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British parties set to muddy Good Friday waters

David Granville explains why recent developments involving both the Conservative Party and the British Labour Party could harm the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland

Tories and Unionists revive traditional link

AT A time when sectarian attacks and the threat from tiny, but demonstrably deadly, bands of dissident Irish republicans opposed to the Good Friday process have dominated recent media coverage of Northern Ireland, relatively little has been heard, in Britain at least, of the new Tory-Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) electoral pact or the decision by the British Labour Party to contest elections in the six counties.

While it's perhaps more obvious what benefits the diminished and marginalised UUP, and even the Tories, hope to gain from such an arrangement, you'd be hard pressed to say the same with regard to the British Labour Party, let alone the working class in Northern Ireland.

For the politically conservative UUP, there is hope, and increasingly expectation, of regaining some of its lost influence within the unionist community courtesy of a Tory rout of Labour at the coming Westminster general election.

Both Labour and Conservatives have been hit by the row over MPs' expenses and could both lose seats in the European elections. Even so, you'll be hard pressed to find any serious commentator who believes that Labour is not heading for another period of opposition.

For the Tories, 'franchising out' their on Northern Ireland policy to the UUP clearly demonstrates their support the Union - a position which plays well with traditional Tories on both sides of the Irish Sea and provides the party with the possibility of increasing its influence in a part of the British state where it is virtually non-existent.

Formal links between the Conservative Party and Ulster unionism go back to the late 19th century and opposition to Gladstone's first three home rule bills. The relationship was so close that for several decades the party's official name was Conservative and Unionist Party.

The wheels started to come off the alliance with the Heath government's support for the Sunningdale power-sharing assembly in 1974. The signing, by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald, of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, and the establishment of a joint British-Irish ministerial council to deal with the affairs of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, confirmed the breach.

However, with Conservative Party candidates receiving little more than derisory votes in Northern Ireland elections and the eclipse of the UUP by the Democratic Unionist Party, moves to heal the rift between the two parties have intensified in recent years.

Former UUP leader David Trimble was given a peerage and joined the Conservative benches in the House of Lords in April 2007, a move widely seen as an attempt by the new Tory leader David Cameron to boost Conservative support in the six counties.

There has been speculation ever since that Trimble, and possibly others from within the UUP, will be offered a ministerial, and very possibly a cabinet, post in any incoming Cameron-led government.

The Tory leader appeared to put the matter beyond doubt towards the end of April. Delivering a video message to the annual general meeting of the UUP, Cameron re-emphased his commitment to the new alliance and the Union and went say that his own "selfish strategic interest" was to have "MPs from Northern Ireland serving in a Conservative government at Westminster".

The Tory leader's words were carefully chosen to assuage unionist sensibilities offended by a speech made in November 1990 by the then Tory Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke in which he asserted that the British government was not against "the aspiration to a sovereign, united Ireland" but opposed to its "violent expression".

He followed this by claiming that the British government had "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland".

His words, part of a deliberate strategy by the Major government aimed at sending positive signals to republicans in an effort to encourage them to end their military campaign, outraged unionists - and quite a few Tories.

The new Tory-UUP electoral alliance, formally agreed at the end of February, has declined to call itself a 'party'. Styling itself 'Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force, the plan is to stand joint candidates in future Westminster and EU elections.

Not all UUP members, including the party's sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, have backed the new arrangement. Lady Hermon, the wife of a former RUC chief constable, has made it known that has never regarded herself as a Conservative and is not prepared to fight the next election on a joint ticket with the party.

At least one prominent UUP figure, North Down Ulster Unionist Association chair Mark Brooks, has jumped ship to the UUP's main unionist rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Despite such dissenting voices, a majority of the UUP seem prepared at least to give the pact a go, no doubt calculating that the prospect of the party's inclusion in a Cameron-led Tory government will boost their unionist credentials at the expense of the DUP.

Whatever the response of voters, these developments do not bode well for either the Good Friday power-sharing process or for the general interests of working people in the six counties.

The battle between the DUP and UUP for unionist 'bragging rights' is likely to result in an upsurge of belligerence and obstructionism with regard to Sinn Féin in particular and to power sharing in general.

As the unionist parties attempt to demonstrate which of them is in the best position to protect and nurture the union with Britain, it can almost be guaranteed that hostility towards the introduction of further equality measures, educational reforms, the transfer of policing and justice powers and the all-Ireland aspects of the Good Friday process will be de rigueur across the unionist political spectrum.

The succour and encouragement that this could give to opponents on the Good Friday process, both unionist and republican, could turn out be significant if another major devolution crisis was to emerge as a result.

Despite the superficial 'nice guy' modernising gloss of Cameron's leadership and staid, middle-class appeal of the UUP, both parties, like Labour, remain wedded to the reactionary, neo-liberal, anti-working class policies which have contributed enormously to the economic crisis of capitalism that is afflicting states like Britain and Ireland, and working people around the globe.

Cameron and the Tories have nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland beyond pro-Union rhetoric and a ministerial position or two for the UUP. Northern Ireland's peripheral economic and political status within the UK, to say nothing of the EU, will be confirmed along with further cuts in public services and a continuation of Labour's privatisation plans.

If, as is widely expected, the Tories defeat Labour at the next general election, the future British government's policy on Ireland will be dominated by the out-and-out Conservative and unionist concerns and priorities. Such a prospect can only harm the people of the six counties and spell danger for the Good Friday process.

Labour takes integrationist path in Northern Ireland

WHILE PROBABLY less significant a threat to the Good Friday process than the Tory-Unionist alliance, the recent announcement that Labour Party members in the six counties have 'adopted new rules and become the Labour Party in Northern Ireland' is nevertheless unwelcome.

Pro-Union, 'integrationist', labour activists in organisations like 'Democracy Now' and the 'Campaign For Labour Representation' have long pressed for Labour to organise in Northern Ireland.

Even after Blair became leader and summarily ditched both Kevin McNamara, a long-standing party spokesperson on Northern Ireland, and Labour's policy of supporting Irish unity by consent (adopted at its Labour's annual conference in 1981) the party leadership continued to resist pressure to organise in the six counties.

However, following the threat of a legal challenge from senior GMB steward Andy McGiven, the party's 2003 conference accepted legal advice that Labour could not prohibit residents in the six counties from joining - though the party's national executive ruled that it would still not organise in the six counties or contest elections.

In September 2006, following further legal pressure, McGiven, who was supported by a number of pro-integrationist Labour MPs, including Kate Hoey and Nick Raynsford, the party relaxed its position even further and agreed to relax its ban on organising, though it stopped short of agreeing to contest elections.

At a more senior level, health minister Alan Johnson is another long-standing advocate of Labour Party organisation in the north.

The establishment of an official constituency in Northern Ireland takes the party organisation a step further, giving it, as of right, a seat on Labour's National Policy Forum. However, it could still be some years before the party contests its first elections - possibly the new 'super council' elections planned for 2011.

The official web pages of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland within the main Labour Party website appear to make a virtue out of saying very little beyond: "We are going to change the political landscape. We will work to make things better for everyone. Everyone has a part to play. Everyone has a say."

Obviously, being an official Labour Party site, there's nothing about socialism. Exactly how potential recruits are supposed to be attracted by such vague, meaningless waffle - or how this is supposed to differ from what's on offer elsewhere - is unclear.

I expect that's supposed to be covered by the main body of the Labour Party website.

When I last looked at their dedicated web pages (www.labourpartyni.org), on 27 May, the main editorial content consisted of the vague statement above, a report of the constituency's launch meeting on 23 February, most of which is taken up with a speech by senior Labour Party figure and former Cabinet minister Des Browne, a sparsely contributed to 'Standing in Elections - commentary and various official Labour Party pronouncements.

A 'customised' link to Labour's top 50 achievements in office puts the Good Friday agreement in pole position. Quite right. However, I'm sure that the Irish government, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the various Ulster Unionist and loyalist parties, former members of the Women's Coalition and the many intermediaries in church, community and trade union organisations who played an invaluable role - to say nothing of the role of US Senator George Mitchell - might be slightly piqued to learn that it was Labour that "Found a framework for peace and justice in Northern Ireland".

Still, there's nothing like playing your best suite strong.

Although tentative moves by the 26-county Irish Labour Party towards become a fully-fleged all-Ireland party have recently been rebuffed by party members in south, what is about the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a fellow affiliate of the Socialist International, that is not worthy of McGiven and co.'s support.

Could it be that the party is not left-wing enough, is too middle-class or is wedded to the politics of neo-liberal economics and the creation of an imperialist EU superstate. Well, it could, but for the fact that all this can just as easily be said about the British Labour Party in it's 'New Labour' incarnation.

Unfortunately, whatever Andy McGiven's personal commitment to opposing sectarianism, his view of partition or community background - I don't presume to know either - I suspect that the answer rests, overwhelmingly, with the fact that its membership is overwhelmingly Catholic and that the party supports Irish unity where this can be achieved with the support of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

Whatever its stated objectives, as an openly integrationist, and therefore de-facto pro-Union political party, the British Labour Party is therefore unlikely to be able contribute much towards ending sectarianism, healing the bitter divisions or bringing about reconciliation between communities which have experienced, or continue to experience, the malign effect of decades of conflict.

Shortly before his removal as Labour's shadow front bench spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Kevin McNamara and two other Labour MPs, Roger Stott and Bill O'Brien published a pamphlet entitled 'Oranges or Lemons?' addressing the question of Labour Party organisation in the six counties.

Published in 1993, prior to the first IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, the authors cogently warn against the 'integrationist' agenda of those calling for Labour Party representation in Northern Ireland and argued that, whether we liked it or not, all parties in Northern Ireland are judged by their stance on the border.

Their conclusion is as relevant today as it was in 1993:

"The call for the Labour Party to organise in Northern Ireland is based on the false and misleading premise that if we parachuted into the region we would enable the Northern Ireland electorate to break free of the shackles of national conflict and sectarianism, encourage it to espouse good old left-wing politics, and thus terminate the conflict...... a premise based, at best, on wishful and utopian thinking....

The pamphlet's final paragraph is particularly poignant:

'Labour wishes to assist the peoples of Ireland to resolve their problems, by facilitating them in creating a framework in which the two national communities can progressively learn to work together, sharing their responsibilities and aspirations, while respecting their cultural differences. That is the way forward: Labour Party organisations would only hinder the vital task of encouraging such constructive dialogue and peace-building."

We now have such a "framework" - the Good Friday Agreement.

Instead of bringing hope and providing a rallying point around which workers across Northern Ireland can gather, as supporters of this development would like us to believe, Labour's entry onto the electoral field can only further muddy already cloudy waters.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2009-05-28 15:02:56.
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