Friday, October 29, 2010

The Future Of Northern Ireland

The Belfast-based "News Letter" is hosting a debate on the future of the Union in 2021, the 100th anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland. My contribution to this series appeared in the paper on 13 October under the following title. Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Peter Robinson, David Trimble and Sir Reg Empey are amongst the previous contributers to the discussion. My article appears below -


Economic cuts could harm Northern Ireland's path to peace argues blogger and former Labour MP Harry Barnes.

Published Date: 13 October 2010

Although progress has not always been smooth since the time of the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland has moved into an era marked by relative peace and reconciliation.

One clear possibility for the coming decade is that this progress will continue and the conflicts of the past will be minimised.

A new generation given a favourable context will be capable of transcending past divisions.

Yet even given that we now live in a more mobile society, the social bonds of upbringing are likely to remain strong enough for most people to retain commitments to their respective unionist and republican backgrounds.

As the unionists are in the majority and the prospect of being surpassed via a higher Catholic birth rate declines, majority support for the Union should remain.

If a period of relative peace delivers sufficient prosperity, then increasing numbers of republican sympathisers are likely to give a de facto acceptance to the Union.

This is especially the case to the extent that cross-border links have been developed and seem likely to extend.

The above pattern is one that I would anticipate and find attractive.

Constitutionally Northern Ireland would remain in the Union, but economically and socially the island of Ireland would become more integrated.

There are, however, some stark economic circumstances which could disrupt such developments.

The coalition government is keen to cut Northern Ireland’s dependence on public services and its bill for welfare benefits.

So unless those dependent on these avenues of expenditure act in a common defence of their interests via bodies such as trade unions, then there is a danger that under deprivation both Catholic and Protestant communities might be used by extremists to turn against each other.

So efforts to see that Northern Ireland’s politicians reflect a common stance to protect the province’s social and economic well-being are also priorities.

There is also a danger that social and economic integration across the whole of the island of Ireland will be seriously hampered by the economic crisis which has hit the Republic.

I take it as a fact of life over the next ten years that there will be comfortable continuing majority support for the maintenance of the Union.

This does not, however, need a form of unionist political unity in the assembly nor at Westminster.

I have long been an advocate of the Labour Party coming to function fully in Northern Ireland whilst making moves to draw its support from both the unionist and republican traditions.

Yet I do not envisage a major breakthrough by Labour in Northern Ireland by 2021, although I would take what can be got.

It needs, however, to be recognised that the growth of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland politics is itself likely to be seen by many unionists as a reason for their clubbing together.

This does not mean that outside of the constitutional objectives of both unionism and republicanism that common ground cannot be sought on issues such as housing, education, health services, benefits and employment.

When it comes to assembly elections in a democratic sense any winner (Sinn Fein or otherwise) is acceptable in providing a first minister.

Whether such a person is someone who is acceptable in the sense of being almost likeable seems to me to depend first of all on how committed they are to the process of peace and reconciliation.

It is then a matter of judging their economic and social programme. For me Sinn Fein and any another party needs to prove its worth according to its practices.

Harry Barnes was Labour MP for North East Derbyshire from 1987-2005, during which time he served on the Northern Ireland Select Committee, the British-Irish Parliamentary Body, was joint-president of New Dialogue and worked with the Peace Train. His political blog is at http://threescoreyearsandten.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

People Who Are Just Like Me

I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was probably exactly 50 years ago today that I embarked upon what they call a "life changing experience".

At 24 years of age and with a notable lack of educational attainment, I took leave of absence from my job as a railway clerk to embark upon a two year politics and economics course at Ruskin College - whilst retaining my free passes and privilege tickets.

I had been active for nearly three years as secretary of the Easington Colliery Local Labour Party and had undertaken another voluntary role as secretary of the Peterlee and District Fabian Society.

It was the latter involvement that drew me into attending a Fabian Weekend School at Oxford at the end of March 1960. It was held at the College's section at Headington which was used mainly for first year students.

Hugh Dalton, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland were amongst the speakers, whilst Bill Rogers was running the show as the Fabian's General Secretary.

I had no idea what Ruskin College was about until someone else attending the week-end school who had recently graduated from St. John's College, Oxford said "you should come here, it is for people like you". That is people with an interest in politics who lacked formal qualifications. It was the first time I knew that politics could be an academic subject.

Later in the year I saw an advert for the Ruskin courses in "Tribune". I immediately applied for something-I-knew-not-what as I was unmarried and had no major commitments.

Entry was based upon filling in an application form, writing a couple of essays (one was to try for a scholarship), plus an interview and three references. My referees were Mannie Shinwell the Constituency MP, my Union Branch Secretary and a former teacher who had joined our Local Labour Party in search of a headship in Labour dominated County Durham.

I had little idea as to what a Diploma Course entailed having left school at 16 with four low "O" levels and failures in what seemed to be the most important topics of Maths and English Language. It just seemed to me to be great that for two years in my life I could read books and write essays on politics and economics. After all the reason I had joined the Labour Party was to qualify to write an essay on nationalisation in a contest run by Mannie Shinwell, where I had taken the second prize of £3.

The subject I took to the most at Ruskin was Political Theory which opened up the way to reading theorists including Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill (on whom I wrote my best essay) and Karl Marx.

The photo at the start of this item was taken by Ann my future wife after the final exams and just before we all left Ruskin. The four on the photo were all fellow students and friends. I am the one in glasses at the back. Next is Ian Pickard whom I first met at the interviews at Transport House. Ann and I have visited Ian and Beryl his wife earlier this year. Ian became a Senior Lecturer in Communications at Wakefield College. Second from the front is the late Karl Hedderwick who was best man when Ann and I married in our native County Durham. He was also a colleague of mine at Sheffield University Extramural Department and in his final years had lived just a few hundred years from Ann and myself in our home in Dronfield. The chap at the front is Doug Chewter who was the only student in our year to obtain a distinction in the Oxford University Diploma. We keep in touch indirectly via the comment box of someone else's web-site.

Ann at Christchurch, Oxford on her visit in the summer of 1962

When I moved on to Hull University as an undergraduate my studies were shaped by my experiences at Ruskin. I dropped economics where my theory tutors report said that I showed a distinct ability to think for myself but at a rather superficial level ! I added philosophy to my politics studies as political philosophy and ethics seemed to me to add to my interests in political theory. After graduation I became a tutor in Sheffield University Extramural Department teaching Trade Unionists (especially NUM) in day release classes and other adults in an environment akin to that which I had experienced at Ruskin and in the areas of politics and theory which had then appealed to me.

Ruskin was the key to what I was engaged in from turning up their 50 years ago and for the next 27 years until I went on to serve for 18 years as an MP. Even then the discussion of political ideas was still central to much that I did; whether in the Commons, Committee meetings or political gatherings. Even in retirement I organise political discussion meetings for what looks very much like classes of adult students who are also labour movement activists. The Ruskin experience of the early 1960s shaped my life and, thankfully is still shaping it.

Also see -