Public Affairs

‘Benn, but not a Bennite’

In September 2023, Hilary Benn MP was appointed by Labour leader Keir Starmer MP as the new Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Benn is arguably the most recognisable politician to be appointed as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, as an ardent ‘remainer’ who led an anti-Brexit uprising against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his appointment will be welcomed for those who wish for closer ties between the UK and the EU.

In September 2022, he published a report titled How to Fix the Northern Ireland Protocol alongside the Centre for European Reform. In the report, he emphasised the importance of avoiding border infrastructure on the island of Ireland while adhering to Brexit requirements.

He is the son of the left-wing politician Tony Benn, who served as a cabinet minister under former Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. The younger Benn also served in the Cabinet under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in which, as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he introduced and implemented the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008.

Although his late father is seen as a standard bearer for the British left, when he first entered parliament in a July 1999 by-election in the constituency of Leeds Central, famously Benn refered to himself as “a Benn, but not a Bennite”.

This self-assessment held through when Jeremy Corbyn MP became the leader of the Labour Party in 2015. Having been appointed as the Shadow Foreign Secretary by Corbyn following the left-winger’s assumption of the Labour leadership, Benn broke ranks with the then-leader over a vote to support David Cameron’s decision to bomb Syria following the ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015. His speech in the House of Commons was described by then Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond “one of the truly great speeches in the House of Commons”. According to Labour MP Jamie Reed, following his speech, in the eyes of Corbyn, Benn became “at best a rebel, at worst a traitor”.

Following the June 2016 EU membership referendum, in which he campaigned for ‘remain’, Benn led a rebellion among Labour MPs which culminated in the resignation of 21 Shadow Cabinet members in a bid to oust Corbyn as leader. Benn was subsequently sacked from his front bench role and Corbyn won the subsequent leadership election by 62 per cent, although he only commanded the support of 40 of his then 232 MPs.

Following this move, Benn found himself in the cold during the Corbyn leadership and no longer welcome in the Shadow Cabinet but continued to command respect among most Labour MPs. This resulted in his election as chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee. In this position, he sponsored the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, informally known as the Benn Act, which forced then-Prime Minister Theresa May MP to seek a third extension to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the process for withdrawal from the EU.

The role as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary is Benn’s first frontbench role since his sacking by Corbyn in 2016, and has been welcomed by local representatives, with Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie MLA saying that “the appointment of an individual with such an extensive political career is an indication of the importance the Labour Party leader places on Northern Ireland”.

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