The Northern Ireland branch of the Labour Party has rebelled against the party hierarchy by registering a new political party and standing candidates in next month’s Assembly election.
In a dramatic last-minute move which brings to a head the decades-long battle to end the ban on Labour candidates standing in the Province, local members have now taken matters into their own hands and defied the ban on candidates.
The Electoral Commission confirmed that on Monday it accepted the registration of what is – in the eyes of the law – an entirely new party.
Although the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee is made up of local Labour Party members and has a clause in its constitution that it will disband once Labour lifts the ban on contesting elections in Northern Ireland, if that does not happen it is possible that the new party could continue in its own right.
The party leader, journalist and author Kathryn Johnston, told the News Letter that there had been a huge increase in party membership in recent times. Labour now has 1,200 members in the Province and around 600 registered supporters – a figure which could put it ahead of Northern Ireland’s biggest party, the DUP, in terms of membership.
Ms Johnston, whose late husband, the veteran former Sunday Times and Belfast Telegraph journalist Liam Clarke, died at Christmas, is standing for the party in North Antrim.
The former Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay, who has a strong interest in Northern Ireland, has been involved in the work to set up the new party.
He told the News Letter: “It’s a great achievement in the face of obstruction and adversity. There was an assumption from London that we would have gone away - but we haven’t.
“We are inviting people who want to have the right to vote for mainstream UK parties to endorse these candidates in order to send the message to Labour HQ in London.”
He added: “The old Northern Ireland Labour Party is now in many ways being resurrected.”
The party’s treasurer is Douglas McIldoon, the last full-time general secretary of the old NILP before it folded in 1987, and its nominating officer is Erskine Holmes, the last Labour member elected to Belfast City Council.
Referring to Labour’s National Executive, Ms Johnston said it “beggars belief they wont let us stand”, adding that there was “such demand from people to stand that we simply couldn’t stay silent any longer”.
The party is standing in eight constituencies: North Belfast, South Belfast, East Belfast, Lagan Valley, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Upper Bann, North Antrim and North Down.
When asked how she thought the Labour leadership would react to the move, Ms Johnston said: “I’ve no idea.”
But the Ballymena woman said that she had told both Vernon Coaker and former Home Secretary Alan Johnson during a meeting a fortnight ago and “neither of them were a bit phased” by the news.
It has long appeared that Labour is reluctant to contest elections in Northern Ireland because SDLP MPs take the Labour whip, swelling its numbers in the Commons.
But Ms Johnston dismissed suggestions that the SDLP is Labour’s ‘sister party’ in Northern Ireland, saying bluntly: “We’re socialists; they’re not.” She said that there was also a policy chasm between the parties on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as Labour’s belief in a secular integrated education system.
She acknowledged that the decision was “very, very late”, but said that the blame for that was in the hands of the Labour hierarchy who had refused to allow candidates under the party banner.
Ms Johnston added: “The Labour Party was started to represent the interests of ordinary people and that is more important today than when the Labour Party first started”.
Fermanagh candidate: huge influx of members because of Corbyn
Damien Harris, the new party’s candidate in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, joined Labour while still at school in 2003.
The Rosslea man, who works in Tesco’s Enniskillen store, said that there had been a huge influx of members and supporters during last year’s leadership election which saw Jeremy Corbyn emerge as the shock winner.
The 29-year-old said that there is now a “lively and very energetic branch” in the UK’s most westerly constituency and that efforts are being made to set up a public debate between himself and the Conservative candidate in the neighbouring constituency of West Tyrone, Roger Lomas.
Mr Harris said that when canvassing in the constituency he had found that many people did not know that there was a ban on Labour contesting elections in the Province but they were supportive of his decision to stand.
“That rebellious streak resonated with people in Fermanagh-South Tyrone,” he said.
“A lot of people are saying that being able to vote for someone different is brilliant.”