Blogging has had to take a back seat recently given work, the Belfast Festival and other odds and ends such as a trip to the South to canvass in the Dublin West bye election. It’s likely that this hiatus will continue for a few months. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to comment on the SDLP leadership result today.
I’m very pleased with the win by Alasdair McDonnell, because it confirms the SDLP’s identity as a nationalist party first and foremost, and at best puts on hold the more innovative approach of Conall McDevitt. However, even McDevitt’s proposals did not seek to move the SDLP away from Irish nationalism towards the much needed cross-community democratic socialist electoral representation which Northern Ireland still lacks. I think it’s now reasonable to conclude that this representation will not come via the SDLP. Not now, and - despite the ‘McDevitt next time’ fightback that has already begun on Twitter - not ever.
So I’d like to suggest that the time may have come for some SDLP members to think about joining an actual cross-community democratic socialist party. Both the Irish and UK Labour parties allow dual membership, and in fact it’s possible to be in all three, given our common membership of the Socialist International. SDLP members, therefore, need not leave their current party but may begin to participate in a Labour party as well. I understand that some may prefer to join the Irish Labour Party, however they should bear in mind that after Irish Labour’s clear decision in 2008 not to stand candidates in the North, the residual membership consists of those who are dedicated solely to campaigning activity – as you might expect.
In contrast, the UK Labour NEC has agreed the start of discussions with the SDLP and Irish Labour about the way forward for democratic socialist electoral representation in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the recommendation in the Refounding Labour to Win document.
SDLP members may have the inaccurate perception that UK Labour Party members in Northern Ireland are all unionists. Not so, as Labour’s submission to the Refounding Labour consultation process stated:
Labour members in Northern Ireland want to see the development of anti-sectarian politics that can challenge nationalist and unionist polarities for the betterment of the whole of our society. Members do not believe that anti-sectarian politics can wipe out the past in Northern Ireland, but we do have a vision that can re-write the future. Some Labour members are unionists and some are nationalists, some have no strong views either way and others feel strongly that their identity and heritage is both British and Irish. The Labour Party’s policy UK-wide is to support the constitutional mechanism put in place for deciding this issue in the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and we do not differ from this. However, we believe the current political priority should be uniting the communities here and now for a shared future.
UK Labour’s membership in Northern Ireland is growing and all new members are welcome. No-one in UK Labour is going to make it difficult or uncomfortable for more nationalists to join and participate in the party. However, members are expected to accept and respect the fact that others may hold different views on the border, and that the subject may sometimes be debated in that spirit. I’m sure SDLP members on the ‘red’ wing of the party would have no problem with that. After all, surely the next stage for politics here is to have these debates in the same room rather than sneering at each other from different sides of the 'community designation' benches.