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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Of course Labour shouldn’t ‘stay neutral’ in the event of a referendum on a united Ireland

Not every problem facing the Labour Party has its solution in a study of its own history. But an awful lot of them do.

For example, the Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, might have benefited from a reflection on former chancellor Denis Healey’s once famous Rule of Holes: “When you’re in one, stop digging.” Green appeared on the nation’s wirelesses this morning to defend a curious statement by her colleague, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Louise Haigh, that the Labour Party would remain neutral in the event of a referendum on a united Ireland.

Haigh’s new policy is particularly suspect because it aligns with the political philosophy of her former boss, Jeremy Corbyn, who was infamously relaxed about the United Kingdom being torn asunder, not only supporting a united Ireland but also casually supporting a re-run independence referendum in Scotland. The hard Left as represented by Corbyn has always taken a dim view of the Union, regarding it as a remnant of Empire, rather than the vital social, political and economic framework that has united the people of these islands for centuries.

Yet Haigh herself does not hail from the Corbynite political tradition in the Labour Party. True, she foolishly and naively “lent” her nomination to Corbyn for the party leadership in 2015, but she quickly regretted it and campaigned for Andy Burnham instead. By then, of course, the damage was done and the party was lost. But there is more rejoicing in heaven for one sinner who repenteth, etc.

So why she announced that the UK government should remain neutral on a border poll in Northern Ireland is a mystery, especially since her own boss, Keir Starmer, explicitly stated in the summer that he would campaign for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.

It’s too soon to tell whether Green was merely seeking to defend her colleague this morning, or if she genuinely agrees with Haigh’s position (and therefore opposes Starmer’s). But her justification for her stance was, to put it generously, unconvincing. The central principle of the Good Friday Agreement, she informed us, was the consent of the people living there: “It is their decision about the kind of future they want.”

Has anyone suggested otherwise in the past 23 years?

She added that, as a Scot, she regards the union as “very precious… and I know Louise would absolutely agree with that.” But not “precious” enough to lift a finger to defend it, apparently. In fact, Haigh is so convinced about the value of the Union, she said in a recent interview that “It’s not my job to be a persuader for the Union.”

Never mind Denis Healey – neither Green nor Haigh seem to be aware of a more recent Labour Party figure. Tony Blair not only led the negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement, he also campaigned tirelessly as British prime minister in favour of a Yes vote in the referendum held simultaneously in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland to adopt the agreement in May 1998. Unlike Green and Haigh (and if he allows this new policy to stand, Starmer as well), Blair took the old fashioned view that the government should have a role in running the country and should express an opinion on its future.

It is a truly bizarre interpretation of the right of the people to decide their own future that it must mean that no one from outside Ireland can express any opinion on the matter. Does this mean that President Bill Clinton was wrong to visit Northern Ireland so frequently in the run-up to the GFA negotiations? That his peace envoy, former senator George Mitchell, should have refused to become embroiled in bringing the two sides together? Should Blair, having got the Unionists and the Republicans to shake hands, have washed his hands of the whole affair and refused to express a preference for a Yes or No vote in the subsequent referendum?

One of the most powerful interventions in the 1998 referendum was by Englishman Colin Parry, who visited the province to urge his fellow British citizens there to support a Yes vote in favour of the GFA. Colin was the father of 12-year-old Tim Parry, who was murdered by the IRA in an explosion in Warrington in 1993. One can hardly imagine a more powerful intervention than from a bereaved father who set aside bitterness and anger to campaign for a better, more peaceful future.

Would Mr Parry’s intervention have been unwelcome by this new Labour leadership? Did his presence in Ulster in 1998 serve to undermine the principle of self-determination? Or were his words on behalf of his dead son a vital reminder of the dreadful alternative to peace?

The right of any people to self-determination is not in any way undermined by the presence and campaigning of people who are not directly affected by that democratic decision. During the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, crucial support was offered to the No campaign by English and Welsh MPs of all parties – especially Labour. I can’t recall now if Kate Green, who is Scottish but represents a seat in Greater Manchester, campaigned alongside us against nationalism on that occasion. If she did, does she now regret it? Does Louise Haigh believe it’s not her job to persuade Scots to remain in the UK? 

Labour did a great deal of damage to its reputation as a supporter of the Union during the dark years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It has a long way to go to prove that it has changed, that it genuinely values the Union. Simply repeating this as an assertion without explaining how such a principle can be reinforced by action will leave many British voters with an abiding suspicion that the Union would not be safe in Labour’s hands.

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