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.