Thursday, September 22, 2011

Refounding Labour in Northern Ireland (2): Have we been conned?

I am unashamedly parochial about the Refounding Labour organisational review process. I can’t afford to be anything else. Labour Party members in Britain may be getting exercised about various aspects of the final report, to go to Conference next week, or indeed about the ‘one document one vote’ approach, as amendments will not be taken.

Labour in Northern Ireland just wants the opportunity to do what political parties are meant to do - stand in elections.

Accordingly, the submission from the Northern Ireland CLP was based around this one point, as set out in my previous post. The question now is: after Refounding Labour, is our aim more likely to be achieved?

The starting point was unpropitious, as the consultation document didn’t mention Northern Ireland at all. Even allowing for the fact that Labour doesn’t really get devolution as yet, that was tough. However, it probably helped to produce the thorough and considered response, as nobody likes to be ignored. The draft was the subject of a long and lovely discussion at a members’ meeting, after which some changes to the response were actually made – in other words, a real democratic process and a tribute to all who were involved.

So, after all the lobbying and NEC discussions, what’s in the final report? On page 17, we have:

‘The growth of party membership in Northern Ireland is very welcome and we note a few submissions have been received, including a submission from our NI CLP, that have requested the party agree to stand candidates for election in Northern Ireland.

Recommendation: The party will continue discussions with our NI CLP, and enter into discussions with our sister parties the SDLP and Irish Labour Party’.

Some may say: is that it? Exactly how much better off are you now?

I disagree. Just suppose the report had recommended standing for election. What would have been the first thing we would have had to do? We would have had to ‘enter into discussions with our sister parties the SDLP and Irish Labour Party’. With the SDLP because it does contain Labour-minded individuals, and we would have had to see if we could find any common ground, or, if not, perhaps to persuade some to join us. The SDLP is, in any case, currently at a crossroads with its very interesting leadership campaign. The outcome will be very important for the direction of democratic socialist politics in Northern Ireland. We cannot and should not ignore the SDLP’s membership of the Socialist International, but there might be a question about how long that membership will continue.

And discussions with Irish Labour would be needed because our entry into electoral politics would change the dynamics of Labour representation on this island. We would want to have a close and mutually supportive relationship, and align policy as much as possible. In my personal opinion I’d like to try persuade Irish Labour to change their minds about putting up their own candidates North of the border and run a joint campaign on a common manifesto.
So I see no harm in strengthening the case by having these discussions before a final decision is made. Of course, either or both the other parties may refuse to talk, saying they are happy with the status quo, in which case we know where we stand.

Labour members will discuss the situation in mid-October and of course there will be different opinions. The other side of the argument is that we’ve been conned. As Andy Burnham said during the last leadership campaign, the decision to stand in elections should be for Labour members in Northern Ireland. Talks can go on for years – as they already have. But given that the next elections we’d want to contest are in 2015, or possibly 2014 for the European Parliament, I think it’s worth a thorough and comradely exploration of how to get it right.

After all, the reason for standing in elections is to give the Labour movement a voice, in the interests of working people, in order to try to improve their lives (or, sadly, to mitigate damage) at a very difficult time. We need to find the most appropriate way of doing so in a changing but still divided society.

Refounding Labour in Northern Ireland (1): The Argument

The Refounding Labour organisational review will be debated and voted upon at the UK Labour Party Conference next week. Here is a summary of the Northern Ireland CLP’s submission.

The full version is available here and is worth reading if you are interested in the details of the argument – in particular, I would urge those who think the Party is anti-SDLP to read pages 3 -4 .

A real Shared Future: why the Labour Party should stand for elections in Northern Ireland

Submission to the Refounding Labour organisational review by the Northern Ireland CLP

Our submission is the response of the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party to the Labour Party’s organisational review, Refounding Labour, and argues that the Labour Party should stand for elections in Northern Ireland.

The argument has three strands.

1.    It is the final stage in achieving a fully functioning Labour movement in Northern Ireland. As has been said many times by senior Labour figures, there should be no ‘no go’ areas for the Labour Party.  In a democracy, a prospective Party of Government should seek a mandate across the UK, including Northern Ireland.

  • Northern Ireland has a vibrant Labour moment including 350 paid-up Labour Party members, almost 260,000 trade union members, mostly in affiliated unions, and 32,000 trade union members contracting in to pay the political levy. Northern Ireland has the highest density of trade union membership of the four UK jurisdictions – and no other party in Northern Ireland has a structural link with the trade unions
  • Party members participate in an active Constituency Labour Party, assist in British and Irish Labour election campaigns, attend Conference and are active in the National Policy Forum. Standing for election is the last piece in the jigsaw.
  • Members also participate in their trade unions, socialist societies, the Co-operative Party, the Fabian Society, Labour Students and the Party of European Socialists activists’ network.
  • Northern Ireland’s Labour Party members are involved in a wide range of civil society organisations which seek to influence policy both at regional and UK level through lobbying.
  • It has been argued that Labour cannot usurp the SDLP’s position as the only Northern Ireland member of the Socialist International. However, fifteen countries have two SI parties as members, and one has three.
  • Although Labour members would have respect for the historical role of the SDLP and for many individual SDLP members, the SDLP is currently unsuitable to represent the Labour movement because (i) it has no structural connection with the trade unions, and (ii) its ‘nationalist’ community designation in the Northern Ireland Assembly prevents it from developing truly cross-community, anti-sectarian politics based on economic and social issues rather than on territorial position.

2.    The Labour Party can fill the political vacuum caused by the lack of a cross-community, anti-sectarian democratic socialist political party.  Labour in Northern Ireland provides a voice that is un-mediated by community divisions, a voice that can develop policies that will encourage sharing in a divided society and build a future without the fear of sectarian tensions.

  • Political identity and electoral behaviour in Northern Ireland is often erroneously presented as a simple territorial cleavage between unionism and nationalism. However, this disregards opinions on social and economic issues, and other aspects of political identity such as class and gender.
  • A review of the statistical evidence has revealed a political vacuum that could be filled by Labour. For example:
    • 43% of the population consider themselves to be neither unionist nor nationalist; and
    • in 2005, around 70 percent of people who didn’t vote said they had sympathy with the statement that ‘I would have voted if there was a strong non-sectarian party’.
  • Under the circumstances it is not surprising that turnout at elections is declining, and public confidence in the governance of the region is low. In such a climate of dissatisfaction and frustrated aspirations, Labour has to act.
  • Labour Party politics can offer a home to those disillusioned voters and to many more voters who simply put up with current parties because there is no viable, non-sectarian alternative. We believe that the best ‘cross community’ decision-making takes place within parties rather than between them.

3.    We have the capacity to build our case around the Labour values of social justice, equality of opportunity, strength of community and rights matched with responsibilities. The Labour Party in Northern Ireland accepts the duty to stand for Labour values, to use those values to promote prosperity and a shared future, and to represent the wider Labour Movement politically.

  • The Labour Party in Northern Ireland seeks to uphold Labour values in the context of a society trying to move beyond sectarian division and find a common ground based on values, rights and responsibilities we all share. We seek a new political paradigm that is not dependent on territorial politics and thus contributes to healing the divisions of the past.
  • The people of Northern Ireland want politics based on everyday issues such as crime, education, health and the economy – especially at the present time of economic uncertainty and constraint.
  • We can use our solid base of 350 members, plus substantial support in the wider Labour movement, to build electoral support through standing good, local candidates and seeking votes from all sections of the community.

The next stage of Northern Ireland’s ‘peace process’ is to work towards a genuinely shared society which acknowledges the importance of history but refuses to be held back by it. Only Labour can fulfil the role of a non-sectarian democratic socialist party in which all voters can have confidence.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The red-faced Orange

Over the years I have shocked many friends and acquaintances with my forthright opposition to the Orange Order and the scorn I have poured on Orangefest and the like. I think it’s sometimes been perceived as a failing on my part rather than a reflection on the organisation itself. But I have continued to insist that the Order as currently constituted cannot function as a non-sectarian organisation, taking part in jolly cross-community events funded by the taxpayer.

As Dominic Bryan says in his book ‘Orange Parades’ (2000):

There are a series of laws governing the relationship an Orangeman should have with members of the Roman Catholic Church. Marriage to a Roman Catholic and attendance at a Roman Catholic service can both lead to a member being expelled. In practice the use of these rules tends to vary among lodges. On more than one occasion, debate has taken place...over a member who has attended the funeral of a Catholic (p.106).

Bryan gives the example of a previous case which caused criticism, when David Trimble attended the funeral of Catholic victims of the Omagh bomb in 1998.

And now, the St Simon’s Church Total Abstinence LOL 821 from Sandy Row has caused red faces (nearly) all round by its utterly disgusting complaint about the conduct of two Orange Order members, also senior members of the Ulster Unionist Party, for attending the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr, who was assassinated by dissident republicans last April. Initial coverage implied that particular offence had been taken because the men had attended the funeral mass, and some comments on web sites and the radio distinguished between the two, saying that it was fine to pay respects at a funeral but not to attend the mass. When you are in a hole, it’s really best to stop digging, and think about what you are doing looks like from outside the hole.

It is important to remember that the complaint has come from only one Lodge out of 1,200. It may, of course, be prompted by an ulterior motive connected with party politics within unionism. It is becoming increasingly clear that the complaint is not supported by many Orange members and Lodges. However, the situation was able to arise because the organisation’s membership qualifications are not limited to supporting Protestantism, which I think can be justified, but include the denigration of another religion, which cannot.

Hopefully, the incident will prompt debate about how that might change in future. Until then, the Orange Order has nothing to contribute to the new Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sexism at 40

Like many people here, the Europa Hotel holds special memories for me. I visited Belfast for the first time (as an adult) in 1995, to attend a conference in the city centre - including a fair amount of time spent in the Europa's first floor bar. The trip set in train a series of events that led finally to a permanent move from London to Belfast.

Like others, again, I can name all the other Hastings Hotels, have visited some of them (with variable results, I must say), and feel it’s important to support a local business in a highly competitive industry. Or rather, I did until today, when my Belfast Telegraph Facebook page presented me with some unwelcome news.

A documentary has been made about the history of the Europa. Two launch screenings were held yesterday, and someone had to think of a promotional gimmick. Because of course no-one would be interested in the fascinating history of the hotel in its own right.

I can understand the line of reasoning. The Europa is 40 years old. So let’s cast our minds back to, er, 1971. What was life like then? Well, people were murdering each other outside the hotel’s front door, but we won’t dwell on that. Homosexuality was illegal, but perhaps rather poor taste to mention it. The year’s pop charts were topped by, amongst others, Rod Stewart, T.Rex, and Slade. Not another seventies pop star lookalike event, please.

So what else has changed? Oh yes, the position of women. In 1971, something called women’s liberation was just getting going. Women were starting to protest against being treated as sex objects. Didn’t they burn their bras? Well, we can't have any of that sort of thing. Hang on a minute, wasn’t there a Penthouse nightclub in the Europa itself? Maybe we can run with this.... and it gets us some lovely girls....

As the Belfast Telegraph – no stranger itself to lovely girls – put it:

Scantily clad models donned the traditional ‘Playboy Bunny’ inspired outfits to welcome the hundreds of guests with a 1970s-themed evening.

But what’s this? Apparently:

The afternoon screening was introduced by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster with the evening show launched by the city’s Lord Mayor, Niall O'Donnghaile.

That’s one of our best female politicians, a role model for younger women; and Belfast’s first citizen, member of a party that will no doubt have something to say about women’s rights at its Ard Fheis this weekend. Shame on you both, and shame on Hastings Hotels for failing to understand that there are some aspects of the 1970s that are better left in the past.