After nearly three years as Labour leader, the Rt. Hon. Jeremy Corbyn finally made it to Northern Ireland.
He waxed lyrical on many topics as only Mr Corbyn can. In fact as only any politician can unburdened by electoral accountability. I’m reminded of how so many grandees of the British Empire behaved towards far flung parts of the empire. The natives would be lectured, chivvied and at times even praised by visiting imperial masters. The natives cheered and basked gratefully in the attention from masters of the known world.
It mattered little that these masters refused them any say in the running of the empire, never mind their own little piece of it. It was enough for them just to be noticed and spoken to.
So it is with Mr Corbyn and Northern Ireland.
He declares himself a ‘socialist’, opposed to imperialism, but has no difficulty in upholding his party’s one hundred year old boycott of elections in Northern Ireland, leaving Labour, when in government, to rule as colonial governors.
Since partition the British Labour party have refused to contest elections in Northern Ireland. The fact that they actively denied the locals a vote since 1922 does not even make Labour blush, nor did it embarrass Mr Corbyn on his recent visit. He was never even put on the spot about this anti-democratic veto by a supine local media forever anxious to uphold the status quo.
A legal challenge in 2002 forced Labour to accept members from Northern Ireland for the first time. However the party hierarchy still refused to allow those members to contest elections.
Party membership in Northern Ireland grew to 3000 by 2016; more than many established local parties. These members paid full membership rates, even though they were denied the opportunity to contest elections. Northern Ireland members return £300,000 annually to Labour head office, getting nothing in return except £4,000 for admin costs. Strange kind of socialism, eh?
In spite of numerous invitations since his election as leader in September 2015, Mr Corbyn declined the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland to explain his party’s anti-democratic veto to the local membership.
Some cynics suggest that Corbyn finally arrived in Northern Ireland only after internal conflict in the local Labour party rendered it inactive and subject to Labour party investigation. This gave Corbyn the excuse not to communicate with the local party or to face questions about their exclusion from democratic politics.
Because of this boycott of Northern Ireland , not just by Labour, but by all the major British political parties, local sectarian parties were allowed to thrive. The rest is history as they say.
This boycott was applied to Northern Ireland alone. In Scotland or Wales all the parties of government – Tories, Labour and LibDems – contest elections.So they have democratic representation at governmental level and as a result have politics free of sectarian warfare.
Few in Northern Ireland understand the principle at stake here. They believe in the illusion that in electing local MLAs and MPs from the DUP, Sinn Fein etc they play a full part in electing the government of the the country they presently live in. The fact that no one from this part of the UK has ever sat in a British cabinet does not occur to many. Even Her Majesty’s most loyal subjects in the unionist parties have never been allowed to set foot in the Cabinet Room, while many Scots and Welsh have. Even the DUP MPs who hold the current balance of power at Westminster are denied a cabinet seat.
If a political party forming the government of a country does not contest every constituency how can it claim a democratic mandate? It is not a democratically elected government. It is a regime elected by a region of the country only. If this were not true Labour and Tories would not contest every constituency in Britain.
The reason so few here understand (or want to understand) this democratic principle is that Northern Ireland has never experienced a functioning democracy. So people don’t know what this should look like. Since partition Northern Ireland has been locked out of British politics electing first a one party sectarian local ‘government’, then latterly a two party sectarian ‘government’ and now have no ‘government’ – save the real one in London. We have never known ‘normal’ politics here. We think what we have is normal. The cliche that what you have never had, you never miss seems to apply.
To put it bluntly, we don’t understand democracy. We spectate on the democracy of others -always have – such as our near neighbours, who make important decisions about how their society is to function and we are left struggling in their wake, at a loss about what to do for the best. In desperation, like children we plead with the governments we are excluded from – the British and Irish – to do something to sort us out.
In time it’s sure these governments will sort us out because we have become an embarrassment. Once Brexit is concluded, like any errant child, our feet won’t touch the ground.
Finally I’ll leave you with a patronising tweet from Labour MP, Sir Keir Starmer, who accompanied the putative Governor General, Mr Corbyn on his visit to Northern Ireland:
“Just landed in Belfast. Doesn’t matter how many times you arrive – and I’ve been here many many times – anyways struck by the beauty of Northern Ireland.”
I hope that reassures you.