(Image from www.niassembly.gov.uk)
I’m from California originally, but I’m a citizen of Belfast now. I care about making this city, and indeed, all of Northern Ireland, a safer and more peaceful, equitable, and prosperous place. I care because I live here, and plan on raising my family here. But I also care because wherever you live you must—from my perspective as a Christian—work to alleviate suffering and contribute to the building of a just society. For me, it’s a mandate of faith: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
Like many centre-left progressives in Northern Ireland, I am wondering what party represents the kind of world I would like to see. 2014 will be my first time voting in a Northern Irish election. I also thought it would be my first time campaigning. But Labour, who I joined in 2011, has decided not run candidates in Northern Ireland.
The National Executive Committee in England decided it would be unwise for the party to contend elections in Northern Ireland. Entering electoral contests here would, they say, split the social democratic vote, weaken the SDLP, a sister party, and possibly cause political damage to both the Irish Labour Party and the British Labour Party. The 350 members of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland will, if they decide to vote at all, now have to consider candidates from other parties.
There are excellent people in Northern Irish politics, who, on individual merit, are worthy of the votes they seek. But I don’t want to just vote my values, I want to live my values in the context of a political party. I want a party that seeks power, a party that I can campaign for and stand for, a party that supports all of its regional constituencies equally, a party that puts all the people of Northern Ireland before any communal interests. I wanted that party to be Labour.
Belonging to a Party
Joining a political party is a deeply personal decision that defines and shapes who you are and what you stand for. Longterm membership provides opportunities to join with others to see principles through to policy in order to make a real impact in the world.
Belonging to a party helps you to develop mature political thinking, understand the mechanics of our political institutions, and learn how to balance compromise and principles.
Last year, Andy Burnham MP, the Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Health, spoke here in Belfast to Labour members and guests about how as a young man he got involved with the party. He spoke of meeting key figures in Labour as a teenager, how involvement in the party shaped his life and his thinking, and how he eventually ran for party leader against Ed Milliband in 2010. This is a story I hope my future children, if they so desire, can tell.
What Labour has done by refusing to enter electoral politics here in Northern Ireland is to deny a generation of aspirant young progressives to have a career in party politics—at least in the context of a well-funded, multi-cultural, multi-regional party. It has denied Northern Irish young people the chance to meet and work with other progressives from different regions and cultures around the UK who nonetheless share certain core values and belong to the same party. That is something the SDLP does not, as a Northern Ireland-only party, offer.
I have no appetite for a five to ten to twenty year battle with party leaders in Britain over the right to organise electorally here in Northern Ireland. I am new to Labour and new to Northern Ireland and would rather explore other options before committing to such a fight.
I will be thinking long and hard about where I belong over the next year, and that might mean leaving Labour. Which means I am exploring Alliance and the SDLP, and at least learning more about the other parties here.
Over the next few months I will be writing about the various parties that exist here in Northern Ireland and asking: what do they stand for and could I belong?
In a post-conflict Northern Ireland where border polls, flag protests, and marches dominate the public political conversation, how does a Christian, socially-liberal, centre-left Californian engage in that conversation sensitively, but with real individual conviction? Can I help resolve those issues so that the city I live in—that I inhabit with my family—can be more peaceful, prosperous, and equitable? And when and how do you talk about austerity, bicycle lanes, mental health, ending child poverty (in all communities), and other important issues in our context?
I don’t want to spend my life without a political party. Maybe I need to take seriously that living in another country means adapting to a new landscape. Labour is my instinctual home, but perhaps I failed to appreciate the unique political situation here. Maybe local, Northern Ireland-specific parties are best. I don’t really know yet.
Democracy is dynamic, difficult, and dirty. But, in my opinion, it’s the best system we’ve got. When democracy fails, chaos reigns.
I am looking for a way to make a difference and contribute to good governance here in Northern Ireland. So, if you’re in a political party, don’t be surprised if I come knocking on your door to find out what you’re about. I’m looking for a political home.