Jeremy Corbyn's past views on conflict in Northern Ireland leave many questions to be answered
The Manchester massacre has evoked embittered memories of the IRA’s bombing campaign on the British mainland. Comparisons are made between last week’s no-warning outrage and the IRA’s destruction of central Manchester in 1996 and the bombings in other English cities, such as Birmingham, Warrington and London between the 1970s and 1990s.
In the midst of the general election campaign, one man in particular, Jeremy Corbyn, remains in the firing line of public opinion and the media over his past allegiances with militant Irish republicanism and unashamed support for a united Ireland.
Never mind his sense of total outrage now about the suicide bombing in Manchester, where did his sympathies and loyalties rest when those earlier IRA attacks took place?
What pain did he experience during more than 70 occasions when he was in the company of Sinn Fein and pro-republican groups during and at the height of the IRA’s violence?
Where was his mind when he stood in protest outside the Old Bailey shortly after the Brighton bombing which targeted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet?
Was he experiencing the same depth of shock and rejection of terror as he has done now, when he protested at the trial of Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber, and was placed under arrest?
Did he feel the same as he does now when he outraged British public opinion by inviting two former IRA prisoners as his guests at Westminster in 1984, in the aftermath of the bombing?
He now says: “I condemn all bombing. It is not a good idea and it is terrible what happened.”
Did he tell that to Gerry Adams in the 1980s? Or did he share such thoughts with his close friend, Diane Abbott, who in 1984 was quoted as saying: “Ireland is our struggle and every defeat of the British State a victory for all of us. A defeat in Northern Ireland would be a defeat indeed.”
Or what of his attitude towards his choice for Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, who was forced to apologise abjectly for this statement at a republican event only four years ago: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and the sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands which brought Britain to the negotiating table.
“The peace we have now is due to the actions of the IRA. Because of the bravery of IRA and people like Bobby Sands we now have a peace process.”
Time blurs the memory but still cannot erase the pain of the thousands who suffered here and elsewhere at the hands of those whom Mr McDonnell wished to honour.
The weight of evidence about the Corbynite sympathy for Sinn Fein and the IRA, during the latter’s terrorism in Britain, is so extensive and emphatically damning, that it cannot be brushed aside by a short statement of belated regret.
A further indictment is the one-sidedness of the Corbynites — their lack of contact with unionists, with victims of the IRA, their absence of sympathy for the security forces in Northern Ireland and willingness to accept Sinn Fein at face value irrespective of the brutality of its paramilitary wing.
Though it seems unlikely, we cannot rule out the possibility of another upset at the general election next week to add to that of Donald Trump in the United States and Emmanuel Macron in France. In just over a week, Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Diane Abbott could be Her Majesty’s Home Secretary, responsible for homeland security, and John McDonnell could be Chancellor in charge of Britain’s — and Northern Ireland’s — future financial fortunes.
It is understandable that many people deserve the clearest possible statement from Mr Corbyn and his political allies about what they said in the past about terror, their views now and future intentions.
These people cannot continue to evoke any doubts as to where they stood before and now on the use of terror to achieve political ends, be it with regard to dissident republicans in Northern Ireland or suicide bombers in British cities.
Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell can see the embarrassment their old allegiances have caused in the light of the Manchester bombing.
However, too many suspicions remain that Jeremy Corbyn and some of the best Labour friends are being economical with the English language when it comes to reflecting on what they said and did in relation to the Troubles. Sadly there is little or no evidence that they gave much thought for others beyond the militant republican movement.
Mr Corbyn says he did what he did for the peace process and supported the Good Friday Agreement.
What solace did he ever offer to the unionist tradition? Does he really accept the central plank of the Belfast Agreement that people here have the right to decide their own destiny inside or outside the UK despite his unequivocal support for a united Ireland?
He has had no alternative but to row back from his past endeavours on behalf of Sinn Fein. A frenzied media in Britain has not let him off the hook, but for the sake of total clarity and to remove lingering suspicions about his attitude to Northern Ireland, he needs to say more and demonstrate that he has learnt that Ireland has more than one side than militant Irish republicanism.
So Mr Corbyn perhaps you would take this opportunity to answer a few pertinent questions, or if not, to set out more clearly your views on issues which continue to disturb people here.
1) Do you accept that there is a difference between meeting or even negotiating with paramilitary groupings and campaigning for their victory?
2) Do you now support the principle of consent in Northern Ireland — that it is for the citizens of the province alone to decide its constitutional future?
3) Do you now regret campaigning against that principle of consent during the Troubles and demanding an end to what you called ‘British occupation’?
4) During your various associations with Sinn Fein, did you call for an end to IRA violence and issue any condemnations of this violence? Can you point to any report or evidence that you did so?
5) Alongside your various associations with Sinn Fein, what meetings and discussions did you have with unionists and loyalists?
6) In November 1987, shortly after the IRA’s Enniskillen bomb, you signed a parliamentary motion saying that violence and bloodshed in Northern Ireland “stems primarily from the long-standing British occupation of that country”. Is that still your view on the causes of the conflict in the province?
7) Do you believe the current campaign of violence by dissident republican groupings also “stems primarily from the long-standing British occupation of that country”?
8) Have you ever met with the victims of IRA violence, such as those injured in bombs or police widows?
I doubt very much if I am alone in seeking answers to these questions. I hope that in the next few days before the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland go to the polls, you may find time to answer them.