1960s >> 1969 >> no-780-august-1969

NI Labour’s sad saga

Perhaps more than any other political organisation, the Northern Ireland Labour Party is a casualty of the civil rights campaign and there can be little doubt that, when the mundane activities of everyday political life emerge again from the cauldron of present events, there will be much recrimination in the Labour Party — indeed, the first salvoes of protest have already been fired within the party and the shaping of events augurs little comfort for the Labour leaden. These leaders have one ally in the conflict emerging in the party; experience. For the puny vote-catching reform policies of Labour have given them trouble in the past, as they will in the future.

More than any other political organisation, the NI Labour Party has never spared either dignity or principle in the search for popular support. Until 1948 the party’s parliamentary representation owed its seats largely to Catholic, anti-partitionist support despite the fact that the Labour Party officially ‘sat-on-the- fence’ on the Irish Partition issue.

In the early flush of Labour’s victory in Britain, in 1945, the local Labourites found hope. They imported a British Labour Party professional organiser, took a decision in favour of Partition, and generally began an attempt to out-Unionise the official Unionist Party in protestations of loyalty to the British monarchy and ‘the flag’.

The year 1948 found the Party rent asunder by internal conflict. Catholics and anti-Partitionists—including Labour’s parliamentary representatives and most of their local council members—left the party. Some of these formed an Irish Labour Association which was later swallowed up by a Northern Area Council of the southern Irish Labour Party. Which council itself later passed away in the wranglings and disputes of the Labour politicians.

Then followed the period when the NI Labour Party, in a feverish effort to win support in traditionally Unionist areas, jettisoned what little principle it had ever had. Bible-thumping candidates preached bread-and-butter Unionism from Union-Jack-bedecked platforms The King and constitution were safe with Labour!

As a second line of local Unionism Labour finally got four MPs elected. Quite undemocratically they pressed for and accepted the title ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’, thus helping the official Unionist Party to establish the fiction that normal parliamentary democracy existed in Northern Ireland.

It is interesting to observe that the Labour Party, which now tries vainly to get a piece of the civil rights cake, was then accepting the Civil Authorities Special Powers Act, one of the leading targets of the present civil rights agitation. One Labour MP of the period declared that his party, if faced with the same circumstances as the Unionists then faced, would use the Act. The same spokesman tried to circumvent parliamentary discussion of the conditions of imprisonment of political internees by an Amendment expressing concern for the poor gaolers! When a correspondent in the Belfast Telegraph expressed concern at the party’s attitude to the Special Powers Act, and tried to elicit a categorical statement from Labour on their attitude to the Act, the present general secretary of the party replied to the effect that the correspondent was obviously trying to ‘embarrass’ his party. Neither he nor any other party spokesman replied to any of the half-dozen letters to the Telegraph from people denouncing Labour’s support of the Act.


But even as Unionists the Labour Party failed to improve their parliamentary position and a subsequent election sliced the ‘loyal opposition’ in half. In the elections of February of this year they maintained their position, losing a seat in Pottinger and winning one in Falls. But even the two seats they now hold are not held on anything like traditionally accepted Labour policies — they are a reward for the ‘ward-healing’ concessions to local ignorance made by the candidates concerned.


Now it is the civil rights movement that is making the running in the anti-government camp. Labour leaders mumble support for the more ‘respectable’ ploys in the campaign for civil rights but they must be aware that the success of the various ‘rights’ bodies puts them again in a political no-man’s-land, distrusted by most and respected by few; trying to stave off the conflict that must inevitably arise in their ranks.


Already, Labour’s storm clouds are gathering. A resolution calling on the party’s executive to resign was defeated by the Newtownabbey branch, but a subsequent meeting of representatives of a number of constituency parties adopted a resolution deploring the party’s failure to pursue ‘socialist ideals’ and blaming this failure for the public rejection of the Labour Party. Some members are demanding a special meeting to discuss the problem and a few are even daring to suggest that the definition of Socialism which they learnt from the World Socialist Party should be accepted by the Labour Party!


Without political vindictiveness, we say that the predicament of the Labour Party brings us no sadness. Indeed, on the contrary, its demise from the political scene would bring us considerable joy. Like its counterparts elsewhere throughout the world, its hope is to improve capitalism; to patch it up with palliatives and win working-class support for the same old rotten product in new political wrapping. But worse: Labour labels the new wrapping ‘Socialism’ and when the stench of the old muck comes through the new wrapping the name on the label is discredited.


Old, failed schemes
To members of the Labour Party we again state the obvious: you cannot have Socialism without socialists and you know as well as we do that your party is not interested in spreading socialist knowledge. It is too busy playing politics with the other parties of capitalism; too preoccupied with all the old, failed schemes of political reform. Only the WSP in Ireland proclaims the case for Socialism and we will certainly welcome you in the struggle for its achievement.


Richard Montague