Labour in Blackpool: Ulster shift aims to reassure the Unionist majority

THE Labour Party signalled a shift of policy last night on Northern Ireland with a statement moving a Labour government away from acting as a persuader for a united Ireland by consent.

A policy statement issued by the party's ruling National Executive Committee does not go as far as adopting total neutrality on the objective of a united Ireland, but it is calculated to reassure the Unionist majority.

'It means we will talk as far as possible to all points of view in Ireland. The question of persuasion tended to be seen in a unilateral direction and this is designed to ensure we talk to everybody to try and accept a balance,' Larry Whitty, the general secretary of the Labour Party, who is being moved to a new post, said.

It is certain to provoke a heated debate at the party conference on Wednesday, when some Labour activists on Ulster will seek to pass an emergency motion calling for a more explicit commitment for a Labour government to consult all interested parties in a further move to answer Unionist concerns.

The leadership does not expect to be defeated on the policy, which has the backing of Kevin McNamara, the Labour spokesman on Northern Ireland, who will also take part in the debate.

There are Unionist supporters in Labour's ranks who were keen to shift the party towards a campaigning role in Ulster, something which it has strongly resisted in favour of steering support towards the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who has been recommended by Members of the European Parliament for the Nobel peace prize, will also speak in the debate.

The NEC motion pays tribute to Mr Hume and reaffirms the party's commitment to the unification of Ireland by consent, including an assurance that it should be by the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland - accepting the so-called 'Unionist veto' attacked last week by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president.

It pledges that Labour, in opposition and in government, 'will seek to facilitate and encourage a balanced constitutional settlement leading to an agreement which will have the support of both traditions in Ireland'.

The motion welcomes the British Government's recognition in the Downing Street declaration that it is for the people of Ireland alone to exercise their right of self- determination, and the Irish government's recognition that this right must be exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.