The future of Northern Ireland after Brexit and the Labour movement there

29 January 2019

Speaking at the Politics Society of Trinity College tonight, 29th January, Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin outlined his views on the future of Northern Ireland after Brexit.

In his remarks Deputy Howlin spoke extensively on the future of the Labour movement there, and the implications of the recently announced partnership between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil.

The full speech is included below, with selected excerpts in bold.

“Thank you for the award of Honorary Membership of The Politics Society and for the opportunity to speak to you this evening on the topic of Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

This brings together a related set of important topics: the current state of Northern Ireland, the issue of Brexit, and the Labour political tradition in Northern Ireland.

There could not be a more fascinating time to discuss the future of the Labour political tradition in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP may be about to leave the European family of socialist and social democratic parties, just as Northern Ireland leaves the European Union and the whole UK grows more distant from Ireland in small but important ways.

In my remarks I want to set this situation in context, before giving you some of my own reflections on what might happen next.

The North-West of Ireland was the only part of the island to be fully part of the Industrial Revolution that transformed Scotland and the North of England in the 19th century.

Belfast was the largest city in Ireland, having grown its population from a mere 25,000 in 1808 to nearly 400,000 by 1911.

The area around Belfast was by far the wealthiest part of Ireland and, unlike Dublin, Belfast had a large cohort of industrial workers involved in ship-building, linen mills and other industries.

As a result of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and growing demand for democracy, socialist parties were being founded across the world to fight against the crushing poverty and exploitation of workers.

The British Labour Party was founded in 1900.

The Irish Labour Party was founded in 1912, after some debate about whether or not there should even be a separate Irish party.

Workers from across Ireland and Britain settled around Belfast.

Two such workers that moved from Britain to Ireland were Scottish-born James Connolly, and Liverpool-born Englishman Thomas Johnson, both co-founders of the Irish Labour and Trade Union Congress, as our party was then known.

Unlike nationalist parties that focused on the idea of Irish ethnicity or cultural difference, Irish Labour’s support for independence was pragmatically in favour of a government based in Dublin as it would be more responsive to the needs of working people and communities.

Many thinkers in the English socialist tradition supported home rule for Ireland.

The British Labour Party recognised the role of the Irish party, and did not allow membership from Northern Ireland until 2004.

However, after partition, the Irish Labour Party was confined to the Free State.

A new Northern Ireland Labour Party came into being, separate from the Irish and British parties, and lasted until 1987 when it merged with other small political parties. It usually had several seats in the old Stormont Assembly in the period 1924 to 1986.

When the SDLP was formed in 1970, as the name suggests, it was another party in the social democratic and Labour tradition, but also involving nationalist elements.

The Irish Labour Party held annual meetings with both the old NILP and the SDLP, and also met up with them at the British Labour Party Conference every year.

While Labour politics split North and South, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions continues to be a single representative body for all trade unions on the island, as a sister organisation to the Trades Union Congress in Britain.

As you can see, the Labour Movement has always retained an all-island dimension, as well as a strong British-Irish connection.

Brexit challenges 100 years of closeness between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Following the creation of the Irish Free State, a Common Travel Area was established that permitted people from Ireland to not only travel to the UK, but to reside, to work, to use public services and to vote. Reciprocal rights exist for British people in Ireland.

In effect, Ireland and the UK shared a set of common citizenship rights long before our joint membership of the European Union.

As you know, Ireland delayed joining the then European Economic Community in order to join at the same time as the UK, due to our huge reliance on trade with Britain at that time.

While the EU duplicated some rights, the Common Travel Area provided stronger rights in a number of areas, and continued to give Irish citizens more entitlements than other EU citizens in Britain.

One important feature of the Common Travel Area is that Ireland and Britain form a single labour market. Workers in a wide range of sectors routinely move between the two jurisdictions.

Following Brexit, assuming it does occur, the Common Travel Area will again be a central feature of the relationship between Ireland and the UK.

Moving people across jurisdictions is relatively straightforward.

A one-off administrative process can allow a person from Ireland to move to the UK to live and work.

It is much more complicated to move goods and services on a regular basis.

Every time they cross the administrative boundary of two states, there may be various checks.

And that paperwork adds up to increased costs for business, and a loss of efficiency.

We obviously don’t know when, or even if, the UK will leave the European Union.

But let’s assume it does leave at some point this year.

There will then, in all likelihood, be a transition period of two or more years before the new UK-EU relationship is established.

Clause 122 of the Political Declaration that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement set out that “the overarching institutional framework [for the future UK-EU relationship] could take the form of an Association Agreement.”

In other words, one future scenario would see the UK as an Associate of the EU, maybe even an Associate Member of the EU, permanently half-in and half-out.

Many would say, that wouldn’t be dissimilar to the UK’s relationship with the EU over the last forty years.

Shortly after the Brexit process began, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Mr Xavier Bettel, tweeted of the UK that “They were in with a load of opt-outs. Now they are out, and want a load of opt-ins.”

But where does that leave Northern Ireland?

In the least worst Brexit scenarios, the UK and Ireland will remain close partners in a similar way to how Sweden and Norway continue extensive economic and political co-operation through the Nordic Co-operation institutions.

However, Norway and Sweden have to control their borders and carry out checks for Customs, migration and other reasons.

Although the Norway-Sweden border is extremely long, most of it goes through mountains. They have only 10 approved border crossings, all of which have Customs controls, and they have an additional 30 other crossings usable by private cars or commercial vehicles with pre-clearance.

The Irish border has at least 275 crossings, and more daily commuters. Moreover, the roads to Donegal and other border areas criss-cross the border.

Leaving aside the question of its desirability, the challenge of implementing border checks in Ireland is very significant.

It is of course clearly not desirable.

But it may ultimately be a requirement of Ireland’s continued membership of the European Single Market and Customs Union.

Customs checks are also a requirement of the World Trade Organisation, of which the UK will remain a member.

The bottom line is that if the border is ‘back’ as part of the lived reality in Ireland, the Irish nationalist community in Northern Ireland will find itself once again cut off from the rest of Irish society and disadvantaged in connecting with Ireland’s economy.

That is why there has been such political consensus around avoidance of any hard border on the island of Ireland.

The only thing that can prevent any border checks would be for the UK to remain a member of the European Single Market and the European Customs Union – two separate entities – and, additionally, for the UK to agree for Northern Ireland to remain part of a single phytosanitary area with Ireland.

That is, for the island of Ireland to be treated as a single agricultural area for the purposes of animals and food, which is the case at present.

In fact, agreeing the last point might be fairly straightforward, but there is very little chance of the UK remaining in the Single Market or Customs Union if it goes ahead with Brexit.

To be a member of the Single Market would involve being a rules taker, with no say on the rules to do with product standards.

To be a member of the Customs Union would prevent the UK from making its own trade deals.

It is plausible that the UK would remain close to the Single Market and Customs Union without being a full member.

But every step outside of the common rules they go, the more random checks and border surveillance would have to be implemented.

This is the context in which we can definitively say that there is no such thing as a good Brexit outcome for Ireland.

Anything other than full UK membership of the Single Market and Customs Union will result in problems for Ireland, and some degree of constraint in the free movement of people and the free conduct of business on the island of Ireland.

These constraints will involve costs, which will lower economic output in Ireland, North and South.

Unrelated to Brexit, but occurring at the worst possible time, the SDLP may be moving away from its historical connection to European socialism and to the Irish Labour Party.

As you know, last week Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin held a joint press conference with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at which they announced a proposed ‘partnership’ between the two parties, which will extend to campaigning together and potentially Fianna Fáil financial support for the SDLP.

For context, during the violence in Northern Ireland, Labour, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael all had members who travelled to Northern Ireland to support the SDLP as the voice of Irish nationalism that was opposed to violence.

There has always been that cross-party support for the SDLP, which itself brought together nationalist politicians alongside social democrats.

But the proposed new partnership is different in two respects.

It would involve the SDLP choosing sides in the Republic, which it never did before.

And it may involve the SDLP being incompatible with the Party of European Socialists.

All of this is conditional on the membership of the SDLP actually voting in favour of the proposed partnership at a special annual conference being held on 9th February.

If the SDLP members do vote in favour of linking up with Fianna Fáil, and if this does lead to them breaking ties with the Party of European Socialists, that will leave a vacuum in Northern Irish politics.

It would mean the total absence of a social democratic option at elections.

At present, the Irish and British Labour Parties do not stand candidates in Northern Ireland for the simple reason that the SDLP exists as our sister party in the Party of European Socialists.

If the SDLP is no longer affiliated to our movement, there will be pressure on our parties to mobilise in Northern Ireland to ensure that the option remains.

And the next election is Northern Ireland’s local elections in early May, so this could all happen very quickly.

At Labour’s Conference last November I said the following:

“If some within the SDLP do merge with Fianna Fáil, Labour and others will step in. We will ensure a pluralist option in the Labour tradition is available for voters in Northern Ireland.”

As things stand, we know that many SDLP members as well as a small number of elected representatives are unhappy with the prospect of linking with Fianna Fáil.

We will take our lead on this from them; as well as by others in Northern Ireland who regard themselves as in the Labour tradition.

It is not for Labour in Ireland or Labour in Britain to displace local politicians.

It is for us to support our long-standing friends and colleagues from the SDLP who we know are struggling to ensure that the Labour tradition is not buried by the current proposal.

Once there is a clearly social democratic platform being established, we will step in to support it. And I know that our friends in the British Labour Party will do the same.

The future for Northern Ireland post-Brexit is inevitably going to involve major change.

An alliance of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil may well put an end to the tentative co-operation of the SDLP with the Ulster Unionist Party, which saw both gain additional MLAs at the last election.

There is the possibility of a united Unionist party being formed from the DUP and UUP.

This all risks deepening the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland at the worst possible time.

We have to resist those who propose facile solutions, such as a border poll that might result in a united Ireland with 51% of the vote but which would leave nearly a million British citizens in Northern Ireland feeling isolated and vulnerable.

A more appropriate approach is for us to open up new dialogues and discussions.

I understand that some unionists in Northern Ireland are, for the first time, considering the possibility that a united Ireland might happen in their lifetimes.

They are not necessarily going to vote for it, but they have questions.

Questions like, would a united Ireland involve the imposition of Ireland’s institutions on Northern Ireland, or would there be a blending of both jurisdictions into something new?

Would there be dominance of cultural Irishness, or would there be a new Ireland created that is both British and Irish, not dissimilar to how Australia or New Zealand have blended British identity with other influences?

Would Ireland rejoin the Commonwealth?

Those proposing a snap border poll typically don’t have answers to those questions, nor the authority to answer them definitively on behalf of the people.

Or else they propose that we discuss these issues after the event of any border poll on unity.

They are wrong.

The first step should be to re-establish something like the New Ireland Forum of the 1980s, which sought to find a pathway to peace and stability and envisaged a new democratic Ireland.

This time we have to ensure more British, unionist and loyalist voices are heard.

We have to ask people about their own hopes and aspirations.

And for many people it is about basic things: a good job, decent public services, and respect for their identity, their religion and their way of life.

There is an argument that a new all-island state could be best placed to deliver a good quality of life for all.

A united Ireland would overcome the economic chaos of a controlled border, especially our border which does not follow natural geographical boundaries.

A united Ireland could achieve stronger welfare, at a time when the UK has been rolling back social protection, leading to queues at food banks and an ever-deeper divide between the haves and have-nots in England.

Labour’s first objective is not a united Ireland.

In the tradition of Hume, our first goal it is to find common purpose among the people on this island, and to find mutually beneficial ways to co-operate and build trust among all our different communities.

Once that is achieved, an all-island political project – and a renewed British-Irish political project – can and will follow, in a form that is acceptable to a large majority.

My hope is that the Labour tradition in Ireland, Britain and Northern Ireland can play a role in making that happen.

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