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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July, 2003, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Labour NI ban 'could be lifted'
Labour conference
The recommendation will have to be approved at the party's conference
People living in Northern Ireland could soon be allowed to join the Labour Party, after its national executive committee (NEC) agreed in principle to a change in its rules.

The NEC said it was committed to non-discriminatory practices, following a meeting on Tuesday.

Labour has traditionally given its links with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the key reason for not extending membership to people in Northern Ireland.

The recommendation from the national executive will have to be approved at the party's annual conference in September.

Northern Ireland-based trade unionist Andy McGivern had challenged the ban as racist, claiming it discriminated against people from the province.

Mr McGivern said he still planned to challenge the ban on grounds of race in the courts, and the County Court in London has set 11 November as the date for a hearing into the GMB trade unionist's challenge.

"I will pursue the right for people in Northern Ireland to become Labour Party members until I actually have a membership card in my hand," he said.

Trade unionist Andy McGivern
I am just an ordinary socialist who wants to join the Labour Party. It is as simple as that
Andy McGivern
GMB trade unionist
Former Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Kevin McNamara had warned that a rule change could lead to a clash with the SDLP and see the party "bogged down in court cases and internal wrangling" if they lifted the ban.

Mr McGivern said: "With regard to the Labour Party being dragged into the politics in Northern Ireland, Labour are already involved in politics in Northern Ireland.

"They make decisions on our taxes. For example, they're about to introduce water charges.

"We're left in a situation where, if they introduce those water charges, we in Northern Ireland do not have any way of making the Labour Party accountable for those. It's like a dictatorship."

Mr McNamara said a rule change -"the biggest change of party policy since 1991" - would put Labour in opposition to a pro-Good Friday Agreement party.

The Hull North MP said: "Allowing the recruitment of individual members sets the Labour Party in unwilling competition with the SDLP but that is only the first and most immediate consequence.

Kevin McNamara
Mr McNamara said change could lead to division
"I believe that a rule change could trigger a legal and political chain reaction that would result in the party of government being dragged into the maelstrom of Northern Ireland internal politics on the side of hard-line integrationists.

"Well-meaning Labour Party members may be frustrated with the lack of progress and despair of sectarian division in Northern Ireland politics but they should remember that the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, endorsed and sustained by Northern Ireland parties."

However, Mr McGivern said: "I am just an ordinary socialist who wants to join the Labour Party. It is as simple as that.

"I do not see the SDLP as representing the socialist voice in Northern Ireland and that is on both sides of the community."

Boyd Black of the Labour Party in NI welcomed the proposals.

"Clearly we have to wait for the Labour party conference in late September, but we can hopefully look forward to the day when we can start building non-sectarian politics here on the basis of labour values."




WATCH AND LISTEN
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport
"Labour is divided over the move"



SEE ALSO:
SDLP MPs criticised in Commons
14 Apr 03  |  Northern Ireland
SDLP rejects Commons criticism
15 Apr 03  |  Northern Ireland


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