Something remarkable is happening in British politics right now. Something rotten and disgusting too. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal (sic) opposition, is trying to rewrite history. Here is what Corbyn said to Robert Peston at the weekend:
“I do make the point that if you are to develop a peace process in the Middle East or anywhere else in this world for that matter, you have to have serious conversations and negotiations with all the forces involved. […] Listen, the Northern Ireland parallel is sometimes a bit overplayed by nevertheless it is an important one. The successive British governments thought there was a military solution in Northern Ireland. They spent millions of pounds, thousands of troops, and hundreds of lives were lost in pursuing a military conflict in Northern Ireland. Ultimately it was resolved, so far, by a political process which had respect for the traditions of both communities if you like, in Northern Ireland and we reached a compromise, we reached a settlement, we reached a political process. That, surely, is an interesting model. That required meetings between people who profoundly disagreed with each other, who adopted methods that both sides profoundly disagreed with, but nevertheless a settlement was reached. Had we started from that process rather than trying to get a military solution we might have saved a lot of lives.”
The audacity of this interpretation of Anglo-Irish history, and of Corbyn’s small part in that story, is as astonishing as its dishonesty.
It cannot be said too often that there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about supporting the idea of a united Ireland. But if you did – or still do – support that goal you had a choice. You could ally yourself with the SDLP or you could chum around with Sinn Fein and the IRA. The choice mattered because it was a choice between decency and indecency, between constitutional politics and paramilitary politics. Corbyn, like his Shadow Chancellor, made his choice and chose indecently.
There is no room for doubt about this and no place for after-the-fact reinterpretations of Corbyn’s ‘role’ in the Irish peace process. That role was limited to being a cheerleader for and enabler of the Republican movement. No-one who was seriously interested in peace in the 1980s spoke at Troops Out rallies. The best that could be said of those people was that they wanted ‘peace’ on the IRA’s terms. In other words, they wanted the IRA to win.
If that had not been the case, if they had been interested in an actual settlement, they would not – as Corbyn did – have opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. They would not have denounced John Hume and the SDLP as craven sell-outs. They would not have insisted that the armed struggle was a vital part of getting the Brits out of the northern Irish statelet.
But these people did do that. All of that and more. Corbyn’s assessment of the conflict gets it precisely backward. The people who thought there was a military solution to the problem were the people who thought they could bomb and murder Ulster out of the United Kingdom. It was Corbyn’s friends and allies in the Republican movement who thought this.
As it happened, there was a military/intelligence solution to the conflict. Or, at least, a military settlement was a necessary condition for an eventual – if necessarily imperfect – political settlement. And the truth is that the IRA lost. It was the IRA who were brought to the negotiating table, not the British government. It was the IRA who were defeated, not the British government. It was the IRA who discovered that the price of continuing the armed struggle could no longer be sustained. It was the IRA who were forced to capitulate, compelled to abandon their past positions and accept terms laid down by their opponents.
The irony, of course, is that in return for admitting the war was over (and lost) the Republican movement was given a larger share of the spoils of peace. So much so, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as though they had in fact prevailed. The IRA and Sinn Fein were given victories on emotionally-important but substantively-insignificant matters such as prisoner releases and decommissioning but this came at the price of total and complete intellectual capitulation. Northern Ireland would continue to exist and it would remain a part of the United Kingdom for as long as its people so desired that constitutional status quo to continue.
The principle of consent, previously anathema to the Republicans, was non-negotiable and, despite everything they had previously believed, Sinn Fein and the IRA signed-up to it. On the biggest issue of all, the one that was the notional ’cause’ of the conflict in the first place, the Republican movement lost. And it wasn’t even close. Today, nearly a quarter of a century after the Downing Street Declaration, a united Ireland seems as far away as ever.
Peace, even a qualified, messy, peace, only became possible when the IRA and Sinn Fein recognised they could not win. That was the only precondition for negotiations that really mattered, the only thing whose absence thwarted a settlement that could otherwise have been reached years before. The people who were waging the war had to realise they had lost. When they did, peace became plausible. At that point we could talk.
Had the IRA, pace Corbyn, ‘started from that position rather than trying to get a military solution we might have saved a lot of lives‘. But they didn’t start from that position and their enablers on the British far-left gave them no encouragement to do so. On the contrary, in fact. At the very best, you might say that the far-left regretted terrorist atrocities while thinking them ‘understandable’. But you should never mistake that regret for condemnation and you should always remember that the people responsible for the shootings and the bombings were not, indeed could never be, the people doing the shooting and the bombing.
As late as 1998 John McDonnell opposed the peace process, telling An Phoblacht that “An assembly is not what people have laid down their lives for over thirty years. We want peace, but the settlement must be just and the settlement must be for an agreed and united Ireland.”
Fifteen years previously, Corbyn was a member of the board of Labour Briefing, a fringe magazine for diehard leftists that unequivocally supported the IRA’s bombing campaign. Corbyn organised the magazine’s mailing-list and was a regular speaker at its events. In December 1984, the magazine“reaffirmed its support for, and solidarity with, the Irish republican movement” noting that its “overwhelming priority as active members of the British labour movement is to fight for and secure an unconditional British withdrawal”. Only “an unconditional British withdrawal, including the disarming of the RUC and UDR, will allow for peace in Ireland. Labour briefing stands for peace, but we are not pacifists”. Moreover, “It certainly appears to be the case that the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it”. That being so, discussions with the SDLP and the Irish government were, at best, a distraction. Only Sinn Fein and the IRA spoke for Ireland. Labour Briefing explicitly opposed the SDLP, preferring instead to endorse the republican terrorist campaign.
This was published a few weeks after the Brighton bombing. A bombing designed to assassinate the British Prime Minister. As far as Labour Briefing was concerned, the Prime Minister was a legitimate target. Condemning the bombing showed that the Labour party had lost its ‘political nerve’. The Corbynite left, however, was made of sterner stuff. As Labour Briefing had previously written: “We refuse to parrot the ritual condemnation of ‘violence’ because we insist on placing responsibility where it lies…. Let our ‘Iron Lady’ know this: those who live by the sword shall die by it. If she wants violence, then violence she will certainly get.”
Jeremy Corbyn didn’t help bring peace to Northern Ireland, he helped delay it by enabling those who bore primary responsibility for the violence. Now he and his supporters wish to rewrite history, the better to pretend Corbyn was somehow ‘ahead of the curve’. He was no such thing. His vision of peace did not advocate compromise and dialogue. If it had he might have spent more – or some – time speaking with Unionists and other parties with whose analysis he disagreed. But his vision did not do this and so he did not ‘engage’ with anyone in this fashion. No amount of whitewash can cover up this stain upon his record, his worldview and his judgement.
This is the man Labour chose to lead their party. That is their choice, of course, but the rest of us are entitled to make choices too. Not the least of which is choosing to insist that what happened in the past really did happen.