For the last four decades the Irish and British Labour parties have declined to formally or fully establish local branches or stand candidates for election in the north-east of Ireland, jointly recognising the territory’s disputed nature between Dublin and London. Instead both groupings have turned over the management of centre-left politics in the north to their regional “sister party”, the Social Democratic and Labour Party or SDLP, which takes its seats in the UK parliament and the devolved assembly at Stormont. This non-partisan approach has allowed both Labour groups to act in a more or less even-handed manner when dealing with the politics of the region, particularly when in national government. This was especially true in the early days of the peace process between Ireland and Britain, notably under Irish Labour Dick Spring who acted as the tánaiste and the minister for foreign affairs in various Dublin administrations during the 1990s, and British labour leader Tony Blair who of course acted as the prime minister in London from 1997 to 2007.
Now it seems that the equitable agreement between the Irish and British labour movements is to be broken by one of the leading candidates seeking the leadership of the UK party in the desperate hope of gaining votes amongst the eligible members of the Labour Party domicile in the north-east of Ireland. Members who are, by definition, unionist or pro-union in their idealogical leanings. From the Guardian newspaper:
“Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham has vowed to lift the party’s longstanding ban on putting up candidates in Northern Ireland’s elections.
Burnham said he was a long-time supporter of the principle that individual members of Labour who happen to live in the region should now be able to field official candidates.
Labour has a long-running ban on putting forward party members to stand as official Labour representatives for Westminster, assembly and local government elections. Instead, Labour has been historically aligned with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party through the Socialist International.
In a message designed to win support from Labour members from Northern Ireland who will have a vote in the leadership battle, Burnham has written an opinion piece for Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph.
Up to 1,000 registered Labour members’ votes from Northern Ireland are up for grabs in the leadership contest. The Northern Ireland Labour party has urged people to vote for Burnham.”
Andy Burnham’s decision to publish his plea to local Labour activists in the editorially-unionist Belfast Telegraph newspaper clearly illustrates its communal and sectarian nature. Short of donning a bowler hat and orange sash it is hard to see how else the would-be UK Labour leader could play up his British nationalist credentials to his regional audience, regardless of their leftward-leaning nature. That a senior member of the Labour Party in Britain could be so cavalier with the hard-won peace process between our two island nations, so willing to destabilise it in the pursuit of personal gain, places him in the same category as every other UK politician in the past who has gambled upon the Orange Card – even the most red-tinged.