No more apologies
John McDonnell has made an unprincipled retreat, writes Anne McShane
John McDonnell’s recent apology for remarks in support of the republican movement stands in marked contrast to his previous record on Irish self-determination. The decision to make a statement of remorse for words spoken at a meeting to commemorate hunger-striker Bobby Sands in 2003 - and to do so in such a fawning manner - has had the result of making him appear insincere and weak.
If it was an attempt to safeguard himself and Jeremy Corbyn from further attacks on their record of support for the republican struggle, then it will surely fail. The media, Tories and right wing of the Labour Party are determined to destroy the new leadership in any way they can. And how better to do so than by pulling out incriminating quotes from the years of the Northern Ireland struggle - when McDonnell and Corbyn were among a small group of Labour leftwingers who took a stand against the British state?
Comrade McDonnell had in fact already adequately dealt with media criticisms in a piece in The Guardian just days after the speech itself. On June 3 2003 he said:
I told the harsh truth that the negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland would not be taking place if it had not been for the military action of the IRA. Let me be clear: I abhor the killing of innocent human beings. My argument was that republicans had the right to honour those who had brought about this process of negotiation which had led to peace.1
Whether the aim of the republican movement had always been to bomb the British government into compromise is open to question. In the early days the call had been for the British army to be forced out ‘on the skids of their helicopters’ in the manner in which the US forces had been driven out of Vietnam. But the nationalist politics of the Irish Republican Army, the lack of a Marxist party in Ireland and crucially the absence of a mass solidarity movement in Britain had precipitated the rise of ‘moderate nationalism’ in Northern Ireland.
McDonnell in 2003 was simply stating that the republican struggle had been a legitimate one. He maintained that, amongst British people,
there has to be an acceptance that the violence of the past 35 years had a root cause. It wasn’t some pathological trait of the Irish. Britain faced such violence in virtually every colony from which it was forced to withdraw, from the Mau Mau in Kenya to the nationalists in India. We have to face up to the fact that without the armed uprising in 1916 Britain would not have withdrawn from southern Ireland. And without the armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30 years, the Good Friday agreement would not have acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And without that acknowledgment we would have no peace process.2
But in 2015 he does not repeat his call for such an acknowledgement and the reasons given now by him suggest that he was simply sweet-talking republicans to stop the talks falling apart. Most damning was of all was the apology he gave on the BBC TV programme Question time on September 17: “If I gave offence - and I clearly have - from the bottom of my heart I apologise. I apologise.”
Of course, that will do nothing to appease Northern Ireland unionists. The Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, was quick to denounce McDonnell for using “words that he didn’t believe in order to persuade republicans to give up violence. That is not credible.” Dodds wants more servile penitence - he “needs to be honest and not merely to say sorry, but to mean it”.3 The loyalist Belfast Telegraph also raged at McDonnell’s “insincerity” and pointed out that he “has been frequently reported in An Phoblacht/Republican News, marching for a united Ireland here, demanding the disbanding of the RUC there, marking anniversaries of Bloody Sunday, and honouring ‘martyrs’ from James Connolly to Bobby Sands”.4
John McDonnell is certainly known as one of the most prominent campaigners in Britain for Irish rights. He set up the Irish in Britain parliamentary group in 1997 and has campaigned against discrimination against Irish people in employment, housing and social provision. He has also been involved in campaigns against miscarriages of justice, like the Guildford Four. Comrade McDonnell has been seen as a friend of the republican movement - somebody who was prepared to take a brave stand against the British state. Like others on the Labour left, he took a reformist, gradualist approach to British disengagement in Northern Ireland and made clear that he welcomed the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement. However, as many of us warned at the time and as the last 18 years have shown, British imperialism could not provide any just or democratic solution for Northern Ireland.
Today the Six Counties remains a deeply divided and unstable entity - with an even more divided working class. The Stormont assembly has been beset with crisis since it was set up in 1998 under the Good Friday agreement. It has been suspended on four separate occasions, including for five years between 2002 and 2007. Suspension is again threatened in a furore whipped up by unionists over whether the IRA is still armed. Sinn Féin is under pressure, as one of its leading members, Bobby Storey, was arrested in connection with the killing of another republican. He and Sinn Féin have denied any involvement in this or any paramilitary activity, but there are huge tensions within republican ranks.
Sinn Féin in government has been a major disappointment for the republican working class. The party has been accused of hypocrisy - in the north they have voted though austerity measures, while opposing them in the south. Unemployment has continued to rise in 2015, in contrast to the rest of the UK. The province is subsidised to the hilt and the public service makes up over 60% of the local economy. Chancellor George Osborne is planning to dismantle this sector with a range of swingeing cuts, to which Sinn Féin has responded by threatening that collision is also on the cards over this issue. Meanwhile, in the south the Fine Gael/Labour government proclaims the end of recession, while homelessness and poverty becomes endemic.
James Connolly’s ominous warning of a carnival of reaction in the event of a divided Ireland has once again been shown to be correct. A 2012 report showed that divisions between Catholics and Protestants in the north have become more, not less, entrenched. The number of so-called ‘peace walls’ dividing the two communities had grown from 22 to 48 since 1998. Education and housing is almost completely segregated - 92% of children are enrolled in either Catholic or Protestant schools and 90% of social housing is built for either one or other community.5 Catholics remain in a disadvantaged position, with a higher number of unemployed, as well as a substantially bigger prison population. And, with the introduction of harsh austerity measures, the pressures within both communities are bound to grow.
The British state meanwhile refuses to countenance any challenge to its claim that it has been nothing but a civilising force in Ireland. The government in the south has been more than willing to assist in this historical reinvention - or falsification. Next year is the centenary of 1916 and the Easter Rising - the event which led to the civil war and the eventual division of Ireland. The British and Irish governments are very keen to show Irish history as one of partnership rather than enmity. Any politician that challenges this agenda will be dealt with harshly.
So it was with John McDonnell. The 2003 quote was dragged up in order to force him into submission - and it has worked, at least for now. Jeremy Corbyn is no doubt the next in line - and perhaps the real target. Comrade Corbyn has had a longer and even closer relationship with the republican movement than McDonnell. He has been involved in solidarity work since the 1970s and he spoke from the platform at numerous demonstrations and meetings calling for troops out and an end to internment. Corbyn has not hidden the fact that he supported the making of links with the IRA and recognised its leadership as legitimate, causing controversy in 1984 when he invited Gerry Adams and other members of Sinn Féin to the Commons for a meeting. He has also always made it known that he supports a united Ireland and is opposed to the Labour Party standing in elections in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Telegraph as the mouthpiece for Northern Ireland loyalism has expressed vehement opposition to his leadership. It is only a question of time before the knives come out over his past support for Irish self-determination. I hope he is better able to withstand the pressure that comrade McDonnell has been.
The question of Ireland remains key - indeed it persists as an issue that goes to the heart of the British state. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that cannot be challenged without paying a price. The UK establishment continues to insist that its army was the only one with the legitimacy to shoot and kill. The arming of republicans in the fight to win democracy is painted as a symptom of the irrationality and bloodthirstiness of the Irish. The election of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes of the 1980s are swept under the table. But for him and the many others who died the campaign was for democracy, for self-determination.
That is as real today as it was then. Let us hope there will be no more whitewashing.