The Labour leader Tony Blair last night suffered a damaging blow when a member of his front bench, Kevin McNamara, resigned, criticising the Blair approach to both trade unions and the Irish peace process.
Mr McNamara, who has been Labour spokesman on the civil service for the past year following eight years as Northern Ireland spokesman, announced his resignation in a tartly worded letter to Mr Blair.
His letter concluded with the sharp warning: "Continuous drift is a recipe for future disaster."
Mr McNamara, who is 61 and has been an MP since 1966, has for some time been regarded as out of favour with Labour's modernising tendency, and it came as no surprise when Mr Blair removed him from the Northern Ireland job last October.
As an MP (for Kingston upon Hull North) he is sponsored by the TGWU. He said in his letter: "I do not believe that it is the role of a Labour government to be neutral between the Social Partners. It cannot be if it is to advance the cause of social and economic justice for the majority in our society.
"The role of democratic socialism is not to be an ambulance man to capitalism or to prop up the markets, social or otherwise."
The bulk of his letter dwelt on criticisms of Mr Blair's approach to the Irish issue. Mr McNamara declared: "It is one thing to support the broad thrust of the Government's Irish policy whilst constructively probing and examining its implications.
"It is another slavishly to follow its many twists, turns and contradictions, where there has been no direct Labour input."
He accused Labour of following the Government "down the cul de sac of decommissioning", saying the issue had often been used to serve Tory interests. The real stumbling-block, he said, was the intransigence of the Unionist parties.
Mr Blair rejected the criticism in a letter to Mr McNamara. It said: "I have felt a deep responsibility to do all I can to help the peace process and strongly hold that view that I should not attack the Government over it unless I believe they are fundamentally ill-intentioned or mistaken in respect of it, which I don't. I think this is especially so over the issue of decommissioning, which is so immensely sensitive."
He added that to disturb the bi-partisan approach to the peace process would be "irresponsible and wrong".
Mr Blair stressed his support for fair treatment of both employers and unions, saying this had also been the policy of Neil Kinnock and John Smith, and was the position of the TUC.
Mr McNamara's predominant interest in his 29-year parliamentary career has lain in advancing Irish nationalism, and pushing Labour towards a policy of Irish unity by consent. In 1981 he played a leading part in persuading the party to adopt the policy of working towards Irish unity by consent.
Mr McNamara, who comes from a Liverpool Irish background, was a strong supporter of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 1960s. The former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, once noted that James Callaghan "seemed to regard Kevin as an Irish politician who had nothing to do with the British Labour Party". His strong commitment to nationalism made him a popular figure in Dublin but earned him much Unionist animosity. Within the Labour party he held off challenges from both the "troops out" tendency, and from those who wanted Labour to organise in Northern Ireland, an approach which he regarded as pro-Unionist.Reuse content