaded on the value of Irish reunification?

      • The Greens in Ireland don’t officially favour one position or the other, we just support the will of the people of Ireland, whether that be for or against Unity. I’ll confess that I’m speaking mostly from a GPNI perspective as opposed to the perspective of those members in the Republic.

        Yes, my unionism is based on a pragmatic look at what I think best benefits the people on this Ireland and isn’t based on any loyalties I may or may not have to the United Kingdom. My politics is based around giving people the best lives possible. If I thought that unity offered that, it wouldn’t be an issue for me to change my position.

        So, yes, I am open to be persuaded on the value. I have argued for some time that it says something about Sinn Fein’s strategy that they haven’t been able to win me round. Surely, amongst unionists, it is people like me that they are most likely to win over?

        • Thanks for the clarification, Ed. Much appreciated. I have to admit to being confused by the Green Party’s policy in relation to Irish reunification. Certainly the impression down here is of a pro-unity party (under the auspices of the Belfast Agreement) while the impression in the northern wing is more varied (or nuanced, as you might view it). Stephen Agnew certainly talked like an all-Ireland politician in this interview as part of his leadership campaign in 2010:

          “I am proud of the achievements of the Irish Greens in government. There is no doubt that the current Irish government is unpopular, but we knew our vote when we went into government with Fianna Fail, a party whose policies we had opposed for many years.

          We were a party with six TDs in government with a party with over seventy yet we managed to secure the Civil Partnership Act despite much opposition. We increased investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and we extended the broadband network to many rural communities. One of our major achievements was the reform of the planning system which had allowed the building of what are now ghost villages during the housing boom. The Green Party has ensured that the type of irresponsible rezoning that was one of the major causes of Ireland’s economic crash will not happen again. We get very little credit for this as few recognise its importance.

          But there are lessons to be learned. In the first year we were seen as too cosy in our relationship with Fianna Fail. I remember when Bertie Ahern announced his resignation; Green Party Leader John Gormley was at his side. This literal closeness suggested that the Greens were all too comfortable in government with Fianna Fail.”

          I certainly agree with you that the struggle for hearts and minds on a reunited Ireland must appeal to people’s economic, social, legislative, cultural and environmental interests, both selfish and selfless. That extends far beyond Sinn Féin.

  7. Just three points…in respect of Mr Simpson. I fully take the point that he is still a “liberal unionist” (although going back to Basil McIvor visiting our West Belfast grammar school in 1969, it has never been a concept I’ve recognised) but my point …and It’s based possibly on inaccuracy is that Ed Simpson used to be a “liberal Unionist” ie actually a member of that party. I should have made that more clear but this stylus thingy for iPad thingy has a life of its own.
    I’m sure that the Green Party is not a single issue Party…..but I think it’s reasonable to say that they are “essentially” one. The non tree-hugging aspects are basically a check list of standard leftism to which I’d heartily subscribe.
    Perhaps “unique selling point” is better phrase.
    Er….that’s two things…but when I started this, I had three points to make.
    Dammit I’m getting worse.

  8. Jenny Muir

    When FJH can manage a coherent comment, I’ll reply in kind. Not a good advertisement for the iPad. Or the SDLP. BTW it will take a long time for me to trust them again (SDLP not iPad).

  9. If and when the British hold a referendum on the EU it may perhaps place the Green Party (and some Liberal Unionists) in an interesting position in relation to the South- which barring a bank default (or other such misdemeanour ) will probably still be in the EU and may be a more attractive option, if not financially, then possibly in political and envrionmental terms, than a go it alone, possibly insular British state.

    • By 2018 hopefully the Irish economy will be on the up (though I remain unconvinced either way). A withdrawal from or substantial renegotiation of its EU membership would be a social and economic disaster for the north-east of the country. The northern Greens would certainly find themselves under pressure from their southern counterparts to “conform” in that situation.

  10. Was Cadogan Enright not expelled from the Greens? Just like he was from Sinn Fein in the 80s? Wonder what party he will try to hijack next…

    • I believe he quit rather than be expelled following some tensions in the local party, though there is some debate around it. He’s an independent at the moment and I suspect that will continue.

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