Brendan Howlin calls for parties to work together to help NI social democrats

The UK and Irish labour parties will work together to provide a voice for social democrats in Northern Ireland following the SDLP’s link-up with Fianna Fail, Brendan Howlin has said.

The Irish Labour Party leader said he has already held lengthy discussions with Jeremy Corbyn on how their respective parties will respond to the development.

He also called on the Party of European Socialists (PES) – of which the SDLP, Irish and UK labour parties are all members – to investigate whether the SDLP should remain part of the political grouping.

Mr Howlin was in Belfast on Monday to hear the views of a range of people aligned with the labour tradition, including members of the SDLP who opposed the partnership with Fianna Fail.

“I think there is a significant view within the SDLP that they want to hold onto the Labour Party tradition, the John Hume tradition, the Party of European Socialists tradition, which is really important,” he said.

Mr Howlin, who was accompanied by Labour senator Ged Nash, also met with members of the Labour Party NI, the Co-operative Party, trade unionists and academics.

Asked if he would countenance running candidates north of the border, Mr Howlin told the Press Association: “We haven’t ruled anything out, but we have no illusions about our strength either.

“We are still in development phase, redevelopment and rebuilding phase in the Republic.

“There are those coming to talk to me today who are encouraging the Labour Party to do that (run in Northern Ireland), there are others who would prefer that we would support the British Labour Party to do that.

“My own view is we need to have dialogue between both British and Irish labour parties to see how we can jointly support the creation of an entity that would be a social democratic labour party that is one that continues a tradition.

“I have spoken with Jeremy Corbyn, I met him at the last PES (Party of European Socialists) congress two weeks ago in Madrid and we had a long discussion about this.

“We have obviously concerns about any formal link between a party that is still a member of the European Socialists and a non-PES party.

“Fianna Fail is a member of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) group in the European family and our view, both British Labour Party and our own, is that these are questions that need to be answered now by the PES.

“They have to investigate to see how close is this relationship and are they moving away from social democracy and, if that is the case, then obviously they can no longer be a member of the PES family.”

The Labour TD said he was “disappointed” how SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had handled the issue, noting that the Foyle MLA had not called him to let him know his intentions.

“I am disappointed, I am disappointed he didn’t discuss this with me because we have met and spoken at European Socialist leaders’ conferences in the past,” he said.

“He didn’t attend either the last two PES leaders’ meetings and he didn’t attend the last British Labour Party conference.

“I don’t know whether he just didn’t want to have that level of discussion.

“We have worked together for a very long time. I asked him directly and I wasn’t briefed about what was happening. That’s fine. The SDLP is its own party, it determines its own direction, from a Labour Party perspective I am just interested in ensuring that Labour Party values are maintained across the island of Ireland.”

He said former SDLP leader Mark Durkan did ring him to discuss his decision to stand for Fine Gael in the European elections – a move he described as “surprising”.

SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill, who is a former Labour Party senator in the Oireachtas, was among those who met Mr Howlin on Monday.

She described their discussion as an “informal chat”.

“I think it’s healthy – obviously a discussion needs to be had,” she said.

“The SDLP have changed – through the 70% vote of its membership – the relationship with the Labour Party by going into partnership with Fianna Fail.”

Ms Cahill said she was content to remain a member of the SDLP, having received assurances from Mr Eastwood.

“I was an advocate of partnership with all of the parties in the south, because I believe that is actually more healthy in relation to politics here.

“The SDLP is a broad church. I have spoken to Colum and am quite happy that he has agreed to allow Labour to continue to help and support people who are running for election and, on that basis, I am still a member of the SDLP.”

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