This note concerns a recent tweet by twitter user, who noted that during the 2015 UK Labour leadership election, the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI) supported Andy Burnham, whereas Sinn Féin supported Jeremy Corbyn.
This statement implies that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, maintains closer ties with Sinn Féin than with LPNI.
Since the days of Eddie McAteer, there has been a group of Labour MPs who have been particularly sympathetic to issues of discrimination and the adverse consequences of majoritarian rule on the Nationalist/Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Despite the old Westminster practice of leaving Northern Ireland unto herself, Labour MPs were trying to raise the case of Northern Ireland, reflecting the strong Labour principle of commitment to social justice. The likes of Tony Benn, and then Jeremy Corbyn have been proud exponents of this position. As the Peace Process developed and Sinn Féin fully consolidated its place in the democratic mainstream in Northern Ireland, that party has been talking to a range of policymakers and personalities in British political life, including, if one is to go by the 2012 ‘handshake’, Queen Elizabeth II. Sinn Féin may certainly see in Mr Corbyn an affable and approachable British politician, the same way they would have perceived the late Tony Benn.
However, to make an association between the Labour leadership election and Sinn Féin is somewhat absurd. The Labour leadership election took place ‘within’ the Labour Party. Constituency Labour parties across the UK had their favoured candidates, and the whole point of the long campaign was to develop an intense dialogue on the future leadership. An Overwhelming majority of party members then gave Mr Corbyn a resounding victory. That majority also included a substantial number of old and ‘new’ party members in Northern Ireland. LPNI was well within its rights to decide on a candidate of their choice. Today, the Corbyn leadership has increased party membership throughout the UK, including Northern Ireland. If UK Labour were to contest an election in Northern Ireland today, deploying LPNI as its constituency Labour Party, a resounding success would indeed be a likely possibility. LPNI, for its part, stands firmly committed to UK Labour values and ethos, and works with the present leadership and Westminster frontbench. Sinn Féin, as LPNI members have already highlighted on social media, never ‘voted’ in the Labour leadership election.
Most importantly, it is crucial to reiterate that the UK Labour Party is not a dogmatic entity. It is a big political family which includes a range of opinions and perspectives, and provides party members an open, convivial and democratic platform for debate, collegial exchange of ideas and interaction. There may be ideological differences within the Party, which is not uncommon in a national-wide political party in any country.
However, and irrespective of where we stand in the Labour spectrum, every party member is deeply committed to shared values of social justice, gender justice and equality, and under the Corbyn leadership, to a strong collective struggle against austerity politics.
In Northern Ireland, UK Labour has committed the historic aberration of considering the SDLP as its sister party. The SDLP, despite its tremendous contributions to the Northern Ireland Peace Process, remains a local political party that supports a provincial status quo that restricts fundamental rights of the people of Northern Ireland. These include, most appallingly, the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Cisgender women, transgender men and people of other non-binary gender identities are summarily denied their reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, which still adheres to the Offences Against the Person Act of…1861. When it comes to gender justice, the SDLP, despite its positive contributions to the political life of Northern Ireland in the past, is intent upon keeping Northern Ireland tied to misogynist and oppressive Victorian legislation. In this light, it can be argued that the SDLP’s November 2015 proposal in favour of Equal Marriage was all but an insincere political stunt to present an apparent ‘green’ open-mindedness versus ‘orange’ conservatism.
The SDLP therefore does not represent UK Labour values, and considering the SDLP as a ‘sister party’ is the ultimate insult to a) the British Labour Party and its core principles, b) the inclusive and equitable ethos of the Corbyn leadership, and most importantly c) the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for Corbyn and gathered around UK Labour in the past year – especially the party members in Northern Ireland.
It is therefore in the best interests of UK Labour to officially declare LPNI as its constituency Labour Party in Northern Ireland. This does NOT affect the Peace Process, which has been cemented by one agreement after another, from the 1998 Agreement to the Stormont House Agreement. Nobody in Northern Ireland needs to ‘fear’ Mr Corbyn’s positions on the ‘constitutional question’. The Belfast Agreement has made clear stipulations on the issue, which command support across the board. The Labour Party remains fully committed, especially under the Corbyn leadership, to support the Peace Process.
Given the intransigence of the local devolved government, the Corbyn-led Labour Party’s active campaigning in Northern Ireland has become a necessary step if Northern Ireland is to move forward on a progressive path, especially to make sure that basic rights guaranteed to all UK citizens are equally extended to UK citizens and residents in Northern Ireland. This, most definitely, is the erstwhile wish of a large number of people in Northern Ireland, who have rallied around the Labour Party since the Corbyn election.