One of the leading contenders for the Labour leadership has appeared to significantly water down his commitment to allowing the party’s members to contest elections in Northern Ireland.
Andy Burnham, who has been the front runner from the start of the contest but in recent days is reported to be under pressure from left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, has long been an advocate of lifting the ban on Labour candidates in Northern Ireland.
In a video message to Labour members in the Province, Mr Burnham, who pulled out of a recent event in Northern Ireland, apologised for not having come here to campaign.
He said: “You know I was honoured to receive your first ever nomination last time round and I will always feel a huge debt of gratitude to you all for that.”
Mr Burnham went on to stress his commitment to the party contesting elections in the Province, but added the words “in principle” to that statement.
He said: “I remain committed, in principle, to the party in Northern Ireland contesting elections. That hasn’t changed. But we need to take it forward working in partnership of course with sister parties the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party.”
He went on to say: “I know the party has to consider its organisation in Northern Ireland with each electoral cycle and I can assure you that I would want to bring that to a swift conclusion and work in consultation with the Irish Labour Party and the SDLP through the council of Labour. We would want to get that done as soon as possible.”
He said it was important for Labour “to have a leader whose voice can reach into all the nations and regions of our country and indeed has strong support in all of those places”, particularly at a time when “Britain is more divided than ever”.
However, Mr Burnham’s commitment to work “in consultation” with the SDLP and Irish Labour Party stands in some contrast to his straightforward commitment five years ago to lift the ban on fighting elections.
During a visit to Belfast in 2010, Mr Burnham told the News Letter that the party had to be “sensitive” about the SDLP.
But he was unequivocal about allowing Labour members to contest seats in Northern Ireland, saying at that point: “I say this very clearly, I will not be a Labour leader who tries to dictate to members anywhere ... it (whether to run) will be a decision for the chair and secretary of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.”
At that point, Mr Burnham put the decision in the context of his proposal for a Labour Party run from the “bottom up”, which he said should include local activists deciding whether to contest elections.