Corbyn, McDonnell, and the Irish peace process

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the 2016 Labour conference

As many people expected, the election campaign has brought rigorous scrutiny of Jeremy Corbyn's past statements on Ireland, as well as those of his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Both are London MPs with close links to the Irish community in the city, particularly significant in Corbyn's constituency of Islington North.

For some years it was my job as political editor, and then executive editor of the London-based Irish World to chronicle the political life of that community. As a result, I had some involvement with the kind of stories that are now filtering into national press cuttings and Tory opposition research. In 2003, I asked one of our freelancers, Paul Donovan, to cover the Bloody Sunday Commemoration where John McDonnell made his oft-quoted comments about the need 'to honour IRA members'.

When our story was picked up by the Sun, I could only complain, somewhat lamely, to the Press Gazette that our copy had been used without attribution, in a supposed 'exclusive'. Some have suggested that we were naive in publishing details of McDonnell's speech. My editor, the late Donal Mooney had instilled in us the that our role was to speak up for the best interests of the Irish community. As acting editor in Donal's absence, I had some apprehensions about the impact of the story, but I was also aware of criticisms circulating at the time that 'peace process journalists' were suppressing uncomfortable facts. Paul and I took the view, as Donal did when he was able to visit the office, that the story was newsworthy.

Following the Sun's coverage, McDonnell gave Paul a statement which sought to put his comments in the context of the crisis in the peace process at the time:

In my speech I aimed to address republicans in terms they would understand. My message was that they had been successful in bringing about negotiations and that all those who contributed to this goal had won respect. Along with others, I am hoping to create the kinds of formulations through which the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries and the British army can all depart the scene without a sense of abiding grievance. No side will move if movement is portrayed as humiliating surrender.

That effort has now been distorted into an alleged expression of support for the slaughter of innocent children. Let me be clear, I abhor and condemn the killing of innocent human beings. My heart goes out to all those who have lost friends and relatives in the Troubles.

How decisive an intervention by an MP at a small public meeting in London would have been in these terms is open to question, but as an analysis of the situation at the time it should not be dismissed. If the peace process was to get past the decommissioning logjam, it was IRA members who would have to be persuaded.

It is this internal dynamic within republicanism that is missed by Corbyn and McDonnell's critics. It is sometimes said that they were not working for peace because they engaged the leadership of Sinn Feín, rather than the SDLP, and that this encouraged republicans to continue the war. In reality, in working with Sinn Fein, they were working with the very people whose dialogue with grassroots republicanism was essential to the IRA ceasefire, and who needed to be able to demonstrate political influence to show that there was an alternative way forward. The SDLP itself tacitly recognised this through its own engagement with Sinn Fein in the Hume-Adams dialogue.

To dismiss the significance of republicanism's internal dynamics, it is necessary to assume that the Sinn Fein leadership could simply order the IRA membership into the very difficult position in which the Basque nationalist group ETA finds itself today: unilaterally disarming for no obvious political return. Given the history of IRA splits, this was always an unlikely scenario. 

Some years after the 2003 episode, I came across evidence that put the issue that McDonnell had alluded to, the status of IRA members, in a new light. It turned up at the National Archives in 30-year-old papers on the 1981 IRA hunger strike. At the height of a strike on 6 July, the night before the death of Joe McDonnell, Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins set out the options for Mrs Thatcher. He recommended that the Government stand firm and wait for the strike to collapse. At the same time, he acknowledged that there were disadvantages to this course.

(v) The Provisionals need to settle the prisons problem on terms they can represent as acceptable to them if they are to go on - as we know some of them wish to do - to consider an end of the current terrorist campaign. A leadership which has "lost" on the prisons is in no position to do this.

(v) We should be discouraging the Provisionals from switching from terrorist to political activity at the very moment when we know they have begun to find political action attractive.

What is striking about this is that there is no mention of a demand for a declaration of intent to withdraw by the British. The concerns which emerge in this and other contemporary documents, prisoner releases on one side, disarmament and the integrity of a ceasefire on the other, are not essentially different from those which emerged at the outset of the peace process in the 1990s.

If the peace party within republicanism was already in existence by 1981, and perhaps even earlier, Corbyn and McDonnell cannot have delayed its emergence, as their critics claim. Indeed, in engaging with Gerry Adams, they were probably already dealing with its leading representative at the time. Their sin was to recognise possibilities for political dialogue that the Government of the day was not yet ready to acknowledge.

While some of the criticism of Corbyn and McDonnell is driven by partisan cynicism, there is undoubtedly a sincere ideological element which finds the role of republican agency in the peace process difficult to acknowledge. Just as some Conservatives drank the Kool-Aid in their belief that Sadiq Khan was a dangerous Islamist, some perhaps expect a smoking gun that will show that Corbyn actually aided the IRA campaign. The fact that Corbyn reported the Sean O'Regan incident to the police as long ago as 1987 suggests this is most unlikely to happen.

Indeed what has been striking so far is the paucity of the opposition research delivered by the Tories and the right-wing press. The existence of an MI5 file, revealed by The Telegraph, puts Corbyn in the company of many Labour MPs from all wings of the party. Its biggest significance arguably lies in the fact that no action was taken as a result of its existence.

No more impressive was the Sun's promotion of Sean O'Callaghan, previously seen lending his counter-terrorist expertise to Tory think-tanks promoting Boris buses. O'Callaghan is no-one's idea of a compelling witness. In 1989, according to his own autobiography The Informer, he told the RUC and journalists that he killed Sinn Fein member Sean Corcoran. He then withdrew the admission, claiming he had been trying to draw attention to the case. By his own account, O'Callaghan is a proven liar, and he has for more questions to answer about the Troubles than those at whom he is pointing the finger.

Thin as they are, these attacks may yet work, on the old principle that if you throw enough mud some of it will stick. The fact remains that in the 1980s, Corbyn's approach to Northern Ireland did point beyond the orthodoxies that sustained what seemed at the time an interminable conflict. The 'War on Terror' cries out for similar scrutiny, and no less so because while the wars go on, the political class has largely ceded the term itself to the populist right.

The working class, Orwell said, are the most patriotic class of all, but it is perhaps the political class who are more prone to interpret patriotism in terms of fealty to the official orthodoxies of the day. Challenging that assumption is itself a patriotic task, one which puts Corbyn in a great English radical tradition.

  • Jeremy Corbyn
  • John McDonnell
  • Northern Ireland
  • peace process
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