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Labour can’t ignore Northern Ireland forever

The place is a thorn in the side of the United Kingdom, but without caution it could turn much more poisonous.

By Finn McRedmond

On the second day of the Conservative Party’s general election campaign, Rishi Sunak delivered a speech in Belfast on a site previously occupied by the Harland and Wolff shipyard. The company – once the soul of Northern Irish industry and the most prolific builder of ocean liners in the world – is most famous for the RMS Titanic. Considering the disastrous trajectory of the Conservative campaign, burdened by the D-Day gaffe and the ongoing betting scandal, it was a clairvoyant opening.

Northern Ireland is the stone in the shoe of the United Kingdom. Its border with the Republic of Ireland upended the logic of Brexit. The Northern Irish state drains the Treasury of resources. Its peace was hard won but is frequently on the brink of falling apart. And the sensibilities of the electorate – which is still deeply divided along sectarian lines – are foreign and difficult to grasp for the mainland. Now that power sharing has been restored in the devolved administration of Stormont, the calculation made by the Conservatives and Labour is cautious and sensible: leave the fragile region be.

Given this, it is unsurprising that the only attention Northern Ireland has received in the run-up to 4 July is by way of a heavy-handed Titanic metaphor. Westminster’s lack of interest in the region is both endemic and understandable. The state has always been anomalous to the mainland. It prefers its own political parties (Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party, with a coterie of smaller parties plugging the gaps) to the forces dominant in the rest of the UK. Labour fields no candidates there; the Conservatives do in practice but certainly not in spirit. Of the 18 MPs elected on 4 July, six or seven are expected to come from Sinn Féin. They will not take their seats.

The election will play out along predictable lines. Thanks to devolution, daily political anxieties – the cost of living, education, policing – are channelled through Stormont. But in Westminster elections, Northern Ireland’s voters instead cleave to their historic tribes: nationalists will vote mainly for Sinn Féin; unionists for the DUP or the smaller Ulster Unionist Party or Traditional Unionist Voice. These hardwired allegiances tend not to change. The non-sectarian Alliance, which has no position on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, is the third largest party but will not return seats in a meaningful number. This election is green vs orange, and whatever its results Northern Ireland will be far from the immediate worries of an incoming Labour government.

But its absence from the national conversation has a frustrating parallel in Brexit. The Irish border came to decide the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union. The diagnosis was simple: a border on the island of Ireland was unconscionable to the republican community (and Dublin). A border in the Irish Sea represented a serious betrayal to unionists, as it pushed Northern Ireland closer to the Republic and served to separate the region from mainland Britain. The EU required a border to exist somewhere to protect its market. This was an intractable problem with the Brexit project, known long before June 2016.

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But it was conspicuously missing from the referendum campaign – both Remain and Leave understood that the legacy of the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement was not going to galvanise voters in either direction. Questions of awkward trading arrangements will always fail to capture the hearts and minds of the electorate. Little has changed: Keir Starmer would gain nothing from prodding the constitutional questions posed by Northern Ireland now. Ignoring these issues remains electorally expedient.

Within all of this, however, a greater existential anxiety looms for Labour. Its apparent Brexit omertà in this campaign makes strategic sense, as the party manages an uneasy coalition between Leave and Remain voters. But at some point it must face a difficult truth: the Brexit project, still without proper reconciliation, reveals the fundamental contradictions at the heart of Northern Ireland.

On the one hand, it makes the economic case for a united Ireland abundantly clear: a one-foot-in, one-foot-out policy is not sustainable. On the other, a return to the customs union with the EU could ease the region’s ills, but Starmer would risk accusations of betraying the Leave-voting base he has been trying to court. Brexit revealed a truth long accepted but rarely uttered: the absolutism of Brexit is anathema to the constructive ambiguity built into Northern Ireland’s DNA. This is not a problem that goes away by simply refusing to acknowledge it exists.

Northern Ireland changed the fate of Brexit, undermined Theresa May’s premiership thanks to a truculent DUP and Tory infighting, and paved the way for Boris Johnson’s bolshy Brexit-at-all-costs administration. It’s not the first time that the island of Ireland has changed the trajectory of the UK’s politics – and yet its significance still seems to elude most Westminster politicians.

Years of chronic neglect have left Northern Ireland full of unionists who feel betrayed by the government they pledge allegiance to, and nationalists who hardly need another reason to proclaim the illegitimacy of the United Kingdom’s seat of government. It may make sense for a cautiously run election campaign to continue to ignore Northern Ireland. But without care this thorn in the side of British politics could fast become something much more poisonous.

[See also: Labour’s women problem]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine