We’ll Mourn If Labour Doesn’t Organise Over Here: Dr. John Coulter

John Coulter

We’ll mourn if Labour doesn’t organise over here

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Memo to Ed Miliband: please contest elections in Northern Ireland because the centre is split, the right is in disarray and Labour has the chance to score a remarkable success.

It took generations for Northern Ireland socialists to convince the British Labour leadership to organise in Ulster. We were fobbed off, with our membership cheques returned, and told to join the soft republican, inappropriately named Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The Southern Irish Labour Party – one of the oldest socialist movements on the island and now part of the partnership government in Dublin – has consistently refused to organise in Northern Ireland.

The most successful attempt at establishing a socialist movement in Ulster was the now defunct Northern Ireland Labour Party, eventually swallowed up in the 1970s by the centrist Alliance Party.

Other attempts by the left to establish political movements were too closely linked to terrorist groups. These included the Workers’ Party (Official IRA, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (INLA), Progressive Unionist Party (UVF and Red Hand Commando) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDA).

With a series of elections in Ulster in the coming three years, British Labour has been presented with the best opportunity in years to establish an effective electoral presence in Northern Ireland.

Ironically, the peace process has had a devastating effect on the loyalist working class. Its traditional voice, the Democratic Unionists have remodelled themselves as a middle-class Unionist movement and have been accused of shunning the Protestant working class.

The left-leaning Progressive Unionists have seen an increase in support, but their paramilitary past makes to attract the pro-Union middle classes.

In the nationalist camp, to remain ahead of its main rival, the SDLP, Sinn Fein may concentrate on the Catholic middle class, perhaps at the expense of its traditional working class heartlands.

On the centre-right, there is a four-way split between Alliance, the DUP, Northern Irish Tories and the new kids on the block – NI21, formed by two former Ulster Unionist Assembly members.

Alliance, often seen as a “soft U” unionist party and dubbed the “wine and cheese brigade” could go into electoral free-fall because of its role in the Union flag debacle at Belfast City Hall.

Many Alliance politicians relied on transfer votes from mainly Unionist parties to get elected. If those same Unionists snub Alliance, it would effectively put the party out of business.

The Tories, trying to present themselves as a pluralist, movement endorsed gay marriage. But Northern Ireland has a huge Christian population who oppose to it.

In an increasingly secular mainland Britain, gay marriage may be a vote winner, in Northern Ireland it is not. If the Tories contest the 2014 European elections here, they will be lucky to save their deposit.

The NI21 party was spawned from the civil war which has been raging in the Ulster Unionist Party since the then leader David Trimble signed up to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Launched with much media hype, it has yet to be tested at the polls, but is expected to crash and burn, and is already being written off as little more than a two-fingered salute to the current UUP leadership.

The Democratic Unionist Party, led by First Minister Peter Robinson, is on the receiving end of backlash from working-class Protestants who feel republicans have benefited more from the peace process than they have.

Such is the disillusionment among working-class loyalists that they have formed their own hardline party, the Protestant Coalition. A few years ago, similar disillusionment led to the creation of Traditional Unionist Voice.

In spite of being battered at elections since 2003, the Ulster Unionists could still rebrand themselves as a solid right-wing Unionist organisation, although the UK Independence Party is lurking on the wings.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Ulster socialists have a dream that at this Labour conference Ed Miliband will announce his party will contest elections in Northern Ireland.

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