Well it didn’t take long for John McDonnell, the finance spokesperson for the UK Labour Party, to walk back from his previous – and quite explicit – belief that it was the armed struggle of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army that secured the compromise peace in the north-east of Ireland during the late 1990s and early 2000s. As he stated in a speech to the annual Bobby Sands commemoration, a meeting attended by Labour and Sinn Féin representatives in 2003:
“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 was even more unambiguous on the issue in a follow-up article for the Guardian newspaper:
“On all sides we have to start telling each other some hard truths. Painful, even dangerous it may be, but avoiding this massive leap in conflict resolution would mean that even if we can get past the current impasse we would only be back here again in another few months.
This is the type of hard talk I engaged in when I spoke at a commemoration of the hunger striker Bobby Sands last week. 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.
…I see my task now as doing all I can to get the political show back on the road, to create the kinds of formulations through which the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries and the British army can all depart the scene without a sense of abiding grievance. No side will move if movement is portrayed as humiliating surrender.
Among British people there has to be an acceptance that the violence of the past 35 years had a root cause. It wasn’t some pathological trait of the Irish. Britain faced such violence in virtually every colony from which it was forced to withdraw, from the Mau Mau in Kenya to the nationalists in India. We have to face up to the fact that without the armed uprising in 1916 Britain would not have withdrawn from southern Ireland. And without the armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30 years, the Good Friday agreement would not have acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And without that acknowledgement we would have no peace process.
An acknowledgement is also needed that loyalist paramilitaries were motivated by the same dedication to their cause as IRA volunteers and that many British troops demonstrated similar bravery in what was in reality a long and brutal war. Above all else, republicans need to accept that the time for violence has gone. Only the political process offers the real prospect of a united Ireland at peace with itself.
Unionists must now appreciate that the majority of British people are indifferent to whether Northern Ireland is part of the UK or of a united Ireland. There needs to be an honest admission that their position can no longer be sustained by a combination of paramilitary violence and the force of the British army. Given that within a generation there is likely to be a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland, Unionist politicians will serve their people best by preparing for that inevitability, rather than continuing to jockey for personal position.
Despite my 25 years’ involvement in Northern Ireland politics, the tabloid-led response to my recent remarks took me by surprise. After all, I’ve been speaking at this annual event for more than a decade, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s I expounded the same message: that with political will on all sides, the period of armed struggle could be replaced by engagement in a peaceful process capable of realising the nationalists’ historic goal, a united Ireland.
Why, I wonder, has my speech become an issue now – both for the media and for nameless spokespersons within the Labour party? We should put behind us the days when the tragedy of Northern Ireland is used by British politicians and media for short-term gain.”
That defence of his views was offered twelve years ago yet some are now acting as if this was a new revelation, not an old story culled from yellowed press clippings. Perhaps one reason for McDonnell’s hasty capitulation as a long-time advocate for British de-colonisation from Ireland can be found in this splash from the right-wing Daily Mail:
“Military top brass will ‘not stand for’ Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister and could ‘mutiny’ if he does, a serving general has warned.
…military chiefs have warned that they would be prepared to take ‘direct action’ to stop Mr Corbyn if he sees off Labour rebels and makes it into Number 10 in 2020.
The senior serving general, speaking anonymously to the Sunday Times, said Mr Corbyn’s victory has been greeted with ‘wholesale dismay’ in the army.
He added: ‘There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.
The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.’
The general, who served in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, said many soldiers were sickened by Mr Corbyn’s admiration for the IRA and Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
It comes after the Labour leader appointed his closest political ally John McDonnell as shadow chancellor – despite previously calling for the IRA to ‘be honoured’ for the terror campaign.
Intelligence chiefs have also warned that Mr Corbyn will receive only ‘restricted access’ to intelligence because of his links to radical terror groups.”
When some critics in the UK complain of a Corbyn-led Labour Party taking the country back to the 1970s it seems that they are right in more ways than one. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian from 2006:
“Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s resignation as prime minister. For most people under 40 that fact will mean little; many will struggle to place the name. And yet, at the time, Wilson’s departure was a political earthquake, wholly unexpected and assumed to have reshaped the national landscape. For Wilson had been at or close to the top of British politics for 12 years, spending all but four of them in Downing Street. For a large chunk of the 60s and 70s, the words “prime minister” instantly evoked the face and flat Yorkshire vowels of Harold Wilson.
First, that resignation has never been fully explained.
…that cause was almost certainly joined by another – one argued in tomorrow’s BBC2 docudrama, The Plot Against Harold Wilson.
As Peter Wright confirmed in his book Spycatcher, Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilisation by a rogue element in the security services. Prompted by CIA fears that Wilson was a Soviet agent – put in place after the KGB had, the spooks believed, poisoned Hugh Gaitskell, the previous Labour leader – these MI5 men burgled the homes of the prime minister’s aides, bugged their phones and spread black, anti-Wilson propaganda throughout the media. They tried to pin all kinds of nonsense on him: that his devoted political secretary, Marcia Williams, posed a threat to national security; that he was a closet IRA sympathiser.
The great and the good feared that the country was out of control, and that Wilson lacked either the will or the desire to stand firm. Retired intelligence officers gathered with military brass and plotted a coup d’etat. They would seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. Lord Mountbatten would be the strongman, acting as interim prime minister. The Queen would read a statement urging the public to support the armed forces, because the government was no longer able to keep order.
It sounds fantastic, almost comic. But watch Greenwood talk of setting up his own private army in 1974-75. Listen to the former intelligence officer Brian Crozier admit his lobbying of the army, how they “seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover”. Watch the archive footage of troop manoeuvres at Heathrow, billed as a routine exercise but about which Wilson was never informed – and which he interpreted as a show of strength, a warning, even a rehearsal for a coup. Listen to the voice of Wilson, who five weeks after resigning summoned two BBC journalists to tell them, secretly, of the plot.
Much of this has been known for a while; many of those involved have admitted as much and do so again in the BBC film. Yet officially it never happened: a 1987 inquiry under Margaret Thatcher concluded the allegations were false, implying that the fading Wilson had descended into paranoia. This can’t be allowed to stand. Not only does it do an injustice to Wilson, it also represents an enormous cover-up. For this was the British Watergate, a conspiracy designed to pervert the democratic choice of the people. The circumstances of that time – mighty unions and the cold war – were entirely different. But if we are to learn the lessons of the Wilson plot, to realise what Britain’s hidden powers are truly capable of, then these events deserve a proper reckoning.”