Labour is looking to the future in Northern Ireland – but can they escape Corbyn’s past?

The party’s message on Brexit and devolution will strike a chord during Corbyn’s visit, but will always be tainted by the messenger’s past.

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The response to Jeremy Corbyn from his audience at Queen's University Belfast this morning was so rapturous that it was possible, for a moment, to forget nobody there could actually vote for him. A standing ovation for the Labour leader on a university campus perhaps isn't all that surprising. But the build-up to his two-day trip to Northern Ireland was so gloomy that the success of the visit was striking: Corbyn has been accused of snubbing a proposed meeting with victims of republican violence, and his presence at Queen's has been criticised on account of the murder of Edgar Graham, a law lecturer and rising star of liberal unionism, by the IRA on the campus in 1983 (it is worth noting that Corbyn was invited by the university to speak).

Those concerns – splashed on the front page of today's Belfast Telegraph – did not ruffle Corbyn. Relaxed and avuncular, his speech focussed on restoring devolved government and insulating Northern Ireland from disruption after Brexit.

Those involved in the speech's formulation sought deliberately to keep him on uncontentious ground. As such the top lines were safe and familiar ones: no return to direct rule, respecting the Good Friday Agreement, no return to a hard border after Brexit, and restoring devolution at Stormont. On the latter, there is an acknowledgement within Labour that there is little Karen Bradley can do, and most of the content was aspirational rather than practical. But in calling for the restoration of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference, they have at least shown more clarity of purpose and an idea of how to achieve it. 

Notably, he did not commit unexpected news either. Under questioning from a friendly audience, he remained on message. He did not fall into the trap of offering a special post-Brexit status for Northern Ireland, did not guarantee to hold a border poll as prime minister (he said he was not asking for or advocating a referendum and would follow the terms of the Good Friday Agreement), and did not rewrite Labour's Brexit policy on the hoof when asked whether he backed staying in the single market and customs union.

He spoke of Ian Paisley in a tone that verged on affectionate and praised Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams only after nodding to the likes of John Hume, David Trimble, Bill Clinton, Mo Mowlam and, yes, Tony Blair. The message, if not the messenger, will have been largely inoffensive to many. Few political wickets are stickier for Corbyn than Northern Ireland and that can be taken as success.

He is also likely to have received a warmer than expected reception in less predictable quarters. Most of Corbyn's time in Northern Ireland will be taken up by businesses and not local politicians. It would be easy to assume that the former community is made up of precisely the sort of person who would have very little time for Corbyn on economic and cultural grounds. But things are by no means that simple. Firms are restless: the collapse of Stormont has ground decision-making to a halt and exacerbated the commercial uncertainty caused by Brexit. 

The longer the government's inaction continues, the less crazy the idea of welcoming a Labour government seems. The party's 2017 manifesto, one senior figure in the Northern Irish business community told me, was “not that mad” but “almost Blairesque” on the issues that mattered. Its propositions of extra investment infrastructure and training were attractive. There is also the fact that Labour's vision for Brexit – if it can be described as such – offers more answers for business than Theresa May's. Contrast this if not explicitly friendly than unquestionably receptive attitude to Corbyn with the frosty reception Karen Bradley received from businesses enraged by the NIO's sluggish, laissez-faire approach to restoring devolution then it is clear that Labour are faced with an open goal. 

The less Corbyn is seen to stir memories of Northern Ireland's troubled past and the more he is seen to offer practical solutions to the anxieties of the future on Brexit and devolution, the more credible his Labour will become as a UK-wide government in waiting. There remains the question, however, of how credible Corbyn himself can ever be. He did not offer the unequivocal and specific condemnation of IRA violence many have asked for. On Wednesday, his spokesman said he still believed in a united Ireland as a point of principle. Labour cannot normalise its relationship with unionism under Corbyn if these running sores are not cauterised. There appears to be no plan to do so.

In this respect it isn't the protests of Corbynsceptics, Tories or the DUP tell us most about the political calculations at play, but that of Labour's Northern Irish branch, who are not allowed to stand candidates. The uncomfortable truth is that Labour will pay no meaningful electoral price for leaving those issues unresolved. Though Corbyn's trip to Northern Ireland looks to be proving his party is the one with the answers for the region's future, it might also prove that they will only fulfil that promise under its next leader.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.