Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Edwards: That Labour refused to run candidates in Northern Ireland this time around reflects poorly on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership

Corbyn's mixed messages on Northern Ireland reveal him to be far greener than most of the party, writes Aaron Edwards

Jeremy Corbyn after Labour’s disastrous election results
Jeremy Corbyn after Labour’s disastrous election results

By Aaron Edwards

The signs were all there once the exit poll numbers had been crunched and released. Labour was in for a crushing defeat as the Conservative Party looked likely to return on an increased majority. A few hours later, we had confirmation that Jeremy Corbyn's vision for the United Kingdom had been rejected at the ballot box.

Conservative Party members, their supporters and political allies have been incredibly vocal about Corbyn's views on Ireland throughout the election campaign. The close association he and John McDonnell have enjoyed with Sinn Fein over the years was singled out as evidence of their Irish republican sympathies.

Occasionally, we saw comparisons drawn about Corbyn and a previous Labour leader, Michael Foot. Yet, despite his reputation as sympathetic to the cause of Irish republicanism, Foot was not someone who enjoyed a cosy relationship with Sinn Fein.

In a letter to prominent London councillor Ken Livingstone on December 6, 1982, now held in the Labour Party's archives in Manchester, Foot rebuked the prominent Labour activist for inviting Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison to London, emphasising why, "as democratic socialists, we insist so strongly that our policy must be carried out by consent and not by resort to force".

Concluding his scolding of Livingstone, Foot urged him: "If you wish to learn more about the problems of Northern Ireland, I think you must see other groups, too, who command more votes and more support in the province than Sinn Fein, including the trade unions, who have a special role in resisting the sectarian politics which have been the curse of Ireland."

Livingstone's views on Ireland are a matter of record, as are Jeremy Corbyn's. However, it is probably not widely remembered that Corbyn was the last Labour MP to speak during the final parliamentary reading of the Northern Ireland Bill on July 31, 1998, which commended the Belfast Agreement to the House.

He took the opportunity to refer to a copy of a historic document he had been handed from 1799. It was a secret report on Ireland, he said, which reproduced the statement of the founding conference of the Society of United Irishmen.

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Corbyn talked about how the document set out "the aim of uniting Catholic and Protestant people in the hope of achieving a united Ireland that is equal and represented throughout the island of Ireland" and, in the same spirit, he himself looked forward to "peace, hope and reconciliation in Ireland in the future".

In opting to talk up the United Irishmen, Corbyn was undoubtedly reaffirming his own views on Ireland, which, as I have argued in this newspaper before, are considerably greener than those shared by most of his party.

However, 20 years on from his speech in the Commons, Corbyn's views on Ireland appeared to have shifted.

Kate Hoey
Kate Hoey
Michael Foot

In a visit to Belfast in February 2018, Corbyn's spokesman made it clear that he was personally committed to Irish unification, within the broader framework of the terms laid out in the 1998 Agreement. At the time, the liberal-Left-leaning Guardian newspaper even urged its readers to overlook Corbyn's pro-republican views for his stance on Brexit.

With the benefit of hindsight, we might say that this decoupling of his personal views and his party's policies has been an impossible choice for the electorate to make in this General Election.

Jeremy Corbyn's mixed messages on Ireland and Brexit have distinguished his time as Labour leader.

During his visit to Belfast last year, he refused to meet the local constituency Labour Party, which has 1,500 card-carrying members, apparently many more than the SDLP. Having said that, he did not take the opportunity to meet with the SDLP, or DUP, either.

Labour members in Northern Ireland were left disappointed by their party leader, especially since they maintain that, beyond their 1,500 core members, over 37,000 trade unionists in the province still pay a political levy to the Labour Party.

Some estimates suggest this sum could be as high as £200,000 per annum - not an insignificant amount that would certainly pay towards the costs of a full-time Labour organiser in Belfast, if the party changed its prevaricating stance on Northern Ireland.

With the departure of Jeremy Corbyn, are we likely to see a change in Labour's policy towards Northern Ireland?

Much will depend on whether the new leader takes the pragmatic and much-less divisive stance advocated by the likes of Michael Foot.

It is now up to Labour's ruling National Executive Committee to formulate a revised "One Nation" Labour vision that sees progressive politics work in the best interests of the many - in all parts of the UK, not just those in the few constituencies Labour now hold.

There have been positive moves in this direction, including comments by Unite's Len McCluskey, who suggested his union was "moving towards" this position. The current chair of the Labour Party here, Erskine Holmes, told me prior to the General Election that "he hoped Labour would undermine sectarianism and give working people a voice".

That the party declined to run candidates this time round reflects badly on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Former Labour MP Kate Hoey was first to express disappointment. "Northern Ireland needs politics which focus on class issues, rather than just constitutional ones," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

The disappointing result of Independent candidate Caroline Wheeler in Fermanagh and South Tyrone demonstrates the challenge that lies ahead for progressive political forces. Had Labour run candidates in Belfast, we might have seen a more encouraging result.

However, this might very well become a moot point, particularly in light of noisy loyalist rhetoric of an "economic united Ireland", the prospect of a border poll and the reality of a Tory Government determined to "Get Brexit Done", which will leave the Labour Party reeling until the next General Election.

Dr Aaron Edwards is an academic, historian and author of A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009)

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