N. Ireland Politics

Northern Ireland 'will have Labour candidates'

Members have been told they will be ineligible to remain a member of the Labour Party if they stand in the assembly election
Image caption Eight unofficial Labour candidates stood in this month's assembly election

A former Labour MP has said Northern Ireland will see Labour candidates in future elections, even if the party hierarchy rejects a call to officially stand in NI.

Eight unofficial Labour candidates stood in May's assembly election.

Andrew Mackinlay said they would do so again in future polls.

The Labour Party allows membership in Northern Ireland, but does not field candidates. The issue is being examined by senior Labour figures in London.

Mr Mackinlay, the former Thurrock MP, told the BBC: "Even if the party hierarchy don't back local candidates, there will be candidates, of that I am sure.

"I am fairly sure there is a degree of inevitability that Labour headquarters and the general secretary and the NEC will acquiesce."

Under the banner of the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee, eight party members defied the wish of headquarters and polled a total of 1,500 votes.

Image caption Kathryn Johnston accepted the candidates had polled disappointingly

Kathryn Johnston, who ran for the group in North Antrim, accepted it was a disappointing total, but said there were difficulties getting the name on the ballot paper.

She said the total "was quite low", but said party activists would continue to fight elections in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party was once a political heavyweight and in elections in the 1960s and in 1970 polled nearly 100,000 votes.

Dr Aaron Edwards, an author and historian who has written about the Labour movement in Northern Ireland, said it is clear Conservative and Labour candidates find life difficult in Northern Ireland elections.

He said the majority of electors vote on traditional unionist and nationalist lines and there is "no sign of that softening".

For the Northern Ireland Conservatives the recent assembly election was disappointing.

The Tories polled 2,500 votes across 12 constituencies which was a drop of 26% on their 2007 figure.

Image caption Neil Wilson was one of 12 Conservative candidates in the assembly election

Frank Shivers, who ran as a candidate in North Down, admitted it was a poor result. He told BBC NI's The View': "We were obviously very disappointed as a party, very disappointed."

The low poll in this month's Assembly election is a far cry from 1992 when the Conservatives got 44,000 votes across Northern Ireland in the general election.

Former Conservative Party activist Shiela Davidson thinks the Northern Ireland Tories will not grow politically unless they change tack.

She was involved with Conservatives back in 2010 at the time of their electoral alliance with the UUP.

The prominent businesswoman has since left the party and said both the Northern Ireland Labour and Conservative groups are seen as irrelevant.

She said they are "very much bit players in reality here. They are not considered to be serious. They don't really have very good or heavyweight representation".

Despite the poor results, Conservative MPs are keen that voters in Northern Ireland get the chance to vote Tory.

Nigel Mills, a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said it was "important the parties engage with voters across the UK".

Labour Party activists in Northern Ireland hope that the party will agree to officially stand candidates in the 2019 local council elections and in the 2021 assembly poll.

Labour Peer Lord Soley, who was once a party spokesman on Northern Ireland, has some sympathy for the NI activists' campaign, but has urged caution.

Image caption Sheila Davidson said both Labour and the Conservatives were "bit players" in Northern Ireland

"I think what we need to know is to think through the consequences. There is an impact on our sister party the SDLP and there will be an impact on them," he said.

It is clear senior figures in the Labour Party and the Conservatives have some thinking to do.

Labour officials must decide if Northern Ireland is a battleground they really want to officially compete in.

It is a crowded market and at the assembly election voters had a variety of left-wing parties to choose from, including the cross-community Labour Alternative and People Before Profit, which had two candidates elected to Stormont.

The Conservatives also have some thinking to do.

They must consider how they can stand out from the other unionist parties and what they can do to address a vote share that is in decline.

The View is on BBC One tonight at 22:45 BST.