Brian Feeney: Starmer’s Labour is just the new Conservative party

Stormont visit was merely exercise in performative politics

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are expected to be guests at the Japanese state banquet
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer with then Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Monday’s exhibition of colonial forelock-tugging from some of the parties here was nauseating. What a privilege to be noticed by the great white chief deigning to visit from the imperial parliament.

And what gifts did he bestow on the natives? None. It was an exercise in performative politics which Starmer had promised not to engage in if elected.

There were some positives. He committed to the Good Friday Agreement and stepped back from the mistake he made last year, showing how little he knows about the north, when he promised to campaign for the union.

Having read his brief, he now acknowledges his role in the north is to be an honest broker – and as Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said, that means ‘rigorous impartiality’ as the GFA demands.

Equally important, Starmer committed to reset relations with the Republic. He had already spoken to the taoiseach.

Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn, First Minister Michelle O’Neill, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly and Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer at Stormont Castle
Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer with (left to right) Secretary of State Hilary Benn, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (Niall Carson/PA)

A lot of the rest of Starmer’s comments were garbage. For example: “My government has a mandate for change and stability here in Northern Ireland and a different way of doing politics.”

He has no mandate whatsoever in the north, first because he didn’t field any candidates and therefore no-one voted for him, but secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because the greater number of MPs here are from Sinn Féin who don’t accept Westminster’s right to govern any part of Ireland and want nothing to do with the Westminster parliament. Starmer ignored that particular stone in his shoe.

Now let’s look at Starmer’s position from a broader perspective. We were told by some of the fawning sycophants that Starmer “has a detailed grasp” of the north, that “he gets it”. No, he doesn’t.

In his dealings with the north over 20 years ago he played a crucial role in establishing the human rights requirements for the new PSNI. Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about the politics, culture or history of this place. In fact the evidence is that his knowledge of the history is scant.

His time as DPP also provides evidence of an authoritarian streak. After the 2011 urban riots in England, many thought Starmer overreacted setting up special 24-hour courts and prosecuting too many teenagers for offences that were minor. One got 16 months for stealing two scoops of ice cream. The young human rights lawyer operating out of Doughty Street chambers was a long time ago.

Sir Keir Starmer said he understood the issues that had been raised with him
Sir Keir Starmer said he understood the issues that had been raised with him (Liam McBurney/PA)

On Starmer’s approach to the north’s economic woes, we are none the wiser. Then again, no-one in England is either. Some people fondly believe that Starmer stuck to the Conservative playbook in order not to frighten the horses and once he’s got his feet under the desk he will revert to a left-wing agenda. Others think he has at least as many faces as Belfast’s Albert Clock.

Again, that’s wishful thinking. Starmer is not a socialist. He’s not even a social democrat. He said in his first remarks as prime minister that he will be “unburdened by dogma”.

Those pleading on Monday for more largesse for this place will be disappointed. The new proconsul, ‘his master’s voice’, has already warned Starmer wants more money raised locally; just like the Conservatives. He will not lift the two-child cap, he will not raise benefits, his improvements to the NHS and education in England are minuscule – 6,500 teachers. Huh.

Starmer repeats ad nauseam that he has changed the Labour party. He talks about ‘my’ Labour party. You’d better believe him. What he means is that ‘his’ Labour party is in fact the new Conservative party of Britain.

What a privilege to be noticed by the great white chief deigning to visit from the imperial parliament. And what gifts did he bestow on the natives? None

Unlike the old Labour party, Starmer’s party believes in the virtues of private capital and economic growth through high finance and free markets. Rachel Reeves said so on Monday. The old Labour ambition of tackling inequality has gone.

Starmer’s main difference with the ousted Conservatives is his objection to their chaotic, incompetent, dishonest venality, not their economic principles.

At least Mary Lou McDonald kept her eye on the ball and warned him it would be “foolhardy to bury your head in the sand” about a border poll.