The idea of having a political party which is neutral on Northern Ireland’s sovereignty is not a new one. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland moved from a position of being a non-sectarian unionist party to one of being neutral at some time in the 1990s but they were not the pioneers of this concept. A much earlier example of a neutral political party is the old Northern Ireland Labour Party.
The NILP was formed in 1924. In its early years, it took no position on the partition of Ireland. Until 1949, it managed to stay neutral and managed to attract considerable support from both Protestants and Catholics. The stresses which forced the party out of neutrality were twofold.
On the one hand, there was the power and patronage of the Orange Order which supported the Ulster Unionists. As an organisation, the Orange Order used the power of its network to keep its membership in check, making it very difficult for the NILP to recruit from the Protestant Working class. One of the Orange Order’s practices was employment discrimination against non-members. A Protestant who was member of the organisation was likely to have much greater job prospects than one who was not. Consequently, most Protestants who were of a working class background supported the Ulster Unionists.
On the other hand, the new Irish Free State continued to adopt measures to affirm its distance from the United Kingdom.
In 1949, Ireland left the Commonwealth and declaring itself to be the Republic of Ireland. Ireland had thereby cut off its last link with the United Kingdom.
The Irish Declaration was ruthlessly exploited by the Ulster Unionists. Taking full advantage of the unease felt by Unionists, they immediately held a general election. That election saw the NI Labour Party’s vote collapse from 18.5% in 1945 to 7.1% in 1949. I am not suggesting that the 1949 Declaration was the sole reason for the collapse in the Labour vote or that all its share of the vote went to the Ulster Unionists. The period just after the Second World War marked a peak in support the Labour movement, just as it did in Britain. Furthermore, some of the lost vote went to the Nationalists. However, it was the Irish Declaration which led directly to the tragedy which happened next.
At the Northern Ireland Labour Party conference later that year, the party voted in favour of the Union with Great Britain. As a result, the party lost the support of most of its Nationalists. It was a tragedy because the party was beaten by the sectarian political system.
The consequences of that decision for Northern Ireland are hard to measure. Perhaps if it had survived, it would be a leading political party today. Probably the SDLP would not exist and it is difficult enough to see, at present, how and when a cross-community party of the left will emerge.
Since 1949, much water has passed under the bridge. The Orange Order is no longer the subversive powerhouse that it used to be. Civil Rights are on the statute book. The Republic of Ireland is now a mature, self-assured, state and a friend of Britain. The Good Friday agreement locks in the principle of consent, paving the way for more normal politics.
Many obstacles to normal politics remain. The problem of identity may actually have become more entrenched as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. The problems of toxicity will remain. But the problems which prevented the existence of a non-designated political party in 1949 no longer exist today.
The increase in support for the Alliance Party at the General Election may be an indication that the time for full-scale non-designated normal politics is soon to arrive.