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Northern Ireland Labour members to run independent election candidate

Rebel activists will defy the national party to run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, complicating a tight race in one of Northern Ireland's most marginal seats.

By Patrick Maguire

Rebel Labour activists in Northern Ireland will run an independent general election candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the New Statesman has learned. 

In an email to members this evening, the executive of the party’s Northern Irish branch said “an independent advocating for Labour policies” would stand in the hyper-marginal border constituency, where Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew is defending a majority of 875 over the Ulster Unionists.

It is the first time Labour members in Northern Ireland have stood a candidate in a general election since they were first permitted to join the party, in 2003.

Labour does not stand candidates in Northern Ireland and instead endorses those run by sister party, the moderate nationalist SDLP. The national party’s opposition to participating in elections of has long been a bone of contention for members locally, some of whom believe it reinforces sectarian voting patterns.

Activists have instead intermittently opted to run their own candidates in protest under two banners: the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee, and Cross-Community Labour Alternative. Labour’s ruling national executive expelled the latter’s 2017 assembly candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who won 643 first preference votes (or 1.2 per cent).

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Most other independent Labour candidates for Smont have failed to break one per cent of the vote, however, and they are unlikely to do so in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It is nonetheless possible that even a negligible return for Labour’s unofficial candidate could have a meaningful impact on what will almost certainly be a tight result. 

But the stunt poses a big risk for members who wish to see such candidacies become a much more regular and officially sanctioned occurence. The few in Southside who have a view on Labour’s Northern Irish branch mainly view it as at best a nuisance and at worse an embarassment: earlier this year, it came out in support of the suspended MP Chris Williamson.

Those who wish to see Labour treat Northern Ireland as it would any other part of the UK have won two small victories over the past year. At party conference in 2018, Unite’s Len McCluskey said his union was “moving towards” the view that Labour should run in Northern Ireland (though stopped short of endorsing their cause). Then, after the SDLP announced a policy partnership with the Republic’s Fianna Fáil, the NEC panel entrusted with the task of deciding whether to maintain its self-imposed bar on standing met to discuss holding fresh evidence sessions.

Its members’ continued defiance, however, will do them no favours internally.