The British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is facing pressure within his party after he said he would campaign for the north of Ireland to remain under British rule if there was a referendum on reunification in his lifetime.
Starmer, who took over the role of Labour Party leader from Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, was speaking during a two-day visit to Ireland when he said he does not think a border poll on the unity of Ireland will happen any time soon.
Should a unity vote happen, however, he said he will campaign for the Six Counties to remain under London’s thumb because, he says, “I believe in the United Kingdom”.
Speaking to the BBC, Starmer’s political clanger on Ireland offended his party’s left-wing support base. He also offered a contradictory response to the question of whether Britain would leave Ireland alone to decide its future.
“I respect the principle that the decision, in the end, is for the people of the island of Ireland,” Starmer said. Bizarrely, he added: “I personally, as leader of the Labour Party, believe in the United Kingdom strongly, and would want to make the case for a United Kingdom strongly and will be doing that.”
The Labour politician added that he does not think a border poll or a United Ireland “is in sight” and claimed the question was “hypothetical”.
Tracking polls showed a drop in support for Labour in the aftermath of the comments.
On social media, there were scores of negative comments by Irish nationalist members of Labour and its ‘sister party’ in the north of Ireland, the SDLP.
One member who publicly resigned received more than 600 ‘likes’ for a post which denounced the Labour leader’s comments as “right wing”.
“A United Ireland is the future of Ireland,” he wrote. “It’s for the people of NI to decide our fate. Unionist or Nationalist. Not for British politicians paying lip service whilst not actually caring for our home or our people.”
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane also denounced Starmer’s comments.
“The conversation on the constitutional future of our island is to the fore of political discourse like never before, it is disappointing that British Labour leader Keir Starmer has failed to acknowledge this,” said the north Belfast MP.
“Keir Starmer is arguing a unionist position as a British political leader but he cannot ignore the fact that a growing number of people from across different traditions on the island are now reassessing the merits of reunification as a means to re-entry into the EU, of which Brexit has been a catalyst.
“The reality is that it will be the people of Ireland who will decide our future in a unity referendum.”
He said the remarks represented a clear shift away from the supposed British Labour policy to act as a neutral broker on the north.
“The Irish community in Britain has long supported the unification of Ireland and also traditionally supported the British Labour Party, the party must heed the voice of this community and not act as a barrier to national self determination in Ireland.”
Political commentator Tom Collins described Starmer’s rejection of Irish reunification as “an appalling misjudgement”.
“It represents a kick in the teeth for the Good Friday Agreement, and is an affront to the Irish people – north and south,” he wrote in the Irish News.
“As with the Conservatives, the British Labour Party has no mandate to interfere with the right of the Irish people to determine their own future.
“Starmer’s sole responsibility is to help facilitate a reunification vote, take no part in it, and ensure the result is implemented.
“For him to say to an Irish audience, “I believe in the United Kingdom”, demonstrates ignorance and insensitivity. It’s a blunder of Johnsonian proportions.
“This is another nail in his disappointing leadership. He won’t last.”