Since he was elected leader on a wave of popular grassroots party support, one of the most frequently-aired criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, has concerned his long-term support for a united Ireland, his open affiliation with senior Sinn Fein politicians during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and his unapologetic defence of the armed campaign of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. I suspect many on the left will share his views and sympathies. I certainly support the manifesto the Labour Party has produced for the forthcoming general election, will vote for it enthusiastically, and have passionately defended Corbyn against attacks both inane and hypocritical. I have a slightly unusual take on Northern Ireland compared with many with whom I share a broad political outlook though, and certainly compared with Corbyn. I hope that by sharing my misgivings in detail, it will strengthen my eventual defence of Corbyn.
I am neither opposed to armed revolution in principle, if the circumstances demand it, nor do I dispute the historical wrong done to the north’s Catholic and nationalist communities by the partition of Ireland. I acknowledge and abhor the cynical gerrymandering that produced Protestant unionist majorities in the carefully drawn electoral boundaries of the north, intended to crush any hope of unification, and I view the various methods employed to ensure the disenfranchisement of Catholics as a stain on the history of the country. The Parliament of Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972 was nakedly sectarian in theory and practice and the conditions it produced for Catholics was bound to collapse under either the righteous clamour for reform or violent unrest. The political establishment, rather than the people, chose violent unrest.
My problem with Corbyn’s approach, and that of his shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, is that as a socialist I cannot consent to a socialist vision that would violently force a majority of workers in any given society into a political settlement they did not want. That did not even take their wishes into consideration. I do not object to the overthrow of the sectarian Parliament of Northern Ireland, but the question of a violent unification with the Republic is far more complex. Once universal suffrage was granted, once even IRA men like Bobby Sands were able to be elected, from a jail cell in Long Kesh, to the parliament in Westminster, once the nationalists of Northern Ireland were free to vote for either Sinn Fein or the nationalist but non-violent Social Democratic Labour Party and work towards a united Ireland democratically, the settlement offered by the IRA was simply this – either support a united Ireland violently or support it non-violently. Arguments that the gerrymandered borders made a democratic solution implausible are perfectly valid, but then an honest proponent of violence is obliged to admit their view that the rights of the nationalists were more important to them than the rights of the loyalists. It requires an acceptance, whether tacit or explicit, that a historical wrong can be corrected by a contemporary wrong. The notion, fervently held by the PIRA, that working class protestants and loyalists were simply deluded Irishmen who did not understand what was best for them and would realise the error of their ways and be grateful once they had submitted, at gunpoint, to being wrenched out of one nation-state into another which was culturally anathema to them, simply does not hold up under examination.
A small but growing group of academics, both native and foreign to Northern Ireland, have in recent years carried out ground-breaking research that soundly demolishes the most gross and prejudiced assumptions about the protestant working class in the north and reveals a level of political nuance and political engagement amongst sections of the loyalist people for which they have rarely been given due credit, and which both the Provisional IRA and the British state sought to stifle. When the old IRA split in 1969, one wing, characterised by a Marxist analysis of the situation in Ulster, known as the Official IRA, acknowledged that some kind of political understanding would have to be forged between the working class nationalists and loyalists based on mutual social interests, and that a military defeat of a much stronger enemy, without the catalysing effect of true popular support, was impossible. To that end, figures within the Official IRA and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force met at great risk, exchanged strategy ideas and attempted political solutions of varying degrees of sophistication and promise throughout the early-to-mid 1970s, even as the loyalist paramilitaries, and to a far lesser extent, the OIRA, carried out sickening atrocities on the streets. In what deserves to be considered a landmark study of the forgotten progressive tendency within loyalism, “Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity”, the Canadian academic Tony Novosel explores the impact of fraternising in this manner on both the Official IRA and the UVF. Senior leadership figures in the UVF, particularly those serving prison sentences in Long Kesh, were derided by hardline loyalists and especially the middle- and upper-class unionist establishment as “reds”, “communists” and “taig-lovers”, for advocating anti-sectarianism, condemning attacks on civilians and, crucially, for acknowledging the “50 years of unionist misrule” which had led to the Troubles in the first place. The perception amongst loyalist paramilitaries outside the jail was that the “politicals” had grown soft behind bars while those out on the streets had concluded that ferocious aggression was the best form of defence. Likewise, the Official IRA was deemed to be betraying the nationalist cause by listening to figures largely considered petty bigots and gangsters. Yet figures within the Official IRA felt they could work with these men because their analyses of the causes of the conflict were essentially the same, even if they differed on their preferred solutions. In contrast, the Provisional IRA was so sure that victory over the British army was possible that it never entertained the rights or wishes of the unionist majority in the north until decades later. It was not interested in a cultural or political rapprochement with the working class majority in the territory of which it imagined itself the legitimate security force, not while it held out hope, however vanishingly small, of a total military victory. Compromise was, after all, for defeated armies.
Thus the Provisional IRA was, in effect, the reactionary, nationalistic branch of the IRA. Their analysis is the one Corbyn shared. It is the analysis that, in 1985, led the Labour Committee on Ireland, of which Corbyn was a member, to attack the SDLP and its leader, John Hume for what they perceived as his bourgeois instincts and lack of revolutionary fervour. Hume, of course, has worked for the interests of working class republicans his whole life. The same Labour group frequently demonized the working class loyalists. In 1985, the year that Northern Ireland’s working class loyalist majority were broadly condemned in the LCI’s magazine, “Labour Briefing”, as “racists” whose “hearts and minds” were not worth winning, the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF, produced a document called “Shared Responsibility”. It set out a solution to the conflict that quite uncannily resembles the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, except with a democratic socialist slant missing from the eventual peace deal. This forward-thinking document explicitly recognised that “there are two legitimate aspirations” in Northern Ireland, that of the unionists and of the nationalists1. In a decisive break from the old unionist promise of Protestant rule in Ulster for Protestants, the document declared that “We have concentrated on the sharing of responsibility rather than the sharing of Power. The task of everyone in this region is to bring a halt to the violence and ensure that power politics is not allowed ever again to breed communal violence”. It advocated a devolved power-sharing government. It even advocated a Bill of Rights and a court on which two judges from the Irish Republic would sit alongside two British mainland, two Ulster and two European judges, to oversee said Bill of Rights. This document came from the very dark heart of “racist”, violent Ulster loyalism, whose leaders, convicted murderers like Billy Hutchinson and Billy Mitchell, now declared themselves progressive, even socialist. Their ideas fell on deaf ears, as the British state tried to crush any progressive solution to the conflict and the Provisional IRA and its left-wing allies in Britain missed the opportunity to build a democratic consensus for cross-community government. Whether it is my understanding of socialism or Corbyn’s which is deficient here, it is in this light that his views on Ireland haven’t quite sat well with me, not least when he presents himself as having been a peace-maker. It is hard to argue in one’s own defence that sitting down with all sides is crucial, if one has only sat down with the side one agrees with.
It’s also in this context that I found myself convinced to wholeheartedly back Corbyn as well as Labour today. It’s simply no longer practical to try to stay above the fray. What pushed me over the edge was yesterday’s report in the Daily Telegraph, leaked to them by an MI5 source, that the intelligence agency kept a file on Corbyn in the 1980s due to his IRA links2. These links are, as mentioned, a matter of public record. There is no new information, besides the fact that Corbyn was under surveillance, which anybody who knows anything about British left-wing organisations and the scandalous level of harrassment they received from the state in the 1980s would have expected anyway. What is interesting and important here is the fact that an MI5 source felt the need to say this to the press at all. The Labour Party has trailed the Conservatives by double digits in every serious poll conducted since Corbyn became leader. The entire weight of the British media, both conservative and “liberal”, has been thrown behind the campaign to discredit not just Corbyn but the policies he supports, with great success. Though Labour has seen a bounce in the polls since the Prime Minister called a snap general election, as Corbyn has come into his own, campaigning amongst the public, while Theresa May has revealed herself to be by turns awkward, inept, vicious and deceitful, it is still inconceivable that the Conservatives won’t win and increase their majority on election day. So it is worth asking why anyone would consider it necessary to warn the public, again, about Corbyn’s past. The answer, I think, lies in that bounce in the polls.
One of the great frustrations for British leftists is that so much of what we believe is shared by a majority of our fellow citizens, yet political figures who present solutions to those issues are so little trusted. It has become commonplace for people to ridicule figures like Corbyn as being out of touch with the interests and concerns of ordinary people. The British people are too conservative at heart, the narrative goes, to want anything to do with an unashamed socialist like Corbyn. On the other hand, many of the key pledges in the latest party manifesto enjoy widespread public support, even as they are dismissed by the right-wing media as too extreme for Brits to stomach. On nationalisation of the rail networks, on raising the top rate of income tax and corporation tax, on abolishing higher education tuition fees, on nationalisation of key public services like water, the mainstream, Middle England view overlaps with Corbyn’s, not with that of the Prime Minister. Slowly, certain voices on the right are beginning to nervously acknowledge this. As far back as September 2015, two days into Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, an article in the Daily Telegraph observed that Corbyn and the public – even most conservative members of the public – are as one on public ownership of banks, rail and industry, though the writer took pains to ridicule these ideas (and by extension the British public, including Telegraph readers) as “positively Trotskist”.3 This week the same newspaper published an editorial pleading with the Prime Minister not to lurch leftwards.
Anybody reading the Conservative Party’s manifesto who genuinely believes that May is lurching leftwards is, it must be said, a danger to themselves and to the public, but the fact that she wants to be seen to be, and the conservative press is concerned about it, suggests that regardless of how unconcerned they may be by Corbyn himself, they are starting to get nervous about Corbynism. More precisely they are concerned about what happens if a photogenic, charismatic young Labour leader without the baggage and with unimpeachable credentials on the sacred issue of foreign policy comes along and sells the key points of Corbynism to the public more convincingly than Corbyn has been either able or allowed to. I think this concern is what explains MI5’s intervention over their Corbyn file today. We have known about his associations since day one, yet he is looking stronger than at any other point since he became leader. The task now is to associate the social and economic policies which he offers with political extremism. The British people might like the idea of British Rail being brought back, but isn’t that the kind of policy a terrorist sympathiser would endorse? You get the idea. When MI5 is briefing against a candidate weeks from an election, it may well be time to consider the possibility that the candidate has them rattled.
That this kind of state power is never directed against conservative politicians probably scarcely needs to be said, but let’s explore it anyway. When Corbyn became an MP in 1983, at which point he already supported the IRA’s political aims, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Around this time, Thatcher was sending SAS squads to camps on the Thailand-Cambodia border, where they trained the exiled Khmer Rouge forces in laying mines and booby-traps in civilian areas. She insisted that the Khmer Rouge keep its seat at the UN as the official, internationally recognised government of Cambodia. By this point, the extent of the Khmer Rouge’s actions when they controlled Cambodia was widely known. Around a million people are thought to have been executed by the regime and another million killed by famine. I expect that I could stop 100 British people on the streets of London and tell them about the time that a Conservative Prime Minister supported a supposedly communist regime, thought to have killed two million people, and if I could count the number of people who knew about it on more than one hand I would be astonished. It simply isn’t part of the wider national discourse. Nor is her support for Saddam Hussein. Nor is the fact that the current Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has admitted that “the vast majority of these opposition groups [which Britain supports in Syria] are Islamist”.4
The very real anti-imperialist credentials of the Vietnamese communists constituted a potential disaster for western hegemony. Why Thatcher favoured the Khmer Rouge over the Vietnamese liberators of Cambodia should be obvious to anybody; given a choice between the two, a capitalist will always side with the worse of two “socialists”, in the hope of spreading news of the system’s inherent horrors as widely as possible. Readers must ask themselves why right-wing figures are permitted to take this stance without damage to their reputation, even after the true horrors committed by their chosen ally are known, while left-wing figures who gave the same ally the benefit of the doubt before the truth was known are condemned to eternal criticism. The truth is that the left is never permitted the defence of pragmatism when it comes to working with unsavoury characters towards a particular political end. The right always is. This disparity is accepted more or less wholesale in Britain, for reasons that aren’t necessarily to do gullibility. I think that the British people implicitly recognise that the hypocrisy at the centre of our political life is absurd, it’s simply that they quite reasonably expect better from Labour. The next step is convincing them to expect nothing from the Conservatives.
1 Tony Novosel, “Northern Ireland’s Lose Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism” (London: PlutoPress, 2013), p. 193
2 “MI5 opened file on Corbyn amid concerns over his IRA links”, The Daily Telegraph, 19 May 2017
3 “Corbyn’s views on nationalisation chime with public opinion. They are still wrong”, The Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2016.