What next for the Left in Northern Ireland?
14 July 2007
Speech by Mark Langhammer at the Tom Johnson Summer School
First, thank you for the opportunity to address you - it's appreciated. It's particularly appreciated because at this year's Labour Party Conference in Wexford, Northern Ireland based Labour Party members will be asking you to endorse the principle of the Labour Party candidates contesting local government elections in Northern Ireland - starting in 2009.
There are lots of issues that I could talk to you about - issues which affect the interests of working people in Northern Ireland. There's the water privatization issue, the Strategic Investment Board (a "rotten borough" if ever there was one), the Private Finance Initiative, the marketisation of health and education and a range of others. But the central issue, for democratic socialists in Northern Ireland, is developing a political vehicle of scale and size, capable of orientating in today's circumstances.
I'll start with a quote:
"The continuing conflict of national allegiances has stunted the growth of normal class politics in the south and virtually prevented it in the North. Working class Protestants in Northern Ireland vote for one party whilst working class Catholics vote for another. Both are victims of political discrimination and social injustice. But the party political system does not provide a means by which this inequality can be addressed."
Who said that? Well, that was from the Labour Party in our submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation back in 1994
Our conference motion will ask that the Labour Party make this real - by registering with the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland with a view to contesting elections there, at local government level.
Background: the background to this is that changes to our Labour Party Constitution in 2001 allowed for individuals from Northern Ireland to join the Labour Party as "Headquarters" members. In late 2004 the Labour Party moved to create a formal advisory structure - a Branch (the Northern Ireland Labour Forum) for its Northern Ireland based members. Earlier this year it was agreed to recognize a Northern Ireland Constituency Council - to allow local branches to be set up. Now we are seeking a modest next step - to allow for Labour Party candidates to contest the next local Council elections in Northern Ireland, currently scheduled for 2009.
The Labour Party has long been on record as wanting to develop a Third Strand in Irish political life, independent of the ancient communal divisions. With the main paramilitary organizations gradually receding and the political representatives of the two communities engaged in a less antagonistic relationship in Stormont (some would say engaged in a "love in") this is not the time for those committed to reconciliation to hold back. It is a time to consolidate the peace by introducing real politics.
A sad history: Before looking at why the Labour Party should contest elections in the north, I'd like to pause and consider why the left has failed in the north. The topic is "What next for the Left in Northern Ireland" There are lessons for us in the past.
Left politics across Europe is usually focused around a socialist or social democrat party contesting for state power. Around this governmental effort is often a myriad of smaller socialist fringe groupings criticizing, seeking to influence - in some cases practicing "entry-ism" - or infiltrating. Some are serious, some certifiable! In Northern Ireland, however, we're a bit like a doughnut - or a polo mint. We have all these colourful, interesting, sometimes irresponsible rainbow - the Trots, the Commies, the green left, all of them - but no solid centre. There is no governmental party of the left. And this is down to the strange governmental arrangements dreamt up for Northern Ireland by the British state in 1921.
Northern Ireland is not a state. It was set up as an "outhouse" of the United Kingdom for reasons of state. In setting up Northern Ireland, its people were excluded from the political parties of state - notably Labour and Conservative. This was no accident. The Lloyd George's, Churchill's and Beaverbrook's who set up the entity of Northern Ireland were geo-politicians on a grand scale. They determined that Northern Ireland was not going to be allowed to settle down within British politics. There were two reasons for this.
First, the 1912-14 Home Rule crisis almost brought Britain towards civil war. After this, a bi-partisan "arms length" approach to Ireland was aimed at ensuring that any Irish political virus was kept in Ireland. When I raised this with Mo Mowlam some years ago, she termed it the "disease" theory. The bi-partisan approach is largely respected to this day by the two main British parties and is a cornerstone of British policy in regard to Northern Ireland.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Northern Ireland was to be kept apart, as an irritant to the fledgling Irish Free State - an abnormal entity which could give Britain ongoing leverage with the Irish state. At the time of the setting up of Northern Ireland, the loss of the Free State was seen by Britain as an historic mistake. The Redmondite development was the proper course - a course that would have seen Ireland as a junior partner in Empire, robbing and civilizing the world in equal measure. This has been very clearly set out in a recent book by Dr Patrick Walsh on the Irish involvement in the Boer War.
The conflict in Northern Ireland arose out of the way it has been governed since
1921. It was a predictable consequence of the British decision to keep the Six
Counties within the British state but govern them outside the democracy of the
state. Undemocratic government has consequences in the democratic era. But
Britain has sold the idea that the trouble in the North was caused by Irish
nationalism. That idea is what revisionism is all about. It has been used to
give Ireland a bad conscience about itself, and about what it had to do to
achieve its independence. A significant British effort has gone into influencing Irish academic life, publishing, the media and cultural life - a "revisionism" if you like - aimed at drawing Ireland back into the fold. It also tends to explain away rather than explain Irish history and the Labour contribution to Irish history is a victim as much as many other positive aspects of Irish history.
And it is one of the lessons of the past Dail election for us in the Labour Party. The Labour Party must reject that view of things and
remove the suspicion that it is an anti-national party.
Since the end of the cold war, and - in particular since 9/11 and Blair's "kaleidoscope" speech, Britain is now fully back in imperial mode. At times this is dressed as "humanitarian intervention".
It cannot be said that Britain's leverage on Ireland has not been successful - with Ireland backtracking on the social Europe, joining the globalisers, and genuflecting to Ameranglia in regard to the use of Shannon rendition flights and involvement in the "war on terror" through the ISAF force in Afghanistan.
So, Northern Ireland is not a state. It is disconnected from the British state - a bit like the South African Bantustan concept from Apartheid era. Northern Ireland is a generously subsidised Bantustan - but it's a Bantustan nonetheless. When Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, urged by John Hume, to say in his City of London speech on 9 November 1990 that Britain had "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland", he was not strictly accurate. Britain has an interest. Britain always has an interest.
Within the confines of the Northern Ireland Bantustan, developing left of centre politics without a framework of state has proved very difficult. The Independent Labour Party tried it's damnedest (one of our members, Joe Keenan, wrote a magnificent account of the ILP which I would encourage anyone interested to read - it gives the best impression that I've read about how hard people tried in developing a left alternative). (The Labour Opposition of Northern Ireland, a complete reprint of the first Labour newspapers in Northern Ireland, 1925-26 - 1992, ISBN 0 85034 054 3).
After the second world war, and partly due to the euphoria surrounding the development of a Welfare State, things could have opened up for Labour. In 1949 Jack Beattie was elected on a Labour ticket in West Belfast with a mandate to take the Labour whip at Westminster. He was rebuffed. Had Beattie's effort been taken up it is probable that the Catholic community in particular would have joined in great numbers. For the northern Catholic community, the Labour Party was the only conceivable bridge to the British state.
The Northern Ireland Labour Party too, was a very serious effort at hoisting a red flag. At one stage it elected 4 Stormont MPs (out of 52) and had a sort of Christian socialist ethos with lay preachers such as David Bleakley, Vivian Simpson and Billy Boyd prominent. David Bleakley taught me at the Methodist College and imbued in me a constructive outlook on industrial democracy. The NILP presented itself as the Labour Party against a Conservative aligned Unionist Party, but in reality it knew that every piece of socialist legislation in Westminster was replicated, word for word, line by line, by Unionist administrations. Harry Midgely, a notable Labour stalwart, understood this and switched to the Unionist Party post war in order to play a part in ensuring the implementation of the Health Service and Welfare state.
The NILP was a serious effort. As recently as 1970, the NILP got over 100,000 votes - but it was all shadow boxing. In 1969, when the bubble went up in Northern Ireland, Jim Callaghan visited Northern Ireland, received detailed briefings from the NILP and spoke at the Ulster Hall to a packed NILP meeting. He suggested to the NILP that it apply to become part of his party, the Labour Party of state. After the NILP had voted overwhelmingly to do so, this too was rebuffed by the Labour Party. What happened was that greater interests of state emerged. In Tony Benn's diaries it was clear that the "arms length" principle still ran deep. He records that, instead of taking responsibility for the situation, Labour thought it would better to avoid responsibility, with Denis Healey arguing for Unionists "carrying the can".
I myself came out of the remnants of the NILP. Labour remained strong in Newtownabbey (to the north of Belfast) as it collapsed elsewhere. This was because it retained some good, long serving, individual councillors. It was in a strong blue collar manufacturing area where trade union instincts ran deep. And, for many years, it also retained a bar! Newtownabbey Labour produced quite a few important figures. Kate Hoey, current MP for Vauxhall started there. Inez McCormack, the well known trade unionist is another. However one who best illustrates the dilemma we have is Eamon O'Kane. Eamon was brought up in South Derry, but came to live in Newtownabbey and was active in the Newtownabbey Labour Party. He was also a teacher and a trade unionist, rising to become first President, then General Secretary of the UK wide National Association of Schoolmasters, Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). As General Secretary, in the Ernest Bevin tradition, he led British teachers unions into a Social Partnership deal which survives and thrives as an odd part of the British trade union landscape. Unlike the mainstream European tradition of co-determination, and the social partnership arrangements in Ireland, the British tradition is wedded to a highly adversarial system.
Eamon died back of cancer back in 2005, and his wisdom and perspective is sorely missed within the British trade union movement. I remember asking him why the NASUWT had become the biggest teachers union in Northern Ireland. It was faced with two strong and traditional rivals. On one hand there was the Irish National Teachers Union, a predominantly Catholic union. On the other hand, the Ulster Teachers Union, a predominantly Protestant union. His answer was that "it had nothing to do with reconciliation" He explained that the NASUWT became the largest teachers union in Northern Ireland - the largest in South Armagh, and the largest in North Down - because it was represented on the UK Burnham Committee which set wages - whilst INTO and UTU weren't. It was the gravitational pull of power, at the level of state, that drew teachers away from communal, Protestant or Catholic positions. And so it will be with politics. Politics is influencing and participating in state power or it is nothing.
The mirage of provincial Labour is now over. "Soda Farl" socialism is gone. After the NILP, the United Labour Party, the Labour Party of Northern Ireland, and Labour 87, there will never again be a serious effort to establish a provincial Labour Party. But a serious effort had to be made to prove the point.
I campaigned for many years for the British Labour Party to organize in NI, not because I was sold on the union, but because it was the centre-left party contesting for state power. The question of who governs and in whose interests was paramount. As the party of working people, Labour's gravitational pull had drawn people in Glasgow and Liverpool away from communal religious affiliations. Whether it could have done so in Belfast remains unanswered. It didn't try. For reasons of state, British Labour would not and will not organize in N Ireland. But nature abhors a vaacum.
So, why should the Irish Labour Party contest elections in Northern Ireland? There are a number of reasons:
First, the Irish state is playing an increasing role in Northern affairs and it is appropriate that the political system should begin to reflect that. The current National Development Plan, for instance, commits significant financial aid to roads and infrastructure within Northern Ireland, the Department of Foreign Affairs' Reconciliation Fund supports a myriad community activity financially, the six Cross Border Implementation Bodies are also directly funded. These trends will continue, notwithstanding the understandable ennui amongst the Southern electorate towards "the North".
Second, the Labour party, as a party (unlike any party within Northern Ireland) contends for the exercise of real power in a sovereign state. As a governmental party of critical mass, it would provide a centre of gravity which could, over time, begin to draw people of similar political outlook together, away from communal affiliation, and lend them coherence. In the recent Dail election leaders debate, the essential shallowness of "community" politics was demonstrably apparent in the performance of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams.
Sinn Fein has been the purposeful proponent of the current peace process, but its lack of coherent social values will limit its vision of a new Ireland.
A formally racist party under Arthur Griffith in 1905, Sinn Fein was socialist in the Republican Congress phase in the 1930's; it was in active alliance with Nazi Germany in the 40's; it was Catholic vocationalist in the 50's; it fell under Communist Party influence through Roy Johnson in the 60's, it veered back to corporate Catholicism in the 70's; was swayed by London loony leftism in the 80's and by the late 90's and in the Good Friday phase the prevailing ideological influence on Sinn Fein was Thatcherism - when it implemented with alacrity Private Finance Initiatives - more than any other party in the NI Executive - across its briefs in Education and Health.
There are few signs that Sinn Fein in the current Northern Ireland Executive will do anything other than go along with the Durkan/Trimble Reinvestment & Reform Initiative - with all capital investment undertaken through "private finance" procurement and hitched to an aggressive programme of marketisation in health, education and across the public services.
Social policies for Sinn Fein and the other "community" parties is beside the point. It's what gets you over today, and no more.
Third and from a self interested Labour Party perspective, after a difficult Dail election, it would demonstrate a creative, imaginative, bold and practical policy direction. We need a distinctive, independent and fresh approach to politics across the island that will connect better with the electorate. The collaboration of grass roots councilors, North and South, will help strengthen and reinvigorate the Party across the island, increase its reputation internationally and provide a firmer platform for the future.
Fourth, a reforming Labour Party of the left and middle ground, capable of attracting Protestants and Catholics, could prevent the leakage of political influence towards the extremes. Labour could provide potential for cross community alliances to those parties which are moderate, but religiously aligned.
Finally, a northern component of labour would fill in the missing part of the jigsaw of Labour Party and trade union structures across the island (corresponding to the northern section of the ICTU), recognizing and respecting the practical reality of governance in the two jurisdictions.
Labour Must Wait? It is many years since de Valera uttered the edict "Labour must wait". For Labour people in Northern Ireland the waiting continues. Now is a time of choice for Labour. Do we stand for tribalism in Irish politics, furtively rejecting the efforts of people who would try and build bridges across the sectarian divide? Or do we stand for building the Third Strand? That's why we are seeking your support for a modest measure - that Labour Party candidates contest the 2009 local Council elections in Northern Ireland.
Our motion asks the Labour Party to give recognition and support to bring about the development of a real Third Strand in northern politics.
Northern Ireland politics is currently structured along communal/religious grounds, producing a constant predisposition to sectarian grind and conflict. Our society is changing, with new peoples and increased ethnic and national diversity. There is a large and growing middle ground of people of all religious affiliations who collaborate in work, in trade unions, in the voluntary sector and community groupings many of whom would be concerned to develop a Third Strand in northern politics - given the right vehicle. We believe that the Labour Party, rooted in internationalism, is that vehicle.
Usually, when the issue of Labour contesting elections in the North comes up, there are a number of staple questions. The most frequently asked are
1) What about the SDLP - is it not our sister Party in Northern Ireland?
2) We won't win, will we?
3) Why Now - is the timing right?
4) What about the British Labour Party - is it not trying to organize?
5) Sure now that Stormont's up and running isn't the North all sorted and boxed away?
6) Labour would get caught up in Northern issues - like, what our position on the Border
7) We're the Party of Connolly and Larkin - will that not just put off the Protestants?
8) Why would we bother, we've just lost an election - it's nothing to do with us.
There are others, but those are the main ones. No doubt we'll get to some of these during the open session.
New politics Finally, there is a need for forms of politics which will allow partition to function in a reasonably civilized way for the indefinite future. There is also a need for politics which could enable partition to be ended at some stage in a civilized and non coercive way. That means that at least some people of a British, Protestant and Unionist perspective need to be enabled to appreciate the potentially liberating effects of a positive relationship with an independent Irish state. There is no prospect of that happening within the present framework of Northern Ireland, where each community is organized politically against the other, and the southern state and its politics are thought to be identified only with the moderate Catholic nationalist interest. A Labour electoral presence in the north would be the first vital step in the creation of a politics in which Catholics and Protestants could be involved simply as citizens.
We are in your hands, brothers and sisters. The future for the left in Northern Ireland is within a vigorous mainstream, governmental party of the left. That Party is the Labour Party. We seek your support to allow us to take the next step - contesting Council seats and giving representation to hard working families on the ground.
More Information: Contact Mark Langhammer at (0044) 7918 195070 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org