Brian Feeney: Keir Starmer terrified of putting foot wrong

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 leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives at Parliament Buildings during a visit to Northern Ireland last year
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives at Parliament Buildings during a visit to Northern Ireland last year Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives at Parliament Buildings during a visit to Northern Ireland last year

On Saturday this newspaper correctly asked for “clarity” from Sir Keir Starmer on his criteria for calling a referendum on Irish reunification. It’s unlikely he will do so for a variety of reasons.

First, the main criticism of the Labour leader, both from inside and outside his party, is that he is not clear about where he stands on anything, or indeed what he stands for. There have been several articles in British newspapers and magazines with titles like ‘Who is Keir Starmer?’ or ‘What does Starmer stand for?’

Nevertheless, on the question of Irish reunification, Starmer has been uncharacteristically clear. He told the BBC in 2021 that in the event of a referendum he would campaign on the unionist side.

This misjudged interference in Irish self-determination raised eyebrows on both sides of the Irish Sea. Jeremy Corbyn reminded people of the remark again when he spoke at the Féile last week. He said: “I don’t know where he got that from. I’m sure he’s read the Good Friday Agreement.”

The GFA is quite specific. Starmer, like everyone else in Britain, will have no vote on the question. As the Agreement states in carefully chosen words: “It is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination.”

Starmer’s was a crass intervention, a product of the English politics of the time. There is no doubt he will ditch it, as he has done with all his campaign promises when he ran for Labour leader.

In 2021, when he said it, he believed he could not afford to be accused of being ‘weak on the union’ by Johnson and England’s right-wing, Conservative-supporting newspapers.

At present his path to Downing Street lies through winning an extra 20 seats in Scotland and he won’t do that supporting Scottish independence. When he told the BBC “I believe in the United Kingdom”, it was the union of England and Scotland that was foremost in his mind. That’s the real issue at stake for Britain.

However, don’t underestimate Starmer’s conservatism, support for the establishment and status quo. He’s no longer the radical human rights lawyer of 30 years ago when he made his name.

Some lawyers criticised him for his role in having the conviction of paratrooper Private Lee Clegg for killing Karen Reilly overturned on appeal in 1999. During the three months of the appeal Starmer regularly went for ‘kickabouts with the squaddies’ at Palace barracks, according to a lawyer on the case.

He made his name acting pro bono for the McLibel two in the 1990s in a seven-year grind against fast food giant McDonalds.

One of his clients, Helen Steel, discovered the man she was in a relationship with during the case was an undercover policeman. In 2015 she won damages from the Metropolitan police.

Imagine her surprise last October when Starmer ordered his MPs to abstain on the Conservative bill granting immunity to ‘spy-cops’. She wasn’t the only one. Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, of the same chambers as Starmer, and Shami Chakrabarti, former shadow cabinet member, both rebelled in the Lords. Dominic Grieve KC, former Tory attorney-general, also expressed concern.

Chakrabarti and others complain that Starmer doesn’t explain why he’s changed his mind on important topics. She said: “I think we have to say when we changed our mind, or just take people with us on the journey, so that they understand that that was an authentic expression of where I was at that time, but this is where I am now.”

At present Starmer, who’s only been in elected politics eight years, is so scared of putting a foot wrong, repeating Neil Kinnock’s fate, that he is shadowing Conservative policy. He’s giving many hostages to fortune.

Many U-turns lie ahead including his error on Ireland, but then nobody in England cares about that.