Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

The Problems for GB Parties standing in NI – Labour and Lib Dems

The problems with the NI Tories standing or indeed with the CU alliance are possibly even greater for the Labour Party. Although Labour provided Northern Ireland with one of unionism’s favourite secretaries of state in Roy Mason, Labour’s official position for many years was a “united Ireland by consent” and under Kevin McNamara in the 1980s and early 1990s the Labour Party was seen as far from neutral but actually hostile to the union and at times it seemed unionists. Blair of course replaced McNamara with Mo Mowlan but although Labour under his tenure may have been less hostile to unionists many of the decisions especially in the early days of the political process were highly unpopular with unionists. This was never more so than in the release of the assorted criminals from gaol without decommissioning and the extreme deceit of Blair’s promises made at Coleraine University immediately before the referendum on the Belfast Agreement. Mandleson was seen as considerably more pro unionist (or at least even handed) than Mowlan but subsequently Peter Hain, initially distrusted due to his previous support for a united Ireland later became distrusted at least as much for his dishonesty; Woodward was seen as utterly oily and disingenuous.

In addition until remarkably recently it has not been possible for people living in Northern Ireland even to join the Labour Party; if they applied they were directed to join the SDLP. Whilst that situation may have changed there is little sign of any candidates standing and few unionists have great faith in the last labour leadership. Although many in Northern Ireland both unionist and nationalist may have considerable sympathy with the economic left right position of the current Labour Party, the at times rather politically correct social positions the Labour Party has espoused may be less popular. Set against that, however, the hard line quite populist position on crime adopted by Labour over the last number of years may be more popular in Northern Ireland. Here in NI concern regarding rights being impinged by the likes of closed circuit television cameras may be lower than in mainland GB since concerns regarding crime especially terrorist crime are still a major issue here. A further reason to suspect Labourish sympathies here in NI is the relatively high unionisation of the work force especially in view of the large number of public sector workers most of whom will be affiliated to the large and still relatively powerful public sector unions. The unions lobbied for Labour to accept members here in NI and many might be keen on trying to promote a non sectarian class based politics.

As with the Conservatives, however, there would be problems in Labour standing here: they have no party base, no recognisable local politicians, the historical baggage I mentioned above and the social issues; all of which would be major problems. Again, however, if one looks outside the largely metropolitan Labour leadership (even under Brown’s tenure) there are options there if anyone wanted to take them. Northern Ireland is closely tied to Scotland in many ways and even with the SNP’s successes in the last Scottish parliamentary elections, Scotland is still very Labour: a fact demonstrated by the last Westminster elections. Scottish and indeed Welsh Labour are often quite socially conservative and if a move into Northern Ireland came from those sorts of quarters it might seem somewhat less alien. Again, however, the Scottish and Welsh Labour voting tradition have been built up over quite a long time (though not as long as some might imagine: Scotland was largely Tory after the war) and trying to transplant that political landscape across the north Channel would be extremely difficult.

Difficult as those options regarding Labour might be, attempts to transplant the Liberal Democrats to Northern Ireland would be very likely to be even more problematic. The Liberals are of course affiliated to the Alliance Party (though Naomi Long chooses not to sit with them in Westminster) but the Liberal Democrats seem to be the mainland GB political party least closely associated with any positions recognisable here in NI. Partly this may be due to the limited exposure they have received. However, in addition the position of support for somewhat esoteric political causes would have been considered insufficiently serious minded for a political party during the Troubles. The recent positions of the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to have made this position any easier. Over the last few years the Liberal Democrats have moved significantly to the right in economic terms (the Orange Book) being the archetype whilst the current leadership’s seeming comfort with the Tory alliance in economic terms with its pronouncements regarding cutting the public sector is unlikely to endear the LDs to the NI population: though the current leadership’s economic position seems also less than popular with the party’s own previous leadership. To maintain the Liberal Democrats supposedly liberal credentials they have tended to support a raft of socially liberal political positions which again is unlikely to make their political analysis more popular within Northern Ireland.

Of course there has never been a major move to try to attract the Liberals to standing in Northern Ireland so the LDs have never had to give any cognisance to Northern Ireland. The fact that Lempit Opik was their Northern Ireland secretary seems entirely illustrative of this point. Opik’s public persona was so caught up with his somewhat colourful personal life and the odd causes he fronted such as concern about near earth objects (to be fair maybe in part due to his father having worked at Armagh planetarium) that it was difficult to take him terribly seriously and as such it seemed that the Liberal Democrats did not take NI that seriously either. Possibly that was unfair and Opik on politics was considerably more sensible than he was often portrayed. However, he was unlikely to be the man to increase the Liberal Democrats standing in Northern Ireland and indeed Montgomeryshire seem to have decided at the last election that he was also not the man to represent them at Westminster. With the Liberal Democrats now in coalition with the Tories and Owen Paterson firmly ensconced in the Northern Ireland brief it seems unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will be paying much attention to Ulster or raising their profile or popularity here any time soon.

All of the mainland political parties have significant problems if they were to consider contesting NI elections. As I said previously on slugger the water is wide between here and the mainland in political terms. That does not mean that such options should not be explored. However, the top down approaches tried so far seem unlikely to be effective and transplanting mainland parties does have significant problems. Whether the current parties could morph into traditional left right political organisations also seems an unlikely and excessively long term project. One is left feeling that although a great idea in theory it is all a bit of a politicos dream: it is not wrong to dream nor work for a dream but one is often disappointed.


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7 Responses

  1. beano says:

    “All of the mainland political parties have significant problems if they were to consider contesting NI elections.”

    Yes, chiefly the illiteracy of the NI electorate and their preoccupation with who can wave their flag higher and harder.

  2. Food For Thought says:

    Two very interesting posts from Turgon!

    Beano – I see where you’re coming from, but seeking to replace the electorate with a new one is rarely a viable political strategy 😉

    Also, as Turgon laid out in his previous post, there were many perfectly valid reasons why a moderate pro-Union voter wouldn’t identify with the Tories. There may have been a few voters who were turned off the Tories because “they aren’t sectarian/flag-waving enough for me” but many more would have been turned off because their spending cuts proposals were far too right wing for Northern Ireland.

  3. Chekov says:

    Beano – any chance of you getting blogging again?

  4. michaelhenry says:

    is regs uup now a tory and lib dem party.

  5. emanonon says:

    We should be concerned that the local Tories seem to be developing their base and are already selecting candidates.

    They may win few, if any, seats but they can do enormous damage to us; 10,000+ Tory votes in the Stormont election could cost us up to 6 seats if the votes do not transfer back to us – not the 6 gains we are predicting.

    Where would we go then?

  6. […] socialists.  They may have difficulty competing for Unionist Socialists.  As Turgon, writing on Open Unionism points […]

  7. slug says:

    For me the argument begins and ends here: Problems of these parties not standing in NI = lack of democracy and participation in national government.

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