Sunday, 27 January 2008

Towards Real Civil Rights Parties In Northern Ireland

Ructions in Northern Ireland, where the SDLP has decided to brand itself “the Civil Rights Party”. The SDLP has always been split on red/green lines. The reds are in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement of the late Sixties. The greens are not.

For that Movement was a struggle for equal citizenship of the United Kingdom, rightly defined as including equal access to the comprehensive and coherent Welfare State (including social housing) and to the strong statutory and other (including trade union) protection of workers, consumers, communities and the environment, the former paid for by progressive taxation, the whole underwritten by full employment, and all these good things delivered by the partnership between a strong Parliament and strong local government, both elected by universal suffrage.

Not just the inherent incapability of Stormont to secure this for great swathes of the population of Northern Ireland (by no means only Catholics), but also the culpable failure of Westminster to do so, drove a section back to Irish Nationalism (insofar as it had ever held such views before), which had not even been on the agenda in 1968. As long ago as the Forties, Sinn Féin had warned that its support was being eroded by the Welfare State. Would that that erosion had ever really been enabled to happen.

One simple thing prevented it, giving rise to the grievances that necessitated the Civil Rights Movement, and keeping Sinn Féin and the IRA in existence. That thing was, and is, the failure of the British political parties to organise in Northern Ireland, a continuation of their failure to organise throughout Ireland and thus force themselves to be responsive to Irish needs.

Does anyone doubt that the people of West Belfast or of Derry City would have voted Labour in the Forties and in subsequent decades, had they been given the chance to do so? Sinn Féin certainly didn’t doubt it, and was extremely worried at the prospect.

It is worth bearing in mind that something like Bloody Sunday could not then have happened, any more than it could have happened in an English, Scottish or Welsh city, where anyone would agree that it would have been as inconceivable then as it would be now.

Today, there are four interrelated obstacles to a “United Ireland”. There is the near-total opposition of public opinion in the Republic (even the increased Sinn Féin vote in the poorest parts of Dublin has nothing to do with “The Cause”, and indeed could not have been attained if that were really still being fought for). There is the very heavy dependence of even Sinn Féin-voting communities on levels of welfare spending that are simply inconceivable outside the United Kingdom.

There is the ferociously anti-Catholic character of intellectual and political life in the Republic, where seriously Catholic Cabinet Ministers such as Paul Murphy, Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Andy Burnham are now unimaginable. And there is Sinn Féin itself, looking forward to Gerry Adams as President of the Republic at the same time as Martin Maguiness becomes First Minister of Northern Ireland, and in no mood to liquidate itself by actually bringing about a “United Ireland”.

Like its new best friends in the DUP, Sinn Féin has no remaining reason to exist. Nor has any other of the tired Northern Ireland parties. It is time to return to the Civil Rights agenda, and specifically to accord full political rights to the people of Northern Ireland. As the tired mainland parties simply die out, their grassroots-based replacements must grow up from such roots in every part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

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