“Starmer is again offering an interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement which is one-sided, against its spirit and most favourable to unionism.”
By Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity
Keir Starmer is a Northern Ireland unionist. This, he proclaimed with some gusto when he visited the six north-eastern counties of Ireland last week.
Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland, Starmer was questioned by political editor Enda McClafferty on what his stance will be should the north decide to vote on a border poll.
“I respect the principle that the decision, in the end, is for the people of the island of Ireland,” Starmer said, but then went on to declare, “I personally, as leader of the Labour Party, believe in the United Kingdom strongly, and would want to make the case for a United Kingdom strongly and will be doing that.”
McClafferty pressed the Labour leader further, asking him to clarify whether he would remain neutral during a border poll, or that instead would he be “very much on the side of Unionists, arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK”, even if he were Prime Minister at the time. Starmer repeated his assertion that “I believe in the United Kingdom, and I will make the case for a United Kingdom.”
He also told the Irish Times:
“Obviously, there is more discussion now about a border poll than there was some years ago. I think it is not in sight, frankly, and the obvious priority at the moment, particularly coming out of the pandemic, is the economy, health and education and longer-term issues. These are very important priorities and I think a border poll is not in sight. It is not in sight as far as I am concerned.”
So, there we have it. The Irish should not concern themselves with their country’s self-determination, they are unlikely to be permitted to have a referendum and if this somehow does occur and Keir Starmer is prime minister, he will join the Orange Order, the DUP and all other Northern Irish unionist in campaigning against Irish unity.
This is unconditional unionism and let us be clear of its significance. This was never the policy of Jeremy Corbyn. It was never the policy of Tony Blair. During Neil Kinnock’s leadership, the Labour Party, agreed a policy a policy of being “persuaders for Irish unity”, due to rank-and-file pressure from within the party. As for Harold Wilson, he at one stage he even proposed a 15 point plan for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
All of this, Starmer has now broken from. He has also broken from both the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This famously included the right of a border poll, and then explicitly said that in the event of such, “we affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality”.
There is a bit of ambiguity whether this also applies to during or after the border poll, but the GFA also states that all concerned “recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination”. Certainly the “rigorous impartiality” and no “external impediment” which the British state signed up does not envisage representatives of that state jumping on the nearest aeroplane flying to Belfast and campaigning against Irish unity. Yes, there are gaps in the GFA, the most obvious of which is the conditions under which a referendum should be held. But Starmer rather than at the very least offering a view on this dismisses a border poll as “not in sight”. This, when opinion polls in Northern Ireland have suggested there is a 50/50 split on the unity issue. In other words, Starmer is again offering an interpretation of the GFA which is one-sided, against its spirit and most favourable to unionism.
While it is not a shock that Keir Starmer is a unionist – when you consciously stand behind a union jack whenever you appear on television what else can you be – but what is shocking is the variety of his unionism. This is now undisguised traditional colonialism. When he says the people of Northern Ireland should concentrate on non-constitutional issues, adding that Irish unity is not even worthy of “long-term” consideration, he is denying the practical aspiration of such unity, which the GFA emphasises is a legitimate and worthy aim. Now, Starmer tells the people of Northern Ireland to stick to other issues. A comparable sentiment is that expressed by the one-time military solution advocacy of the wretched Roy Mason during his term of Secretary of State in the Callaghan premiership when he said, “Anyone who talks of Irish unity causes me trouble.”
Well, there were those in the Labour Party who did talk of Irish unity in those shameful Mason years of British rule in the North of Ireland; and there are those of us who will seek to discuss Irish unity now. That is because the unionist tradition that Sir Keir Starmer represents is steeped in sectarianism, discrimination, and injustice. The colonial tradition he articulates is littered with Bloody Sundays, Ballymurphys, internment and much worse. The Irish self-determination tradition is based on seeking the ways and means that all those in the thirty-two counties of Ireland can live together in peace and decide their own future by themselves. And, hopefully, in the course of that, they will be finally free of British politicians who, when they choose to occasionally visit their Irish domain, speak too much, and know too little.
Geoff Bell is an executive member of Labour for Irish Unity