Sir Keir Starmer and shadow NI Secretary Louise Haigh talk to the partner to Lyra McKee who was murdered whilst reporting on a dissident republican riot (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

An unconvincing ally

”Unionist” Keir Starmer seems to assume the UK’s role in Ulster is that of a glorified referee

Last week, Keir Starmer visited Northern Ireland and tried to show that he would be a dependable friend to the province, if he ever reached Number 10. The Labour leader is helped in that regard by the fact that his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, was a long-standing apologist for the IRA.

In contrast, when Starmer spoke to the BBC journalist Enda McLafferty, he claimed that he would campaign for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, if its constitutional future were put to a border poll. The reaction from some of his colleagues and supporters showed just how difficult it is to keep today’s Labour movement tethered to moderation and reality. 

In response to their leader’s professed unionism, some left-wing figures, like Diane Abbott MP, blathered about the party’s rather opaque relationship with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which supports Northern Ireland’s absorption by the Irish republic. It’s worth noting that the UK Labour Party has a vocal membership in the province that has campaigned for decades to stand candidates in elections.

Other critics claimed that the Good Friday Agreement requires the British government to be “neutral” on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. According to this analysis, the Labour leader would be prohibited from campaigning in a referendum if he became prime minister. Fortunately, this notion is just one of many imaginary clauses and annexes that the 1998 deal has been alleged to contain over the years.

Starmer’s cluster of interviews and statements about Northern Ireland are far from consistent

The fact that it’s articulated at all shows that, for many of Labour’s members and fellow travellers, it is still a contentious idea that an aspiring prime minister should want to keep this country together . Abbott stated baldly that the party “is not unionist” and instead takes its “lead” from the SDLP, which is “republican and pro-Irish unification”.

Starmer’s contrary view may be inspired by his personal convictions or shaped by his time working with the Northern Ireland Policing Board in the early 2000s. Equally, it may reflect Labour’s anxieties about the separatist campaign in Scotland rather than genuine concern for Ulster’s future.

Either way, Starmer’s cluster of interviews and statements about Northern Ireland revealed that, even if his attitudes to the Union and his policy on the Northern Ireland Protocol are opposed by the far left of his party, they are far from consistent.

Last month, the Labour leader told an LBC call-in show, quite rightly, that the prime minister had sold his Brexit deal to the people of Ulster on the basis that it would not feature an Irish Sea border or checks on goods. “We’ve got to have a way forward,” Starmer said, “having checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not the way forward.” 

Then, in a recent column for The Times, he urged Boris Johnson to “make it [the protocol] work” by negotiating a veterinary standards agreement with the EU, “to bring assurance to Northern Ireland and benefit food exporters across the UK.” The notion that an agreement on food and animal checks will effectively dismantle the Irish Sea border has been encouraged by pro-Brussels campaigners who believe that the province’s difficulties can be solved if the UK simply adds more Europe back into the Withdrawal Agreement. 

Even if the UK negotiates a veterinary agreement, the Protocol will continue to destabilise Northern Ireland and its place in the Union

In fact, while these rules are among the most onerous and controversial aspects of the Protocol, they are by no means its only problem. By default, all goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are deemed “at risk” of entering the EU single market, which means they are subjected to extensive paperwork and other barriers that restrict supply and raise prices.

Perhaps even more significantly, the high court in Belfast recently confirmed that Article 6 of the Act of Union, which underpins Northern Ireland’s UK status, was repealed by the Westminster legislation that enacted the Protocol. 

Article 6 determines, “The subjects of Great Britain and Ireland shall be on the same footing in respect of trade and navigation, and in all treaties with foreign powers the subjects of Ireland shall have the same privileges as British subjects.” In his judgment, Justice Colton said, “It cannot be said that the two jurisdictions are on the same footing with regard to trade.”

Even if the UK negotiates a veterinary agreement, the Protocol will continue to destabilise Northern Ireland and its place in the Union. A deal on food may make life easier for supermarkets, but it won’t change unionists’ sense that they’ve been cut off from Britain’s internal market. And it won’t reverse real constitutional changes that suggest people in Northern Ireland have a second class form of British citizenship which doesn’t put them on the “same footing” as their counterparts in Great Britain.

Last week Starmer said, “I believe in the United Kingdom and will make the case for the United Kingdom whether it’s in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England.” Yet he also reprimanded Boris Johnson for failing to act as an “honest broker” in the province. This reflects an assumption that the British government’s role in Northern Irish politics is to act as a glorified referee, rather than an active and interested participant.

It’s that type of thinking that ensures voters in Ulster are unlikely to have the opportunity to vote for UK Labour Party candidates in the foreseeable future. Boris Johnson has made an appalling mess of his relationships in Northern Ireland, but Keir Starmer is an equally unconvincing and unlikely ally.

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