The Unionist Labour pressure group originally existed within the UUP to reach out specifically to the Loyalist working class, and Northern Ireland’s working class in general.
But maybe Unionism is asking - why a Unionist Labour pressure group when the Tories have such a commanding majority at Westminster and the British Labour Party refuses to contest elections in Northern Ireland?
In September 2019, I posed the question if the Dublin-based Irish Labour Party, one of the oldest political movements on the geographical island of Ireland, would organise north of the border and contest elections as a socialist alternative.
Sinn Fein always crowed that it was the only all-Ireland party, a point it would constantly rub in the noses of the Northern-based SDLP.
And even when the SDLP considered a merger or partnership with one of the Southern-based parties, the SDLP could not make its mind up which party to unite with given the various Left-wing factions with the Stoops - some were Fine Gael, some Labour, and some Fianna Fáil. Needless to say, the project collapsed allowing Sinn Fein to further eat into the moderate nationalist vote.
So why is now the time to revive Unionist Labour? It is certainly not a knee-jerk to the Irish Unity debate which many nationalists and republicans are currently indulging in given the rise in the Sinn Fein vote on both sides of the Irish border.
The Unionist Labour project has been resurrected because of a key document which has just been published by the British Labour Party - A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and rebuilding our economy: Report on the Commission on the UK’s future.
Two recommendations were made by the British Labour Party in relation to Northern Ireland in the document fuel the perception the party is adopting a more pro-Union approach.
Recommendation 26: We support devolution in Northern Ireland, consistent with the principle of consent and the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and wish to see it restored and strengthened.
Recommendation 27: Enhanced Access to Economic Resources for Northern Ireland: The British Regional Investment Bank should maximise support for innovation and investment in Northern Ireland, in conjunction with Invest NI and the European Investment Bank.
While the British Labour Party has traditionally viewed the moderate nationalist SDLP as its sister party in Northern Ireland, this latest document from British Labour is essentially pro-Union and pro-UK in ethos.
Traditionally, too, the British Labour Party has constantly refused to formally contest seats in Northern Ireland because of this supposed link with the SDLP. Therefore, a number of unofficial Labour movements have contested elections in Northern Ireland as a result.
Historically, the ruling Unionist Party pre-1972 and the proroguing of the original Stormont Parliament sought to connect with the working class in Northern Ireland via the Unionist Labour pressure group.
However, given the influence of the middle classes and ‘Big House’ Unionist families in the UUP, many of its supporters felt the working class vote within the party was muted and opted to join the now defunct Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP).
Unionism has constantly been accused of ignoring the working class in general and especially in the loyalist community. The reforming of Unionist Labour as a legitimate pressure group within the UUP would enable the party to reach out to that seemingly voiceless section of the Northern Ireland community.
The DUP has largely focused on the middle class voter base traditionally held by the UUP. While the DUP initially under the late Rev Ian Paisley portrayed itself as the voice of the Loyalist working class, the DUP needed to become a middle class movement if it was to successfully overtake the UUP in elections.
Working class loyalist movements, such as the Progressive Unionists (PUP) and Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), are too closely linked to loyalist terror groups.
Indeed, given the influence of Christian fundamentalism in the Protestant working class, anything smelling politically of socialism was either a communist plot or ‘off the devil.’
Left-wing politics were largely shunned by Unionism because of the socialism pushed by the political wings of the various republican terror groups - the Workers’ Party (Official IRA), Sinn Fein (Provisional IRA), and Irish Republican Socialist Party (INLA).
Historically, too, Unionism also dismissed any Left-wing ideology as James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, was a founder member of his own communist party - the Irish Socialist Republican Party.
For example, some Christian fundamentalists even branded the PUP in Belfast as the ‘Shankill Soviet’, comparing working class socialist movements within Unionism as being akin to the structures of the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union.
The Unionist Labour pressure group would be an ideal vehicle for steering loyalists away from the paramilitaries and towards a purely democratic way forward and also as a means of mobilising among the working class.
Unionist Labour should not be a stunt to revive UUP fortunes among the working classes, especially in Loyalism. All of Unionism needs to address the issue - if the Protocol cannot be amended and Stormont is mothballed, how do we prevent working class loyalists taking to the streets in a violent rioting backlash?
Speaking of a backlash, nominations are closing this week for the annual Coulter’s Coveted Cock-Up Cups and Awards which have been running since 2009. As ever, competition is fierce for the Top Tit Trophy and especially the much sought after Gobshite Cup. The results will be announced on St Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day depending on your religious beliefs!
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.