Scandal fails to take hold
Jeremy Corbyn seems to have survived attacks on his historic links with Irish republicans, but his response was still weak, argues Paul Demarty
1986: Jeremy Corbyn invited Gerry Adams to the House of Commons and it was right to support the IRA against the British army.
It had to happen eventually, and the shrinking of the poll gap between the Conservatives and Labour no doubt provided the occasion. So it has come to pass: the attack dogs of the rightwing press have ‘discovered’ that Jeremy Corbyn has historic links to the Provisional Irish Republican Army; so, indeed, do his closest allies, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
The peculiarity of the story is the way it has not really blown up; it is all very ‘dog that didn’t bark’: there have been a few TV news roastings, sure, but not the sort of relentless smearing that characterises similar sorts of accusations (think of the American right’s absurd relentlessness on matters such as the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi embassy attack), and the news agenda has gone through a number of other flavours since.
It is also - to avail ourselves of another canine cliché - a bit ‘dog bites man’: who on earth can have been surprised, given everything else, that Corbyn and his close allies might have entertained Provo sympathies in the 1980s? They certainly opposed British army operations in the Six Counties, albeit with varying degrees of radicalism - it is not a huge step from there to admiration of the heroism of the hunger strikers (say), and then to the usual routine of fundraising and solidarity work ... The IRA’s bombing campaign on the British mainland made it a harder thing to do than going dewy-eyed over the Sandinistas, of course, and the Irish question was deeply divisive - but friends were found in the British labour movement for republican militancy. Perhaps some of the youngest Corbynistas are naive enough to be shocked by this - but then they did not live through the bomb scares of the 1980s and 90s, and so are the very least likely to be appalled.
There is also the small matter of subsequent history. It is close to 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement saw the Provos commit to disarmament; 14 since they disarmed fully; and 10 since Sinn Féin entered into government with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. That power-sharing deal finally collapsed last year - not because of the terrorist perfidy of Sinn Féin, but rather the ineptitude and corruption of the DUP under Arlene Foster. Northern Ireland, to be sure, is hardly the world’s most stable and functional polity, yet it represents some kind of peace, even if only defined as the absence of war, and certainly could not function if today’s SF was the same outfit that existed in 1984. Tiocfaidh ár lá - ‘Our day will come’ - goes the old slogan; we are sure they still say it, but can they truly take it seriously?
Yet the Tory reaction to these dubious revelations is such that we almost feel like we have fallen through a time warp and gone back three decades, to the age when Margaret Thatcher deemed it politic to ban republican voices from the airwaves. The editorial pages of TheSun takes the prize in this regard, claiming on the say-so of notorious informer Sean O’Callaghan that “innocent people were murdered specifically because Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell sucked up to the IRA” (our emphasis). The editorial unaccountably failed to note that O’Callaghan was a state agent and has subsequently traded entirely on the dubious prestige of the turncoat. But why bother, when there is Labourite blood to be spilled?
Even at the time, of course, such assertion of the taboo on ‘talking to terrorists’ was entirely mendacious and hypocritical. Rare indeed is the war when no channels of communication at all exist between the opposing sides, and ‘the Troubles’ were not one of the exceptions on that point. SF old-timer Danny Morrison ruffled a few feathers by pointing out, on Twitter, that he and Gerry Adams had met a parliamentary ‘fact finding’ mission in 1977, which included then Tory back-bencher Willie Whitelaw, seven years before Jeremy made it to Belfast. It was a Tory government under John Major, meanwhile, that first began serious discussions as to a lasting peace in the Six Counties. Throughout this time, the government was absolutely not ‘talking to terrorists’, of course - except that it was.
The response of the Corbynistas has been uneven, to say the least. Diane Abbott attracted widespread ridicule for dismissing concerns about her record thus: “I had an Afro. It was 34 years ago. The hairstyle has gone and some of the views have gone. We have all moved on.” Evidently some people haven’t; but in any case this is an absurd defence. Either maintaining links with the IRA and SF was an error or it was not. If it was an error, you ought to account for it; and if it was not, you ought to denounce the idea that it was. To dismiss it as akin to a change of hairstyles is to demean the very practice of politics altogether.
Jeremy Corbyn himself, meanwhile, has chosen to don the robes of Gandhi, and declare that it was all for peace. TheSun’s little salvo on the subject ridicules this idea, saying instead that it was all because he and McDonnell “hate the west, hate Britain and longed for our defeat” (Ireland, apparently, no longer being part of the west, so far as Tony Gallagher and Rebekah Brooks are concerned). In fact Corbyn can certainly point to contributions, for better or worse, to the Good Friday Agreement; he was able to act as a go-between for Tony Blair and Sinn Féin, ironing out some of the many bumps on the road. Yet this is still an evasion. If Corbyn had always been hostile to republican armed struggle, then what use would he have been as a go-between? He earned that power by supporting the nationalist cause earlier.
Now, as often in these past two years, one wishes that there was more willingness on the part of the left Labour leaders to actually stand on their records. Yes! Jeremy, John and Diane denounced Britain’s war in Ireland, denounced the dawn raids, the beatings, the internment, the machine gun towers, the police brutality, the collusion, the idiotic idea that it was all a religious dispute, and the shameful, jingoistic nonsense that it was all the other side’s fault - all down to the crypto-fascist fanaticism of the IRA. The very best that can be said for this great imperialist misadventure is that it gave us the dysfunctional sectarian arrangement that now governs from Stormont - less a political regime than a ceasefire with a parliamentary appendage. Jeremy, John and Diane have done the hard part, denouncing it while it was still happening, while ‘our boys’ were fully deployed, and while the war was spilling over onto the mainland. That ought to be a point of pride, not of evasion and hand-wringing.
Yet in the end it is down to the same illusion that has cast its spell over the Corbyn era - the idea that, if ‘divisive’ issues can be skirted over, then party unity can be maintained, the British people won to vote for a mildly anti-austerity Labour government and thus (with apologies to Bobby Sands) their day will come. Though the bourgeois press was unable to make much out of this one, it remains the case that this Corbyn strategy is plainly not working.