Northern Ireland after the election – interview with Phil Kelly

Shortly after the general election Phil Kelly, an activist in the Labour Party of Northern Ireland and its former chair, spoke to The Clarion.

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Theresa May

Everyone here has been getting excited about our election results and ignoring Northern Ireland. What happened there?

The context is the assembly elections earlier this year, when the Democratic Unionist Party was caught up in the scandal over renewable heating incentives. It fought back with very aggressive sectarian language, creating a polarized situation where nationalists voted heavily for Sinn Fein and had more seats than unionists, for the first time, in the assembly. This Westminster election was also very polarized, but the DUP successfully mobilised a unionist backlash. They are in a strong position, and politics in Northern Ireland, post-Brexit, is stuck in these two blocs.

What did the left say and do in the election?

In the 2016 assembly elections the left had a bit of a breakthrough, in that People Before Profit, which was set up by the SWP, actually got two members elected. Gerry Carroll actually topped the poll in West Belfast, it was a real blow to Sinn Fein. The other left electoral forces are marginal. And PBP became a victim of their own doctrine, when Eamonn McCann lost his seat in Derry this year, essentially because they advocated Brexit in a city that voted 78pc Remain.

The Labour Party here has run into inertia. Everything has got focused on the right to stand candidates. There’s a review, but the election delayed it, and some people reacted very clumsily, for instance advocating a legal challenge to the party. Particularly given the stuff about the UK government being an impartial broker, I think the review is very unlikely to support our right to stand. What we need is a real dialogue with activists in England about this issue. I also think we probably need to move towards a separate party which is affiliated with Labour but independent.

We have had several membership surges, bringing in people from both communities as well as ethnic minorities as Northern Ireland becomes more diverse. But the fact that we are not really a proper party, in terms of candidates, and only having one CLP for a million people tends to disappoint people, and they drift away. UK Labour has not been very keen on encouraging and developing this support.

The UK party has a responsibility for sectarian politics in Northern Ireland, because it has helped suppress the development of a class-based Labour alternative. It has supported the SDLP, which is not left-wing, which is a communal party, and which is currently fracturing around abortion, because three of its councillors would not condemn intimidation of pregnant women. The party as a whole has links to pro-life groups. Sinn Fein is not as progressive as people think. It has implemented austerity here and is not a democratic party. It is still centrally controlled by the Army Council. There are positive aspects to Sinn Fein, but we need support to build something different, based on class.

Ian Paisley, founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, in 1985

What was your take on the attacks on Corbyn over Ireland during the election?

It was pitiful. Over here there is some feeling against him from intransigent unionists, but during the Troubles Northern Ireland was Westminster’s dirty little secret and Corbyn got involved when he did not benefit from doing so. The Tories have no right to criticize him, not only in terms of their own secret dialogues with the IRA, but also the British state’s links with loyalist paramilitaries, the DUP deal, and even calling the Brexit vote with no thought of its impact on Ireland. Portraying the Troubles as some sort of republican manifestation or implying republicanism is somehow illegitimate is wrong.

What is the character of the DUP? What impact will they have on UK politics?

The other main unionist party here, the Ulster Unionists, is like a right-wing Tory party. Enoch Powell joined it. Bear in mind that the DUP is even further to the right.

I don’t think they can have an endless wishlist, because what they fear most is a Corbyn government, so the Tories have some cards too. They’ll want to confirm Brexit: the only people in Northern Ireland who supported Brexit were the doctrinaire left and the DUP! They may want to lower corporation tax but at the same time not lose out from the block grant Northern Ireland gets. Also concessions on subsidies to farmers, who’ll be losing out from leaving the EU. Protestant farmers are a huge constituency for the DUP. The idea they’ll oppose the Tories’ austerity program is dubious, because they are right-wing Tories themselves and have enthusiastically implemented cuts. They may want some money for deprived Protestant areas where paramilitaries are strong. Of course the Tories may row back on austerity anyway but present this as a concession. But the DUP is no enemy of austerity or friend of the working class.

We should reverse what the Tories tried to do with Corbyn and use the DUP to toxify their brand. These are people who would be expelled from UKIP. They have a long historical links with paramilitaries, and now these paramilitaries openly advocate voting DUP. In terms of “stable government” they are experts at creating chaos!

Some Northern Irish Labour activists say that it’s better not to raise slogans about the constitutional question because it cuts against cross-community organising. Do you think that’s right?

I’d call myself a republican, but I don’t spend every minute dreaming of a united Ireland. I’m a socialist and an internationalist. But the Labour position is weak – it’s not good enough to say the people will decide – there’s a political, social and economic reality and it requires an opinion if you want to build a labour movement that’s successful on the class questions. That’s doubly so because the constitutional question was sort of drifting away but Brexit has brought it back to the fore. We need a special status for the North at least. We need a more integrated way of working as an island, though that doesn’t have to be wrapped up as a united Ireland. That’s what was good about the EU, for all its bad aspects. The UK as it is constituted is not workable.

I should say there’s a unionist element here who don’t like right-wing economic policies and would like to see Labour go for sort of normalising Northern Ireland as part of the UK. They want to copper-fasten the Union by saying, look, it’s just like England. We need to separate out the issues.

What links do you have with struggles in the Republic?

It’s interesting that on an island with no meaningful border, there’s so little cross–pollination of politics. One of my problems with a purely Northern Ireland Labour Party is you need to discuss what’s going in the Republic. The more inward-looking elements of the LPNI are focused purely on Northern Ireland. Some are members of the Irish Labour Party, but that party is completely neoliberal and has been decimated. When I was chair we made solidarity with the Jobstown protest. We built Diem 25 as an Ireland-wide campaign, building links for instance with the Right to Water people in Cork and elsewhere. Perhaps at some point we could help transform and rehabilitate Labour down South.

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