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.