The Government’s decision to proceed with a de facto amnesty for outstanding killings during the Troubles has provoked outrage from all sides. Fair as much of the anger is, we must remember that ministers are in some ways only building on what came before.
No image better sums this up than that of Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Fein MLA, holding a sign objecting to amnesties when he himself received a Royal Pardon for his involvement in the Old Bailey bombing of 1973.
It was shortly after I started covering Northern Ireland for ConservativeHome that the “comfort letters” scandal broke, when assurances offered to on-the-run IRA terrorists under New Labour collapsed the trial of John Downey, the Hyde Park bomber.
Ben Lowry, Deputy Editor of the News Letter, has suggested that the Government was effectively pushed towards an amnesty because the process of legacy investigations has ended up heavily weighted against the state and security forces personnel – a sorry but familiar story of the Northern Ireland Office getting consistently outmanoeuvred by republicans for which both parties must share the blame.
But if Labour are to condemn Brandon Lewis, they ought to have to explain the difference between his “bad amnesty” and the various “good amnesties” that they oversaw when they were last in office.
Labour, however, is not given to critically reflecting on its policy towards Northern Ireland. Too often, a pious pride in having delivered the Belfast Agreement serves to obscure the way it still operates on the anti-unionist assumptions Tony Blair inherited when he took over the party.
Labour is determinedly alienating Ulster from mainland politics
This is most obvious in Labour’s refusal to stand candidates in the Province. In fact, so resistant was it to any entanglements in Ulster that would-be applicants actually had to take the party to court for the right even to join as ordinary members. Prior to that, they were told to direct their enquiries to Labour’s local so-called “sister party”, the SDLP.
Yet the SDLP are a nationalist party ― and, as they have ended up in an increasingly desperate battle to hold the line against the growth of Sinn Fein, an ever more strident one. There is scant reason for a pro-UK voter to lend them their vote.
By refusing to stand in Northern Ireland, Labour deprives voters of a non-sectarian, centre-left pro-UK alternative to the nationalist SDLP or the paramilitary-affiliated Progressive Unionist Party. They also deny almost two million British citizens the opportunity to vote for a party of government.
More seriously, however, such an approach undermines the Belfast Agreement. Specifically, it is an attack on the idea that the deal genuinely safeguards Northern Ireland’s status inside the British state. By refusing to stand, and insisting on a formal relationship with a separatist party, Labour is determinedly alienating Ulster from mainland politics.
One doesn’t need to look far to see similar assumptions reflected in the Belfast Agreement itself. It is significant, for example, that the structures it created have only one, south-facing exit door. Northern Ireland may make a final decision to join the Republic (indeed, any such decision seems likely to be immediately final), but can only ever make a very conditional choice to stay in the UK.
The structure of the deal, and the tone of much of the language from London when it was being negotiated, gives the impression that the whole thing is about easing Northern Ireland out as painlessly as possible and as slowly as necessary, rather than giving it an equal choice.
Worse, the Agreement (and subsequent St Andrews Agreement) has imposed on the Province a woefully dysfunctional devolution settlement, whilst appearing to make direct rule or indeed any move closer to Britain extremely difficult, if not legally impossible.
The SDLP ― to which Labour is formally linked ― then uses this dysfunction to make the case for further alignment with the Republic.
Insisting the Belfast Agreement is a “living document” won’t save it
Despite the rote insistence of the European Union that it has anything to do with the peace, the Protocol is currently putting extraordinary strain on the settlement created by the Belfast Agreement. The Loyalist Communities Council has already withdrawn consent for it, and it can’t be entirely ruled out that a larger section of political unionism might follow them one day.
Like it or not, the deal rested on the consent of both sides. If one keeps finding itself committed to things it didn’t think it signed up to ― and David Trimble is saying as much ― then merely insisting that the Agreement is some sort of “living document” won’t save it.
For all its faults, the Government has realised that work needs to be done to balance the scales for unionists and send the signal that we really do think they have a long-term future as part of our country. For such a strategy to really work, it can’t be a one-party project. In fact, it is especially important that Labour, as architects of the Belfast Agreement, show that they are serious about the idea of Northern Ireland being British, perhaps forever.
Judging by the backlash when Sir Keir Starmer suggested, under pressure, that he would make “a strong case for the United Kingdom” in the event of a border poll, such a revolution of attitudes within the party is some way off.
But there may be a useful interim step which Labour activists in Ulster could take, and Starmer could support: reviving the Northern Irish Labour Party.
As an independent party, Labour activists in the Province would be able to contest elections without a veto from London. Starmer, meanwhile, could offer to afford the NILP “sister party” status, offering a degree of recognition and support without having to go the whole hog and run official Labour candidates.
Compared to the controversy and effort of officially organising and contesting elections there, this would be a low-cost gesture that could do some real good for Ulster politics. All it would take is a little imagination and some small willingness to signal support for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Sadly, Labour seldom shows much evidence of that.
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