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Suzanne Breen: Victims have Labour leader Corbyn in sights after meeting



Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn


Jeremy Corbyn

Unionist politicians were outraged when Jeremy Corbyn failed to meet IRA victims during his visit to Northern Ireland last month.

The Labour leader was accused of snubbing those bereaved or injured by republicans.

The party insisted it had received the invitation too late with the schedule for the trip having been already arranged.

Thursday's meeting between the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tony Lloyd, and IRA victims is the first step in an attempt to heal a very fractured relationship.

It paves the way for what victims really want - a face-to-face meeting with Mr Corbyn himself where they will have the opportunity to voice their views on his past close relationship with Sinn Fein leaders. Jeremy Corbyn has long been a strong supporter of a united Ireland and a friend to republicans. At the height of the conflict - when Gerry Adams and others were pariahs in mainstream British politics - he met them.

So it's understandable that unionists don't trust him. On Thursday, Mr Lloyd met six victims from the border area along with DUP MP Gregory Campbell and MLA Gary Middleton in the party's Foyle offices.

The meeting lasted an hour and a half with the Shadow Secretary of State first and foremost listening to the victims' personal stories.

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He found one account particularly emotional - that of former part-time UDR soldier 82-year-old Ernie Wilson who was driving a school bus in Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh, when an IRA bomb exploded under the vehicle in 1988.

Future DUP leader Arlene Foster was one of the schoolgirl passengers. Mr Wilson saved the life of Mrs Foster's friend Gillian Latimer who was sitting beside her. Although injured in the blast himself, the bombing had even greater repercussions for Mr Wilson.

His son James, who would search the bus every day for suspect devices, was tormented by the thought that he had failed to detect the bomb. He took his own life shortly afterwards. The Labour team were deeply moved by Mr Wilson's account. Mr Lloyd spoke of his own background as Greater Manchester's former Police and Crime Commissioner.

He also spoke of his role as MP for Manchester Central in 1992 when the IRA bombed the city. He revealed that his son had walked past one of the devices shortly before it exploded and could easily have been caught up in the blast. He hoped that those experiences gave him a more nuanced understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland than some other English MPs may have. Mr Campbell said the meeting had been positive but that more was needed from the Labour Party.

"The victims and myself were pleased to meet Tony Lloyd and have the opportunity to acquaint him with legacy issues," he said.

"However our request is to meet the Labour leader. Jeremy Corbyn needs to be well aware of the depth of feeling about him here. For years he acted as a Labour apologist for Sinn Fein. He is the person we need to speak to."

Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United said that in the three years since Mr Corbyn became Labour leader, he had unsuccessfully requested that he meet victims six times.

"No other politician has been so elusive. He must now deliver," Mr Donaldson said.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that Mr Corbyn is willing to meet "a representative range of victims" either during his next visit to Northern Ireland or in London.

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