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The problem with leaving it in neutral, Ed, is that it might roll down hill again

October 4, 2012

‘Given the situation in Northern Ireland, the most important thing the British government can be is an honest broker. It is very hard to be an honest broker if you are also an electoral candidate. Being a part of the electoral competition I don’t think is a great prescription for being the honest broker that we need.’

So said Ed Miliband yesterday (3 October 2012) when asked whether Labour would stand candidates in any future Northern Ireland elections.

This will bitterly disappoint Labour Party members in Northern Ireland who have fought long and hard for the right to join and form constituency parties this side of the Irish Sea. (I should make clear that I’m not among their number, despite my Labour sympathies.) But beyond the dismay of local Labourites, Miliband’s position is worrying because it is based upon a dangerous illusion that the British state and any government, Labour or otherwise, can be purely neutral on the question of Northern Ireland, or present themselves as mere ‘honest brokers’ refereeing the dispute between unionist and nationalism.

First of all, in what conceivable way could a future Labour government be neutral about a territory over which it will continue to exercise considerable political, economic and social control? What would ‘neutral’ policy and political decision making look like?

Secondly, how easy is it for neutrality to slip into disinterest and neglect? Unionism subjected Northern Ireland to corrupt and discriminatory government for decades until the civil rights movement brought the abuses to international attention. Unionist misrule happened while Westminster feigned neutrality, or was it disinterest or just plain neglect?

Neutral is a cop-out. Neutral is political cowardice. Neutral is potentially perilous in this context.

If politics in the North of Ireland is to progress towards anything approximating a functioning democracy – rather than the sectarian head counting it has at the moment – then it needs the sort of left-right politics that parties like Labour play a constitutive part in. Otherwise the place is doomed to endless political precarity at the hands of Stormont’s current Mafia of the Mediocre, who demonstrate regularly that they’re real forte is arguing over the issues of language and parades but they’re fuck all use at anything else.

So shit or get off the pot, Ed. Either sue of Irish unity or come up with an imaginative response to the new constitutional arrangements that the Belfast Agreement of 1998 heralded. There is a Labour party in Britain. There’s a Labour party in the Republic of Ireland and both are members of the Party of European Socialists. Northern Ireland is part of the UK. There is a North-South Ministerial Council, established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998), to ‘develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland’. There’s a British-Irish intergovernmental conference. Isn’t there a council of the Isles knocking around somewhere also, all provided for under the terms of the Agreement? Go look at the new constitutional arrangements that were negotiated – and which affect more than Northern Ireland – and come up with something more appropriate than ‘neutral’.  Commit Labour to taking some democratic responsibility for and in Northern Ireland, or else fuck off out of it.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Metatone permalink
    October 4, 2012 5:56 pm

    Wouldn’t you rather have a local socialist party? I know Labour might bring some money with it, but it brings a whole load of Blairites too.

  2. Rab permalink*
    October 4, 2012 6:22 pm

    I would, Metatone. And there are a number of potential socialist parties here already but they make little impact in elections. When ‘Labour’ have put up candidates the results have been marginally better. The Northern Ireland Labour Coalition actually managed to get sufficient votes to allow them to contribute to the talks process that lead to the Good Friday Agreement. But they disappeared shortly after, never able to capitalise on the initial success.

    I think if Labour do organise here then it has to be a party with strong local roots and enough autonomy from London to allow it to properly address local issues. And given the new constitutional arrangements I refer to in the post, I think the party needs to forge appropriate links with Labour in the south.

    That said, I don’t know if I’d join it (or I’m not sure if they’d have me.)

    What really pisses me off about Miliband’s comments is the idea of Labour, potentially a party of British government, as somehow an ‘honest broker’. That’s just nonsense.

  3. October 5, 2012 9:37 am

    I never expect very much of the British Labour Party – in fact, its record during the Troubles in Northern Ireland has been as bad as that of the Tories, sometimes worse. So if Miliband wants to pose as a neutral on the North then all the better if you ask me. It’s not even neutrality anyway – more like blissful ignorance and indifference.

    But not to worry, Rab! The good news is that David McNarry has joined UKIP, a move that is bound to provide the kind of democratic checks and balances so badly needed in the NI Assembly. I mean, somebody has to be the loyal opposition to Jim Allister!

    Anyway, Nigel Farage says this makes UKIP “a truly national party” – a bit like the BNP, you know – though that might be short-lived because when David goes to the polls at the next NI Assembly election, there’s no telling what his constituents will do. They voted for him last time round as a UUP candidate but will they vote for him again as a UKIP candidate?

  4. October 7, 2012 8:28 pm

    A not unsympathetic Englishman asks:tell me, how has debate advanced in a century?

    Both of the statements below strike me a being plausibly muttered in leftist Northern pubs or political discussions in 1912 and2012:

    ” We need to sort out national liberation/the border before we talk about class politics”
    “We need to have class politics to have any meaningful solution to the national division”.

    Never mind Dublin or London, there already is a local 2nd International Party represented in Stormont: the SDLP. The problem is it it doesn’t represent class politics per se, but the constitutional nationalism of one community. To the extent there were rumours of a Fianna Fail merger a few years ago…

    London should be neutral. To be anything else is to simply help dig the local entrenched positions even deeper. The idea of either the British or the Irish Labour Party organising in Northern Ireland is simply a dead end.

    Which isn’t to say there isn’t a place for a class party of a broadly social democratic stripe with outside backing. But that would have to be backing from somewhere other than the London or Dublin.

  5. Rab permalink*
    October 8, 2012 8:30 am

    How can London be neutral about the north of Ireland when it continues to have substantial political, social, economic (not to mention security) dominion over it?

    For long enough the British have tried to present themselves as honest brokers between two warring tribes – as somehow above the fray – but even the most cursory look at Irish history shows that that position, born either of good intentions or expediency, is not sustainable. Britain (London) is a player in the conflict just as much as unionism and nationalism.

    I made the point on Jenny’s blog that down in Strangford we’ve just welcomed our first UKIP MLA. Nigel Farage the party leader visited Stormont to make the announcement that David McNarry is joining UKIP. He arrive in the wake of the BNP’s Nick Griffin, over here last week to electioneer at the Covenant celebrations. And then there is the Conservative party who formed an admittedly disastrous alliance with the Ulster Unionists at the last. It seems that the Right (of all complexions) doesn’t do the ‘honest broker’ thing.

    On the other hand, the Green Party organise in Northern Ireland and have an MLA elected to the Assembly and hold one or two council seats. But then again, the Greens can make a claim to a political perspective that is global. Once, Labour might have been able to present an internationalist alternative to the sort of particularism that blights Northern Ireland. Not anymore it seems.

    Like AA, I expect very little from the present Labour party, but every time I hear the term ‘honest broker’ spoken by a British politician, I cringe. Even Blair during the peace process wasn’t an honest broker. He, and by extension Britain, had a vested interest in the outcome of the negotiations, and as he has subsequently revealed he was prepared to bend the truth in pursuit of it.

    Northern Ireland needs a realignment of its politics. Labour might have been able to make a useful contribution to that. Instead it seems that in the foreseeable future Northern Ireland will be open to all manner of right-wing demagoguery and bigotry, while Labour presents itself as an honest broker. As economic hardship increases it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.

    I wish the socialist groups and Labour party members here could pull themselves together to fight elections. I’ve always thought that would have been a better option than Labour organising in Northern Ireland. But I don’t see a snowball’s chance in hell of it. So, we’re doomed, I tell you, all doomed.

  6. October 8, 2012 11:54 am

    Saying, ‘London should be neutral’ isn’t the same as saying it has been neutral….

    In any event, I was making a narrower point I suppose. I’m just against the British Labour Party standing in elections in N.I.

    At some point in the next two years Salmond will ruin his independence referendum in Scotland. Labour will be the backbone of the ‘no’ campaign. Partly this will be because Scottish Labour genuinely thinks their country would be better off in the Union – but partly it will also be because it is much harder (though not, contrary to popular misconception, unprecedented or impossible) for Labour to win a majority of seats or votes in England and Wales alone.

    Let’s imagine that British Labour did run in N.I., just as it does in Scotland. As long as there are plausible scenarios – it doesn’t actually have to happen, just be conceivable – whereby a strong British Labour vote in N.I could determine the complexion of a UK wide government I suggest that UK Labour will be open to the charge that it has an inbuilt structural bias on the border question. This wouldn’t be perceived as ‘neutrality’ in wide swathes of Norn Iron but as more or less the same kind of non neutrality that always used to pertain in the glory days when the Unionist MPs took the Conservative whip in the Commons.

  7. Rab permalink*
    October 8, 2012 1:00 pm

    Good and fair point, Charlie.

    Actually, if Labour said that it had strategic reasons for not wanting to stand candidates here I could respect that. If Labour said that it didn’t want to stand candidates here because it was committed to Britain withdrawing from Ireland sometime in the future, again, I could respect that. But pretending that a future Labour government can somehow perform the role of honest broker, while being simultaneously substantially responsible for economic, political and security issues in the Northern Ireland is just not going to fly.

    Northern Ireland exists presently in a curious constitutional position with regards the UK and Ireland – with east-west, north-south relationships. As I tried to hint at in the original post, given that curious position, isn’t there a similarly curious and imaginative relationship that Northern Ireland Labour could forge with British Labour and Irish Labour?

    At the moment, it looks and feels like neither the UK nor Ireland can see the wee six far enough. On the one hand, that might encourage local politicians to sue for better relations between themselves and lead to a more civic version of Northern Ireland once we’ve come to terms with the disinterest of London and Dublin, and the failure of unionism and nationalism to get what they want. On the the other hand… the prods and taigs spend all perpetuity arguing about flags, language, culture and parades.

  8. Mikey permalink
    October 14, 2012 1:13 pm

    The alternative to neutrality is taking sides: UK govt either continues with NI or asks the South to take over. What I might “want” is not only irrelevant; as an English man I would be told to stuff it up my backside.

    With Westminster still easy to deride as the pantomime villain, I can still be insulted by people with Watford accents describing themselves as “Irish”. Apparently, I, personally, am to blame for the actions of (fill in with whichever side you demonise) because I don’t “force” “my” governement to change tack. Of course, I would accidentally die in contact with the police if I tried any such thing, but why spoil a good piece of unthinking bias?

    My only “interest” is not to witness slaughter of unborn children because their mothers queue to feed the family (again) etc etc etc. Ireland (all of it) must decide. But who will the Watford Irish insult then?

    ps These comments come from actual experience

  9. Rab permalink*
    October 14, 2012 3:20 pm

    Hi Mikey,

    I’m sorry to hear of the abuse you’ve taken. That kind of prejudice is tiresome. But the point I’m trying to make in the above post is that neither Labour nor the British government can be neutral on Northern Ireland. How could a party in power govern neutrally?

    Also refusing to stand candidates in a region over which the party will have considerable dominion if elected to government doesn’t make it neutral. Logically it suggests that Labour see Northern Ireland as in someway alien; certainly not as ‘British as Finchley. Which is fine. But it’s not neutral.

    Northern Ireland clearly continues to present a constitutional and political challenge to British and Irish politics. Blaming people like yourself for that isn’t helpful or fair. But is it too much to ask that British and Irish (north and south) political parties apply a bit of imagination to come up with a democratic alternative to perpetual sectarian politics in Northern Ireland?

    • Mikey permalink
      October 14, 2012 5:02 pm

      No disagreement on point one, but one governs, to an extent, only though popular acceptance. The “situation” in N Ireland is one that nobody wants to be entangled with. Feelings of alien culture partly arise just because of “Celticism”. This proclaims greater artistic and religious sensitivity among that people – whoever modern genetics holds them to be, especially relative to Anglo Saxons.

      I like that last paragraph of yours; it’s all in there. Is it too much to ask etc etc etc? – apparently, yes. I note that Mr Adams seems to have given up on the NI process and gone south, which suggests to me met a lot of intractability. He is, a very committed man for his community; bombed his way to the conference table, got there and put a suit on, spoke the words in unison on that day which seemed to be a new dawn – and has pulled off the track.

      If Adams can’t get somewhere, what hope? On the other hand, what, apart from their president’s gloriously loving words to all Ireland (no irony – I have seen and heard her), what has flowed northwards from Eire? No doubt there is the goodwill, but it’s not enough.

      This is no time to euphemise. I can’t see how Ireland cannot fully unite with two churches, just one of which is allowed to reach into everyone’s lfe. Consider the abortion/pro life debate, and interference with wordly justice by Roman Cardinals forgiving terrorists. This is enough for the first 5 years of negotiations, at least.

      This cannot be solved by anyone but (all) the Irish – the ordinary people who allow the community they want to flourish – and it is no-one else’s responsibility. England has laws which are punitive in theory, but allow all kinds of nonsense in practice, because anyone standing up to thugs, yobs and vandals (in or out of uniform) is left exposed. It’s the people who make the society by allowing it.

      If we were talking of Israel and palestine, would we be demanding political parties (I mean exactly those last 2 words) DO something? What does a politcal party DO about prejudice? Perhaps only a change of heart can work – but where does this come from? Perhaps Ireland – wide canvassing of opinions would be start, but what if a group just says, we don’t agree with the results, and here’s the gelignite? Terrorists trump the debate, and hide behind faith.

      My brother in law could have died in the Birmingham bombings: his friend lost a leg. their crime was to be students at Aston. They were put in the front line by Christians! I vote we stop it happening again, but it’s not my call.

      • Mikey permalink
        October 14, 2012 6:37 pm

        A correction from Mikey.

        I meant to say:

        “This is no time to euphemise. I can’t see how Ireland CAN fully unite with two churches, just one of which is allowed to reach into everyone’s lfe. ”

        para 4 above

        ………my point being that there are 2 “communities” (quotes beacuse it’s the media expression and I can’t think of somehting better) whose beliefs are, at some points, mutually exclusive

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