Where is Labour going on Ireland?

The behaviour of the British state in the north of Ireland under James Callaghan's government prompted the formation of a pro-Irish unity campaign group within Labour (photo: Bert Verhoeff/Anefo (CC0 1.0))

Geoff Bell says Labour should reject unionism and become part of the solution

Keir Starmer is a Northern Ireland unionist. This he emphasised when he visited the six north-eastern counties of Ireland in July.

Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland, Starmer was questioned by political editor Enda McClafferty on what his stance would be on a border poll. “I respect the principle that the decision, in the end, is for the people of the island of Ireland,” Starmer said, but then went on to declare, “I personally, as leader of the Labour Party, believe in the United Kingdom strongly, and would want to make the case for a United Kingdom strongly and will be doing that.”

McClafferty pressed the Labour leader further, asking him to clarify whether he would remain neutral during a border poll, or that instead would he be “very much on the side of unionists, arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK”, even if he were prime minister at the time. Starmer repeated his assertion that “I believe in the United Kingdom, and I will make the case for a United Kingdom”.

He also told the Irish Times: “Obviously, there is more discussion now about a border poll than there was some years ago. I think it is not in sight, frankly, and the obvious priority at the moment, particularly coming out of the pandemic, is the economy, health and education and longer-term issues. These are very important priorities and I think a border poll is not in sight. It is not in sight as far as I am concerned.”

So, there we have it. The Irish should not concern themselves with their country’s self-determination; they are unlikely to be permitted to have a referendum and if this somehow does occur, Keir Starmer will join the Orange Order, the DUP and all other Northern Irish unionists in campaigning against Irish unity.

But is this really Labour’s policy? In November, the then shadow spokesperson on Ireland, Louise Haigh, offered a different version. She said, contrary to Starmer, that the party would not involve itself in any border poll and would remain strictly neutral. However, she also reiterated that Labour was a unionist party. She said this twice in a short statement. And then, in Starmer’s reshuffle, Haigh was transferred to become the party’s spokesperson on transport.

Was this because she had dared to challenge Starmer on campaigning in a border poll? This seems unlikely: after all, her new job was, apparently, a promotion, so she was not punished for straying from Starmer’s policy. It may indeed be that Starmer encouraged her to say what she did on Labour Party neutrality in a border poll. He had come under a lot of criticism for his remarks from the left in this country, and the northern Irish nationalist community, with stringent criticism coming from columnists in the Irish News, and openly from Sinn Féin. One can also assume there was also more private criticism from the SDLP.

What the truth in all this, what is important, was what united Starmer and Haigh: their insistence, even pride, in that they and their party were unionist.

The form that this is likely to take will be revealed in the policy document Gordon Brown is now preparing on the British state, which, while focused on Scotland, it has been promised will include discussion of Northern Ireland. A crystal ball is not needed for what this will recommend: a ‘reformed’ British state with slightly increased devolutionary powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In short, the centenary of partition in Ireland will be celebrated by the unionist Labour Party saying more of the same. And we all know what that meant in Ireland before and after partition: starvation, death, coercion, discrimination, ‘special powers’ of repression, Bloody Sunday, the killings in Ballymurphy, and thirty years of war, which included the security forces of the British state colluding with loyalist sectarian murder gangs.

Labour has been along this road before, most notably when James Callaghan was prime minister and Roy Mason was secretary of state for Northern Ireland between 1976 and 1979. But such was the odious nature of the colonial role they were inflicting on the people of north-east Ireland that a campaign against this began in the Labour Party. In this, Chartist played a significant role and helped to form the Labour Committee on Ireland. The campaign had important successes, most notably winning the party to a policy to become persuaders for Irish unity.

This is the tradition which the left in the party should now re-establish. The fight against Starmer needs to embrace the issue of Ireland and the unionism the party leadership is now espousing. At the very least, this means referring to the Good Friday Agreement and saying the Labour Party must spell out the conditions for the border poll this promised. But, more basically, it means saying that socialists in England will welcome and support a new, united Ireland, free from British interference. That is, we will be part of Ireland’s coming together, and no longer part of its problem.

A group of Labour Party members committed to promoting discussion and campaigns designed to achieve unity in Ireland has been set up with the name Labour for Irish Unity (LFIU). Requests to join the discussion can be made at the group’s Facebook page.


  1. You either believe people should have a choice – and that one of the options is a well-functioning Northern Ireland which is part of the UK – or you think it’s just a matter of wearing them down until they have to accept a “united” Ireland for which they have no enthusiasm. Geoff Bell seems to favour the latter. Since Northern Ireland clearly does still exist – despite its disappointing political class – why shouldn’t a Labour Government seek the best for its residents? It’s not even as though there is great enthusiasm for unity in the south!

  2. In the event of a border-poll, no one complains that Sinn Fein will argue for an Irish nationalist outcome. Why shouldn’t Labour argue for a unionist one? Or would that be unloading the dice?

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