Northern Ireland: More of a Mixture than Ever

The annual conferences of the three mainstream British political parties were held in September. First were the Liberal Democrats, the the Labour Party and finally the Conservative Party.

I was able to watch a great deal of all three on the BBC digital ‘Parliamentary Channel’. I was particularly looking to see if any time was devoted to Northern Ireland issues. All the conferences were of course overshadowed by the global financial crisis, the Tories especially having to alter much of their intended agenda as the crisis deepened at the start of their proceedings.

I do not recall anything much on Northern Ireland during the Lib Dems event although something which I missed may have surfaced for they had delegates from the Alliance Party, which they regard as their sister party.

At the Labour Party conference Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gave an update on the present impasse between the DUP and Sinn Féin which had prevented any meeting of the Executive since June because of disagreement on the devolution of police and justice powers.

The UK government, he said, was desirous of moving as soon as possible to devolving powers in these areas so as to fully implement the Belfast 1990 Agreement.

And he went on to say that the Monitoring Commission’s latest report indicated that they were satisfied that the Provisional IRA Army Council was non operational, represented no threat, and that both they and Sinn Féin were fully committed to peaceful democratic activities. The two main parties should therefore resolve the issue and enable the Joint Executive to meet as soon as possible.

There was a motion on the agenda which, had it been accepted, would have excluded delegates from Northern Ireland, or from Northern Ireland trade unions, from participating in decisions. This was despite the fact that after a legal case they had been accepted into membership. Dr. Boyd Black, who had been the prime mover in the legal case, moved an amendment opposing the idea and successfully defeated the motion.

However, because the SDLP are members of the European Socialist Group, they are regarded by the British Labour Party as a sister party. Therefore, although membership of the British Labour Party is open to residents of Northern Ireland they cannot, as I have explained before, contest elections in Northern Ireland on behalf of that party.

Looking across the border there are some difficulties there in addition to the credit crunch. By guaranteeing all deposits and mortgages made with Irish banks they stepped out of line with the European Union. They have since accepted that they will be part of any arrangements which the other member states adopt to deal with the financial crisis.

In addition the governing coalition is showing some internal strains as the Progressive Democrats, the largest of the smaller partners, are on the verge of dissolution. At the same time Independents and other groups in the government are concerned about proposals to withdraw medical cards for some over seventies. All this threatens the stability of the government led by Fianna Fáil.

In the North the manoeuvring and the spats between the two major parties still endanger devolution and the continuance of the Joint Executive.

The next Westminster election will take place not later than May / June 2010. The way that things are shaping there is sure to be a confused Northern Ireland electorate – perhaps that is not unusual.

The British Conservative Party, it was announced at their conference, were seeking to merge with the Ulster Unionist Party. David Trimble (now Lord) was trotted forward when this was mooted and their leader, David Cameron, welcomed this move and proclaimed that every constituency in the UK, including Northern Ireland, would have a Conservative and Unionist candidate.

It seems to me that not only is it foolhardy but could aggravate and endanger the devolution process and indeed, it now requires Cameron and his party to state their position on it.

When one is addressing the members of ones own party at Westminster it is customary to say, “My Right Honourable Friend” or “My Honourable Friend”. When addressing the member of another party the term ‘Member’ is used.

It has been the custom for Labour MPs, for reasons I gave previously, to refer to SDLP MPs as ‘Friends’ and vice versa.

However at Prime Minister’s Question time on 15 October, when Harriet Harman stood in for Gordon Brown, I was astonished to hear the Democratic Unionist MP for Londonderry East address her as “My Right Honourable Friend”. Is Gregory Campbell confused or have I missed something? I listened to my recording several times to check that he did actually use that phrase.

So, in the Republic we have the government in difficulty over the Lisbon Treaty and with the global credit crisis with Fianna Fáil making overtures to the SDLP while the opposition Fine Gael seeks some arrangement Irish Labour. The Ulster Unionists are rejoining the British Conservatives while Sinn Féin is contesting elections in both jurisdictions. The proposed Conservative and Unionist Party is preparing to fight the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and others in the eighteen Northern Ireland constituencies at the next general election. It may be necessary to consult ‘’ before a vote can be cast.

Perhaps the situation can best be described in Sean O’Casey’s immortal line from ‘Juno and the Paycock’: “The whole world’s in a state of chassis...”.

It leaves me somewhat nostalgic for the time before the issue of partition fractured the cross community policies of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, based as they were on social justice, jobs, housing et cetera.

The blame for the present situation lies with those who, way back in the 1960s, insisted that the ending of partition was the principal task. Now, half a century later, they still have that – and the other unsolved social and economic problems to boot.

They have the same old slogans too – as well as the festering, traumatic legacy of bloody strife.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose...

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 22 October, 2008.

Samuel H. Boyd