Dr John Coulter is a political columnist with the Irish Daily Star and Tribune magazine. In this extended version of his July Ireland Eye column in Tribune, he puts the case for the merger of the British and Irish Labour Parties to form a single Labour Party of Ireland given the growing warmth in relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The British and Irish Labour Party – that should be the priority of Labour’s new leader, no matter who gets the post.
So far as Irish politics are concerned, it doesn’t matter if British Labour swings to the Left or the Centre, the sole agenda is about contesting elections in Northern Ireland and rebuilding a labour movement in the Irish Republic.
Given the way austerity cuts are biting across the whole of Ireland, the border has become irrelevant so far as poverty is concerned.
The various agreements since Good Friday of 1998 have cemented Anglo-Irish relations forcing parties to think of an all-island identity.
At first sight, this should favour Sinn Fein, which is one of the very few movements organised across the entire Emerald Isle.
While Southern Irish Sinn Fein champions itself as the main anti-austerity party, Northern Sinn Fein along with its Democratic Unionist partners at Stormont have to implement tough cuts if the Assembly is to survive.
British Labour is organised in Northern Ireland, but the party hierarchy in London has so far thrown cold water on contesting elections – especially with a crucial Stormont General Election due next May.
Irish Labour – like the Southern Green Party – has got its fingers badly burned in the past by entering a coalition government in Dublin’s Leinster House.
There’s only one solution – copy the communists! At one time, Southern Irish communists had the Irish Workers’ Party, and Northern Irish communists had the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. Both merged to form the Communist Party of Ireland.
The Southern Irish Labour Party boasts of being one of the oldest movements on the island. In Northern Ireland, there have been various attempts to develop a meaningful labour movement, but like the Titanic of old, all have eventually hit their fatal political icebergs.
The most successful labour movements were the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, which chalked up a couple of MPs in the original Stormont Parliament before 1972, and a small-lived labour party which had two seats in the 1996 Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue – the fore-runner of the current Assembly.
For many years, British Labour’s London leadership fobbed off Northern Ireland socialists by telling them to join its ‘sister’ party – the moderate nationalist SDLP. But since Nobel peace prize winner John Hume stepped down from its leadership, the party had suffered major electoral batterings at the hands of Sinn Fein.
The tactics are now simple – park the debate as to whether the labour movement in Ireland should be Marxist or social democratic. A new, all-island party must be created with the merger of the Irish Labour Party and Northern Ireland British Labour activists.
And you can also have the debate over what to call it, be it the Labour Party of Ireland, or the British/Irish Labour Party. Just get the movement up and running in time for next year’s Stormont and Dail elections.
The new British Labour leader should not ignore the significant of 18 Westminster seats in Northern Ireland. With Scotland currently lost to the SNP, if Labour is to return to 10 Downing Street, it must think outside the box – and that means outside London!
As well as battering the Tories in inner cities and middle England, it must snatch vital seats from the Welsh nationalists – and contest Commons seats in Northern Ireland.
Even if it could win half a dozen of those 18, that could be enough to tip the balance in favour of Labour.
And in the Republic, Sinn Fein remains the hot favourite to become a coalition partner in the next Dail along with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael – unless an all-island Labour Party can emerge as part of a rainbow coalition of parties.
Sinn Fein’s problem is that too many voters still see it as the Provisional IRA’s political wing or the Communist Party under another name.
Sinn Fein still has to get over the awkward centenary in 2020-2022 that it was its members who refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty and sparked the bloody Irish Civil War which saw republican inflict atrocities on republican on a scale far more brutal that the Black and Tans did during the War of Independence.
British Labour candidates should not ‘spoof on’ about party unity or a socialist alliance so far as Ireland is concerned – a single party for all of Ireland is the only workable alternative.