Labour and the Tories are talking about the IRA but, as ever, not about Ireland

The recent revelations about Diane Abbott’s support for Irish nationalists in the 1980s have not been particularly surprising. For many old enough to remember the horrendous violence and terror the IRA inflicted on people, such support is unpalatable; but we already knew that, as a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, she was likely to have shared his rigidly anti-West approach to world affairs. Criticism of the British State’s policies can of course be healthy, and indeed must be present in a functioning democracy. But in the pattern of Corbyn‘s criticisms there seemed to be something more extreme, an apparent dislike of the State that led him to become close to IRA leaders. The claim that he was purely concerned with peace is rather belied by the absence of his reaching out to any unionists prior to the creation of Stormont in 1998.

It is not wrong for the Conservatives and the national newspapers to be pointing out these things. Many people of voting age are too young to have experienced the IRA threat. But there is another reason that people should be aware of Corbyn’s perspective, and which the Conservatives are not highlighting: understanding Corbyn’s views is relevant to the situation we find ourselves in right now.

It is noticeable that, even recently, Corbyn has only condemned the IRA in the vaguest possible terms while pointing out that force was used by the State too. He believes in a united Ireland. And that is of course legitimate, but were he to become Prime Minister it would have potentially profound implications for Northern Ireland on account of Brexit, and would change completely the dynamic of discussions around the future of a border that has extraordinary political significance.

In wanting to shore up support for her own strong and stable, and of course unionist leadership, you might expect Theresa May to be pointing out this particular question mark over Corbyn’s candidacy for the role of Brexit Prime Minister. But the focus of the Conservatives is far removed from the future of Northern Ireland. Consistent with their appallingly vacuous, blithe and infrequent comments on this most serious of situations since the 24 June, the Tories are still carefully avoiding any meaningful discussion about what their own extreme form of Brexit – outside the Customs Union as well as the Single Market – could entail for Northern Ireland, and the threat it poses to the frictionless border.

The implications of Brexit for peace and prosperity in the region were largely ignored in the referendum debate, and they are being entirely ignored in the Tory and Labour campaigns now. But if and when Theresa May eventually gets back to work after her seven-week General Election diversion, it may not be long before it is apparent why Ireland has been so assiduously overlooked.

* Sarah Tebbit has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since 2014.

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  • Richard Underhill 26th May '17 - 9:40am

    We should be careful to handle overlapping issues accurately. We condemn the murders and other violence associated with the IRA, but Northern Ireland has non-violent nationalists in the SDLP, who aspire to Irish unity by agreement. Such a consent has not been available, but their former leader John Hume was widely respected. As Unionist leader David Trimble (now a peer) said the SDLP gave up their Unique Selling Point when John Hume started negotiating with IRA leaders. It led to a settlement described by his deputy as “Sunningdale for slow learners”.
    Democracy is another overlapping issue.. Electing representatives first past the post isan imperfect system and a cause of resentment. The Single Transferable Vote on a universal franchise is better, but not sufficient of itself.
    Try a historical comparison. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was multi-ethnic, but not democratic. Italy is now a democracy. It was possible to combine nationalistic ambitions with democratic ambitions.

  • Matt (Bristol) 26th May '17 - 10:04am

    This is a very sensible article, and Richard’s comments above are also insightful.

    I fear very much that the main reason – from now on – for why the Tories will push this angle will be nothing to do about Ireland, North or South, and everything to do with pushing the idea that Corbyn is ‘weak on terror’ and that only the Tories can be trusted. We may not agree with Corbyn, but Liberals should be watchful and wary of the aggressive, authoritarian, dualist rhetoric coming out of the Conservative party.

    Whether we can adequately articular an alternative perspective – on both the politics and prosperity and borders Northern Ireland, and on the correct government approach to another terror campaign, and insert it in a polarised debate, in the time available, is … well, depressingly doubtful, but that’s what we need to do.

    Meanwhile, the other two main parties will try to hopelessly muddy and confuse all these issues.

  • The fact is this bomber was allowed to go back and fourth to known radical hotspots under May’s watch. Going on about the IRA is just an attempt to distract and smear.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th May '17 - 2:58am

    A very intelligent article, interesting none of the contributors from the pro Corbyn , not , Liberal Democrat , voting Labour , brigade, are nowhere on here telling the excellent author of this piece what they keep saying to those of us who actually prefer our leader Tim Farron, that we are awful for ever criticising their guru !

    Corbyn, Abbot and Mcdonnell, have no credibility on this subject even if those of us who value social democracy in addition to Liberalism, can see merits in Labour on some issues.

    Anyone who does not believe this , need just google the subject answers , galore to the question mark some have on his associations.

    I do not want permanent Tory government, but I prefer to think of the Labour party of Neil Kinnock , I was a youthful member of in the era he was leader, and was undermined every time a bomb went off and he called it evil, to be met by Corbyn, Livingston and assorted types leftward , referring to the war in Northern Ireland, and meeting with the friends of the bombers !

    Funny how those of us who are not supportive of Corbyn mainly because of those issues, are even now told to give him a chance.

  • More “Corbyn/IRA” …..Corbyn was ‘grilled’ last night by Andrew Neil and there is a general consensus that he came out of it far better than May…
    He says he never supported the IRA terror campaign although he met their political representatives ..
    His words (not those translated by some on here) were “I didn’t support the IRA. I don’t support the IRA. What I want everywhere is a peace process. What I want everywhere is decency and human rights”.
    When asked if he ever told the Sinn Féin figures he met, who represented the IRA, to give up violence, he said (again his exact words), “I always said the bombing process would never work – that there wasn’t a military solution to be found in Northern Ireland. I made that very clear. I made that very clear in the House of Commons and other places..”
    Had there been any evidence to the contrary, I’m sure Neil would have had it to hand…

    As for his actions at the time his co-chair at the peace in Ireland marches was one Janice Turner (the Young Liberal chairman)…Still, it was well over 30 years ago, so we can put it down as youthful enthusiasm…

  • Denis Loretto 27th May '17 - 9:33am

    Unlike Expats I thought the Andrew Neil interview was as much a car crash for Corbyn as the previous one with May was a car crash for her. On display were many of the reasons why electing Corbyn as Prime Minister would be extremely risky. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned Corbyn like so many on the far left somehow convinced himself that the Provisional IRA were some sort of progressive movement. While I daresay if pressed he would have shown some distaste for their brutal and vicious acts he and his coterie would downplay these factors even in the wake of atrocities which those of us living and working there were enduring every day and every night. I can see no evidence that at any time Corbyn or McDonald tried to persuade IRA leaders to move towards peace – nor, as Neil clearly brought out, did they involve themselves in any way in the peace process that ultimately emerged as violent republicanism and violent “loyalism” (both deeply penetrated by British intelligence) began to realise they were reaching stalemate.
    As Richard Underhill says the SDLP demonstrated that it was possible to campaign peacefully for a Irish unity but as a founder member of the Alliance Party whose unique achievement was and is the mobilisation of large numbers of Protestant and Catholic members working together for a united Northern Ireland community I regard this as the truly progressive movement in the province. Like Lorenzo Cherin I cannot look at Jeremy Corbyn and see an acceptable candidate for prime ministership of the UK.

  • Alex Macfie 27th May '17 - 9:43am

    expats: This Janice Turner is not the current Lib Dem party leader. It’s not clear whether she is even a party member. She seems to be the same Janice Turner who is a columnist for the Times newspaper, but I don’t get an impression she is a Lib Dem from her twitter feed. The Young Liberals did support the Troops Out movement over 35 years ago, but stopped supporting it and Sinn Fein/IRA in the early 1980s. They subsequently supported the non-sectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Certainly when I was active in LDYS (in the mid 1990s) I did not find any sympathy for Sinn Fein. Alliance Party people attended our conferences.

    On Jeremy Corbyn’s support for a military solution in Northern Ireland (i.e. one involving the IRA winning), here are a few links. You keep on asking for “evidence”, well here is some

  • Denis Loretto 27th May ’17 – 9:33am………….Unlike Expats I thought the Andrew Neil interview was as much a car crash for Corbyn as the previous one with May was a car crash for her….
    Not just me..Most ‘independent’ observers thought he did rather well…I make no secret of my belief in a lot of his policies so my ‘reading’ of his performance is, no doubt, coloured by those feelings…
    If, like Lorenzo Cherin, you see no merit in him then your impression will be equally skewed in the opposite direction…

  • Alex Macfie…Did you actually read the evidence you posted? In fact, they support MY views rather than yours….
    What is untrue about Corbyn’s…“During the 1980s… we built up regular contacts with Sinn Fein, we were condemned by our own Party Leadership for so doing… and we were proven to be right. In the end, even Margaret Thatcher recognised that there had to be some kind of political settlement in Ireland, that militarily it wasn’t going to be possible, and eventually this became the Good Friday Agreement after the 1997 election.” and, “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.”….

    BTW expecting any sort of favourable coverage for Corbyn, in the ‘Spectator’ shows a deal of naivety….If Corbyn walked on water they’d run a headline abut him being unable to swim…

  • expats: Of course I read it. What is untrue about that quote is the idea that it reflects what Corbyn was actually doing in the 1980s or what successive British governments were doing. In other words it was completely untrue. Corbyn spoke at Sinn Fein-IRA rallies at which he praised them, and he never once condemned their methods. Even now he can only do so in the most mealy-mouthed fashion. Corbyn and the IRA were the ones seeking a “military” solution, in which the UK government was forced to capitulate to the IRA through its bombing campaign. The government did of course set up back-channel negotiations with the IRA, in order to persuade them to renounce violence. These were secret, as back-channel negotiations necessarily are. This was not seeking a military solution, but a political one. The GFA represented a political solution, and one in which Sinn Fein/IRA had to move furthest from its original position. Jeremy Corbyn had nothing whatsoever to do with this.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th May '17 - 1:17pm


    It is a great thing to engage with you on here on this , I did not know you were a founder member of the Alliance Party, which , as such an admirer of it , I think it , like the Quakers , should have received the Nobel Peace prize back in the early years it started, and you and colleagues share in the importance of this terrific party which we as the Liberal Democrats, need even stronger relationships with as sister parties.


    Your continued sense of both reason and evidence to back it is welcome . We need to do this when people continue to rewrite things .


    Do not , please , rewrite what I say, I have been both scathing and sensible on Corbyn, I on the thread yesterday on his speech was staunch in criticism of timing and stance, as a result of the horror in the Arena , but was open to his criticism another time , on the link, though not a main cause in my opinion or focus , maybe worth at least considering, with regard to aspects of foreign policy. As an ex member of the Labour party , many years there and in this party I obviously am fair about social democracy, but not left wing socialism or his type of political cultural revolution, that redwashes as well as whitewashes his past !

  • Alex Macfie 27th May '17 - 1:58pm

    expats: If Corbyn was so keen on dialogue to achieve peace, then why did he oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement and denounce the SDLP as “sell-outs” for supporting that example of exactly the sort of “dialogue” he claims to support? And why did he oppose the GFA? It’s you who did not read the articles, as they clearly make this point.

  • Denis Loretto 27th May '17 - 2:08pm

    @Martin. As far as I am aware Corbyn did vote for the Good Friday Agreement ( albeit disgracefully I think Mc Donald voted against). However by then the leadership of Sinn Fein itself was on board for this compromise approach. If we look earlier – say in 1985 when the Anglo-Irish Agreement could be said to have started the long process towards peace, the House of Commons approved this by 473 to 47. Most of the 47 were staunch unionist supporters who clearly saw that the AIA was a challenge to their erstwhile hegemony. But among the 47 was Jeremy Corbyn. He not only voted against it, he also spoke in Parliament against it. He said :

    “Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of us oppose the agreement for reasons other than those that he has given? We believe that the agreement strengthens rather than weakens the border between the six and the 26 counties, and those of us who wish to see a United Ireland oppose the agreement for that reason.”

    Surprise, surprise this was exactly the attitude of Sinn Fein (who did not and still do not take their seats in the Commons) to the AIA.

    I repeat what I earlier posted – I can see no evidence that at any time Corbyn or McDonald tried to persuade IRA leaders to move towards peace – nor ….did they involve themselves in any way in the peace process.

  • He didn’t oppose the Good Friday Agreement, he opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement a pre-cursor to the GFA, as did 6/8 parties in Northern Ireland. It was seen as a victory for Thatcher but she later admitted she was wrong to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty. After the treaty violence ensued on both sides especially the loyalists who held mass rallies some say up to 400,000 attended in protest to the treaty. Both sides unhappy with on going troubles for 10 years until the GFA was put into place. Thus Corbyn was correct to point out the treaty wouldn’t serve it’s purpose it made divisions wider and Thatcher herself later admitted it was a mistake

    The AIA was opposed by all these…

    Amery, Rt Hon Julian Lamond, James
    Beggs, Roy McCrea, Rev William
    Benn, Rt Hon Tony McCusker, Harold
    Biggs-Davison, Sir John McNair-Wilson, M. (N’bury)
    Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl’thpes) Maginnis, Ken
    Browne, John Maynard, Miss Joan
    Bruinvels, Peter Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
    Budgen, Nick Morris, M. (N’hampton, S)
    Clay, Robert Murphy, Christopher
    Cohen, Harry Nellist, David
    Corbyn, Jeremy Nicholson, J.
    Dalyell, Tam Paisley, Rev Ian
    Dicks, Terry Parry, Robert
    Dover, Den Porter, Barry
    Farr, Sir John Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
    Fields, T. (L’pool Broad Gn) Redmond, M.’
    Forsythe, Clifford ( Antrim) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
    Gow, Ian Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
    Kilfedder, James A. Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
    Skeet, T. H. H. Winterton, Mrs Ann
    Skinner, Dennis Winterton, Nicholas
    Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
    Stanbrook, Ivor
    Taylor, Rt Hon John David Mr. William Ross and
    Walker, Cecil (Belfast N) Viscount Cranbourne.
    Walker, Bill (T’side N)

    If memory serves Corbyn has always supported, and voted for, the GFA

  • Alex Macfie 27th May '17 - 9:58pm

    expats: Quite what you are trying to show by listing the MPs who opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement is unclear. What is clear is that they comprised the NI Unionists, hardline pro-Unionist Tories and mostly far-left Labour MPs with Irish republican sympathies. This unholy alliance of the extremes suggests the reason they opposed the AIA is that it involved compromise, and they did not want compromise. The same is true of the Loyalists, which is why they held rallies against it as you say. The paramilitary groups on both sides increased their activity because they were deeply unhappy with the idea of being forced to end their campaigns of violence. They were NOT “unhappy with on going troubles”, they *caused* troubles and they *profited* from the troubles.
    It’s telling that the only two NI parties that supported the AIA (Alliance and SDLP) were also the only ones that unequivocally condemned all acts of violence by NI paramilitary groups.

  • Alex Macfie, I was showing that Corbyn was far from alone in pointing out that the AIA would make things worse not better. It so proved, as even its architect (Mrs. Thatcher), agreed that it had been a costly mistake…
    I also was correcting ‘Martin’ who, like many on here, seems to be confused between the AIA (that Corbyn was against) and the GFA (that he supported)…

  • expats: Corbyn in common with other extremists didn’t like it because it paved the way for a peaceful settlement in which neither side would “win”. The AIA was a precursor to the GFA, so the latter could not have happened without the former. Of course the extremists didn’t like it, which is why in the short term it made the troubles worse, but forcing the terrorists to accept the reality that they were never going to win by bombing was never going to be plain sailing. Giving IRA spokespeople uncritical hospitality, as Corbyn did, certainly was never going to achieve that aim. The idea that we just needed to “talk” to the IRA and this would be easy and everything would be solved overnight is just delusion.

  • Denis Loretto 28th May '17 - 1:25am

    I have no doubt whatsoever that the Anglo Irish Agreement, crafted on the Irish side by the celebrated man of peace Garrett Fitzgerald, was a seminal part of the peace process. For the first time the “orange card” was challenged . Hard line Unionists were forced to contemplate that refusal to agree some form of power sharing would not simply lead to “direct rule” and the Republic would have a say. No wonder it was reviled by “the usual suspects” and eventually was a significant factor in bringing more realism to the unionist side. The AIA had a brilliant clause which in effect promised its own demise if a cross community agreement was achieved. This duly came to pass.

  • @ expats
    “Corbyn was ‘grilled’ last night by Andrew Neil and there is a general consensus that he came out of it far better than May…”

    I agree it was not such a car crash of an interview as the Theresa May one where she wouldn’t answer the questions, but some of Jeremy Corbyns answers could have been better:
    Nuclear weapons – it is Labour Party policy and as leader I will implement Labour Party policy, it is a manifesto commitment which we will keep;
    Nationalisation – the nationalised companies will continue to be run separate from the government and the shares will be made into company debentures and not government debt.
    His answer on Peston on Sunday regarding IFS criticism was better, but I would have thought someone would have looked at the possible economic costs of higher corporation tax against the benefits of the large amounts of investment that Labour are promising. Also if the IFS are saying that under Labour plans there will be about a £20 billion budget surplus in 2022, this needs saying every time the IFS criticisms are mentioned.

  • Corbyn and McDonnell had nothing to do with the peace process. Not a single person involved in the negotiations that led to the Belfast agreement has come forward to support McDonnell’s assertion that he played an active role. No historic accounts of the process include them. Corbyn and McDonnell were partisans. They were irrelevant bystanders.

  • Manfarang, make up your mind…

    All the articles of talks between Corbyn and Sinn Féin leaders (Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, etc.) that are used to condemn him…We are told that he was doing this whilst the UK policy was not to keep links open with such people..
    Still, I’m sure they were just discussing the weather in Belfast/Londonderry.

  • expats
    In the 1980s,the PIRA expected in any meeting with British authorities an announcement of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Corbyn and McDonnell fully supported this and didn’t meet Sinn Féin in any capacity as negotiators.

  • Manfarang 30th May ’17 – 3:20am……..expats…..In the 1980s,the PIRA expected in any meeting with British authorities an announcement of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland…..

    Ah, sure! “It’s the way you tell ’em”…,

  • expats
    It is the way it was.

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