Posted By: June 08, 2015

Tom Kelly.Iris News.( Belfast). Monday, June 8, 2015

THERE is speculation that the would-be Labour leader Andy Burnham is willing to allow the British Labour Party to field candidates in Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly local Labour campaigners are cock-a-hoop at the prospect but if we are to believe the myth, the SDLP – a sister party of the British Labour Party – is crestfallen at the thought. Of course it’s all poppycock. Whether the Labour Party fields candidates in Northern Ireland for the assembly or Westminster is academic and in truth they are as likely to take a greater number of votes from general unionism than the SDLP. It’s the stuff for policy wonks and nerds to get excited about; the wider public don’t give two hoots.

Had they run in the recent Westminster elections over here, they may have shaved a few dozen off Alasdair McDonnell’s slim majority in South Belfast but anyone running for the Labour Party would be more than a few sandwiches short of a picnic if they believed any Northern Ireland MP’s seat was winnable.

The issue of whether or not to run is a different matter. Elections are about choices. The argument that they should not contest elections here because of their sister relationship with the SDLP doesn’t stack up. The SDLP and the Labour Party are two separate independent political entities. Like the SNP, the SDLP is a separatist party. Notwithstanding their differences, the SDLP has voted with the Labour Party fairly consistently over the past 25 years – notably and honourably going against that party over the Iraq war. And yes, a solitary SDLP MP (along with the republican MP, Frank Maguire) once brought down a Labour government, based on their opposition to the security policies of that government in Northern Ireland.

On matters of conscience, the SDLP has tended to let its Westminster MPs to make their own minds up. All the SDLP asks of its elected members is that they do not vote against party policy. Whilst it may annoy purists and ideologues, it seems an eminently sensible policy. It’s doubtful if anyone can give total blind allegiance to any party political manifesto unless they have also suspended their right to think. On the other side of the argument many of the Labour MPs are second and third-generation Irish and their instincts are not to compete in Northern Ireland. South Armagh-born and newly elected MP for St Helen’s North, Conor McGinn, has an open mind on the issue; yet because of his long working relationship with SDLP members at Westminster, he believes that any progress on the issue should be agreed in tripartite discussions between the SDLP and the British and Irish Labour parties. Whilst North Down is hardly a hotbed for socialist lefties, its MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, has joined the Labour lobby nearly as often as the SDLP members. The Labour Party has no credible argument for not fielding candidates in Northern Ireland and in the face of a more fractured union; their arguments against standing seem even less plausible. The Labour Party is unlikely to win any assembly seats in the forthcoming elections and a Westminster seat is as likely as a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow but still they should field candidates. At the fringes, the SDLP, Alliance, and some pockets of unionism may lose a few hundred votes, but the real loser could be the Green Party.

The constitutional battle between unionism and nationalism is still too alluring for the electorate here to allow any real debate or division along left and right lines.

Despite the posturing, all of the mainstream parties here are actually against austerity measures – albeit to differing degrees. All would prefer the British government to dig out Northern Ireland a little more.

The Tories have been unsuccessful at contesting elections in the North and this year even they fell head long into the ‘sectarian cesspit’ by joining unionism and not fielding candidates in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and North Belfast. Even after the national party put considerable resources towards local Tory structures in Northern Ireland, they still ended up with more posters than votes.

It’s also arguable that the SDLP’s decline in recent years whilst increasing numbers of Catholics stay away from the polls is because that party espouses policies not appealing to aspirational Catholic voters. But it’s debatable whether those voters would be any more attracted to the British Labour Party.

In the final analysis the route-map for Labour’s national recovery won’t be won on Belfast streets.