Labour Party in NI have a doomed infatuation with the pro republican Corbyn

Then Labour MP and now leader Jeremy Corbyn (left) with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams,  at the House of Commons in 1995 Photo: Louisa Buller
Then Labour MP and now leader Jeremy Corbyn (left) with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, at the House of Commons in 1995 Photo: Louisa Buller

Whether or not you agree with their views, Labour activists in Northern Ireland are an indefatigable bunch.

Since 2003, when the party was obliged to accept local members, a small group of enthusiasts has implored, badgered and reasoned with its leaders, in a doomed attempt to have them stand candidates in elections here.

Kathryn Johnston speaks as rebel Northern Ireland Labour candidates launch their manifesto last year for the Assembly  election.
 Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Kathryn Johnston speaks as rebel Northern Ireland Labour candidates launch their manifesto last year for the Assembly election. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Their argument, based on the idea that all UK voters should have a say in who forms their national government, is strong, and it receives a polite hearing.

The responses range from enthusiasm - Andy Burnham, promised he’d support candidates in Northern Ireland if he became party leader - to indifference - Ed Miliband repeatedly offered to review the position - to diplomatic opposition.

However, Jeremy Corbyn is surely the least likely Labour leader in modern history to back the LPNI’s cause. He is a veteran supporter of Irish unity and an unabashed friend of Sinn Fein.

Far from supporting ‘equal citizenship’ for voters here, he believes that the British state is an occupying force in Northern Ireland and he holds, at best, ambiguous attitudes to republicans’ murderous campaign, designed to force an unwilling majority into a united Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn in Belfast in August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn in Belfast in August 2015

Yet local Labour activists continue to appeal to Corbyn’s better instincts, launching a fresh campaign using the Twitter hashtag #righttostand, and demanding to “fight austerity” at the forthcoming Assembly election. You’ve got to admire their optimism, but, at the same time, it’s extraordinary to witness many Northern Irish Labourites sheeplike devotion to a leader who, by their own definition, deprives them of basic democratic rights.

Despite his disdain for Northern Ireland’s existence, Corbyn seems to be remarkably popular among current grassroots members here. Labour activists claimed to have a membership of around 200 back in 2014 – under Ed Miliband – and, now, they bandy about figures in excess of 3,000.

In a meeting prior to last year’s leadership challenge, over 70% of the Northern Ireland party reportedly expressed support for Corbyn and only 8% backed his opponent, Owen Smith.

Meanwhile, LPNI office holders were among signatories to a letter that pleaded to set up a branch of hard-left, Corbynite pressure group, Momentum. Tellingly, that permission was denied.

Labour's then leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn, with various Sinn Fein politicians Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew at Portcullis House, Westminster in 2015

Labour's then leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn, with various Sinn Fein politicians Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew at Portcullis House, Westminster in 2015

Longer term Labour activists in Northern Ireland may not be fully paid up members of the Jeremy cult, but the party here is happy to promote his policies.

Kathryn Johnston, a senior figure who stood in last year’s election as an unofficial Labour candidate, without the party’s permission, expressed “absolute delight” at Corbyn’s successful defence of his leadership.

Other veterans have been more guarded, but UK-minded Labourites in Northern Ireland are accustomed to performing contortions of logic, thanks to the British left’s infatuation with Irish nationalism.

The official reason that Labour doesn’t stand candidates here is its “fraternal” links to the SDLP.

Owen Polley

Owen Polley

The idea that Northern Ireland, with its bloated public sector and addiction to spending taxpayers’ money, needs to “fight austerity” is absurd.

However, we do need politics rooted in ideas about issues and economics, rather than sectarianism and division.

Corbyn is degrading and destroying Labour, but it is still the official opposition at Westminster, and people in Northern Ireland should have a right to endorse or reject its policies, just like voters elsewhere in the UK.

To date, the Conservatives, during their brief alliance with the UUP, were the only major national party to contest elections seriously in Northern Ireland.

Local activists are still allowed to stand candidates, with occasional, variable assistance from Tory campaign headquarters.

It suits the Conservative Party, with its pro-union credentials, to have its name on ballot papers in Northern Ireland, even if its efforts are, truthfully, rather half-hearted.

With its enduring sympathies for Irish nationalism and republicanism, particularly on the left of the party, Labour is a different matter.

Some of its Northern Ireland activists took the brave decision to defy their leaders at last year’s election and stand, without official backing, as the Labour Representation Committee.

That approach at least got Labour linked candidates on the ballot paper and it is likely to be more fruitful than sucking up to an IRA apologist like Jeremy Corbyn.

• Owen Polley is a Public affairs consultant, commentator and a former Conservative campaign manager in Northern Ireland