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Corbyn’s dialogue with Irish republicans shows the strength of diplomacy

Paisley-McGuinnessJeremy Corbyn’s supporters are often accused of only ever talking to people they agree with. It is fair to say that nothing gets accomplished by disengaging from disagreement. Parties need to negotiate, and when at negotiating tables parties need to behave as equals. That’s why Corbyn the peace-lover’s willingness to stretch a hand out to some of Northern Ireland’s warmakers shows his commitment to meaningful peace. That’s why it’s right to say, as John McDonnell did, that one will often need to treat an adversary, no matter how unpalatable, with a level of dignity and respect. That’s why McDonnell’s argument that resisting loyalist terror helped effect a conclusion to the Troubles is not condoning horrific bombings, it is acknowledging facts of history in a way phrased to offer dignity to an organisation that had then renounced violence. It’s not ‘Britain-hating and terrorist-sympathising’, it’s pragmatic peacemaking.

Talking is always preferable to ignoring – and England has wilfully ignored Northern Ireland. Unspeakable violence in six Ulster counties that claimed the lives of 3,600 combatants and civilians has become our dirty little secret. I recall my A-Level textbook promising to teach me a thorough history of post-1950 Britain. The Troubles – even the name minimises the tragedy – received as much space as Wilson’s trade union reforms. Twice in two years the Northern Ireland Assembly has broken down – once over welfare reform and once in September after its largest party walked out following suspected IRA activity. The near-collapse of part of our state was nowhere to be seen on our front pages.

Perhaps Ireland’s republicans won, because our politicians don’t seem to consider the Northern Irish debate part of the British one in any meaningful way. When the likes of Jeremy express concern, their thanks are in tax-funded crony Andrew Gilligan accusing them of supporting extremism (something Gilligan accuses everyone of). ‘Jeremy merely engaged in dialogue? A Tory talking to far-right extremists would not go unpunished’, smugly assert the Right. But a nonviolent Tory engaging with a violent fascist might find common ground around racism. The common ground Jeremy found with militant republicans was far more benign – a desire for self-determination that is at the heart of all patriotism.

One can sympathise with the Irish desire for nationhood without embracing gun barrel politics. Most politicians seem to realise that one can support Ulster remaining part of the United Kingdom without supporting loyalist paramilitaries. Few would argue that Dublin should still answer to Westminster, and the most fervent British patriot would have to admit that our country was hardly blameless for the violence of Ireland’s separation. In the 1950s, while Harold Macmillan told us we’d ‘never had it so good’, Irish Catholics remained the subjects of violent discrimination by Stormont – something moderate Protestant leaders like O’Neill attempted to address. The Troubles were sparked not by ethnic warfare but protests for fair housing and a civil rights movement inspired by its American counterpart. The Official IRA had by 1969 abandoned guerrilla warfare in favour of socialism – and the Irish Republic’s charter reflects communitarian instincts in its call for common ownership in a land of equal opportunity.

As long as Jeremys and Johns existed, Irish republicanism knew that someone in Westminster was listening, someone sympathised with a few of their ideas, and there was hope in a civic strategy. Nor did everyone at Sinn Fein events bar Jeremy agree with militancy – and even the IRA’s Gerry Kelly renounced violence, becoming key to the peace process.

And while John and Jeremy were talking to terrorists, the British state was running them guns.

Police and British soldiers were part of the Glenanne gang behind 120 Troubles killings. The police admit collusion with the security services in the murder of barrister Pat Finucane. The 2001 murder of reporter Martin O’Hagan and a 1990s massacre are further cases where state/paramilitary collusion is alleged to have been covered up. And of course, Bloody Sunday. If conversations reflect badly on John and Jeremy, then greater scrutiny should be brought by Gilligan and his ilk on those with actual responsibility for Northern Ireland then and now. Continuing sectarian violence against a backdrop of austerity, chronic poverty and failed regeneration might be laid at our government’s doorstep. Were we truly concerned about politicians helping murderers, there may have been more outrage about our government using our troops to train Arab forces shooting at protesters a couple of years ago. This is not to say that old wounds should be reopened. In a peace process where no side has unstained hands, it is better to focus on the future than point out only the evils committed by one group of combatants.

The old Labour Briefing article in which it is argued that bombs in England was the only thing focussing attention on Northern Ireland would not be read by anyone sensible as an endorsement of bombing. It is, clearly, a lament about state intransigence. Nor does Jeremy have much to do with an offensive letter written to Briefing at the height of domestic hostilities when the Conservatives were attempting to starve English families into compliance. Even Jeremy’s opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement was about advocating a solution that engaged all sides seriously (as Blair eventually did) rather than talking over them. Diane Abbott’s claims of endemic racism in Loyalist Ulster are unarguably true. Gilligan’s ‘revelations’ reveal only the problems of conjecture-based spin journalism – a crude and dangerous intervention in a traumatic topic that requires a great deal more awareness.

The take-home message is that there is both bravery and power in conversation. When all around you present a complex, bitter struggle as black-and-white, good-versus-evil, it takes real courage to do as Jeremy did. To recognise that bombing a problem rarely solves it. To recognise that there may be legitimate grievances underpinning the illegitimate excesses of the IRA – or Hamas, or Hezbollah. To see that there is blood on our hands as well as theirs, and that it is worth finding some common ground to build democratic, peaceful, constructive dialogue. It is the same consensus politics Jeremy is bringing to Labour, engaging with those he knows want nothing more than to stab him in the back. Just as violence is abhorrent to him and he talked to the IRA, the Iraq War was abhorrent to him and yet he never left Labour. Jeremy remains a political exemplar due to his ability to see a bigger picture and his willingness to work with opponents in the name of a better future.

This post originally appeared at Leaders of the Opposition


  1. gerry says:

    What a dreadful apologia for terrorism and extremism, Nathan.. Corbyn and McDonnell clearly backed the IRA, instead of supporting our sister party in Northern Ireland, the SDLP who also wanted a united Ireland but rejected anti Protestant violence, terror and murder to get it.

    You are rewriting history, and we understand why you want to do that, but for me socialism means privileging working class struggle and fighting economic inequality…not siding with one religious group (Catholics) against another (Protestants). You – and Mc Donnell and Corbyn – are reactionary, in reality: on this issue, at least.

    1. James Martin says:

      Re-writing history? The Provisional IRA arose initially as a self-defence organisation against the renewed anti-Catholic pogroms and burning out of hundreds of Catholic families by loyalist mobs supported by the RUC in 1968/9 in Derry and Belfast. The two pre-SDLP Ulster Labour Parties failed to prevent or deal with that and therefore lost much support as a result. Was PIRA sectarian? Yes. Were the tactics of individual terrorism correct? No. But despite all that their support remained in under attack nationalist areas because of the volunteers were seen as defending their areas that were still suffering as a direct result of partition.

  2. Bazza says:

    A problem with some of the Left is that they can be too modest. Corbyn, Livingstone et al were trailblazers for peace which of course others like Blair came in on to reap the benefits.
    You have to try to analyse situations and then try to plant a seed for peace; a lovely elderly Palestinian man (who had been through a hell of a lot in his life) once said, “”We will have to work out a way to share the land together.”

  3. John P Reid says:

    Sin feun/IRA Hiding the real guildford bombers is a cover up to

    1. gerry says:

      John – yes they could have saved the Guildford 6 by revealing who exactly carried out those vile bombings, but of course they didn’t….IRA/Sinn Fein always sickened me: if they had only attacked loyalist paramilitaries or British troops you could ( just about ) buy their ” self defence ” schtick, but they deliberately targeted innocent non combatant Protestants, other Catholics, innocent British civilians with their terror and bombs. They were despicable, more like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah than any genuine liberation movement.

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