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8 July 2021

Why Keir Starmer is suddenly focusing on Northern Ireland

The Labour leader's two-day visit marks an end to the party's relative silence on Brexit. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer is in Northern Ireland today for a two-day visit in which he will meet with the leaders of the five main parties, as well as senior police officers at the PSNI, prominent peace campaigners, victims and survivors of the Troubles, and young people at an integrated school (who will have been dragged back from their summer holidays to meet the Labour leader). 

[See also: Keir Starmer’s second chance: can the Labour leader find the direction he has lacked?]

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

This is a big moment for Starmer, and not simply because it is one of the first times since becoming leader where he has the opportunity to appear prime ministerial on an “overseas” visit to somewhere Labour doesn’t stand candidates. This visit marks an end to Labour’s relative silence on Brexit, with the Labour leader writing in the Times today ultimately to support the Northern Ireland protocol and to call for an agreement between the UK and EU on veterinary standards to make it work. Starmer also attacks Boris Johnson’s “dishonesty” on the issue, which he says “now risks the stability of the peace process”. “He personally negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol; he has a personal responsibility to make it work,” Starmer says of the Prime Minister. 

Labour under Starmer has sometimes struggled on issues where its efforts to win back “Red Wall” voters have come into conflict with the nuance and complexity that Northern Irish politics demands of Westminster leaders. While trying to strike a more patriotic tone on law and order, for example, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, tweeted in April that “Boris Johnson has abandoned the military veterans he promised to support and protect” in Northern Ireland. Healey came down on the side of Tory MP Johnny Mercer to agree that the British government should be “supporting and protecting” the veterans alleged to have committed crimes during the Troubles (a view which, when taken to its logical conclusion, equates the British army in Northern Ireland with paramilitary organisations such as the IRA). When asked if this was the Labour leader’s view, Starmer’s then-spokesman agreed that it was, temporarily undoing months of work by Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, to develop a mature position on legacy issues. Labour’s “our boys” messaging, as one Northern Irish politician refers to it, came up against the complexities of the situation in NI and was found wanting.

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Labour, similarly, has been trying to avoid the issue of Brexit since the 2019 general election, even voting for a Brexit deal it saw as deeply flawed in order to signal its acceptance of the referendum result and to deny the Conservatives weeks of attack lines (a source says the Tories had ads ready to go if Labour voted to abstain). Labour hasn’t wanted to draw attention to its recent history as a party that offered a second referendum or to Starmer’s personal role in advocating for that policy, instead supporting the Brexit deal purely to heal the divisions between the party and the voters it needs to win back if it is ever to secure a majority.

But for whatever reason, whether the sheer seriousness of the escalating tensions in Northern Ireland, the new advice Starmer is receiving after shaking up his inner circle of advisers, or pure coincidence, the Labour leader is now exhibiting the confidence to lean into the Westminster dividing line created by the Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland. The clear calculation in today’s Times op-ed is that this is no longer a Remain/Leave divide, but one between unserious politicians and grown-ups. 

Northern Ireland demands a seriousness and maturity of Westminster politicians that is ill-suited to Johnson’s way of doing politics. It demands attention to detail, and it requires Westminster to leaders to rise above their own leanings on the unionist/nationalist question to act as third-party custodians of the peace agreement, to show leadership and bring people together when things aren’t going so well, as the prime minister, taoiseach and US president did during the peace process and have always done in the decades since. It isn’t statesmanlike, or mature, or politically clever, to make a promise to the unionist community in this fragile post-conflict society and to renege on that promise, as the Prime Minister did when he agreed to put a trade border down the Irish Sea. 

Starmer has indicated for the first time that he is happy to lean into this question and the bigger differences with Johnson that it exposes. It isn’t just about Brexit or Northern Ireland. The Labour leader is asking people to consider the Prime Minister’s entire approach to politics, and to ask: which one of us models responsible leadership, and which one of us is the serious politician?

[See also: The return of the Celts]