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Jeremy Corbyn's too close to Sinn Fein to be Labour leader, warns relative of IRA hunger striker

By Liam Clarke

Published 19/08/2015

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle Gildernew at Westminster
Bridie McCreesh

A relative of an IRA hunger striker has said that Jeremy Corbyn, the favourite for the Labour Party leadership, has ignored unionists and is too close to Sinn Fein.

Labour membership has soared in Northern Ireland since the party's election defeat in May and the message seems to be "anyone but Corbyn", the left-winger who is the bookies favourite to win the race.

Bridie McCreesh, a trade union official from South Armagh, is typical of the new intake.

Although she comes from a partly republican family - a cousin was the hunger striker Raymond McCreesh - she accuses Mr Corbyn of ignoring unionists.

"I think Jeremy has let himself seem too close to Sinn Fein," she said, citing his recent appearance at Feile an Phobail in west Belfast.

"He met neither the Labour Party nor the unionist parties during his visit, but did attend a reception with Sinn Fein politicians.

"He should have gone somewhere neutral or gone to another area as well to balance things. He should have appeared with both sides of the community," she said.

She added: "I joined the Labour Party because I am fed up with the tit-for-tat sectarian squabbling we have dominating politics in the north of Ireland.

"I am backing Andy Burnham. He is the only one who has come out and said: 'Yes, he would like to get Labour standing again in Northern Ireland'. Jeremy Corbyn was asked the question last week and he hummed and hawed and talked about procedure - he clearly didn't want it so I couldn't back him."

Dugald McCullough, a former member of the Progressive Unionist Party, took a different view. Describing himself as "culturally British, raised Protestant, and socialist by choice" he said that he wasn't worried by Mr Corbyn's support for a united Ireland.

"The border is an irrelevancy since the Good Friday Agreement but unionists still use it to rally support. It can only be decided by a referendum."

He believes Mr Corbyn is the only candidate capable of moving the entire political debate to the left across the UK.

"I am only interested in stopping the debate being pushed further to the right by the Tories, I think they'd melt people down for soap if they could.

"The fact that Jeremy Corbyn supports a united Ireland makes it interesting, but it doesn't change the equation."

Whereas Mr McCullough and Ms McCreesh are both recent recruits, Erskine Holmes has been associated with the Labour movement since 1964 when he worked on his first election for the old Northern Ireland Labour Party. He was also election agent for the late Martin McBirney QC, a former NILP chairman, who was assassinated by the IRA.

Mr Holmes, now vice chair of the Northern Ireland Community Investment Fund, said: "There are quite a few people who were in the NILP who would come back if Andy Burnham is as good as his word and allows us to stand here."

He attended Feile an Phobail to hear Mr Corbyn and was not impressed. "He gave me the impression of not being on top of either Northern Ireland or the Middle East" he said.

In an article in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Burnham said he favoured contesting elections in Northern Ireland and discussing the issue with the Irish Labour Party.

Last year Irish Labour voted to explore setting up a joint region with UK Labour in Northern Ireland where people could be members of both parties.

Mr Holmes likes the idea: "I support the idea that members should have reciprocal rights in the Irish and British Labour parties.

"I wouldn't object to being a member of the SDLP either, but my primary loyalty is to UK Labour.

"Andy Burnham is being constructive to work with the Irish Labour Party and the SDLP so long as he remains true to his commitment that members should be allowed to stand here. Whatever happens, we should have Labour candidates here again."

George Storey, the owner of Abbey Insurance Brokers and Prestige underwriters, is another NILP veteran.

Mr Storey said: "I will be voting for Andy Burnham because he gives us the best chance of getting re-elected.

"I employ 530 people here and another 220 in England and I feel that if our friend Jeremy got in we would be in the wilderness for five years or more. It would be bad for business."

He added "I am a member of a body called 'Labour in the City' in London, but what I would really like to see is Labour standing here, and Andy Burnham is the only candidate committed to doing that."

Mr Storey, who comes originally from a UUP background, joined Labour as a student and is now 74. From Holywood in Co Down, he also farms in Co Cavan and is a member of the Irish Labour Party there.

He said: "My wife inherited land in the south so we use our voting rights there. It is the only place on the island I can vote Labour and I'd like to change that so I would totally support having reciprocal arrangements and a joint region with Irish Labour. I don't see it as a conflict."

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