Labour should oppose the “plantation policy” of standing in Northern Ireland


“Those who wish Labour to stand in Northern Ireland are taking an explicit and implicit unionist and colonialist position. They are telling the Northern Irish that their future belongs in a party controlled by a British majority and, from that, in a British state”

Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity, writes on why we should oppose Labour standing in Northern Ireland

The Labour Party executive has accepted a contribution from Labour for Irish Unity (LFIU) on whether the party should stand candidates in Northern Ireland elections. This paper should form part of the discussion the executive is having on this topic. We have come out robustly against Labour standing in Northern Ireland, saying the idea as “just another British plantation” policy. We argue:

“Those who wish Labour to stand in Northern Ireland are taking an explicit and implicit unionist and colonialist position. They are telling the Northern Irish that their future belongs in a party controlled by a British majority and, from that, in a British state.”

They are implying that the Irish/Northern Irish do not have the capability to organise themselves politically as well as a British party. It is a repeat of the old colonial message to the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland that British is best – in this instance that the British Labour Party is superior to anything the ‘mere Irish’ can produce.”

The LFIU paper notes that, throughout history, socialists ranging from Frederich Engels to former Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Kevin McNamara, have opposed the British left organising or standing in Ireland and Northern Ireland, believing it is contradictory to Irish self-determination. McNamara is quoted as writing that such a move, “Would be interpreted to mean that Labour had radically shifted its position towards supporting unionism…to reinforce the links between Britain and Northern Ireland and weaken the development of ties between Northern Ireland and the Republic.”

In the last fifty years, and before that, there have always been some in Northern Ireland who preferred British-based parties to those run by the Irish or even the Northern Irish. It is how they manifest their identification with British sovereignty. It is just another way of saying the Irish have not the capacity to rule themselves. There have also been those in the British Labour Party who have supported these notions.

The most recent example are the MP George Howarth and former NEC member Luke Akehurst who have written a joint article in Labour List supporting standing. Their main argument is that politics in Northern Ireland are “rooted in the sectarianism of the past.” This is culturally debasing of not only unionist but, more importantly, Irish nationalist and republican voters and parties, and is exactly the rationale which British colonialists have always employed in justifying their occupation of Ireland – and of course of many other countries. Thus, the “natives” are backward and need a good dose of British civilisation to sort them out. For Howarth and Akehurst this should be the British Labour Party.

Those who peddle such notions of British institutional superiority often also have a scant or totally erroneous knowledge of Ireland. Irish republicanism was founded in the late 18th century in an explicit attempt to unite Protestants and Catholics to campaign for Irish self-determination and end the British occupation. The United Irishmen, who led the 1798 Rising were actually founded by Belfast Protestants. Irish nationalism in the nineteen century was often led by Protestants, such as Issac Butt and Charles Parnell. The revolutionary wing of Irish nationalism was informed by great Irish Protestant writers such as Thomas Davis. Sinn Fein today is an inheritor of these traditions. To say it or these voters are “rooted in sectarianism” is not only inaccurate but bordering on anti-Irish racism.

The LGIU paper notes the discussion on the party standing in Northern Ireland comes at an important time when republican/nationalist voters and parties outnumber unionists. We say, “unionism of any variety is the politics of diminishing returns. Indeed, for the Labour Party to intervene now would be seen by many as an attempt to stop the swelling nationalist/republican tide.”

We also argue that standing in Northern Ireland would be controversial in trade unions in Britain and in Northern Ireland, “many of whose members in Northern Ireland support other parties.” We also know that the move would be resented by many of the Irish in Britain, especially those from a nationalist/republican background.

It is good that the Labour Party Irish Society executive has also come out against the party standing. Also writing in Labour List, it says, “We believe the Labour Party … should prioritise strengthening relationships with our European sister parties. Standing against them will not advance this cause.”

Both the LPIS and LFIU also agree that all the existing evidence shows that Labour would face humiliation at the polls if the party did stand – that is what happens to British-based parties in Northern Ireland. The LFIU paper concludes:

“The British Labour Party standing for elections in Northern Ireland would be a hugely retrogressive step, which would cause divisions in our party and in the trade unions and would exacerbate divisions in Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland.”

Featured image: Belfast City Hall Belfast, Northern Ireland, October 2010 (viewed from inside the Linen Hall Library). Photo credit: Ardfern under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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