Disastrous and Irresponsible Decision
The British and Irish Labour parties have made a disastrous and irresponsible decision not to contest elections in Northern Ireland in a last ditch bid to save their floundering so-called sister party, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.
Sectarian tension has rocketed ever since the supposedly centrist Alliance Party on Belfast City Council voted last year to stop flying the Union flag over City Hall all year round, but only on designated days.
The protests against the vote by a section of Unionism has seen dozens of street marches, rioting, injured police officers and the loss of millions of pounds in lost revenue for businesses.
For the first time in a generation, the Labour movement on both sides of the Irish border has a golden opportunity to seize the political initiative and confront sectarianism head on by announcing that it will contest elections, thereby defusing tensions.
The Tories and UKIP are already out of the starting blocks by suggesting their respective movements provide the opportunity to challenge sectarian politics by providing a national alternative.
But Cameron’s controversial backing for gay marriage will alienate the Northern Ireland Tories from the highly influential Bible belt Christian vote.
As in mainland Britain, there is the real danger that UKIP will be hijacked by the Far Right as alleged fears rise over Bulgaria and Romania joining the European Union.
For years, socialists who wanted to become involved in national Labour politics were fobbed off with the lame duck excuse – join the SDLP.
But the SDLP is only a token socialist party. It is really a moderate, middle class republican movement whose reason for existence was to put the politically inept Stormont Nationalist Party out of business.
In the 1970s, the SDLP rapidly took over from the Nationalist Party. Under the leadership of the overt socialist and West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt – later Lord Fitt – the SDLP could certainly boast about its left-wing credentials.
But by the early 1980s, Fitt had been forced out of the party, and replaced by Derry MP John Hume. Suddenly, working class socialism became unfashionable, to be replaced with a form of Northern Ireland-style nationalist Toryism more akin to the Southern Irish Fine Gael movement.
While Hume’s SDLP was accredited with conceiving the Good Friday Agreement, bringing Sinn Fein in from the political cold, and setting up the power-sharing Assembly at Stormont, the price has been to put the SDLP on the road to electoral meltdown.
Sinn Fein, once the apologist for the Provisional IRA, suddenly realized that to become the leading voice for nationalism in the North, it had to steal the electorally lucrative Catholic middle class.
Sinn Fein accomplished this task a decade ago, and has successfully held onto that vote, carefully balancing its traditional working class IRA heartlands with the legions of middle class Catholics who have defected from the SDLP.
Given Sinn Fein’s IRA past, there is no hope of the republican movement rebranding itself as a radical socialist alternative to sectarian politics.
If it had been possible for a party linked to republican terror gangs to pull off such a political feat, then the Workers’ Party (once the political wing of the Official IRA) and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (the political wing of the INLA) would be major players in the Northern Ireland political spectrum. Both the WP and IRSP are dismissed as irrelevant fringe movements.
The British and Irish Labour parties should merge to form the Labour Party of Ireland. That is the only way the socialist movement can attract voters away from Sinn Fein, which now has a significance presence in both the Dublin Dail and Belfast Assembly.
Sinn Fein under Martin McGuinness at Stormont and Gerry Adams in the Dail has successfully rebranded itself as the supposed trendy socialist party which young Catholics should become involved with.
With Unionists and loyalists increasingly peddling the notion that the Irish Republic should rejoin the Commonwealth as a realistic alternative to the euro bailout, all-island politics is no longer the boogie man under the bed.
The Green Party has shot its bolt as an all-island movement, leaving Sinn Fein top of the all-Ireland party league by a long shot.
The SDLP to temporarily survive will have to merge with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in the South.
The bitter medicine is that the SDLP within a decade will join the other moderate nationalist movements, the Nationalist Party and Irish Independence Party in the dustbin of history.
To save Irish socialism, use 2013 to merge the British and Irish Labour movements and get ready to contest the 2014 European poll. Just let the SDLP – like its mirror image in Unionism, the Ulster Unionists – die gracefully. The old proverb springs to mind – there’s no use flogging a dead horse.