Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: It's not surprising, but it is shocking that Jeremy Corbyn would snub people who suffered so grievously at the hands of a movement he's spent a lifetime cheerleading

Politicians make last-minute adjustments to their schedules all the time, but the Labour leader still couldn't fit IRA victims into his itinerary, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Northern Ireland has changed enormously in the last 30 years, but Jeremy Corbyn hasn't.

The Labour leader still has the same blinkered view of the Troubles he always had. In his eyes the Provisional IRA may have committed some unfortunate acts in their pursuit of a united Ireland, but republicans are on the right side of history and it's the Brits who bear ultimate responsibility for the deaths because it was they who partitioned Ireland in the first place.

This simplistic analysis wouldn't get the average schoolboy a C grade at history A-level, but the veteran Left-winger has, at least, been consistent in swearing by it.

It should come as absolutely no surprise, then, that Jeremy Corbyn turned down the opportunity to meet with IRA victims during his first official visit to Northern Ireland as Labour leader yesterday.

That snub is par for the course from a politician who will only condemn the IRA in the safe, general context of regretting "all bombing" and who thought it was appropriate to invite republicans - some of whom had recently been in prison for terror offences - to the House of Commons a few weeks after the Brighton bombing murdered five, including Sir Anthony Berry MP.

It might not be surprising, but it is still shocking that a man who would be Prime Minister will not meet with some of those who suffered so grievously at the hands of a movement whose cause he has always championed.

It's easy to get a standing ovation from a crowd of students at Queen's University by calling for same-sex marriage and playing on their fears of Brexit.

Uncomfortable encounters with those who might profoundly disagree with him would be a far more meaningful expression of his commitment to be even-handed. Instead, he's passed that meeting on to shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Tony Lloyd.

Of course, there was an element of calculated mischief-making in Gregory Campbell's efforts to engineer a meeting between the Labour leader and a small group of IRA victims.

The DUP MP must have gone into this knowing that his invitation would most likely be rebuffed. The intent was presumably to expose Corbyn's partisanship when it comes to Northern Ireland.

If so, Corbyn only has himself to blame. He's been Labour leader for nearly three years, much to many of his critics' (and, perhaps, even his own) bemusement. That's more than enough time to finesse his political thinking and explain why, in the past, he has always appeared to be more supportive of Britain's enemies than its friends. It's not just the IRA.

His contacts with Islamic terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are well-documented. His full-blooded condemnations of Israel and the United States stand in stark contrast to his half-hearted, mealy-mouthed criticisms of certain other regimes.

That he still hasn't managed to convince anyone his attitudes have evolved beyond 1980s' 'Troops Out' agitprop is no accident. He simply doesn't want to, or see why he should.

That stubbornness is admirable in a way. Most politicians, once they get close to high office, start disavowing the radical idiocies of their previous positions. Ambition trumps principle. Corbyn has never taken that route. He was convinced he was right back then and sees no reason to change his mind now.

That's why his intervention into delicate political issues is so riddled with potential potholes. Most politicians tread carefully when it comes to Northern Ireland.

Corbyn, not so much.

His speech at Queen's University ticked all the right boxes for the local audience, while still providing precious few insights into how Labour would respect Ireland's invisible border and, at the same time, deliver on the result of the Brexit referendum. Corbyn is, let's not forget, a lifelong eurosceptic and he hasn't changed his mind about that, either.

For all his praise for the Belfast Agreement, though, it's impossible to make sense of his approach to Northern Ireland without relating it back to that deeper desire for a break-up of the Union.

There's nothing wrong with that. Wanting to see a united Ireland is not a crime.

But agitating for one, while refusing to meet those who were killed and maimed in its name, makes it look as if they should just accept their fate as collateral damage on the path to a greater good.

Ignoring ordinary people who suffered during the Troubles, while finding time to hobnob with business leaders at Belfast's Europa Hotel, isn't a great look for an avowed man of the people either.

Labour insists that it just wasn't possible to fit such a meeting into his schedule. Corbyn said he only heard about it on Wednesday. Campbell, in turn, insists that he'd approached the party repeatedly in the 10 days running up the Opposition leader's visit with a view to setting up a meeting.

The fact remains that Corbyn would have found the time to rejig his schedule if he thought the inconvenience was worth it.

Politicians make last-minute adjustments to their itineraries all the time - and there are certain groups of people that he wouldn't countenance ignoring.

That those targeted by the IRA are not one of them shows where they stand in the current Labour leadership's hierarchy of victims.

Corbyn's deafness to how that might look to unionists is reminiscent of his inability to reassure members of the Jewish community that hard-Left agitators in Labour are not, as their words and actions increasingly indicate, virulently anti-Semitic.

Given those concerns, it was all the more important that Corbyn go out of his way to be inclusive.

His first public engagement in Northern Ireland as Labour leader represents a symbolic moment and he has decades of misgivings to overcome.

He touched on that at Queen's when he spoke of the need to "reach out and talk to people from all communities and all backgrounds". Having ticked off that cliche, though, he stuck rigidly to type.

Even his support for the reconvening of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as a way to break the political deadlock sounds like just another way of slyly pushing greater involvement in Northern Ireland's affairs by the Government of the Republic of Ireland, an administration which has itself been taking a bullish, ultra-nationalistic stance to Brexit and the continued suspension of power-sharing at Stormont.

It would be tempting to call Corbyn's visit a missed opportunity were it not for the sneaking suspicion that he knows exactly what message it's sending out.

Downing Street will be a cold house for unionists if he ever becomes Prime Minister.

Belfast Telegraph

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