Jeremy Corbyn: Divisive on all fronts?

  1. Craig Harrison writes for us about Jeremy Corbyn’s impact on Northern Ireland

With the debate surrounding the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party focused on what this means for future Westminster politics, very little attention has been payed to the implications for Northern Ireland. If the few days since the announcement that he would replace Ed Miliband are anything to go on however, then we can rest assured that his time in power will be of significance beyond the halls of the UK Parliament.

It’s fair to say that Mr Corbyn has had a history of involvement in Northern Ireland more active than many during his time as an MP. Perhaps most notoriously, he joined Ken Livingstone in inviting Gerry Adams to speak in London in 1984, not long after the Brighton bomb and 10 years before the IRA ceasefire. He was also associated with the Troops Out movement during the Troubles – which campaigned for the British army to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland – and more recently during the leadership race, was the subject of significant media attention over Northern Ireland issues; one of the most high profile incidents, perhaps, when Mr Corbyn stated his belief “ultimately that Ireland should be reunited” during a hustings event.

These things will certainly have caught the attention of politicians in Northern Ireland during the leadership race, and upon his election, it didn’t take long for Jeremy Corbyn to provide another line of division for our parties.

Indeed, while Martin McGuinness was one of the first to take to Twitter to congratulate Mr Corbyn – described as a “friend of Ireland” by Gerry Adams – his politics have become a source of concern for unionists, some of whom doubt his ability to be bi-partisan. This fear was expressed bluntly by DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who told the News Letter: “we will not stand idly by and let Mr Corbyn take a pro-republican partisan stance… We hope that he will be more balanced in his approach to Northern Ireland than he has been in the past”.

Beyond Mr Corbyn’s own politics, those of John McDonnell – his new Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer – have set even more alarm bells ringing. The source of the controversy is again perceived sympathies held toward armed republicanism – allegedly expressed when Mr McDonnell told a London commemoration of hunger striker Bobby Sands that members of the IRA should be “honoured” for taking part in the “armed struggle”. This, unsurprisingly, caused outrage among unionists in Northern Ireland, with DUP MLA Peter Weir stating that he was “disgusted” at the decision, and arguing that the “sickening choice” was a “foretaste of things to come”.

We can see that Mr Corbyn has already proved to be as divisive in the Northern Ireland political sphere as in Westminster. Beyond the media interest, this is important because of the implications it has for local politics. Mr Corbyn has a Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the moderate Vernon Coaker – who has to try and engage with the parties here with the biggest one in the country already suspicious of the man who sent him.

And should Corbyn’s Labour Party ever get into government, the dynamics would be fascinating to say the least. Certainly, it would be a significant cause for concern among unionists if the next Prime Minister was a man who previously stated his support for a united Ireland.

Qualifications have been made; the new Shadow Secretary of State for NI affirmed strongly in the House of Commons that Labour would continue to pursue a bi-partisan approach, and it is likely that Mr Corbyn will have to moderate his position now that he is leader of the British opposition and not just a contender for it. However, it is likely that the relationship between unionists in Northern Ireland – particularly the DUP – and the Labour party will still be frosty for as long as Mr Corbyn is in control. Contrastingly,  we may see Sinn Féin engage with a British political party to an extend never seen before.

Mr Corbyn has been in charge less than a week, but he has already been added to the long list of things that divide our parties. This will add another interesting dynamic to the NI-Westminster political relationship, and if Mr Corbyn is capable of maintaining any level of success, by 2020 this could prove to be a very interesting dynamic indeed.

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