The unexpected election of a progressive candidate to the leadership of the UK Labour Party, along with several like-minded colleagues, has sent a number of British unionist politicians and commentators in the north-east of Ireland into something of a mini-meltdown. After two decades of pandering to Britain’s conservative-leaning electorate the Labour movement is now under the (somewhat befuddled) control of the party’s socialist wing, at least in the higher echelons. For unionist parties like the DUP, UUP and TUV this is an alarming state of affairs. Traditionally British unionism has always regarded the political Left in Europe as its ideological foe, convinced that it was unduly sympathetic to the cause of Irish nationalism and republicanism (or more accurately to the cause of democracy and anti-colonialism). With Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader and John McDonnell as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, unionist party bosses in this country suspect they will receive a colder reception from the Labour opposition in the UK than was heretofore the case.
While that paranoia may prove correct, it is worth remembering that previous DUP and UUP leaders, notably Ian Paisley and David Trimble, also railed against the pro-republican sentiment they claimed to detect in Labour’s dealing with Sinn Féin during the 1990s and early 2000s. Then prime minister Tony Blair, and Mo Mowlam, the secretary of state for northern Ireland, were frequently accused of “…cosying up to Sinn Féin-IRA” by their critics. Yet it didn’t stop the unionist parties from signing up to deal after deal in the complex jigsaw that was the Irish-British peace process.
This time around the unionists may be able to gain some collateral sympathy from the right-wing UK press, a fair-sized chunk of which, equally hostile to a progressive Labour Party, have seized upon any ammunition they can find to hurl at Corbyn and co. This of course also aids the Conservative Party government under David Cameron, which is reputedly delighted with Labour’s swing to the left (Britain remains an innately right-wing nation and the common wisdom believes that a Corbyn-led party is unelectable). From yesterday’s London Independent newspaper:
“David Cameron has told Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell that he should be “ashamed” of himself after praising IRA members for their role in the armed struggle.
The Prime Minister left out personal attacks from his first head-to-head with the new Labour leader, saving it for his right-hand man Mr McDonnell – a controversial choice to shadow George Osborne.
Referring to Mr McDonnell’s remarks in 2003, when he said it was “about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle” in Northern Ireland and praised the “bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands”, the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, asked whether Mr Cameron would “join with all of us… in denouncing that sentiment”
The Prime Minister replied: “I have a simple view, which is the terrorism we faced was wrong, it was unjustifiable…people who seek to justify it should be ashamed of themselves.””
The liberal News Statesman magazine, which has been openly sceptical of the “Corbynmaia” gripping the Labour base, has detailed the “Pro-IRA” opinions of the new shadow chancellor:
“John McDonnell, MP for Hayes & Harlington since 1997, has been appointed shadow chancellor in Jeremy Corbyn’s new shadow cabinet.
McDonnell, a socialist Labour MP who works closely with the unions, was a serial rebel during the New Labour years. He opposed student top-up fees, anti-terror measures and the Iraq war.
He has also made some dodgy remarks in the past, which are coming back to haunt him now he’s been launched into a top front bench post. These mainly include his remarks about the IRA.
In 2003, at a gathering in London to commemorate the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, he said IRA terrorists should be “honoured”:
“It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.”
He later told The Sun:
“The deaths of innocent civilians in IRA attacks is a real tragedy, but it was as a result of British occupation in Ireland.
“Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands we now have a peace process.”
Defending his comments in the Guardian, he wrote:
“Talking in terms republicans would understand, I told the harsh truth that the negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland would not be taking place if it had not been for the military action of the IRA. Let me be clear, I abhor the killing of innocent human beings. My argument was that republicans had the right to honour those who had brought about this process of negotiation which had led to peace. Having achieved this central objective now it was time to move on. The future for achieving the nationalists’ goals is through the political process and in particular through the Northern Ireland assembly elections.”
However McDonnell’s opinions on this issue can be easily defended using the same logic that the magazine previously offered in relation to Jeremy Corbyn’s:
“…his unflinching support of Irish republicans’ aspiration for a united Ireland, is another association routinely thrown at him. So in recent weeks he has refused to condemn the Provisional IRA in a BBC interview and even been criticised for sharing a coffee with Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.
Two factors are pertinent here. First, was Corbyn’s support for Sinn Fein and engagement with Irish issues legitimate or not and, secondly, did it serve any useful purpose?
It was certainly the road less travelled during the 1980s, when the Provisional IRA’s British bombing campaign was at its height, but it was entirely legitimate for Corbyn and others, take an interest in the pressing affairs of Northern Ireland, especially as we now know that Margaret Thatcher’s government was engaged in secret talks with the IRA from the time of the Hunger Strikes.
It was legitimate, too, for Corbyn and others to have a point of view about events there. Northern Ireland is a zero-sum issue. When it boils down to it, you are either in favour of the maintenance of the union with Northern Ireland, or you favour Irish unity. It really is as straightforward as that.
Turning to the second question: has Corbyn’s interest in Northern Irish affairs done any good? With the benefit of historical perspective, the answer is, yes, it probably has.
Like many on the left, Corbyn saw Ireland as a classic struggle for national self-determination against colonial rule. But he was by no means alone. Nelson Mandela may be the safest of safe options for any politician responding to the question “who do you most admire in politics,” but he was also a strong supporter of Irish republicanism.
It was an association that weathered his transformation into international statesman. Indeed, Gerry Adams was part of the honour guard for Mandela’s funeral. No British politicians or anti-apartheid activists were granted similar status.”
This is a theme taken up in the IB Times:
“Britain’s next general election is still some five years off – an eternity in political life – and the number of plots to depose Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition will likely grow exponentially between now and then.
What is already clear is that however long his tenure lasts, Corbyn’s foreign policy beliefs will be front and centre. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage any MP – let alone a backbencher – assuming such a position with as much political baggage as the far-left 66-year-old representative from Islington North.
It is also difficult to imagine the election of a Labour leader generating such hysteria within parts of the media, where collective hyperventilation seems to have stopped just short of predicting the return of the seven plagues.
But more often than not, Corbyn has found himself on the right side of history. He was an early proponent of political engagement with Sinn Fein in the 1980s during the Northern Ireland troubles, at a time when such a position was considered politically taboo. Not only was his stance vindicated by the Good Friday Agreements in 1998, it turns out Margaret Thatcher – hardly a left-wing peacenik – also saw the utility of negotiating with the IRA as far back as the 1981 hunger strikes.
Looking back over the past 30 years, Corbyn has proved to be remarkably prescient. He was a staunch supporter of the ANC’s struggle in South Africa at a time when the British government was still largely supportive of the apartheid government.”
It may alarm pro-UK politicians and their communities in Ireland, and their media apologists in London, Belfast and Dublin, but in the age of the internet and mass communications the popular understanding of the Long War is very much up for grabs. All has changed, changed utterly.