05/02/2003

Murphy rejects lawyers' definition of 'British'

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy has disowned a statement by solicitors for the Labour Party that the people of Northern Ireland are not British subjects.

The controversial statement was contained in a solicitor's response to a questionnaire for the Commission for Racial Equality.

The questionnaire was commissioned after local GMB trade unionist Andy McGivern challenged Labour Party rules, which states that eligibility for membership to its party is dependent upon the applicant being a British or Irish subject, "or other persons resident in Great Britain for more than one year".

However, in its response to the questionnaire, solicitors said the ban was in place because "people resident in Northern Ireland are not British subjects or citizens of Eire and are not resident in Great Britain for more than one year and are therefore ineligible for membership".

However, the government backtracked today when Mr Murphy told DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson in the Commons that the solicitors' explanation for the ban did not reflect his, or the party chairman Dr John Reid's, views.

During heated discussions at the House of Commons, Mr Murphy stated: "I have talked to the Minister without Portfolio, the chair of the Labour Party (former Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid).

"Both he and I disown what was in the newspapers last week and I am absolutely sure that everybody is of the view that people in Northern Ireland are British citizens."

Mr McGivern also welcomed the Secretary of State's comments and insisted he was not aiming to embarrass Labour but said that the "only way Labour can come out of this whole debacle with any credibility is for its leadership to drop its objection to my legal action and lift the ban" of Northern Ireland citizens applying for membership of the Labour Party.

Unionists had reacted angrily to questionnaire with UUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson describing the explanation as "nonsense".

"When I go abroad I use a British passport which clearly states that I am a British subject," he said.

"So I'm afraid the lawyers that have been employed by the Labour Party are incompetent when it comes to dealing with such an important constitutional matter."

(MB)

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