We won’t be at the top of a Labour government’s agenda - Deirdre Heenan

Sue Gray’s role in Keir Starmer’s inner-circle will keep Northern Ireland on Labour’s radar but our problems are second-order compared to other challenges

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking at the launch of Scottish Labour’s General Election campaign
If Labour win the general election, the challenges facing Keir Starmer are so great that Northern Ireland's problems are unlikely to be given too much attention (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Rishi Sunak has taken a gamble and called a general election for July 4. The majority of his own MPs were blindsided, and many are unhappy at the prospect of losing their seats four months earlier than expected.

The timing is unusual. We have had not had a general election in July since 1945 and, more significantly, it is far from ideal for voters here. Many will have their traditional holidays booked - expect postal voting to be a feature of forthcoming discussions.

If, as the polls suggest, Labour is headed for electoral triumph, what will this mean for Northern Ireland? Many of the key issues such as health, education, childcare and housing are devolved, with power residing at Stormont.

Given the current financial landscape, it is fanciful to imagine that a new administration would mean a significant cash injection for the devolved regions.

Three of the DUP Westminster seats are at risk and Sinn Féin are eyeing up the possibility of completing a clean sweep: the largest Northern Ireland party in London, in Stormont and in local government. This would be a symbolic blow to unionism but, given their Westminster abstentionism, how much of a change would this actually bring? Will we be ushering in a new era or expect business as usual?

It is blatantly obvious that recent Conservative administrations had little or no emotional attachment to Northern Ireland. The Conservative and Unionist Party has repeatedly shafted Ulster Unionists.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast with outgoing NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris on the latest leg of his election campaign tour in Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was in Belfast on Friday (Mal McCann)

Support for the union remains prominent in Conservative rhetoric but years of toxic debates repeatedly demonstrated that, when push came to shove, Brexit took priority over the union. Dominic Cummings famously quipped that he wouldn’t care if Northern Ireland “fell into the f****ing sea”. In 2019 a poll revealed that a majority of Tory members would rather see the break-up of the union than Brexit not taking place.

It would seem that the current cognitive dissonance is that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley. However, that doesn’t mean that both have to be governed in exactly the same way, or indeed subject to the same laws or regulations.

The DUP watched in dismay as their erstwhile friends in the hard-right of the Tory party decided to prioritise “getting Brexit done” over the “precious union”. Despite his promises and bluster, Johnson dealt unionists a huge psychological blow.

What can we expect from a Keir Starmer-led Labour administration? What does the leader stand for? Starmer has successfully brought to an end Labour’s draining four-year civil war and united the party around more centrist policies.

Distancing himself from Jeremy Corbyn involved allaying unionist fears around reunification. He has been accused of being little more than a Tony Blair tribute act, without a vision or agenda for radical change.

To date there is very little clarity about what Labour are promising other than competence and an end to the Tory soap opera.

Traditionally the Labour party has been viewed as more sympathetic to nationalism than unionism. The SDLP is a sister party, but it is difficult to pinpoint what this longstanding link actually means.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray arrives at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Former senior civil servant Sue Gray is Keir Starmer’s chief of staff (Liam McBurney/PA)

Starmer is the Labour party’s most unionist leader in generations, and has repeatedly described himself as a committed unionist. If a referendum was held in his lifetime, he has said that he would campaign for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

According to him this is hypothetical as it is “not even on the horizon” - an attitude that has done little to endear him to nationalists.

The DUP might have cause to rejoice if Starmer is elected PM, as it could signal the beginning of the end of Irish Sea border. His ambition for closer alignment with the EU could negate the need for many of the checks.

On dealing with the past, both he and Hilary Benn, the shadow secretary of state, have repeatedly committed to repealing the Conservative’s toxic legacy act and return to fulfilling the human rights of victims and survivors. Benn has said that he would remove the immunity provisions in the act, and restore civil cases and inquests. Labour’s aim is to develop a system based on the principles agreed in the Stormont House Agreement.

This course of action would enable the Irish government to drop its legal challenge against the UK government and reset the dial on Anglo-Irish relations. The erosion of trust between London and Dublin over Brexit has upset the delicate equilibrium achieved by the Good Friday Agreement. The cavalier and reckless attitude to the fragile and delicate peace process caused a rupture that urgently requires recalibration.

There is also the fact that Sue Gray, as Starmer’s chief of staff, will ensure that issues here are kept on Labour’s agenda.

Any incoming UK government faces a series of daunting challenges, including low productivity, debt, immigration, NHS waiting lists and the pollution of rivers. The overarching aim will be to restore stability, end the Tory psychodrama and return to boring politics. In this context the north’s problems will be very much second order.