“Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland recently called for a border poll vote in Ireland. This this time it named the year – 2030. Whatever one thinks of the detail, and this would in all probability be in the lifetime of the next Labour government”
By Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity
The appointment of Hilary Benn as the new shadow Northern Ireland minister coincides with a deepening political crisis in Northern Ireland. Also, when more demands are being made there for clarification of Labour’s Irish policy. It also stirs memories of when Benn’s father Tony articulated progressive Irish policies, which put Irish self-determination at their centre.
Tony Benn first spoke about Ireland at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting in 1980. He was then the undisputed leader of the Labour left. He started his speech by referring to his MP parent William: “I was brought up to believe very strongly, from my father, that the partition of Ireland was a crime… My view has never altered on that”. Tony continued: “I have never varied in my view that there is no future for a policy based in partition; and no future for a policy for peace and cooperation in Ireland that did not include a clear presentation of an alternative perspective of reunification and independence…The sooner we withdraw the better”.
Ireland at this point was over ten years into “The Troubles”. Benn apologised for his previous silence on the issue, but within that speech were themes he returned to often. In the aftermath of Irish republican Bobby Sand’s death by hunger strike in 1981, he called for the withdrawal of all British troops from Northern Ireland, adding that the British government “has no long-term future in Ireland”. He, along with Jeremy Corbyn, Joan Maynard and a few other MPs helped to get the peace process underway in Britain by inviting the then Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to speak in the House of Commons. When Tony Benn died, Adams called him “a true friend of Ireland.”
All of this Hilary Benn should now bear in mind. The relevance is there. Northern Ireland is currently in a political and economic mess, with Britain’s sovereignty of the six countries again discredited, particularly by its “Legacy” legislation. This, everybody from Amnesty International to Hilary Benn has condemned.
Meanwhile, the Tories erstwhile allies, the Democratic Unionists, continue to veto Sinn Fein taking up its rightful role as First Minister in the executive, thereby refusing to implement the Good Friday Agreement. The idea that this is to do with post-Brexit arrangements is nonsense. It is simply the old Orange ascendency politics – representatives of the Irish majority cannot be allowed to assume leadership of their “Ulster”. Meanwhile, the lack of local control over the economy is sending it and social provision into a nosedive. In that way, as in so many others, Irish self-determination is increasingly seen as a better way.
One indication is that the Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland, the SDLP, recently again called for a border poll vote in Ireland. This this time it named the year – 2030. Whatever one thinks of the detail, and this would in all probability be in the lifetime of the next Labour government, the SDLP’s demand is a sign of the times.
Another sign was an editorial in the Belfast-based Irish News of 5 August, headlined, “Clarity needed from Starmer”. It began, “there has never been much doubt that the British Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer, as both his title and his overall track record imply, is an instinctive unionist.” It pointed out, “He is likely to take office next year at a stage when the pressure on the British government to clarify the circumstances in which an Irish border poll can follow will never have been stronger.”
The Irish News then questioned, Sir Keir’s “questionable judgement” when “announcing last year that,in the event of a referendum, he would campaign on the unionist side.” The editorial ended: “At the very least, Mr Starmer should declare that, regardless of his personal views on the union, he will set out publicly once and for all how an historic referendum which allows nationalists, unionists and the unaligned to decide their constitutional future can be called.”
This is not a great deal to ask – of both Sir Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn. It would be a start, albeit only a start to addressing what William and Tony Benn pinpointed as the criminality of partition.
And should Hilary want more information on that, let him read a fine speech grandfather William made to the House of Common on 29 March 1920, on the British parliamentary bill legislating for Irish partition. The object of this, he said, was to “save a minority”, that is the Ulster unionists, but this, he accurately foretold “presents more difficulties, than it removes”. He added “the real reason why the Government have adopted this as their policy, is because it will destroy the possibility of self-government in Ireland… it divides the country….it erects and entrenches ascendancy.”
And so, it did. And so, it continues to do.
- You can join Labour for Irish Unity at the Labour Party conference:
- Film and discussion on the anniversary and relevance of the Troops Out Movement. Speakers include John McDonnell MP, Aly Renwick (TOM founder) and Nadine Finch (LFIU). Toxteth TV Station, 37-45 Windsor St., Liverpool L8 1Xpart of The World Transformed. Tues, 10 October 10.30am.
- Public meeting: “Moving Towards a Border Poll”, with John Finucan MP (Sinn Fein), John McDonnell, MP, Geoff Bell (LFIU). Quaker Meeting House, 22 School Lane Liverpool L1 3BT. Tues 10 October 6.30pm.
- Geoff Bell is a member of the executive of Labour for Irish Unity and the author The Twilight of Unionism. You can follow Labour for Irish Unity on Facebook and Twitter.