Yesterday morning, on The Andrew Marr show, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was asked once again about Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude towards the IRA. Her response was intriguing to say the least. Thornberry explained Corbyn’s actions by stating that ‘I think that there were negotiations going on behind the scenes and there were people speaking openly, and this is something which has been known for 30 years’. No doubt the language selected was deliberately ambiguous, but the meaning is pretty clear. Corbyn’s apparent sympathy for the IRA, and association with militant republicans, was part of an effort to secure peace in Northern Ireland. The language used even suggests, quite incorrectly, that Corbyn had something to do with the negotiations which ended the conflict. Unfortunately Thornberry’s entire argument is, to use phrase she’s uttered herself in the House of Commons, complete bollocks. Corbyn’s past sympathy for the IRA has yet to be adequately explained, by himself or anyone else, and the excuses offered by his supporters are risible. Considering how many British citizens, both civilians and military, were butchered by the IRA this ought to totally disqualify Corbyn from high office.
I’ll start by examining those of Jeremy Corbyn’s actions which relate to the conflict in Northern Ireland. At this point it’s necessary to appreciate the key division amongst those who sought a United Ireland. Broadly this was between ‘nationalists’, who rejected the use of violence and sought a United Ireland through purely political means, and ‘republicans’ who regarded the Northern Irish state as a colonial British occupation, which could legitimately be resisted with force. The former view was most associated with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), whilst the latter was held by the Provisional IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein. The key charge against Corbyn, which reveals his claim to have been an advocate of peace as a shameful lie, is that given the choice he always backed the violent republicans over the more peaceful nationalists.
IRA members patrol through a Northern Irish town.
During the 1980s Corbyn was a key supporter of the ‘Troops Out’ group, a UK based pro-Republican organisation with strong links to Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. Corbyn was also on the editorial board of London Briefing, a radical left-wing magazine which refused to condemn the 1984 attack on the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, and which in December 1984 claimed that ‘the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it’. Significantly the London Briefing was also hostile to the SDLP, the most prominent section in the Irish unification movement which rejected violence.
Corbyn caused further controversy following the Brighton bombing when he invited several Republican figures to a meeting in the Westminster Parliament, at a time when the republican movement and IRA were linked at the hip. Those who attended included Gerry MacLochlainn, a Sinn Fein politician who had previously been sentenced to six years in prison for conspiracy to cause explosions. In 1986 Corbyn was arrested outside the Old Bailey during a ‘Troops Out’ rally which had been called to ‘show solidarity’ with suspected IRA men, including Patrick Magee who was later convicted of murder for his involvement in the Brighton Conservative Party Conference attack. Corbyn went on to speak each year between 1986 and 1992 at the annual ‘Sands/Connolly’ commemoration in London, which showed solidarity with IRA ‘prisoners of war’ and commemorated the organisations dead. As recently as 2015, during a BBC radio interview, Corbyn refused to unequivocally and explicitly condemn IRA violence five times before he hung up the phone.
The Grand Hotel in Brighton following the 1984 IRA bombing which was targeted at Conservative Party Conference attendees.
There are two key arguments which have been made in Corbyn’s defence. The first is that he shared the republican goal of establishing a United Ireland, which is a legitimate political objective. The problem with this argument is that had this been Corbyn’s sole motivation he could have supported the non-violent SDLP rather than their pro-violence republican rivals. Had Corbyn befriended the likes of Gerry Fitt and John Hume, moderate SDLP politicians without blood on their hands, rather than Sinn Fein figures the current controversy would never have developed. Moreover Corbyn actually opposed efforts to achieve peace in Northern Ireland, voting against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (between the British and Irish Governments) on the basis that it made a United Ireland less likely. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s current Shadow Chancellor, went further still opposing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which created the Northern Ireland Assembly on the grounds that ‘An Assembly is not what people have laid down their lives for over thirty years’.
The second defence, as outlined by Emily Thornberry on Marr, is more ridiculous still. This argument asserts that Corbyn associated with key republicans in order, in some way, to facilitate a negotiated outcome to the conflict. The difficulty here is that if Corbyn had really wanted dialogue he would have associated with both sides, unionist and nationalist, rather than just the most extreme section of the republican movement. And had he been trying to facilitate dialogue Corbyn wouldn’t have been so clearly sympathetic to militant republicans, in a manner which completely alienated the unionist community. It’s sometimes claimed that it’s acceptable for Corbyn to have been associating with republicans, on the basis that British Governments ended up negotiating with the same people. But clearly there is a difference between negotiating with a hostile party, as British Governments did, and providing that hostile party with sympathy and political cover, as Corbyn did.
Corbyn’s clear sympathy for republican violence and the IRA should unquestionably demolish the notion that he is a ‘man of peace’. During a recent Chatham House speech Corbyn argued firmly that he is not a pacifist. In this, if little else, he is quite clearly right. Corbyn’s role in the Northern Ireland conflict wasn’t peace maker, but rather cheerleader for the republican movement. This was the same republican movement which, through its armed wing, killed thousands of Corbyn’s countrymen, soldiers and civilians alike. That such a man should become the leader of one of Britain’s two main political parties, and potentially our next Prime Minister, is shocking in the extreme. Something has clearly gone very badly wrong on the left of British politics.