Relaunch NILP

Former Blanket columnist Dr John Coulter maintains that the North's socialists should relaunch the old Northern Ireland Labour Party as a radical alternative to the rush to grab the Centre vote across Ulster. A shortened version of this article appeared in his Ireland Eye column in the British Labour Party's Tribune magazine on 5 April.

If Red Ed won’t give the green light to Labour contesting elections in Ulster, then the Province’s socialists should revamp the old Northern Ireland Labour Party.

 Before its demise in the 1970s, the NILP could give the Stormont-dominated Unionist Party a run for its money.  Indeed, had the Troubles not kicked off in the late 1960s, the NILP would probably have replaced the old Nationalist Party as the official Stormont Opposition.

Over the next three years, the Labour movement in Ulster will have its best opportunity for a generation of becoming a significant electoral force.

The official reason for both the British and Irish Labour parties not contesting elections in Northern Ireland is that they want to save their supposed sister party, the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) from oblivion.

But the hard reality is that the SDLP is unsalvageable. Sinn Fein, the one-time apologist for the Provisional IRA, has pulled off the impossible – eating in substantially to the SDLP’s traditional middle class Catholic vote while simultaneously holding on to its working classrepublican heartlands. Within the next three years, Sinn Fein will continue to shove the SDLP into the dustbin of nationalist history.

In the Unionist community, the Right-wing is in disarray with Protestant voter apathy the order of the day. The Right has really only two parties of choice, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, which is essentially an anti-DUP movement, and the fledging Ukip. There has even been talk of a coalition, even a merger, between the TUV and Ukip. 

Northern Ireland politics has now become fixated with who rules the Centre ground. With the inevitable demise of the SDLP, a huge gap is emerging on the Left for a non-sectarian Labour movement.

The existing Left parties in Northern Ireland – the Workers’ Party, Irish Republican Socialist Party, Republican Sinn Fein, 32 County Sovereignty Movement, eirgi, even the Progressive UnionistParty – all have paramilitary-related baggage.

The ace card for any new Labour movement is that the Centre ground is becoming so crowded with parties, that the vote will be fatally split, allowing a single Labour movement to take seats.

Ironically, because of Right-wing Unionist apathy, the two main Unionist parties – Peter Robinson’s DUP and Mike Nesbitt’s UUP – have had to moderate their policies and compete for Centre voters. That Centre market has already become increasingly dominated by the non-sectarian Alliance Party, which has witnessed a steady rise in its vote since its previous low point of 1999.

If the rapid demise of the UUP and SDLP continues, Alliance is in pole position to become Northern Ireland’s third largest party after the next round of European, council and Assembly elections.

That Centre ground just got even tighter after two outspoken and high-profile liberal UUP Assembly members Basil McCrea and John McCallister left the Ulster Unionists to form their own, as yet unnamed, liberal pluralist pro-Union party.

The virtually intolerable squeeze on the Centre vote has been pushed to breaking point with the decision for the reformed Northern Ireland Tories’ decision to also brand itself as a pluralistCentre movement.

Gone are the days in the early 1990s whenmany Northern Ireland Conservative Associations were openly Thatcherite in their political stances.

But Northern Ireland socialists have some bitter medicine to swallow. They can either continue their uphill struggle to persuade the British Labour leadership to relent on its ‘no elections’ strategy, or they can relaunch the NILP and start winning seats.

The party’s electoral history should never be ignored. Although it never won a Commons seat, it amassed nearly 100,000 votes in the 1970 General Election.

Founded in 1924, its peak years were from 1958 to 1965. It had four Stormont MPs, all from Belfast, and was only 8,000 votes behind the dominant Unionist Party in the city.

With austerity cuts biting really hard across Northern Ireland, there certainly is both room and a demand for a well-organised Labour party.

In spite of being one of the oldest parties on the island of Ireland, the Dublin-based Irish Labour Party always made the unwise decision of not organizing and contesting elections in Ulster.

But time is not on the Labour movement’s side. It should not get bogged down on which brand of socialist ideology to follow, or which Leftist writer to hail as its hero.

The new NILP should have two principal aims – to avowedly fight the austerity cuts of either the DUP/Sinn Fein Stormont Executive or the Tory/Liberal Commons coalition, and to mobilize the Unionist and Nationalist working class back to the polling booths.

Organise, not theorise, should be the motto of the new NILP. In three years, the NILP will be the official Stormont Opposition, or yet another socialist pipedream for Northern Ireland. It is an opportunity socialists must not let slip. 


  1. Don't think after 30 yrs mayhem there could be a working class party without a membership containing ex prisoners. The war wasn't faught on the Malone Rd, nor indeed the leafy lanes between Lisburn and Aghalee.

    The day after one half of the SF leadership was telling people to behave differently to other working class people globally and not to celebrate Thatcher's demise and the other half was appearing in court for child rape, the NILP sounded like a good idea. UNTIL Jim Alister and UKIP got thrown into the mix.

    NILP is a good idea, but lets consider it without the self serving scum politicians who already consider local politics as their own personal zombie feeding fest.

    SF were to put the RUC, unionists etc in their place? Dear God, and when they've a following that can't get out of bed or cross the street until Martin (establishment baby-wipe McGuinness) or Liam+Gerry Adams say it's ok to do so... I say give the NILP a run surely. Partition is secure, so it would let us stop demeaning ourselves by voting for scum.

  2. During the eighties, 150,000 people from the 26 counties moved to Thatcher's Britain to obtain work denied to them @ home. A similar number went to Reagan's America. THE IRISH TRADE UNIONS/ LABOUR PARTY WERE HAPPY TO SEE THEM LEAVE.An inconvenient truth for atheist socialist republicans who somehow always have a catholic funeral. Father Sean is indespensable.

  3. Slick as an atheist socialist republican I can assure you no fucking bum bandit or any other man in a dress will bury me.

  4. pity the unionist/prod ascendancy wouldn't fuck off in search of honest employment.

  5. @SLICK, I'm a Socialist Republican and member of the COI, one thing I won't have is a catholic funeral.


  6. @Larry, the war may not have been fought on the Malone Road. But a lot of operations where planned there...As for Lisburn. Thiepval Barracks, spring to mind.

  7. Frankie

    '@Larry, the war may not have been fought on the Malone Road. But a lot of operations where planned there...As for Lisburn. Thiepval Barracks, spring to mind.'

    fair point, i was thinking more about the working class bearing the brunt of the conflict rather than the toffs directing it.


    Will you be at Paisleys funeral?
    The Irish in Britain dont behave like breakaway nazis.