How a Labour government would deal with Northern Ireland

With a Labour government looking increasingly likely after last week's 'fiscal event', the policy announcements at this week's party conference have taken on a new significance.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Kyle didn't disappoint in that respect, stating that he would set out the criteria for a referendum on Irish Unity if Labour were to come to power. That drew sharp criticism from some unionists, who called for him to retain an element of ambiguity.

The Good Friday Agreement is notably vague, stating only that the Northern Ireland Secretary shall call a poll 'if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.'

The Belfast Newsletter argues that 'this gives wide discretion to the incumbent secretary of state. It is essential that this discretion is kept wide. Every other aspect of the process favours separatists.'

However, ambiguity has it risks for unionists as well as nationalists. For one thing, it leaves open the possibility that the tests have already been met. The Belfast Telegraph reports that former Northern Ireland Secretary Sean Woodward 'claimed there is a nationalist majority in the Stormont Assembly, a majority of Catholics in the population and opinion polls suggesting people want to have their say.' It is arguably the most British of constitutional criteria that favour nationalists most. At the last Westminster election they won nine seats to unionism's seven. With one seat going to Alliance this was a plurality rather than an absolute majority.

Nevertheless, the current ambiguity might give an incoming Secretary of State scope to call a referendum on their first day in office, as well as to delay one indefinitely. That is surely untenable.

Some party members would like Labour to go further and campaign for Irish unity. I don't believe I am alone, even among Labour supporters of Irish unity, in thinking this would be a step too far. There is dubious benefit in a British party being drawn into boosterism on an issue the Good Friday Agreement remits to the 'people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment.' The turbulent relationship between unionism and the Conservative Party is sufficient illustration of the dangers.

The right role for Labour is to defend the Good Friday Agreement, and facilitate the dialogue it allows for.

For Northern Ireland's immediate future, Kyle's most important comment was that 'a Labour government would deliver rapid deals with the EU on the flow of goods, the sharing of data, and making it easier for agricultural products to move around the UK and the island of Ireland.' That implies a degree of UK-EU alignment that the current government would not countenance, bypassing the zero-sum impasse between unionism and nationalism over the Northern Ireland protocol, and potentially restoring devolution.

In the short term, the interesting question is whether this incentivises the Truss government to pre-empt Labour with their own solution.







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