2017 09 – Labour in Northern Ireland

Labour in Northern Ireland

David Morrison

The Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party (CLP) has been suspended by the Labour Party in London, while an investigation takes place into complaints received from a number of party members in Northern Ireland.

Claire-Frances Fuller, the Labour Party’s Head of Internal Governance, informed party members of this in an email sent on 14 August, which said that a series of complaints had been received alleging breaches to Labour Party rules and improper behaviour in the running of the Executive Committee of the CLP.  As a result, the Labour Party has initiated an investigation into the complaints and, according to the email sent to members “for the period that the investigation is taking place, no meeting of the CLP will take place”.  Furthermore, the email ordered that “no all-member communications will therefore be sent without prior signoff by myself, as the Head of Internal Governance, or another national officer of the Party”.

Many readers of this magazine will be surprised to learn of the existence of the Northern Ireland CLP let alone its suspension. Labour didn’t figure prominently in NI in the recent General Election and didn’t merit a visit from Jeremy Corbyn.  That was because, although the Labour Party accepts members from Northern Ireland and has permitted them to organise in a CLP (only one CLP even though there are 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland), it refuses to allow them to contest elections and, as we will see, members have recently been expelled for contesting elections, even though they didn’t do so under the Labour Party name.

The Labour Party accepts members from NI today only because it was forced to do so by a legal action taken in 2003 by a NI member of the GMB called Andy McGivern, who was supported by his union in taking this action.  Prior to that, people living in NI were banned from membership of the Labour Party.  In fact, prior to that, NI people enjoyed the extraordinary distinction of being the only people in the world who were barred from Labour Party membership.

A few hundred people joined the Labour Party in the next few years, but they were not allowed to form Constituency Labour Parties, let alone contest elections, like members in England, Scotland and Wales.  However, in settlement of a further legal action by Andy McGivern in 2008, the Labour Party agreed that a single Northern Ireland CLP could be formed but contesting elections was forbidden.

True, as part of the settlement, the Labour Party agreed to review this ban at least once every parliamentary term, which it did in 2013 when Ed Miliband was leader.  Then, the review team met the Irish Labour Party and SDLP (as well as party members in Northern Ireland) and then issued a statement simply saying that it would not be changing its policy on contesting elections. A review scheduled for the last (2015/2017) parliament was postponed because of the leadership election in the summer of 2016 and then due to the 2017 General Election (so technically the Labour Party has broken its legal obligations in this regard).

Another review is now due, but it’s unlikely to happen while the CLP is suspended – which is a good reason for the Labour Party leadership to make haste very slowly in carrying out its investigation.  The email to Northern Ireland members from Claire-Frances Fuller solicits further complaints about “individual members’ misconduct, a breach of Labour Party rules and/or code of conducts”, so there is likely to be plenty of scope for spinning the investigation out indefinitely.

The ongoing turmoil within the Northern Ireland CLP, which has given rise to these recent complaints, can be laid firmly at Jeremy Corbyn’s door.  As a result of his leadership campaigns, Labour Party membership in Northern Ireland rocketed to around 2,500 full members and 500 paid up supporters.  At a general meeting in 2016, 70% voted to endorse Corbyn in the leadership contest.  The Labour Party has now got a substantial body of members in Northern Ireland who want to engage in political activity but are forbidden by their party from contesting elections.  That has led to increasing frustration and internal bickering and this flurry of complaints to Labour HQ.  A few have stood for election under other guises, for instance, in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election and in this year’s General Election (the latter were expelled).

This absurd situation is a relic of the undemocratic system of government that was imposed on Northern Ireland in 1920, when Ireland was partitioned.  Nominally, Northern Ireland remained part of the UK but in practice it was excluded from the UK political system – the parties that formed the government of the UK didn’t operate there and a devolved system of government was imposed, which nobody in Northern Ireland wanted.  This inevitably led to 50 years of one-party unionist rule in Northern Ireland in which the British parties did not participate.

This system of government broke down in 1968.  After 30 years of war, a settlement was reached in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which drew a line under the 1920 settlement: there was still to be a devolved government in Northern Ireland, but henceforth it had to be a joint unionist/nationalist government.  This is the system in existence today.

In 1977, a campaign was established with the objective of persuading the Labour Party to operate in Northern Ireland.  This Campaign for Labour Representation in Northern Ireland envisaged a settlement within the democratic system of the British state.  After fifteen years of effort, the Campaign came to the conclusion that the forces arrayed against it – in the British and Irish states and ironically amongst unionists – made its mission impossible.  The Northern Ireland CLP has yet to recognise this.