Some months ago I suffered a life-threating illness and have been in hibernation trying to recover since. So, as I began to lift my head and look around the political world of Northern Ireland I decided that, bar riots happening in Winter, nothing much had changed. As I prepared to back into hibernation again the MSM and various social networks began to flash that Fred Cobain had defected to the DUP.
My first thought was to check the strength of my tablets because surely, surely,I had started hallucinating… but no, indeed “Red” Fred, the man noted for both his strongly socialist outlook and for reportedly being conned by the DUP at the last Assembly election has indeed defected, possibily courtesy of the offer of a council seat in Carrickfergus.
Leaving aside my views on why anyone would go to a party which so screwed him over so recently I did begin to wonder how Fred’s left-wing views will be seen in a party where most members are regular Daily Mail readers. Despite Sammy Wilson’s previously proclaimed view that he’d be Labour if in England, the DUP is not a party noted for its left-leaning ideas. Nor indeed, is Unionism in general noted for great socialist thinking.
However, there once was a Labour Party in Northern Ireland which had cabinet ministers among its ranks, and it’s worth briefly looking at the failure of the Labour movement in this part of the world following partition.
On a personal level, my maternal grandfather came of strong trade union stock, forged in the Glasgow and then Belfast shipyards. If he wasn’t actually a card-carrying communist, he wasn’t far off in his views. This was a man who fought against the hold of Orangeism in the working classes and who despised the UUP even more than the DUP for betraying the working man. I have no idea who he voted for after the demise of the NILP, but vote he did.
This dichotomy has struck me recently as worth exploring, especially in light of the 2010 UCUNF experiment and the more recent move by David McNarry to UKIP. Unionist-leaning voters have a plethora of right-of-centre parties to choose from, but where do the lefties like Grandpa and Fred go?
Historically, the trade union movement never really got off the ground in Belfast the way it should have, given the industrial base where it should have found massive support form both Nationalists and Unionists: at one point West Belfast was an NILP seat in the Stormont Parliament and at Westminster, but no longer.
Partly, this was due to partition and the choice of Labour in England to allow the Irish Labour Party to be the only organising force in Ireland. After partition, and this being a country where politics fractures at every chance, the NILP came into being and found support within Belfast’s working class and won seats in three of the four Belfast constituencies – East, North and West. At one point n the mid-1940s it even had a Westmister MP in West Belfast, Jack Beattie.
This should have been fertile ground to grow the seeds of a strong Labour movement which could have seen Northern Ireland as a strong Labour heartland similar to the other industrial regions of the UK.
But it didn’t happen.
Partly, the failure of any left-wing party to fully engage both working class communities and the continued dominance of the Orange Order over the Protestant working classes hampered efforts. Partly, the failure of the British Labour Party to recognise the Border and its continued appointment of Northern Ireland spokesmen like Kevin McNamara, Mo Mowlam and Peter Hain who all shared a pro-Nationalist outlook helped alienate pro-union types.
These provided the seeds of destruction for any serious Labour movement, which is a pity for the same reasons a broken Conservative and Unionist link is bad: the damage to the development of politics along left-right lines.
By such small measures we are remembered and the failure of Labour to exploit the potential of fully participating in Northern Irish politics is one measure whereby we have been deprived of the chance for left-right politics to develop along non-sectarian lines.
So, this week, socialist Fred Cobain moved to a fundamentally conservative party which implements conservative welfare policy without a murmur. How the mighty are fallen…and Labour has only itself to blame.
So, listen, my children, and you shall hear
of the midnight ride of the lefties,…
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers the NILP…
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