Discussion: British-Irish Relations

Labour in Northern Ireland (LiNI)

For some time now there has been a campaign to allow citizens of Northern Ireland to join the British Labour Party. The arguments for this include the view that Northern Ireland citizens should be able to vote or not for the party that will form the London Government; the view that Labour politics can undermine a politics based on tribalisms and nationalisms. Here, we reproduce some articles that deal with this issue, including an open letter from LiNI to the British Prime Minister.

Statement from LiNI President, Paddy Devlin Next

Labour in Northern Ireland (LiNI) is an umbrella organisation of labour groups, unaffiliated CLPs and individuals. Our objective is to replace the existing sectarian politics in Northern Ireland with Labour politics We seek to persuade the Labour Party to accept members in Northern Ireland and allow Labour politics to develop in the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies. We support the principle of unity by consent.

Our aim is to unite people with different views on the border around Labour politics. As an organisation we are not persuaders either for unionism or for nationalism. We are neutral around the principle of consent, though our members may hold personal views one way or another on this issue.

We support the efforts of the Labour Government in the Peace Process. But in our view the Peace Process does not fully address the problems which stem from the political vacuum created by the Labour Party’s refusal to take members in the province.

If the people of Northern Ireland are to have a peaceful future, the Labour Party will have to face up to its responsibilities as a Party to the people of Northern Ireland. Attitudes will have to change, because the Labour Party has an important and unique role to play in breaking down sectarianism, a role which no other political organisation is capable of.

Published by Labour in Northern Ireland (UNI) 19 Church Road Belfast BT8 7AL

Tel/Fax. 01232 648924.

"We Want Membership": an open letter to Tony Blair Next

Dear Tony

Labour in Northern Ireland (LiNI) offer you our congratulations on the way you have handled the Peace Process, and for securing the Good Friday Agreement. We supported the Agreement in the referendum and we wish you continued success in the future. We note from your recent Observer article that you are committed to the overriding importance of the political process and that you stress that “our country is built on the values of democracy”. Unfortunately, the Agreement does nothing to change the situation where everyone in Northern Ireland Catholic arid Protestant alike, is denied membership of the Labour Party, just because they live in Northern Ireland. This is fundamentally at odds with the values of democracy that you espouse.

It means that everyone in Northern Ireland is denied the right to vote Labour in Assembly, European, local council and Westminster elections. We are effectively disenfranchised in that we cannot participate in, or vote for the Labour Party which will continue to govern us from Westminster even after the Assembly is set up. (The Scots would not tolerate our situation).

This lack of democracy is linked to the workings of the Agreement itself, in which rights are given to communal blocs. With the SDLP now fully signed up to the “Nationalist” sectarian bloc, only the Labour Party can develop the type of non sectarian politics necessary to reduce intercommunal antagonism and enable the Agreement to work more effectively long-term.

The denial of Party membership to people in Northern Ireland is something of a relic of history. As you have said, it is time for Northern Ireland to leave history behind. We agree, but for us to do that you must give us Labour Party membership. The sooner the better.

Yours sincerely


LiNI Statement: Defending the Indefensible Next

Some members of Labour in Northern Ireland (LiNI) stood in the Assembly elections as unofficial Labour candidates. Our platform included support for the Good Friday Agreement and for a Labour Government under Tony Blair. A letter was sent to all Labour MPs, enclosing some campaign literature and asking for their support for our campaign which included the demand that we should have the right to join the Labour Party.

According to a report in the Irish Times (12/8/98), this request resulted in Mo Mowlam’s office circulating a letter to all Labour MPs, suggesting how they should respond to people in Northern Ireland who raise the issue of Party membership. This letter is reproduced on the page opposite.

It should be stated at this point that Labour in Northern Ireland (LiNI) met with Mo shortly after she was appointed Shadow Secretary of State. She stated then that we had completely won the argument for Labour Party membership and that there was no argument that the Party could put up against it. We have since watched with admiration the skill with which she has handled her Ministerial position and the contribution which she has made to obtaining the Agreement

Unfortunately, Mo has now attempted to produce an argument against Party membership when previously she said there was no argument. First she says the denial of Party membership is supported by the Party constitution. This is completely untrue. There is nothing at all in the constitution which prevents people in Northern Ireland joining the Party. In fact, LiNI is in possession of a legal brief produced by Lord Lester QC (a strong supporter of ours) which argues that the Constitution actually obliges the Party to take members in Northern Ireland. We have considered taking the Party to the High Court on the matter, but have preferred to appeal to the Party’s democratic political instincts to win our argument. (This approach also costs less!)

Undoubtedly the establishment of the Assembly does give people more say over their own affairs by agreement within Northern Ireland. But the demand for the right to membership of the Labour party also comes from within Northern Ireland, and is not something which would be imposed from outside as the letter tries to suggest. LiNI is a Northern Ireland-based organisation.


It is quite dishonest to suggest there is not broad support for Labour membership in Northern Ireland. Opinion polls repeatedly find a large majority of people in Northern Ireland, in both communities, support our demand. Support among Catholics tends to be even higher than among Protestants. The latest poll, conducted in June by MRC Ireland, found 75 per cent support for letting Labour candidates stand in elections here. Two major unions, UCW and AEU balloted their Northern Ireland members arid found massive majorities in favour of membership. The Irish Advisory Council of the GMB unanimously supported the right to membership. The main opposition comes from the leadership of certain local communal parties, who fear the popularity of Labour politics might eat into their support.

Not only is Labour membership a basic democratic right, it is essential to make the Agreement work more effectively. The Agreement is based entirely on sectarian structures with communal rights given to “nationalist” and “unionist” parties. Denied the opportunity to be Labour, there is nowhere for the population to go politically but into sectarian blocs with their built-in dynamic towards intercommunal conflict. Opening up Labour membership would obviate this. It is urgently necessary.

Aggravated Political Assault - The Labour Party and Northern Ireland by Boyd Black Top

It was the 1906 General Election and the Labour candidate won 48 per cent of the popular vote in the constituency. Another couple of hundred votes and he would have joined the twenty nine other L.R.C. MPs in the House of Commons. The candidate was on the Labour Party National Executive and would welcome the Party to his native city for its first annual conference as the Labour Party the following year. Addressing that conference, Keir Hardie MP, the Labour leader, was able to boast that "political intolerance and religious bigotry is going down before the Labour movement."

The candidate was William Walker and the constituency was North Belfast. And we are talking about the days before the Labour Party began its sustained and systematic assault on Northern Ireland politics by depriving its people, Protestant and Catholic alike, of the opportunity to engage in cross-community Labour Party politics right up to the level of state power. In so doing it laid the basis for the troubles of the past thirty years.

Things first began to change when the Irish TUC established the ITUC and Labour Party in 1912. The ITUC and LP persuaded the Labour Party NEC that in the context of the Third Home Rule (i.e. devolution) Bill the ITUC and LP should be given full organising rights in the island of Ireland. This effectively meant that the Belfast Labour Party, the most active in the country, and which had hosted the first Labour Party conference five years before, would be expelled and put under the control of a new organisation which had only a nominal existence.

It is interesting to note the very different attitude currently taken to Party organisation in the current context of devolution to Scotland and Wales. The Labour Party is making sure it maintains its organisation intact following devolution. Scotland, in particular, may as a result be spared the sort of descent into sectarianism facilitated by the Labour Party's withdrawal from Belfast.

The Labour Party's decision of 1912-13 was confirmed after the first World War when the Belfast Labour Party applied for affiliation to the Labour Party following its re- organisation on a constituency basis under the 1918 constitution. Its application was referred to the Irish Labour Party. The result was that after partition in 1921 there was no Labour Party organisation in Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom, with a devolved Government at Stormont. The Labour Party continued to wash its hands of the trade union and labour movement in part of the United Kingdom, even when the Labour Party formed the national Government as early as 1924.

This arrangement was an insult to political statesmanship. Not only did the 1921 settlement exclude people in Northern Ireland from Labour Party politics. It also (again at Westminster's insistence) established an arrangement whereby the two thirds of the population which formed the Unionist majority would permanently govern the one third of the population which were Catholic, and whose views were predominantly nationalist or republican. The part of the UK which was least suited to devolved government because of the religious/national antagonisms within it, was the one part which had devolution foisted on it and Labour Party politics withdrawn from it.

This Catholic minority, which only a few years previously had expected to be governed by a Dublin parliament, now found itself on the wrong side of the border, cut off from Dublin, and under the permanent rule of a Unionist majority Government. It was also denied access to the Labour Party which might have been expected to have provided it with representation and to have looked after its rights, in the context of developing cross- community non-sectarian Labour politics.

Rejected by the Labour Party, the Belfast Labour Party formed the nucleus of the Labour Party (Northern Ireland), which later became the NILP. This was established in 1924, and tried heroically to develop non-sectarian politics through the inter-war period. Repeated requests for affiliation to the Labour Party were turned down. Its requests for financial assistance from the Labour Party were ignored. Specifically, it asked that some of the money the Labour Party received from political levy payments by Northern Ireland members of affiliated trade unions, be remitted to cover its expenses. (Currently the Labour Party receives over £3100,000 pounds a year from trade unionists in Northern Ireland who have contracted in to pay the levy, but who are not allowed to join the Party).

This plea fell on deaf ears.

In a 1943 Westminster bye-election and in the 1945 Labour landslide, Jack Beattie won West Belfast for Labour. As a Labour MP, he joined the Labour Party in London as an individual member, using his London accommodation address. He was subsequently expelled from the Party by the NEC, solely on the grounds that his place of residence was Belfast. As far as the Labour Party was concerned, Jack Beattie MP and his West Belfast Labour supporters were not to be allowed membership. Only twenty years later, a section of Jack Beattie's West Belfast constituents launched and sustained the Provo war.

This August saw the thirtieth anniversary of the extra troops being sent into Northern Ireland by a Labour Government. That move signalled the effective end of the Stormont Government, because control over law and order (and hence real power) had passed to Westminster. What was required at the time to avert a war was the immediate introduction of Direct Rule and the establishment of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. This would have ensured that accumulated Catholic grievances were addressed quickly as part of a strengthening of the middle ground and would also have given Catholic politics an alternative channel of development.

Instead, as is made clear in Tony Benn's Dairies 1968-72, the Labour Government's main aim at the time was to ensure that the Unionist Government at Stormont under Chichester-Clark continued to carry the can, and that they (Healey and Callaghan) avoided responsibility. As a result the troops were perceived to be at the beck and call of a sectarian Unionist Government and were soon blackened in the eyes of the minority. Yet another request from the NILP (which polled 100,000 votes in the 1970 General Election) that the Labour Party set up a regional organisation in Northern Ireland was rejected.

As far as the Labour Government was concerned, the border was to stay, Northern Ireland Catholics were to remain under a Unionist majority Government, with no hope of ever gaining power at Stormont. And they were to be kept out of the Labour Party and therefore out of national politics. They, like everyone else in Northern Ireland, were to remain permanently politically caged in a provincial sectarian ghetto.

And so the war began.

Boyd Black is Secretary of Labour in Northern Ireland (LiNI). He writes here in a personal capacity. Top