Northern Ireland and the British Left

The first time I heard any of the candidates for the Labour leadership able to bring themselves to say “Northern Ireland” at a campaign event was Keir Starmer, at the Sky News debate at the end of February, the seventeenth hustings event. For the moment to have been delayed for so long was something of an achievement, given that the candidates were competing to be leader of the party and presumably eventually prime minister of the entire United Kingdom. Several of those running had spoken at length about devolution as part of their platforms, but this was inevitably restricted to Scotland, Wales and in some cases English regions. My home nation was conspicuous only by its absence. This neatly exemplifies one of the two most prevalent attitudes I have seen towards Northern Ireland among the British left: with the exception of recent concerns over Brexit, on the occasion that Northern Ireland isn’t forgotten entirely, it is seen as too complicated. Besides, we console ourselves, we would probably do more harm than good if we got involved. Although it is certainly easy to see how this position is arrived at – probably the most well-known thing about Northern Ireland is the complexity of its politics – it is nonetheless deeply unhelpful for anyone with an interest in its wellbeing.

The other common view I have encountered is very much the opposite, but it is also clear to see how it has its beginnings in good intentions. Historically, Catholic and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland faced significant discrimination, and Northern Ireland itself is a result of Britain’s imperialist past. So, the argument follows, the job of socialists should be to use whatever levers are available to reunify Ireland and right the colonial wrongs as soon as possible. But all too frequently this analysis fails to see the changes in a Northern Ireland that is now on the other side of both the civil rights movement and the Good Friday Agreement. Although some tensions still exist, they are greatly diminished compared with what they were decades ago, and the governance now more closely resembles a fledgling democracy than a gerrymandered failed state. The strength of feeling against any return to the past is clear from the cross-community outrage on the occasion that paramilitarism attempts to emerge from the shadows, frequently greeted by side-by-side condemnation from parties across the political spectrum.

This deeply held desire for a peaceful future is frequently ill at ease alongside the worldview of some of the British left that sees Northern Ireland less as a place where almost two million people live and more as a hypothetical to test a person’s anti-imperialist credentials. Here the only policy aim for Northern Ireland is that it is to be “given back”, sometimes at any cost. To some this goal, ironically, trumps the core principle of self-determination, with demands that Irish reunification be forced even if it lacks democratic support. This position is typified by a response I received from a fellow Labour member: that “if [taking the anti-imperialist position] means ignoring the views of people who support the imperialist position, then that’s fine by me.” This, of course, fails on its own terms and becomes not anti-imperialist, but merely a left-wing imperialism of its own.

None of this means that only people from the island of Ireland can have an opinion on reunification, but it is vital to remember that they are the only ones who get to have a say in whether it happens.  This is set out very clearly in the Good Friday Agreement, one of our party’s greatest achievements. Under its terms, a border poll is to be called when it appears to the secretary of state that there may be a majority for reunification. Just as we would rightly condemn a Tory government which denied a vote in those circumstances, we should also be deeply critical of the proposition that a future Labour government should force a referendum, and the accompanying political chaos, on Northern Ireland for ideological reasons if there wasn’t a strong reason to believe that there was an appetite for it.

This isn’t to say that in recent times Labour has had nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland. Just last July, Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Northern-Irish born Conor McGinn led parliamentary campaigns to bring abortion law and marriage equality in Northern Ireland into the 20th and 21st centuries, respectively. The difference between this constructive engagement, resulting in a real improvement in people’s lives, and an uncompromising rejection of British influence in Northern Ireland arguably reproduces existing foreign policy differences within the party (for that is the lens through which many view Northern Ireland). The former position aligns with a human rights led approach, tolerating limited interventionist action where it can be justified while the latter echoes a more orthodox left foreign policy focused on anti-imperialist ideology, which sometimes leaves its adherents as uncomfortable bedfellows with abusive regimes because they oppose Western powers. Even for those who support Irish reunification the benefits of the first position should be clear. As Colum Eastwood, the leader of our sister party, the SDLP, pointed out during last year’s election campaign, the best path to a united Ireland starts with a stable and successful Northern Ireland in the present.

An obsession with the constitutional question has made many in Northern Ireland cynical of the idea that political movements can be a force for good and this is something that the British left should challenge in its interactions with Northern Ireland, not reinforce. It shouldn’t be difficult either to find many levels on which British socialists can engage with Northern Ireland other than obsession over borders. Anti-imperialist efforts would be well spent in supporting calls for effective investigations into historical cases where civilians were killed by British soldiers. Disappointingly, former shadow defence secretary (now shadow secretary for Wales) Nia Griffith went in the other direction by actually criticising the government for not exempting soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland from prosecution, allying the party with right-wing attack lines claiming a “witch-hunt of veterans”. Northern Ireland has traditionally had the highest rates of mental health problems and unemployment of any of the four nations of the UK, and its public services are falling apart after years of not just Tory austerity, but also delays to what funding remained because of repeated failure by the DUP and Sinn Féin to form executives. It also has the highest density of trade union membership in its workforce of anywhere in the UK, in the last year witnessing a high-profile win for Unite members after a sit in at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, and successful industrial action by BFAWU members in two major Belfast bakeries.

The people of Northern Ireland need socialism and solidarity more than most in our country. If practical solidarity is withheld out of political expedience or timidity, or if it is only offered on terms that are ideologically acceptable to those in the rest of the UK, they will be the ones who lose out. It is high time that the left learns to interact in a meaningful way with the reality of Northern Ireland as we find it, not with how it has been in the past, or how we imagine it should be. 

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