[Originally published in the Irish World]
Tom Griffin talks to Northampton South MP Tony Clarke about his work on the Northern Ireland Select Committee, the fight against racism and a key battle in the next general election.
Northampton South MP Tony Clarke is perhaps best known among Irish people for his role in warning of the rise of racism in Northern Ireland. He was a key member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee which produced a report on the issue last year.
However, his interest in Irish politics goes back much further than that.
“It stems from a number of things,” he tells the Irish World at his offices in Westminster. “I’ve always had this strange affection and affiliation with the Celtic world. I think that comes from more than a suspicion that my roots are Celtic. Clarke is probably borne down from the clan in Scotland who came down with bonnie prince Charlie.”
“Also, there are another two fundamental issues. The first is that its inescapable, if you look at the last census, that the largest ethnic grouping within Northampton is the Irish community. I don’t think that’s ever been recognised up until the last census, because it wasn’t recorded in that way. Most people felt that Northampton’s largest ethnic community would either be the Afro-Caribbean community, or the Bangladeshi community.”
“We’ve got a very large and prosperous Irish community, many of whom have got family or friends in the north and appreciate that there’s somebody there that can represent a view and to have an understanding of the issues that are important to people both sides of the border.”
Nevertheless, Clarke believes the biggest reason for his interest in Ireland is a passion for conflict resolution which has also taken him to Palestine, Albania and Kashmir.
“There has to be an acceptance that conflict resolution is not always done between prime ministers, presidents and those at the top in conference rooms. There is a lot of groundwork that needs doing in building up trust and relationships. The biggest contribution you can make to peace in the world is to find solutions to some of the open scars and wounds that still exist in society. People at ground level have to have an understanding of what’s happening.”
Ironically, the collapse of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland gave Clarke the chance to put that approach into practice, when he was chosen to chair a sub-committee looking at issues that had been the province of Stormont.
“I have had a fantastic opportunity, one I didn’t want and which I shall be glad to get rid of as soon as possible if we can get the assembly up and running,” he says.
“We took a number of key decisions early on which have brought about some tangible results and has built up trust within the community. For a start we said that we’re not there to replicate or replace the work that was done by the assembly. We’re there to back up the work that was unfortunately put to one side at the suspension.”
“Secondly, we said that we wanted to be absolutely involved with all the political parties within Northern Ireland from the very start, and we took the decision that we would get ourselves out of Castle Buildings and meet around Northern Ireland to give the community a better sense of ownership.”
“In the very short period that I’ve been chair we’ve met at Stormont itself. We’ve met in Belfast City Hall, in the Council Chamber in Derry, in the airport in Derry and in the other two airports. We’ve made an effort to take the committee’s work out in to the community as much as possible.”
One significant issue that the subcommittee has looked at is housing, an area where many of the problems feed into the rise of racism that has been a focus for the main committee.
“We discovered, as I’m sure many people will accept, that there is nationalist and loyalist housing need and it’s very different. If you live on a nationalist/republican estate, you have problems with overcrowding, you have problems with getting properties, but you have much more mixed tenure and much more community involvement on local estates because people who have been sucessful often cannot move beyond the estate boundaries.”
”If you go across the peace wall, you’ve got a different scenario, because those people who have been successful moved on a long time ago. So all of the empty properties and the derelict properties tended to arise within the loyalist estates.”
Clarke believes that this background helps explain the violent reaction to the emergence of new ethnic communities in areas such as the Village in South Belfast.
“We almost created the problems that we saw in the Village by social engineering, by not recognising that the resident community was going to feel suspicious, was going to feel that their area, their patch was changing.”
“The pain for me is that it is a problem that could have been foreseen. A lot more work could have been done, before the problem got to the stage where we’re seeing ethnic violence, lives being turned into absolute turmoil and people being forcibly evicted from their homes.”
Clarke is measured in his assessment of the way the North’s political parties have responded to the issue of racism.
“The political parties need to take on board that they have a responsibility, and didn’t take that responsibility seriously enough and so that meant that problems arose, but I now give them some credit because I think they’ve woken up to fact that they’ve got to do something about it.”
“There’s still so much to do. When you look at Shared Futures, where they asked people what they see as the future of Northern Ireland, nearly half said that they didn’t want a shared future in that they could not see beyond separation and segregation. And yet we all know that some of the happiest communities across the globe and particularly in the UK are those where there are mixed cultures and celebration and understanding of difference.”
Clarke also believes that the Republic could be doing more to make ethnic minorities welcome.
“I’ve been to the Dail and I’ve criticised members there for still having this crazy rule on language within the Gardai Siochana where you can’t join unless you speak Gaelic. It’s not very good in terms of assisting the Nigerian community that lives in and around Dublin. If you’ve got a Nigerian that could join the Police Service and can’t because they can’ speak Gaelic it seems a wasted resource. I think there needs to be an attitude shift.”
The Northampton South MP’s prominence on the racism issue perhaps owes something to his experience campaigning against the BNP in his own constituency.
“I used to be very active in the Anti-Nazi League. For a number of years we’ve been very active in stopping the BNP organising, removing the roots before they can grow. You’ll find BNP activists in places like Milton Keynes in places like Leicester, but in Northampton we’ve always been successful in not having problems. That’s been hard work, because everybody wants to be involved when there’s an issue, but in order to be successful you’ve got to be on your guard to even the smallest thing.”
Clarke believes that his stance has made him a target for smears by the far-right, something he says doesn’t bother him.
“They’ve tried to discredit me. They’ve tried to cause unrest. That gives me the most enormous sense of satisfaction because I know that I’m hurting them. The day they pack up having a go at me, is the day I know I’m not doing the job as well as I should be.”
Given his political background, it’s perhaps not surprising that Clarke has taken a close interest in the development of Labour politics in Northern Ireland, an area that has become a hot political potato since the launch of a court case to force the British Labour party to organise constituency parties there.
“I’ve always been as supportive as I can of the membership in Northern Ireland,” he says. ”As recently as November we organised a meeting with Labour members of the select committee and members of the Labour party from Northern Ireland. We were able to discuss and debate the issues.”
”I see it more than simply as a question of whether or not the Labour Party organises in Northern Ireland, because there are issues in respect of our sister party, the SDLP. There’s also of course the acknowledgement that Sinn Fein is a socialist party, and we need to accept their role within Northern Ireland.”
“I do see a gradual movement towards greater political involvement and I see no reason why the Labour Party members from Northern Ireland shouldn’t be standing at local level for instance. We do need to understand what the position is in terms of standing at national level.”
“As Labour Party members, they will vote for other parties. It’s a tricky line to cross that we have to respect as well. We will have Labour Party members who are SDLP or Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist or DUP. That’s happening. So there is a road to travel.”
“ We also have to look very carefully at the need to build relationships between Labour Party members in Northern Ireland and the Irish Labour Party. I’d welcome an understanding and an allegiance between the Irish Labour Party and our members in Northern Ireland, so that they can have a shared future and an agreement as to how they can campaign in future.”
”There is a role even now, before all that work’s gone on, for the Labour Party in Northern Ireland to formulate more strongly its branch and to allow them to campaign on key issues, such as the referendum on the EU.”
“I’ve worked with Labour activists. From a personal point of view, I have said I would commit myself to trying to raise the game for them and to increase the involvement that they can have in Labour Party politics. “
“There are some absolute nonsenses. The party members in Northern Ireland do not know how many party members in Northern Ireland there are, because there’s no branch, there’s no secretary, and so they’ve had to set up their own website to discover each other.”
”We’re going to get access to those figures. We’ve got to get those members meeting and talking so that they are part of the democratic process within Northern Ireland.”
The future of the democratic process is currently in doubt in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery, something that clearly concerns Clarke.
“I find some of the things going on at the moment extraordinary. I don’t think its helpful for Hugh Orde to come out so openly and blame the IRA.” On a more hopeful note he adds, “I think its possible still to look at post-April to see the Assembly up and running.”
Clarke will be happy enough to hand his sub-committee role back to Stormont in that eventuality, but this May is likely to see him fighting hard to keep another job, that of Northampton South MP.
The constituency is one of the most marginal in the country and a top Conservative target. Michael Howard has become a frequent visitor the area.
For Clarke, the election is likely to be the most crucial of his career. If he can hold on this time, boundary changes should make the constituency a safe Labour seat.
He is hoping that strong local credentials will stand him in good stead. (He is a director of Northampton Town FC). He may also benefit from a reputation for independence, which saw him rebel on issues such as the war in Iraq and foundation hospitals.
“I have never fought a seat anybody told me I could win,” says Clarke. He won his first seat on Northampton Council by 14 votes. He took Northampton South from the Tories by 744 votes in 1997. He increased his majority in 2001 to 885 against rising Tory hopeful Shailesh Vara.
“I’ve fought every lost cause in the world and won most of them,” he says. He believes he can do it again.