A symbol of the European project's success? Photo: Getty
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Take me to your MEP: Rosetta shows Britain at its best working with the EU

The European Space Agency shows what Britain, France,  Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and 10 other European countries can achieve working together.

Last week I was transfixed, as I watched the genius of human intelligence at its exploring best. Images sent directly from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko are astonishing proof of what the European Space Agency (ESA) has achieved. Many of you may have mourned like I did, as ESA announced via social media that Philae's batteries had finally given out, but don't let that dim the light of the incredible achievement of landing a manmade craft on a small comet 500m miles from Earth and getting information back. Philae's 60-hour primary mission was completed, with data safely returned to Mission Control in Darmstadt. And as ESA have assured us, it's not over yet.

I say what the ESA has achieved, but once again this a meaningless acronym. What I really mean is what Britain has achieved, together with France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and 10 other European countries. Because eight different British firms took the lead in the build and operation of the Rosetta satellite and her landing craft Philae. The entire project, from mission control systems, to those crucial batteries that kept Philae alive as the hours ticked down and the engineers raced to conduct all the experiments for which they had originally launched Rosetta into the heavens.

They did it, and I couldn't help but enjoy a small whoop of joy, both for the astonishing achievement of the ESA's mission, and for British engineering. The money invested in this project has provided Britain with high quality jobs, high quality scientific research, and high quality engineering. The UK is now looked to as a centre of excellence in space and aerospace engineering with the sector employing more than 28,000 people in businesses which combined generate an annual turnover of £9bn. What's more, the sector is growing at an average rate of seven per cent per year.  

World class space technologies and world firsts in space missions are no longer the preserve of the US and Russia, as even NASA had to admit to its followers online last week that this was a European project, not theirs as many assumed.

And all this came for a cool 15 pence per person per year. In fact, this 19 year project to build a satellite and get it to fly for a decade across the solar system in pursuit of a comet 500 million miles away from planet Earth, and to get it to land successfully for the first time in human history, has cost each European citizen just £2.78. In total over all those years.

All this in exchange for a world leading industry in space technologies, and a chance to glimpse upon something never before seen by human eyes. Not a bad deal really, is it?

Whatever happens to Rosetta, it is already an heroic achievement. And I have faith, grounded in the best scientific predictions, that this is not the last we will hear from the little lander.

This is something great that we have done together, proving what is possible for Britain, and for Europe. Let's take a moment to reflect on just what an achievement this is and be inspired.

Clare Moody MEP, member of the European Parliament industry, research and energy committee and the Galileo Interinstitutional Panel

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser