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If Jeremy Corbyn was wrong on Northern Ireland, so was Nelson Mandela

The veteran MP's Northern Irish associations have been put under the spotlight - but its overhyped, argues Kevin Meagher.

As a classic “campaigning backbencher”, Jeremy Corbyn holds radical views on a range of issues that sit outside the comfort zone of mainstream politics, particularly about the Israel-Palestine conflict and the broader Middle East. These are seen by his critics as emblematic of his naiveté, raising questions about his suitability for high office.

Likewise, 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.

While Corbyn has certainly been unwise in some of the remarks he has made about the Middle East (notably his response that Bin Laden’s death was “a tragedy”) his position on Ireland should not be included on the charge sheet against him. 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.

The problem is that Westminster has traditionally paid scant regard to events in Northern Ireland. It was, for too long, the British state’s dirty little secret. Indeed, until direct rule was imposed in 1972, as the place literally went up in smoke, Members of Parliament could not even table questions about goings on there.

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. Indeed, Corbyn’s position was, and perhaps still is, common enough around the party and in line with Labour’s official policy at the time of “unity by consent”.

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. Back in 1981, following the Hunger Strikes when ten republican prisoners starved to death over their contention that there were political prisoners, not ordinary criminals, Sinn Fein tentatively embarked on a strategy which would eventually bloom into the peace process.

Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker to die, famously became Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election while still in jail. This showed to republican modernisers like Gerry Adams that Sinn Fein could graduate from being the Provisional IRA’s front office into a distinct political force.

At the party’s 1981 conference, republican Danny Morrison summed up the new approach: “Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

 

This twin-track strategy eventually led to Gerry Adams secret dialogue with the SDLP leader, John Hume in the late 1980s and the gradual creation of a space where republicans could leave the gun behind. But it took time and a great deal of effort to switch this twin-track approach on to a single, exclusively political line.

Engagement of the kind offered by Corbyn and many others on Labour’s left during the 1980s spurred on those in Sinn Fein who wanted to go down the political route. Indeed, without such support, the balance may well have tipped towards the militarists who wanted to make “the long war” against the British state even longer.

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.

So Corbyn’s record on Irish affairs is more benign that his detractors insist. But for those who still regard him as a dupe in sympathising with Irish republicanism, it is only fair to point out that at least he was in illustrious company.  

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.