Labour and Northern Ireland: The Bad Friday Agreement

John G. Carson is a Scottish Labour Young Socialist activist, Postie and member of Scotland’s Irish community

On Friday morning the sun rose on a different nation. The political analysts had got it wrong: Jeremy Corbyn had emerged as a successful Labour leader, the Tories had lost their majority and a seemingly untouchable SNP had got a bloody nose at the hands of both Tories and Labour with mighty (and not so mighty) political figures such as Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond being ousted from democratic appreciation. Amidst the shock and awe of the result, in a little corner of the United Kingdom on an island at the western fringes of Europe, an equally important shift had taken place. The Democratic Unionist Party had risen to 10 seats and Sinn Fein to 7. Of a total of 18 seats, the unionist and nationalist communities had dug their trenches behind two political captains, and the parties of the Good Friday Agreement – the SDLP and the UUP – had been put out into the cold, ultimately victims of the peace they had built. Yet, after 20 years of a largely fruitful and relatively stable peace process, the new Northern Irish political landscape at Westminster reflected more a view of a divided Germany of a previous century than of a progressive, pluralist and modern democracy breaking from the bonds of a troubled and bitter past.

Fascinating as these results are for me someone who comes from Britain’s Irish community in the west of Scotland and for whom Ireland and Irish issues can too often be at the centre of the world, I was amazed to see that over the course of the campaign the British media seemed equally distracted. From Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA to Theresa May and the DUP via Paul Nuttall, Internment and Diane Abbot’s haircuts, the ‘Ulsterisation’ of aspects of the recent campaign has been a series of strange and surreal episodes that, whilst capturing the obsessions of a young exile and propelling them into sudden relevance, seemed out of place at the fore of British democracy today.

Unfortunately, the reality is that they are out of place.

It is a sad fact that over the campaign Northern Ireland was placed at the centre of public discourse and national events by a cynical media for whom the trauma of decades of conflict was a convenient weapon with which to beat Labour politicians, and an opportunistic and weak Conservative Party for whom Northern Ireland is now just another pawn in a political game; reliant as they are on DUP support to continue their ‘strong and stable’ administration.

Presently, the situation in Northern Ireland is already intolerable – political progress has stalled, the democratic institutions are on hold and negotiations are ongoing. To have, amidst this current turmoil, a situation where one community’s political representatives have the potential to have a real upper-hand on the others is totally unacceptable. In a polarised region which voted to Remain overall – though largely along community divides – to have the arch-Brexiteers in the DUP in a position of King-makers at Westminster greatly upsets the community balance and will misrepresent divided Northern Irish opinion. It is shocking and shameful therefore that Northern Ireland is to be used as a pawn in a Tory game for political power; it is an abuse of the British position on previous agreements, previous success and will be totally counter-productive – any attempt to play politics with the peace process ultimately damages future progress for everyone.

The truth is that from their austerity policies down to the present mess, the Tories cannot be trusted on Northern Ireland. Instead it was with Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Peter Hain, Paul Murphy and a great many others – including an important number of Scottish Labour MPs utilising their knowledge and experiences of dealing with sectarian divides in the west of Scotland – that drove Labour’s sensible, consensual and ultimately successful approach. Over years Labour has built up its ability to deliver on Northern Ireland and it is time for Labour to step forward again as the guardians of the peace process in Britain and to recapture the spirit and legacy of all those who worked hard to build the peace.

With this in mind there are some crucial issues which the Party must address in light of the current chaos. Whilst British liberal opinion will be at odds with DUP social conservatism, the reality is that the DUP have no intention of extending their beliefs across the United Kingdom, they are not on a campaign of imperial expansion and are not going to roll back British social law as a concession for supporting the Tories. There have always been historic links and traditional convergence between Ulster unionist values and British Conservatism. From days when Irish unionist Sir Edward Carson sat in the British Conservative coalition cabinet to the present day with former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble now sitting as a Conservative Peer. British liberal concerns must not dominate the issue for Labour and Labour must tread carefully. Whilst DUP policy is greatly at odds with Labour policy, DUP policy emerges from the community which it represents and has a resounding mandate from. Labour must not enter a priggish and moralistic recriminatory campaign against the DUP because ultimately the DUP are crucial for peace and progress. Labour as a future representative of the British Government must be a facilitator of discussion and mediation, not an overtly hostile force. We must keep focus on Conservative weakness and irresponsibility taking advantage of the Northern Irish situation rather than the merits of the Democratic Unionist Party; though of course that is not to say that there are not issues we must face up to with both the DUP and Sinn Fein, especially now that they may feel emboldened by their current dominance, but that we must these from an appropriate position and not from one of aggression, suspicion or distrust.

The second major question the Labour party has to consider is that of the condition of our sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Make no mistake the ousting of John Hume’s party from Westminster is a terrible upset. Sinn Fein under no circumstances will swear an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown. Therefore there is now no longer representation for the Irish nationalist community in debates and committees at Westminster and these debates will instead be dominated by the DUP, independent Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon and allies in the Conservative Party. Labour will face an absolutely trying task of attempting to maintain balance between communities whilst not committing to the immediate policy of our fallen sister party. This will no doubt re-open discussions as to standing candidates in Northern Ireland and the emergence of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. Again Labour must be cautious. Labour must find a way to give voice to a voiceless community whilst not becoming firmly identified as only representing the concerns of the Irish nationalist community in the absence of the SDLP or being associated with a Unionist position in electoral competition with the SDLP and the potential territorial access of the Irish Labour Party. It is absolutely crucial that the Labour Party is able to engage with all political forces in Northern Ireland in a neutral, impartial and progressive capacity giving representation to all citizens without being politically committed to any community over another or in direct political competition with any community representatives.

In that regard we should make our position clear: the role of the British Government is as an impartial facilitator and mediator, together with the Irish Government, so that we may find a democratic Northern Irish solution to Northern Irish issues with the people of Northern Ireland sovereign. We must honour and build on previous agreements and ensure that others keep to them as well in both Sinn Fein and the DUP. We must have the credibility and resolve to be able to push and challenge when necessary in order to overcome any restrictive practices from either side and thus shift the process forward, but forward together.

As someone from an Irish nationalist and socialist background (despite the name I share with dear Uncle Edward) brought up in the traditions and legends of Collins and Connolly, Pearse and Parnell; we must accept that for Labour and Northern Ireland consensus is far more important than an enforced unity: whatever the rights and wrongs of history. We are a democratic and socialist party and that must be our spirit going forward. Whether the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP lasts or whether there is a second election in the near future, one thing is abundantly clear: the present crisis is the result of 7 years of complacent, ignorant and destructive Conservative policy and an undemocratic austerity agenda which only a Labour Government, handling the present situation as outlined, can overturn and once again provide the means to a collective solution. Let us hope and speed the day. 


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