May 27, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
The sudden focus on what Jeremy Corbyn has said and done regarding the issue of Ireland is unsurprising. It has happened partly because it is a classic ‘dead cat’ strategy but also because people generally misunderstand how peace processes work.
Just to remind you, Corbyn was taken to task last weekend in the media for having written for a magazine called ‘Labour briefing’ alongside articles which said after the IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand which almost killed Margaret Thatcher and did kill and maim for life many Conservatives – “the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it.” It was also noted he was arresteed in 1986 at a demonstration in support of an IRA terrorist, attended regular ‘Troops Out’ rallies, brought convicted IRA terrorists to the House of Commons and generally spoke out in support of the IRA’s aims.
First, the ‘dead cat’ theory. The issue re- arose during a weekend in which the Tories were in a large amount of trouble over their ill-thought-through and badly explained social care plans, and Labour’s manifesto had been far better received that the Tories’ one.
Therefore, in the true Lynton Crosby (their election strategy adviser) style, a ‘dead cat’ was thrown on the table. The media got all the information they threw at Corbyn from somewhere, and, as predicted by many, it came from the pile of excrement that was expected to be thrown at Corbyn by the Tories during the campaign, should he ever threaten to be doing well. . This meant that instead of talking about the social care mess, people might point and say ‘look at the dead cat’. This is what happened during the Tories’ most difficult point in the 2015 election, when Labour had come up with a popular policy on the tax status of ‘non-domiciles’ and Michael Fallon (the Defence Secretary) was sent out to say that Ed Miliband stabbed his brother in the back (to become leader) so he would have no problem stabbing the country in the back (by joining a coalition with the SNP).
Fine, you might say, that’s the timing explained, but didn’t he support terrorists? Here is where I say that our view of all conflicts and struggles in recent history have to be updated to reality.
The easy answer is that Corbyn has always seemed to support whoever is fighting the West (hence the nickname for Stop the War, of which he was President, being ‘Stop the West’). Another easy answer is that he is one of those ‘peace activists’ who choose sides, which doesn’t make him a peace activist at all, because people who want peace should actually support and understand both sides’ aims. His support for the aims of Irish Nationalists, his calling of Hamas and Hezbollah members ‘friends’ can be viewed through this prism if you have this agenda.
I have a slightly different one. Looking back at everything Corbyn has said on these issues, his clear belief has always been in the futility of trying to achieve military solutions to any conflict. His clear belief is in the need to talk to both sides and get them talking to each other in order to try to ‘bring them to the table’. This may be naive, but try to find any example of him condoning violence. You can’t.
It is important to understand that in the mid-1980s the British Government, and through them the army in Northern Ireland, were trying to impose through force a military solution to the question of whether there should be a united Ireland. Corbyn was protesting in the 1980s about that, whilst also being prepared, as a UK politician, to talk to the people, who yes were members of the IRA, who would be needed for any dialogue to create a working peace process. His constituents in Islington included people who had been, in his view, wrongly criminalised under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and he represented them as any MP should. Ultimately, Corbyn felt that to achieve peace, all of the historical traditions of Ireland, both Unionist and Nationalist, had to be recognise, and the Nationalists weren’t being recognised, and he felt peace was impossible without that.
The Good Friday Agreement, reached in 1998 has rightly been considered a model for how to achieve peace in a messy world. It allowed to opposing views and aspirations, and allowed for competing narratives and traditions to exist. It allowed for people to say that they are in favour of a United Ireland without being castigated for saying it. At the base of it is the principle of consent on a bi-partisan process, with the people of Northern Ireland deciding their own future. An example of that is the push for a referendum on a united Ireland being seen now as even Unionists see the extent to which the rest of the UK is ignoring their needs and wishes and issues such as their border in the event of Brexit.
Yes, Corbyn may have identified with the demands of the Nationalists, but why shouldn’t he be able to do that? Peace is achieved by both sides’ needs being recognized. Peace is also achieved by talking to people that others would call terrorists, but to their own side are freedom fighters.
Former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind once said that the key point for him was when he told an IRA leader that negotiations couldn’t happen until they put down their weapons, and the person he was talking to said “but Mr Rifkind, isn’t the purpose of the negotiations to persuade us to put down our weapons?”.
Rifkind, by the way, applied this logic to Hamas, who are being told they won’t be negotiated with until they recognise the State of Israel, but could easily say that surely the purpose of negotiation is to persuade them to do so. Military solutions aren’t working there, so at some point, something has to give.
I leave you with what a Protestant, Unionist Question Time audience member said whilst half the audience were attacking Jerry Kelly, a former IRA member who was on the panel as he is now a Sinn Fein Politician. I think it explains why we have to accept Corbyn’s explanation and move on:
“When I was a child I had to be driven one mile to school as Belfast was so dangerous we were in fear of our lives even going to school. Now my two daughters leave the house every day and walk a mile to school safely. If the price of that peace is to have a murderous terrorist like Jerry Kelly on that stage…well I’m prepared to pay it.”