by Theo Russell
THE QUESTION of the British Labour Party organising and standing in elections in the north of Ireland came under the spotlight on June 27 at a highly successful meeting organised by Islington North Labour Party on the future of the Irish peace process.
The meeting brought together Martina Anderson, a Sinn Féin delegate on the Northern Ireland Policing Committee and director of the party's unionist outreach programme; Sammy Wilson of the DUP; Rodney McEwan of the UUP and Paul Callaghan of the SDLP.
Martina Anderson, who spent several years in Armagh womens' gaol during the conflict, focused on the need to tackle poverty and deprivation affecting both communities in the north of Ireland.
She said there were 100,000 pensioners and 50,000 children living in poverty, and 3,000 people a year dying from poverty-related causes, and quoted accountants Price Cooper Waterhouse who described Northern Ireland as a "basket-case economy".
Speaking of the class divisions in the north, she said "there are comfortable people in both our communities who want to keep our communities apart, who do not want a society predicated on equality and human rights for all the marginalised groups."
Another key issue at the meeting was that of Irish unity. Paul Callaghan said the consequences of a divided country for past 80 years, and the conflict which arose from that, could not be ignored.
"The question now is to build a country which is reconciled with itself and bringing the unionist community into the mainstream of Irish political life, without which unity is impossible," said Mr Callaghan.
He added that people in the north of Ireland should look to the Irish Republic's National Development Plan when planning their own economic strategy.
The DUP's Sammy Wilson disappointed everyone by speaking as if nothing had changed in the past decade. He said the unionist community was unhappy with "the release of terrorists, the actions of Sinn Féin ministers and attacks on the police. Sinn Féin wants to be in government while running guns, committing murders and running spy rings."
He did however add that the DUP "wants devolution on a basis which would actually last."
Rodney McEwan of the UUP claimed that the British government had "made direct rule as uncomfortable as possible," using cross-community issues such as the 11 plus exams and water rates to encourage the parties to make a deal on power-sharing.
But he sparked a lively debate when he called on the British Labour Party to "look seriously at organising in Northern Ireland" and "give people the chance to vote for a party of national power".
Paul Callaghan responded by saying that if any Labour Party was to organise in the north, "it should be the Irish Labour Party".
A member of Islington North Labour Party said that if the party began organising in Northern Ireland it would be "upholding unionism", while a labour councillor from Finchley described such a move as "colonial".
In the debate over whether to retain the 11 plus exam - which is failed by 80 per cent of children in north of Ireland - the nationalist parties were all strongly against while unionist parties in favour.
Sammy Wilson, who was the first person in his entire extended family to continue in education after 16, said the 11 plus was preferable to "families buying their way into the best schools".
But Martina Anderson said working class people from both communities were losing out with only 5 per cent of their children passing the 11 plus, and the rest left "feeling useless".
In the discussion, the writer Ken Keable said the Inquiries Act of 2005 was "designed to enable a cover-up of cases such as those of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson", adding that a massive new MI5 building was being constructed on the outskirts of Belfast.
Speaking of her role on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Martina said its purpose was to monitor the police and "hold the PSNI to account for all of the people ". A proposal by the Chief Constable to purchase Taser guns in Belfast had already been put back to the Equalities Commission.
"We don't want partisan policing, we don't want political policing, and we don't want collusion and we need to make sure all that is past and gone," she said. "Hopefully every decent person in the north wants that."
The peace process will begin to bear fruit in the coming months with Sinn Féin joining District Policing Committees in the north, the transfer of policing and justice powers from London next May, and the vreation of the north-south parliamentary forum.
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Copyright © 2007 Theo Russell