THE internal machinations of the Labour Party in Britain are a matter for that party but the policies it adopts and advocates in relation to Ireland have for decades adversely impacted on the lives of citizens here. A month ago the current British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer visited the North and provided a valuable insight into the double-think that has long been at the core of the British Labour Party’s attitude to Ireland.
During his two day visit Starmer asserted his support for the Good Friday Agreement and the ‘principle that the decision, in the end, is for the people of the island of Ireland.’ On this he is absolutely right. The Agreement specifically states that: “It is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given …”
But then in stark contradiction to this Starmer stated his willingness to stand “very much on the side of Unionists, arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK”. Why? Because he says: “I believe in the United Kingdom”.
What part of; “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone” and “without external impediment” does he not understand? Has Starmer no understanding of the divisive, negative, inept, condescending, violent contribution that successive British governments, including Labour governments, and successive British politicians, including Labour politicians, have had in Ireland for generations?
After partition Labour leaders adopted a policy of non-intervention in issues related to the North. For them, and the Tories, this convention meant that the governance of the North was the responsibility of the Unionist Regime. In the early 1960s the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) began exposing the extent of discrimination against Catholics and advocating for reform. In August 1964 the Labour opposition leader Harold Wilson wrote to the CSJ: “I can assure you that a Labour government would do everything in its power to see that infringements of justice are efficiently dealt with.”
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is one of Labour's proudest achievements.— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) July 13, 2021
But the Prime Minister has fractured the trust that peace was built upon.
Real leadership is needed, once again, in Northern Ireland. pic.twitter.com/X04jjXAjdG
Wilson became Prime Minister in October of that year. The convention did not change. Despite a significant lobby of Labour MPs who were members of the Westminster-based Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU), the Labour government failed to achieve any meaningful reform. Why? Because according to Wilson’s Home Secretary Jim Callaghan, they were determined “not to get sucked into the Irish bog.” Instead the Labour government looked to the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill to introduce reform.
That approach failed when the Stormont Unionist regime resorted to violence to oppose the civil rights campaign and its demands for civil rights.
It was a British Labour Government which deployed the British Army on the streets of the North in August 1969. They should have faced down Ian Paisley and forced through civil rights reforms. Labour’s failure to do this marked the beginning of decades of conflict. In the summer of 1970 Labour was replaced by the Tory government of Ted Health. They continued to pander to unionist extremists and introduced internment. After Bloody Sunday they prorogued Stormont.
Four years later Labour was back in power and backing repression. Merlyn Rees was appointed Secretary of State. Under his control political status was ended, the H-Blocks were built, the criminalisation and Ulsterisation policies were ruthlessly pursued and the conveyor belt system of torture, special Diplock courts, and changes to the rules of evidence, all began to take shape.
In April 1976 Rees was replaced by Roy Mason. Working closely with the RUC and British Army Mason was determined to break the republican struggle. Harassment, brutal beatings in the interrogation centres, house raids, arbitrary arrests, plastic bullets, shoot-to-kill operations, state collusion with unionist death squads, all became commonplace under Mason. Infamously he claimed in 1978: “We are squeezing the terrorists like rolling up a toothpaste tube.”
Mason was wrong as the events of the following years were to prove. Labour, like the Tories failed to learn one of the many lessons of Irish history – repression leads to resistance. Historian and writer Dorothy McArdle remarked that after the Act of Union was passed in 1801 Ireland was governed almost exclusively throughout the 19th century by a succession of Coercion Acts, which “made every expression of national feeling a crime.”
Did these coercion laws pacify Ireland? Of course not. Not then. And not in our time.
And even after Labour was no longer in power and Thatcher entered Downing Street, its leaders continued to provide support to her and the Tories. Lest we forget on this year of the 40th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike it was a British Labour representative Don Concannon who visited the hunger strikers on 1 May 1981, four days before Bobby Sands died. Concannon carried a message from the Labour leader Michael Foot telling the prisoners that Labour supported Thatcher’s intransigence and that the men should abandon the hunger strike. When he met Francie Hughes in his cell in the H-Blocks, Francie asked him did he support the prisoners’ five demands. When Concannon said ‘No’, Francie told him to ‘close the door after you.’ Francie died 11 days later.
Tony Blair brought a new style to Labour and to its Irish policy. He was still a British unionist but was prepared to take risks for a peace process that the Tories had squandered. Jeremy Corbyn was for a United Ireland. And he was prepared to state that.
The current Labour leader – Keir Starmer – has now stated his preference and his willingness to ignore the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and interfere in any referendum campaign. He has failed to raise any concerns around the many aspects of the Agreement that have still not been implemented almost a quarter of a century later. And worse he is choosing to ignore the growing and widespread democratic debate currently taking place around the unity referendum and the prospect of a united Ireland.
Is Starmer intending to imitate the Tories narrow brand of English nationalism by wrapping the Union flag around his party and adopting the same little Englander strategy of Johnson?
Or is it a new version of Callaghan’s not wanting to the “sucked into the Irish bog”?
Starmer’s opinion that a united Ireland “is not in sight” is not shared by many in Ireland.
Moreover, the future of this island and of how we as an island people share it together in peace, equality and inclusivity in the future, is our decision, not his.
That should also be the position of the British Labour Party.
Cock A Doodle Doo – Part III – dead duck walking
I AM sure you are tired of this elongated tale of my travails with our local rooster thug. I know I am. But you dear reader, at least you have a choice. You can skip over this sorrowful story, reflect instead on Squinter’s adventures or visit one of the other columnists. Me? I’ve no choice. I’m stuck with Russell the outlaw rooster.
It’s like being on the run again. Jooking around corners. Afraid to go out. I’ve taken to carrying a hurling stick. That causes consternation with the dogs. They presume that I’m going to póc the sliothar for them to fetch and when they discover that is not the game plan their disappointment is woeful to behold. And they are useless against the murderous rooster. Dogs are too shrewd to go up against Russell. Or at least our dogs are.
So I just try to stay in. Accept for this evening. John the Joiner had left me some of his wonderful home grown vegetables. Spuds, pods of peas, beetroot, early carrots. The carrots and beetroot were topped with luxuriant foliage. The beetroot leafs looked really nutritious and lush. Good enough to eat. So I consulted my River Cottage Cookbook. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall agreed. Cook it like spinach he advises. So I did. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was right. The beetroot greenery was scrumptious.
Afterwards, well fed and watered, I scooped all the remnants of pea pods, potato bits and assorted greenery on to a plate and ventured forth to give the two donkeys a treat.
The donkeys, Thelma and Louise, are related through marriage to The Dognappers but that’s another story.
In my desire to do good by the donkeys I forgot about Russell. Russell hadn’t forgotten about me. As I turned the corner he came at me like a feathered projectile. At head height and all beak and talons! A deadly feathered rocket. I clattered him with the plate. It shattered and crockery and bits of veg scattered everywhere. The air was thick with blood and snatters and feathers. No quarter asked for. None given. I don’t know who screeched the loudest. Russell or me?
I do know who retreated first. It was Thelma and Louise. Heehawing and braying loudly these two wise wee donkeys fled the ambush site. Russell retreated also after a few minutes and perched on the roof of our shed. He crowed in triumph.
I realised then that’s what roosters do. Even when you think they’ve lost they think they’ve won. It’s like the struggle for big ideas. When you’re up against the system THEY want you to think you are a loser but you are a winner just by going up against THEM with your own ideas. That’s when the winning starts. That way you’re never a loser. You’re always a winner. Like Russell. That’s how losers become winners. That’s how struggles are won. Winning is never giving in to losing. Never giving up.
Daddy Dognapper confirmed all this for me when, alerted by the sounds of combat, he arrived soon after.
“You are never going to best that rooster,” he told me. “Roosters are famous warriors. Top of the pecking order. Symbols-of war. Fighting cocks and all that. In Celtic culture they were fertility symbols on account of their sexual assertiveness.”
Just Incase you’re having a bad day here’s a rooster attacking me for no reason, I thought we were having a good walk :) apparently not. pic.twitter.com/xsT1m5wyN9— Dorothy Benham (@DorothyBenham) October 24, 2020
Russell crowed again.
“He will never give in. He would rather die,” Daddy Dognapper continued.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said.
“Well if we can catch him I will give him away,” Daddy Dognapper offered plaintively. “Let’s put together a plan”.
“A cunning plan,” I retorted.
Russell looked down at us scornfully.
“Cock a doodle doo,” he trumpeted defiantly.
Daddy Dognapper and I retired to consider our next move.
It’s big boys rules now.
Bás nó Bua.
Russell is a dead duck walking.