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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. 

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.