Keir Starmer could help Ulster and the Union by reviving the old NI Labour Party

When Sir Keir Starmer suggested that he would “make a strong case for the UK” in the event of a border poll, he faced a depressing but predictable backlash from some of his comrades.

By Henry Hill
Wednesday, 4th August 2021, 7:26 am
Sir Keir Starmer meeting Colum Eastwood, leader of Labour's sister party, the SDLP, during his visit to NI last month
Sir Keir Starmer meeting Colum Eastwood, leader of Labour's sister party, the SDLP, during his visit to NI last month

Although Labour is very proud of its role in delivering the Belfast Agreement, it has never lived up to its commitment to respect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom unless and until people vote to change it.

Instead, it refused for years to let citizens of the province even join. Even once that ban was overturned in court, and the local branch reportedly recruited some 2,000 members, it was forbidden from standing candidates.

As a result, Northern Irish voters have been denied a non-sectarian, pro-Union centre-left option – not to mention a chance to vote for one of this country’s two main parties of government.

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Defenders of the status quo argue that Labour shouldn’t undermine their ‘sister party’, the SDLP.

But unionists can’t be blamed for not trusting a future Labour government on the Union when their only formal link is to a party committed to ending the Union.

It is probably too much to hope that Starmer might overturn two decades of bad policy and have the guts to make his case directly to voters in Northern Ireland.

But there is another option that he should consider: reviving the old Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP).

The raw materials are already in place. Ulster already has a core of activists who could provide the base for a revived NILP.

As for finance, there are apparently tens of thousands of Northern Irish trade unionists paying the ‘political levy’.

Why should those funds go to the main party, for which they cannot vote, when it could instead to go a locally-organised labour party that actually stands candidates and campaigns on the ground in Northern Ireland?

Once constituted, the new NILP could once again become a ‘sister party’ of mainland Labour – just as the old one was.

This historical precedent would provide cover for Starmer from those comrades who might pretend that any move away from tacitly supporting Irish nationalism is a breach of the party’s traditions.

In fact, what could better embody a commitment to equal respect for both traditions than having two sister parties, one unionist and one nationalist?

A revived NILP could be a welcome breath of fresh air. On the one hand, it could give a new option to existing unionist voters disenchanted with the old, largely centre-right pro-Union parties.

On the other, it could stress a social-democratic case for the United Kingdom that might appeal to voters beyond the confines of the existing unionist electorate.

Were it ever to return MPs, they could not only take the Labour whip but actually sit in a future government, finally giving Ulster the voice at the top it has lacked since the Ulster Unionists broke from the Conservatives in the 1970s.

Even if it failed to break through, it would signal that Labour were prepared to walk the walk when it comes to Northern Ireland’s long-term future as part of this country (and potentially give them a chance to show up the Prime Minister, who has squandered so much goodwill over the Northern Ireland Protocol).

Northern Irish voters deserve the chance to elect MPs who will serve in a British government.

Northern Irish trade unionists deserve to pay their subs to a party they can vote for.

Starmer should show leadership and make it happen.

l Henry Hill is News Editor at ConservativeHome and tweets at @HCH_Hill