Stakes are High but Labour can Play an Ace

Tonight The Pensive Quill features guest writer John Coulter who argues for a reconfiguration of politics in the North of Ireland. This article first appeared in the on 30/10/2011.

Is the British Labour Party the only movement capable of organising a realistic cross-community official opposition in the Stormont Assembly to check the ever-growing advance of the reigning Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein-dominated Executive? With liberal politics the order of the day in Northern Ireland, the natural opposition should come from a coalition of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, the election-battered Ulster Unionist Party and the middle of the road Alliance Party.

In spite of the credit crunch, the influence of the ruling DUP-Sinn Fein partnership government looks likely to be strengthened at the next Assembly poll in five years’ time.  The SDLP, preoccupied with a bitter leadership battle, has been losing considerable political ground to Sinn Fein. Within a year, the UUP may well be locked in the similar fight between its liberal and right wings. We can predict that the Alliance Party will do whatever the DUP and Sinn Fein want in order to keep its two seats in the coalition government.

Slowly but surely, democratic politics in Northern Ireland is returning to a 1965 scenario when the Unionists dominated Stormont.  Unionist fears of a pan-nationalist front consisting of the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Dublin have proved groundless. What currently exists is the pan-community front of Unionists and Republicans from the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The next five years could see the once-dominant UUP swallowed up electorally by the DUP, leading to the creation of a movement simply called the Unionist Party.  Unless the SDLP joins forces with one of the Republic of Ireland’s mainstream parties  – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, or Irish Labour – it could well be doomed within that same half-decade timeframe.

While the fringe Progressive Unionists have just elected former Northern Ireland Assembly member Billy Hutchinson as their new leader, the socialist-leaning group has little chance of securing a significant block in Stormont, given that boundary changes will lead not just to a reduction of Northern Ireland constituencies, but also to fewer Assembly members.

As long as the DUP and Sinn Fein can remain the leading parties in their respective communities, their partnership could dominate Assembly politics for a generation.  The chances of a so-called liberal coalition of the SDLP, UUP and Alliance agreeing a joint slate of candidates and a joint manifesto are slim to non-existent.  And simply forming another centre- left party will only fragment the vote even more, playing into the hands of the Sinn Fein and the DUP.

One way forward might be for the British Labour Party to contest elections on a cross-community platform.  For generations, Northern Ireland’s socialists have been isolated politically. During the days of Unionist majority rule, before the original Stormont Parliament was axed by Edward Heath in 1972, the Northern Ireland Labour Party – like the Nationalist Party – was a voice in the wilderness. Socialists who wanted to organise the British Labour movement in the north of Ireland were bluntly told to join the moderate nationalist SDLP. The Irish Labour Party, one of the oldest movements on the island, also consistently refused to organise north of the border.

British Labour’s trump card is that it could form the next Westminster government, should the current David Cameron and Nick Clegg shotgun marriage end in acrimonious divorce. The Tories formed an unsuccessful partnership with the Ulster Unionists for the 2010 general election. The weirdly-titled Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force failed to win any of the 18 seats up for grabs.

British Labour could be in a win-win situation if it went on the electoral offensive in Northern Ireland – provided it linked up with the Irish Labour Party.  Such an all-island movement could attract Unionist voters because of its Westminster connections. Moderate nationalist voters might be sympathetic because of is southern Irish links.

But time is not on Labour’s side. An Assembly term is normally four years. But the current Assembly wants a five-year term to allow for Northern Ireland’s local councils to be rationalised from 26 to 11. That means the next Stormont poll would be in 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising for Republicans and the Battle of the Somme for Unionists. Both commemorations would play nicely into the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein.


  1. John,
    the raving loony party would probably have a better appeal.
    Having said that nothing could be worse than the useless parcel of shite we currently have.
    A lot of former SDLP voters now believe it is hip to vote Sinn Fein.
    They see Sinn Fein as an essentially a safe nationalist party who might publicly ruffle the odd feather whilst privately adhering exclusively to the status quo.

  2. Fionnuala
    I think you mean SF is a safe constitutional unionist party.

  3. belfastgit,
    absolutely true!
    In relation to the British Labour Party. I attended a Trade Union Conference last year and there was a lot of these sentiments about. There were a lot of the speakers forwarding the idea, that the North of Ireland is now ripe for another type of politics.
    Which was fine until they start that old, you lot are divided along sectarian lines spin.
    While there is no doubt we are divided, none of these speakers uttered a word about why or how the hell we got divided.
    It is like, Oh dear, we Brits are being called upon to come in and organise you on the workers front.
    But they will never mention anything in relation to injustice past or present, it is all cosmetic, superficial and in keeping with the normalisation process.

  4. Fionnuala,
    Thank you. I used to look forward to Question Time because you always had someone in the audience who told a politician to Naff Off or something similar. As opposed to the “Spotlight” or “UTV Live” “specials” that we are stuck with every month! Here in the north, we have to put up with the same boring gubs, the same boring questions and the same boring answers. The last few times I’ve watched Question Time it was rubbish as the Tory and Labour reps on the panel were more or less reading from the one hymn sheet. Unless you have someone “controversial” on the panel (ie George Galloway) , then it’s good. A tip for anyone on here that has Virgin Media, the next time shite like Spotlight or UTV Live is on, turn to 861 which gives you the Brit QT which is far more entertaining. (By the way, it was Mrs. Git that put me on to this, God bless her!).