Don’t mention Irish unity

Geoff Bell says election results underline the decline of unionism and why Labour must change

Keir Starmer visited both parts of Ireland on 9-10 June. It was his first significant visit there since last July, when he had proclaimed his unionism and said that, in the event of a border poll, he would personally go to Northern Ireland and campaign against Irish re-unification.

This attracted strident criticism from many in the republican/nationalist community. The accusation was both of his open identification with unionism, and because by promising to actively participate in any referendum, he was breaking the spirit, indeed even the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement, which had promised British neutrality in any such border poll.

The most recent visit to Ireland was better received. Starmer promised to vote against Johnson’s plans to legislate against the Irish protocol of his own European withdrawal treaty, and he also confirmed Labour’s vote against the Tories’ proposal to declare an amnesty for past British crimes in Ireland.

This time, he refused to answer questions on any future referendum saying, “We are not anywhere near a border poll,” and that the question was “hypothetical”. But he gave no indication he was stepping back from his unionism. Accordingly, the Irish News, the leading newspaper of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, editorialised that while Starmer’s position on Brexit and amnesty “raises hopes for the future”, the Labour leader “needs to become more balanced in his attitude to a border poll”.  It concluded Starmer’s “pro-union stance is at odds with his more enlightened attitude to Irish affairs”.

The context is two contemporary realities. The first is that never since the colony of Northern Ireland was established in 1921 has support there for the union with Great Britain been so insubstantial. Second, never, since the late 1970s, has the British Labour Party so openly boasted of its support for the union.   

Evidence of the decline of unionism was obvious in the results of the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in May. Sinn Féin, the standard bearer of Irish republicanism, led the first-preference vote with 29%. The leading unionist party, the DUP, attracted just 21.3%. Unionist parties combined won just over 40%, a fraction above the nationalist/republican total. The Alliance Party, who are neutral on the border issue, secured 13.5%. Most of that vote came from former unionists.

This was the first time Sin Féin had topped the poll to a Northern Ireland parliament/assembly. It was unionism’s worst result. Before the Troubles, the Ulster Unionists regularly won between 60% and 70% in such votes. Indeed, the original boundaries of ‘Northern Ireland’ were drawn with the purpose of delivering a permanent unionist majority within that territory. Now, unionism is a minority creed, and given its wretched history of sectarianism, discrimination and divide-and-rule, this is something progressive people everywhere should celebrate.

There is also much that the international left can welcome in the victory of Sinn Féin. Its economic policies, as well those on trade union rights, housing and the minimum wage, are to the left of British Labour. It has played an active role in promoting a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality, in opposition to both the DUP and the Catholic Church. Of its candidates for the Northern Ireland Assembly, nearly 60% were women.

Sinn Féin is also well ahead in the south of Ireland. Current polls suggest it would win more than the two major coalition parties in government there combined. Again, the party’s appeal is a radical one, particularly on housing and economic equality. Accordingly, there is now a real prospect of the south of Ireland seeing one of the most left-wing governments in Europe. And of course, Sinn Féin’s onward march means discussion on the referendum has moved well beyond Starmer’s “hypothetical”.

There is, then, an irony that, at this very moment when unionism is more discredited and unpopular in the north of Ireland than ever and when there is a progressive momentum throughout all of Ireland, the British Labour Party is more unionist than at any time since the late 1970s. Then, Labour’s secretary of state, Roy Mason, was accelerating state repression while saying discussion on Irish unity “causes me trouble”.

Today, Starmer is equally unwilling to discuss unity. The Irish News editorial was an example of the obvious: that while Labour not only advocates unionism but declines to recognise the need to discuss an alternative, it stands in the way of progress.


  1. I don’t like or trust Irish Nationalism any more than any other kind of nationalism and I don’t see why Labour’s Leader should be giving it support. I thought the deal was unification if that is what people want. And not if they don’t. If the government of the Republic at some point puts a detailed proposal for consideration by both electorates then I would expect a Labour Government to engage with that and argue for what it thought best served the public of Northern Ireland. But what is happening is a parallel with Brexit and Scottish Independence – insist on people signing up for “the principle” and looking no further ahead. That allows the maximisation of a “yes” vote – even if the “supporters” subsequently find out that they had no agreed idea as to what “it” was to be in practice. We’ve been there before with Partition in India. (Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition gives a good account of the grief, bewilderment and bloodshed that followed.)

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