Reporting on Ed Miliband’s pre-election visit to Belfast yesterday, the Financial Times noted the “unusual” nature of the trip, given that “it is not directly related to winning votes”.
In fact, the oddity of the Labour position on Northern Ireland went beyond making the would-be prime minister’s journey across the Irish Sea and in fact undermined most of what he said while in the Province.
Alone within the UK, Labour bans its members from contesting elections in Northern Ireland.
For that reason, Mr Miliband’s speech was about as relevant to the population of Northern Ireland as President Obama’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday — some people might have found aspects of it interesting, but none of us has the ability to use our vote to attempt to make any of it happen.
It’s not for the lack of interest in the party — Labour has around 350 members here who are chomping at the bit to be allowed to put their manifesto before the voters.
And there is a long history of Labour politics in Northern Ireland, with the Northern Ireland Labour Party winning Stormont seats before it crumbled as the Troubles took hold in the 1970s.
But for archaic reasons rarely fully articulated (but seemingly out of an attempt to not offend the SDLP who take the Labour whip), the Labour Party in Northern Ireland has now spent years campaigning — not against Stormont or rival parties, but against the position of its own leadership.
Given how the party has treated them, Labour Party members in Northern Ireland are either exceptionally patient or loyal to the point of being deluded.
Yesterday Mr Miliband only met the local Labour Party chairman Boyd Black after he complained that, having flown to Northern Ireland for a two-day visit, his party leader was meeting numerous rival parties but not his own members.
Last night Mr Black said the 25-minute meeting had been “very constructive and friendly”, though it does not appear to have conceded any ground on lifting the ban on local candidates.
He added: “It’s the nature of things that this is not necessarily going to happen overnight. But we’re just going to keep plugging away.”
Mr Miliband declined to be interviewed by the News Letter — perhaps unsurprisingly given the fact he is not seeking the votes of this newspaper’s readers.
But until Labour ends its ban on fighting elections in the Province, every time the Labour leader visits the Province this fundamental issue is going to hang around his neck like a millstone undermining anything else that he says.