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An insignificant happening: Labour in Northern Ireland

For some people in Northern Ireland, this year's British Labour Party Conference was a momentous event. For those present at the Conference, or the numerous Labour Party branches throughout the UK whose pious resolutions might get an airing before being thrown into the Blair wastepaper basket, the event was utterly inconsequential. On the other hand, for some, not too many, in Northern Ireland, it was the culmination of a whole life's political effort.

Now for pragmatic people who believe in the immediacy of schemes for conning the workers into the belief that Labour capitalism is better than Tory capitalism, the great event itself was something of a damp squib. It was hardly noticed in the mainstream British media and got no headlines even in Northern Ireland. A neighbour of this writer, not known for socialist sympathies, summed it up rather succinctly when he said, “Both Taigs and Prods here are at least agreed on one thing: Tony Blair and his cohorts are unprincipled, fucking liars; what difference will the addition of some local political stooges make?”

Oh yes, the event? Well, the British Labour Party had at last conceded the right of UK citizens who live in Northern Ireland to become members of the Labour Party. Neither the party leadership, nor the members-at-large had shown any great enthusiasm for the move. It was the big unions, making a meaningless gesture to vociferous elements in Northern Ireland, who engineered the change of attitude. Essentially, as my colourful neighbour significantly hinted, the justification for the move had to do with Taigs and Prods—which is Ulsterspeak for Catholics and Protestants respectively.

Labour, went the argument of the local enthusiasts, will provide a non-sectarian base for both Catholics and Protestants. That nonsense is founded on the notion that sectarianism in Northern Ireland is based on theological differences and it is made by people who either have convenient memories or little knowledge of Labour history in the province. While religion has an input into the problem, tribal sectarianism here is a complex politico-religious mix historically promoted to serve the economic interests of different sections of the propertied class in both Great Britain and Ireland. It is a long and convoluted story that this journal has dealt with many times and here we are concerned only with contemporary effects.

After the formation of the northern statelet in 1921, the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) was formed. Like Labour parties everywhere, the NILP adhered to the simplistic notion that capitalism would serve a universal interest if conservative politicians were replaced with Labour politicians. Unable to offer a class analysis of the historic “Irish Question”, the NILP simply sat on the fence on the 'Border' issue. Until 1948, it is probable that Catholic nationalists proportionately outnumbered Protestant unionists in their support of Labour. Labour strategists were inclined to take the support of the former for granted; the problem, as they saw it, was the deep-rooted “Britishness” of workers who were Protestants and these outnumbered their Catholic class brethren by some two to one.

So, in 1948, the NILP got off the fence; “Ulster Labour is British Labour!” they cried. Out came the Union flags and the red, white and blue trappings as Labour went head-to-head with Ulster Unionism in a squalid contest of Britishness. Nothing was said about religion but what Catholic nationalists of the Connolly tradition saw as a rabid rejection of their culture resulted in the great majority of Catholics leaving Labour. Some of these formed an Irish Labour Association and effectively there were two Labour organisations; one for Catholics and one for Protestants.

The NILP did make temporary inroads into Ulster Unionism, having four born-again Christians returned to the Stormont Parliament where they cosied up to the Unionist Government who accepted their proclamations of loyalty enough to make one of them a Minister. When serious political disturbances commenced in the late Sixties, Labour elements of both camps scurried back to their traditional loyalties.

The irony of this latest attempt to raise the standard of British Labour in Northern Ireland is that it is promoted by Labourites who cannot find a political home in the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). This latter organisation is regarded as a sister party of the British Labour Party and operates within the EU under the same ersatz “socialist” umbrella as both the British and the Irish Labour parties. The policies of all these Labour organisations is essentially the same: they wholly accept capitalism and their essential “practical” strategy is to get career politicians jobs in the governments of capitalism.

Ah, yes, that is all very good but the anti-sectarians who want British Labour here to sort out the problem of sectarianism would have difficulty in associating with the SDLP. Why? Because it is a largely Catholic and pro-nationalist Labour Party!

But the people who have spent lifetimes trying to persuade British Labour to accept them as members were always spoilt for choice. The number of parties and groups that claim affinity with the Left are numerous. Sinn Fein, claims to act in the Connolly tradition; Gerry Adams and his political playmates would welcome Protestants into their organisation, but they are indelibly branded, and correctly so, as sectarians.

The Workers' Party, on the other hand, are pukka Lefties without religious baggage and, like British Labour, the WP has shown an enthusiasm for espousing any pettifogging reform of capitalism that it thinks might get votes. On the other hand, they have a distant connection, rather like the British Labour Party, with the concept of a united Ireland.

Of course there is Socialism itself. No careers there, no jobs for the boys or the girls, no place whatsoever for aspiring politicians, no nonsense about different religions or flags or patriotism or any of the other crap that is the basis of all sectarianism. All of which make genuine Socialism worth the consideration of the working class.