Labour link-up ‘in the balance’

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BRITISH Labour sources have hinted that the SDLP could be facing its “last chance saloon” in the special arrangement between the two parties.

As Labour confirms that it will stay out of next year’s Northern Ireland local government elections, it was suggested that Westminster was running out of patience with the SDLP’s “lack of action across the community divide”.

The broadside came as the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI) described as “discriminatory” the socialists’ decision not to fight the elections.

Boyd Black, secretary of LPNI, said: “It is clear that the SDLP, despite its often positive role and its support for many Labour policies, has not yet shown the potential to cross the communal divide in Northern Ireland.”

He added that the SDLP, which developed out of the civil rights movement, was continuing to attach itself to Labour, thus denying people “the most basic civil right of all – the right to vote for the party that could form the next government”.

Mr Black added that the present “vacuum of leadership in Northern Ireland” was crying out for a positive party that could create “some semblance of normal politics”, and that the carve-up between Sinn Fein and the DUP was “exacerbating the sectarian character of sectarian politics”.

The latest in-fighting was prompted by a statement from Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) that if Labour entered Northern Irish electoral politics, it would be to the detriment of the SDLP, “which is already weakened by the rise of Sinn Fein, and we have grave misgivings about harming a sister party in that way”.

The SDLP is mightily relieved at the decision, having recently been quoted as stating that Labour Party candidates in Ulster elections would be seen as a hostile act “which would cause deterioration between the SDLP and the Labour Party on almost every occasion”.

The SDLP considers itself a sister party, but British Labour is reported to be running out of patience.

LPNI have supporters in high places with none better-placed than Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary and MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester.

Mr Burnham, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership in 2010 who lost out to Ed Miliband, is known to be sympathetic to the cause.

He canvassed hard in the leadership contest among the 350 Labour members in Northern Ireland, gleaned their support, and believes the party should contest the elections next year for the 11 so-called ‘super councils’.

He stressed that Northern Ireland had an untapped socialist ethos, and added: “I want to build Labour in Northern Ireland, let’s be clear about that. It’s the same issue as organising in northern England. Both areas need a party to speak up for ordinary working people.”

He added that, by standing, Labour could help build politics not based on the border.

His attitude is in contrast to Tony Blair some years ago during a visit to Northern Ireland as the guest of the emerging David Trimble. When asked by the News Letter whether Labour would, in fact, contest in Northern Ireland he was adamant that they would stay out in deference to “sister party SDLP”.

A statement yesterday from the SDLP said that Labour’s NEC had reached a democratic decision, “and that’s up to them”, adding that the two parties were close, “but we’re not in their pocket”.

They added there was a close working relationship between party leader Alasdair McDonnell and Ed Miliband, “but we often disagree, especially in the European context”.