5 July 2024

What will a Labour government mean for the Union?


In Northern Ireland, the regional branch of the Labour Party claims to have some 2,000 members. Yesterday, none of those activists could get involved in electing the new government, because their party again refused to stand candidates in the province.

The Labour party has ‘fraternal’ links with the Social Democatic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Ulster, which supports creating an all-Ireland republic and last night retained its two MPs. Many activists and politicians on the mainland have sympathised openly with the Irish nationalist cause, meaning that, traditionally, unionists are suspicious of Labour governments.

At this year’s election, their attitudes were a little more complicated.

On a visit to Belfast in 2021, Keir Starmer effectively proclaimed his unionism and he’s since maintained that position. If Northern Ireland’s constitutional future were put to a vote in a referendum, he said that he would campaign for it to remain part of the United Kingdom. In fact, in an interview with the BBC last year, he claimed that a ‘border poll’ was ‘not even on the horizon’.

Those comments reassured many unionists in the province, who felt badly let down by 14 years of Conservative-led governments. Since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, every Tory leader has expressed enthusiastic support for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, but their actions have often undermined that sentiment.

Theresa May said that no British premier could ever agree to a border in the Irish Sea, while Boris Johnson claimed that such a frontier would be created over his ‘dead body’. Despite all that apparent devotion to ‘our precious Union’, they both eventually signed deals that detached Northern Ireland politically, legally and economically from the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the outgoing prime minister, Rishi Sunak, brokered another agreement, the Windsor Framework, that only entrenched those barriers permanently.

Generally, Conservatives argued that the arrangements were necessary to ‘get Brexit done’. Theresa May believed that her ‘backstop’ deal would shape the whole UK’s relationship with the EU, even if that wasn’t what the document said. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and his supporters claimed that, if he had not agreed to the protocol, the referendum result would have been frustrated and Jeremy Corbyn would have become prime minister.

Loosening Northern Ireland’s constitutional ties with the rest of the UK, with all that at stake, was a price worth paying.

For unionists in Ulster, those arguments were never going to be convincing. As far as they were concerned, they were effectively being asked to ‘take one for the team’. As a result of that perceived injustice, some of them have expressed hope that a Labour government might make the worst of their protocol problems go away.

They believe that Starmer will reset Britain’s relationship with the EU, forging closer links with Brussels and making barriers in the Irish Sea less relevant. They point to the incoming government’s support for a veterinary agreement that could potentially reduce checks on animal products and food.

In that tenor, the DUP’s leader, Gavin Robinson, who last night saw off a challenge from the Alliance Party to retain his East Belfast seat, has spoken warmly about Labour’s deputy NI Secretary, Hilary Benn, praising his efforts to ‘cement stability’ in Northern Ireland. That will seem ironic to Tories who blame Benn for the bill that they say shut down the option of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and forced Johnson to sign the protocol. However, in a recent interview with Reuters, Robinson dismissed the idea that the incoming government would be, ‘in some way pro-nationalist’. His Ulster Unionist (UUP) counterpart, Doug Beattie, also spoke about his willingness to work with Labour, suggesting that, under the Conservatives, ‘the cohesiveness of the United Kingdom… dissipated’.

Both the DUP and the UUP will now put these theories to the test.

The DUP had a chastening election night, losing 3 of its 8 seats. But rival unionists picked up 3 seats, so the overall pro-Union bloc is undiminished. The UUP’s popular former health minister, Robin Swann, took the DUP’s South Antrim seat, and Westminster will also be introduced to the forensic, uncompromising talents of Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, who beat Ian Paisley in his North Antrim stronghold.

Their attitude to the government will be intriguing to watch.

Irish nationalists, who have returned 7 abstentionist Sinn MPs and 2 from the SDLP – the same as 2019, have very different expectations of Keir Starmer as Prime Minister. The Labour leader has not expressed support for separatism in Northern Ireland, but his movement contains many activists who back an all-Ireland state. Sinn Fein’s First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, has talked up the chances of a new administration holding a referendum on this issue. And, at a recent nationalist rally in Belfast, the trade unionist Mick Lynch claimed that Starmer’s support for the Union was ‘out of step’ with the views of party members, with the implication that this policy could change.

Meanwhile, politicians in Belfast from every background hope that Labour’s tax and spending plans will mean a financial bonanza for public services in Northern Ireland. The province’s parties are divided bitterly, but they coalesce around the idea that the antidote to dysfunctional government at Stormont is always more cash from the Treasury.

On that point, as with many other assumptions about Labour, they could be disappointed.

New ministers are expected to raise taxes, but they’re still unlikely to have much money to spare. The Institute of Fiscal Studies was scathing about the sums in Labour’s manifesto. The pressures of an ever older population, rapid immigration, increasing demands on services and a low growth economy are all likely to persist under a new government.

Likewise, Starmer’s plans for a ‘reset’ of relationsips with the EU are vague and non-commital. Michel Barnier has already warned that the scope for renegotiations is limited, unless Britain accepts freedom of movement, which the new prime minister has ruled out. We’ve seen before that appealing to Brussels’ goodwill and reasonableness is usually a futile strategy.

Even if Labour does manage to move the UK substantially closer to the EU, so long as the protocol and the framework remain, any change in that policy would immediately bring back all the trade barriers, legal problems and checks that are emerging now. Northern Ireland would begin again to be edged ever further from the rest of the country.

On a similar theme, the new government seems determined to explore extra devolution and even federalism, on the basis that this would stabilise the country’s nations and regions. While these ideas, like many manifesto promises on the constitution, may not amount to much, they are unlikely to build a more coherent United Kingdom. In the past, surrendering powers from Westminster consistently had the opposite effect.

During their time in office, the Conservatives undeniably damaged the Union, in a way that would have been difficult to imagine back in 2010. Their instincts may have been to bind the UK together more closely, but they seemed incapable of pursuing unionist policies in practice, particularly when Brexit made maintaining that course more complicated.

In Northern Ireland, this recent history means that Labour’s win is being widely interpreted as a chance for a fresh start. Irish nationalists are pro-programmed to hate the Tories, but even some unionists now believe that Starmer cannot possibly do worse than his Conservative predecessors.

It may not take long for those modest expectations to be dashed.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.