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Sinn Féin’s surge sparks ‘debate’ in UK Labour


LONDON — The U.K. Labour Party should consider supporting the reunification of Ireland in light of Sinn Féin’s success in this month’s Irish election, one of the party’s senior MPs said.

A shadow Cabinet member — and ally of leader Jeremy Corbyn and Rebecca Long Bailey, a leading candidate to succeed him — said whether Labour should back Sinn Féin would be “a key issue” for the party at its annual conference in September. The party, which spans the border on the island of Ireland has historic associations with terrorist movement the Irish Republican Army.

“The Sinn Féin manifesto was basically our manifesto, so you can see a surge for our kind of politics,” the MP said. “Obviously we currently support the Social Democratic and Labour Party, but whether or not we should back Sinn Féin is a debate that should be had in the party. We have had people fighting for many years about the reunification of Ireland.”

Outgoing party leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced criticism for meeting then Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams during the height of the Troubles in the 1980s. The Labour Party is currently debating its future direction as it searches for a new leader following a disastrous performance in the U.K.’s December election.

A closer relationship with Sinn Féin could also put at risk Labour’s historic ties with the SDLP, which was previously the most popular nationalist party in Northern Ireland. The SDLP has taken a more moderate approach to Irish unification than Sinn Féin, having recognized the need for public consent from the outset.

“For Labour to switch horses to Sinn Féin would be quite a statement” — Muiris MacCarthaigh, university lecturer

But Sinn Féin overtook the SDLP in popularity in Northern Ireland in the early 2000s, and despite a lacklustre performance in Northern Ireland at the 2019 general election, the hardline republican party has continued to make strides in Ireland, where the SDLP does not stand.

Earlier this month, Sinn Féin won 37 seats at the Irish election (opponents Fianna Fáil and Fine Gail won 38 and 35 respectively) and clinched the biggest vote share with 24.5 percent compared with 21 percent and 22 percent for the other two.

The breakthrough was largely attributed to the offer of big increases in public sector spending, on things like council house building, rent reduction measures, healthcare and the abolition of tuition fees — all part of Labour’s 2019 manifesto.

“For Labour to switch horses to Sinn Féin would be quite a statement,” said Muiris MacCarthaigh, a lecturer in politics at Queen’s University Belfast, “but maybe not so radical any more from this side of the Irish Sea, given it is the largest party on the island [combining the Irish parliament and Northern Irish Assembly] and a party that is becoming more active on traditional left-wing ground.”

Which political side will Labour support in Northern Ireland? | Leon Neal/Getty Images

He noted that the SDLP in the north “was always a slightly unusual fit” for Labour, being a combination of Christian democrats and conservatism, as well as the more traditional social democrats that would appeal to the left. Indeed, In January 2019 the SDLP formed a partnership with Fianna Fáil in the south, which represents the center-right.

SDLP leader and Westminster MP Colum Eastwood gave a muted response. “In my experience, Labour MPs and the Labour Party Irish Society are fully supportive of our relationship and are incredibly proud of our achievements over the last twenty years. I look forward to building on that work,” he said.

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Minister Lloyd Russell-Moyle dismissed suggestions the party could switch allegiances, arguing anyone pushing for a change was “trying to cause trouble.” He accepted that Labour might have to support a referendum on a united Ireland if the right conditions are met, but added: “What we must not allow is for those conditions to be gerrymandered one way or another because we take a political decision.”

Russell-Moyle also noted: “I haven’t had any conversation in the Labour Party about [backing Sinn Féin] whatsoever. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue whatsoever at the next Labour Party conference.”

Another Labour MP said: “Corbyn’s perceived links to the IRA went down catastrophically on the doorstep. Moving closer to Sinn Féin would simply make things worse.”



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