Labour’s policies must promote Irish self-determination, not blanket unionism – Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity

“Challenging the leadership’s pro-unionism needs to one of the central pillars on which we on the left build the resistance to Starmer.”

By Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity.

Good news coming from the recent Labour Party conference – two discussions on Ireland, hosted by The World Transformed, played to packed audiences, with the second attracting an audience of something approaching a hundred. Another meeting organised by Sinn Féin was also packed with about 50 crowding into a room meant for 30.

The discussions at all these meeting, in which the speakers were for the most part from Northern Ireland, were serious and even, at times, optimistic. They all centred on demands that Labour takes Ireland seriously and prepares a policy based on promoting Irish self-determination.

All of this was against the depressing background of Starmer’s attempts to continue his war on the left and to once again show that apart from that he had nothing of substance to say on, well, most things.

He said the Labour Party was now “the party of the union”, but whether that meant the Northern Ireland union, the Scottish union, or the Welsh union or all three he did not say. Does this matter? Yes, it does. As an illustration of why it is important, note the following, recently written by Brian Feeney, historian and columnist with the Irish News, published in Belfast and today Ireland’s most respected newspaper serving Ireland’s nationalist community:

“It is pointless looking to Labour because Starmer is tone deaf about this place. He thinks bi-partisan means agreeing with the Conservatives about Ireland. His first visit here as Labour leader was an unqualified slap down for nationalists and what is laughably known as his ‘sister party’, the SDLP. He announced, lest you forget, that he ‘believes in the United Kingdom’ and worse, that in a referendum on Irish unity he would campaign to stay in the UK. Imagine a man with Starmer’s brains not even taking the time to read the Good Friday Agreement which states that it is for Irish people alone to decide ‘without external impediment’. A British government bowls the ball and steps back. At least he didn’t mention the north in his long, long, robotic conference lecture; hardly a speech.

‘His shadow proconsul [Secretary of State]– know the name by any chance? – has no idea how to play the present protocol imbroglio. She says Labour will be an ‘honest broker’: meaningless claptrap. What’s their position on the Irish protocol? What’s their position on completing the provisions of the GFA? Does Labour support planning for a border poll? No idea. Under Starmer the Labour party position on anything is always merely a paler shade of the Conservative position because he doesn’t want to offend former Labour voters who now vote Conservative. No one knows what Labour stands for and certainly no one has any notion what Starmer stands for.”

This is a fitting representation of the contempt with which Starmer and the Labour Party is now held by Irish nationalists. And it an appropriate contempt. What should we on the Labour left be doing about this? We can of course point out to the discussions that did take place on the fringes of the party conference. We can point out that in Labour for Irish Unity we now have a campaigning grouping determined to press for that which the title implies within the party.

But that is not enough. For what should happen, a little lesson in history is available. Forty years ago, Tony Benn led a movement inside and outside the party seeking for both a more democratic party but also, and more importantly, a more democratic and socialist society. One of the themes to which Benn returned time and time again was the war then being waged against Irish nationalists by the British state. Benn made speeches about Ireland, full of thoughtful analysis which both called for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, but also linked this to the establishment of socialism in Britain. At the time, it was as difficult to raise Ireland in the British Labour movement as it has been in more recent times, but Benn’s support for the cause of Irish freedom put it at the centre of the Labour left agenda. The breakthrough came at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in 1980 when he detailed his position:

“I was brought up to believe, very strongly, from my father that the partition of Ireland was a crime… I have never varied in my view that there was no future for a policy based upon partition; and no future for a peace and cooperation in Ireland that did not include a clear presentation of an alternative perspective of reunification and independence”

After this, support for campaigning organisations such as the Labour Committee on Ireland and Labour Women on Ireland grew, and eventually at party conferences, the majority of CLPs voted for “Troops Out” resolutions. Eventually, even the leadership of Neil Kinnock was forced to adopt an advocacy of Irish unity “by consent”. These is no doubt that all this was an important factor in the momentum towards the Good Friday Agreement, which again Benn fully supported, although at times complaining it was not being pursued vigorously enough by British governments. Not only is all this the opposite of Starmer’s unionism, but it has wider relevance in that it shows that even in difficult times the fight for socialist international policies can win.

This history now needs to be repeated. Let it be stated plainly and without equivocation: challenging the leadership’s pro-unionism needs to one of the central pillars on which we on the left build the resistance to Starmer. For those who have doubts, read again the words of Brian Feeney quoted above and remember: that is what the progressive Irish think of our party today.


  • Geoff Bell, is the Author of “Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution & the British Labour Movement,” and is writing on behalf of Labour for Irish Unity.
Parliament Buildings of Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo credit: Wknight94/WikiCommons

Leave a Reply