‘The settlement must be for an agreed and united Ireland.’ The British Labour Party and its view on the Constitutional Legitimacy of Northern Ireland, 1945 to the present.


“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.” Labour Leader Tony Blair’s remarks shortly before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998 suggested he felt that Northern Ireland’s future had already been secured before the final day of talks. However, the British Labour Party’s position on the constitutional legitimacy of the province of Northern Ireland is convoluted and has changed drastically over the post-war period. One need only consider Jeremy Corbyn’s connections with Gerry Adams and the IRA in the 1980s alongside the ensuing public outrage when these connections were highlighted in September 2015 to see a markedly different attitude to Tony Blair’s view in the 1990s and beyond. This article will consider some of the viewpoints within the Labour Party over the past half century with regards to the legitimacy of Northern Ireland, in order to assess one facet of the complicated relationship between the various components of the political systems of the United Kingdom. It does not seek to be comprehensive, but merely to consider the various viewpoints held within the British Labour Party with regards to the constitutional legitimacy of Northern Ireland.

Post-War Partitionism

The Labour Party’s view towards Northern Ireland between 1945 and 1964 was complicated. Whilst officially the party appeared pro-partition, many members harboured anti-partitionist sympathies. During Clement Attlee’s premiership, in 1949 the Republic of Ireland officially became an independent state; this was the first move to upset the peace since the partition of the island of Ireland in 1921. Through its first term in office, it is fair to say the Labour Party remained ‘broadly supportive’ of Stormont’s Unionist leadership, largely due to Northern Ireland’s participation in the Second World War; appropriate funding was provided, and Unionist politicians’ demands were met. However, how far this was due to an ideological belief in Northern Ireland’s constitutional legitimacy is unclear. Paul Bew and Henry Patterson quote Labour correspondence from this period which stated:

                  “It has become a matter of strategic importance to this country [i.e. Britain] that ‘the North’ (of Ireland) should continue to form part of His Majesty’s Dominions. So far as it can be forseen, it will never be to Great Britain’s advantage that Northern Ireland should form a territory outside His Majesty’s jurisdiction. Indeed, it would seem unlikely that Great Britain would ever be able to agree to this even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it.”

14881785_1337206726312990_903178994_oThus it appears that, at least in the early part of the period 1945-64, the Labour Party believed in the constitutional legitimacy of Northern Ireland, though potentially for reasons of national security, rather than ideological belief.

The Party’s archives suggest that the post-war Labour Party saw the pro-partitionist Northern Irish Labour Party (NILP) as a viable alternative to sectarian unionism. The distinction between the British and Northern Irish Labour Parties is something which is important; until 2004, the British Labour Party did not permit organisation in Northern Ireland. However, that the British party saw the NILP as a way of resolving the political divide in the province indicated the party’s importance. Northern Ireland’s political situation was particularly sectarian in this period, whereby Protestants by and large voted for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Catholics for generally independent ‘Republican’ candidates. Indeed, in the 1950s the NILP campaigned to tackle unemployment, the ‘tribal politics’ of unionism versus nationalism. The apparent importance of the NILP also implicitly suggests that the British Labour Party supported the continued existence of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the Union, due to the NILP’s pro-Union ideology. By promoting the NILP, the British Labour Party arguably envisioned Northern Irish politics to function with a two-party system, similar to Great Britain. Where the UUP would fill the position of the British Conservatives, the NILP would be the equivalent of the British Labour Party, bringing social democracy and socialist thought to the province.

This belief in the NILP appeared to have some basis to it. A 1943 by-election saw Jack Beattie win the Belfast West seat, which he retained in the 1945 General Election – though he later defected to the Irish Labour Party – and that the NILP won against the UUP appeared a promising sign. Even more promising was the 1964 Westminster election. Though the party failed to gain a single seat, they took 16.1% of the popular vote, the second highest share in this election. This therefore suggests that the British Labour Party’s reliance upon the NILP to replace sectarian unionism had some electoral backing. That the NILP was a supporter of the Union indicates that the British Labour Party during this period supported Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

The Militant Eighties and Left-Wing Labour

Jeremy Corbyn’s views regarding a united Ireland have for a long time been controversial. This is particularly evident in his decision in 1988 to invite Gerry Adams to London to discuss the Irish political situation. The 1970s and 1980s saw the peak of the IRA armed campaign, alongside the development of the ‘armalite-and-ballot-box’ strategy. This involved the extension of the armed campaign to the British mainland – involving attacks such as the 1984 Brighton bombing attack on the Conservative Party Conference – and the intensification of IRA attacks. Though these years did not see the most deaths caused by the Troubles – that “honour” goes to the jeremy-corbyn-with-gerry-adams-copyearly 1970s –£350,000,000 worth of damage was caused in just one incident in 1993. However, this strategy also saw Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing headed by Gerry Adams, begin contesting Westminster elections, beginning with the election of Hunger Striker Bobby Sands to Westminster in May 1981.

It is therefore in the context of increasing IRA violence that Jeremy Corbyn chose to meet with Adams. Between 1986 and 1992, Corbyn both attended and spoke at the annual Connolly/Sands commemoration in London to honour dead IRA terrorists and support IRA soldiers who were “prisoners of war” imprisoned at the time. The programme for the 1987 event praises the IRA soldiers, stating “we are proud of our people and the revolutionaries who are an integral part of that people.” Both this and his meeting with Adams indicated a commitment to the belief in a united Ireland, however Corbyn’s beliefs regarding this constitutional issue were not as maverick as his reputation would suggest. ‘The New Hope for Britain’, the Labour Party’s 1983 General Election manifesto (also nicknamed ‘The Longest Suicide Note in History’ by Gerald Kaufman), stated ‘Labour believes that Ireland should, by peaceful means and on the basis of consent, be united…’ This document emphasised socialist policies in a more profound manner than previous manifestos; leader Michael Foot decided that the manifesto should consist of all resolutions from the Labour Party conference that year.

Ergo, it appears that the policy of supporting a united Ireland was a popular policy within the party, for it to have been passed at a party conference. Nonetheless, the deep fissions within the Labour movement were extremely prominent during the 1980s, and it is important to recognise that the motion for a united Ireland may have passed narrowly. Nonetheless, the official policy of the Labour Party was that, constitutionally, Northern Ireland should not exist.

Blair, Mowlam, and Neutrality

However, this left-wing policy was not to last. Tony Blair’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 1994 following John Smith’s sudden death led to a change in the party’s Northern Ireland policy. Though his opinions on the issue were shared by at least a proportion of the Labour Party, it was due to Blair that the policy change was publicised. Aware that he could not get a policy change through the usual ‘policymaking machinery’, he made an appearance on the Today programme shortly after becoming leader, when he announced that the Labour Party would henceforth take a neutral position on the issue of a united Ireland. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of this political move made by Blair. Abandoning the principle that all negotiations would eventually lead to a united Ireland allowed Blair to speak to Nationalists without arousing suspicion from Unionists of ‘underhand dealings’.

Furthermore, Blair swiftly appointed Mo Mowlam as the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, replacing Kevin McNamara who, in Blair’s words, was ‘a really lovely man but wedded to the old policy [regarding a united Ireland]’. Catholic McNamara was a fiercely firm believer in Republican ideals; in comparison, Mowlam took a mowlam_stonemore neutral position, choosing to speak with both side’s main political parties in order to gain a more nuanced view of the political problem. Mowlam’s influence was strongly felt, with her personal presence in the peace talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement commented upon by many involved in the process. Mowlam’s influence remains profoundly felt in Northern Ireland; following her untimely death in 2005, the decision was made to rename a children’s park in the Stormont grounds as the “Mo Mowlam Children’s Park” the following year. Mowlam was hugely influential in the peace talks, for she completed much of the groundwork necessary for the Good Friday Agreement.

Thus it is clear that, during Blair’s leadership, the Labour Party’s view towards Northern Ireland’s constitutional legitimacy changed drastically from those of the 1970s and 1980s. The shift towards a neutral position on the province’s constitutional status allowed for progress to be made, with the first successful framework for political and social progress in Northern Ireland the ultimate result of this shift.

The Future?

With the election of Corbyn as Labour Leader in September 2015, it is fair to say that this marked the ascendancy of the left of the Party for the first time since 1983. Though it is certainly true that the party has had more pressing concerns in recent months, what with the recent leadership election, the party’s policy towards Northern Ireland’s constitutional legitimacy is something which has still carried some weight since Corbyn’s election. The question is: now Corbyn has retained the Labour leadership, will this ultimately lead to a new Labour viewpoint towards Northern Ireland, and the return of bi-partisan political views regarding the province’s constitutional status?

Written by Victoria Bettney

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