Yesterday Jeremy Corbyn allegedly refused to condemn the IRA when pressed multiple times during a television interview. This sent various media into a frothing overdrive, delighted Conservatives, and apparently set off the whataboutery alarm at DUP headquarters, who immediately and predictably declared Corbyn “beyond the political pale”.
Except, of course, he did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Rather, he insisted on condemning the IRA and any other perpetrator of violence by condemning “violence on all sides”. James Brokenshire, who seems determined to undermine his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by demonstrating at every opportunity his refusal to be any kind of honest broker (1), waded in to condemn Corbyn’s “attempt to contextualise” IRA violence. What’s wrong with contextualising things, though? Surely if we are to maintain peace and move on from continuous whataboutery, context and nuance – about all the rights and wrongs of the past – is exactly what we need?
It’s obvious what Brokenshire and the Conservatives generally are doing, of course; there’s an election on after all, and if you can’t produce an inspiring manifesto that catches the imagination of the public, you’d best undermine your rival. Conservative voters are more likely to be middle-aged or older, and therefore to remember the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain – so they are tapping directly into their heartland’s fears. And that would make sense, if Corbyn had actually refused to condemn the IRA. But surely it’s not beyond the pale to condemn the actions of all the violent antagonists during the troubles? It seems to me that this is how we achieved the peace we have, how we managed to set up powersharing and – crucially – an attitude much of the general public would like to see reflected in their politicians, so that we can move beyond the tit for tat sniping that makes up far too much of public discourse from our two largest parties.
And while we’re talking about context, it’s worth putting this issue in some kind of context generally. Corbyn’s comments are more easily read as a refusal to condemn the IRA by an audience that either defends the actions of loyalist paramilitaries or – likely in the case of many of the English viewers of yesterday’s interview – cares little or even knows nothing about the violence carried out by loyalist paramilitaries and the British state. For some, it is a deliberate stance, a refusal to interrogate the worst of their country’s past. For many others it’s more about personal experience; the impact of loyalist actions was never quite felt there, while IRA activity was a real and present threat. Bombs are bombs, no matter who planted them, but it’s easier to get exercised by bombs that go off on your own high street. This is an issue Britain really ought to look at, generally, as a realistic grasp of the effect of their state’s colonial past would help to understand many current issues they currently face. But that’s a big ask for a Sunday morning political talk show, lost as they tend to be in minutiae.
The other side to this, of course, is that yesterday’s interview referred to views Corbyn has held for decades, actions taken over 30 years ago and a conflict that – as far as Westminster generally and the current British government in particular is concerned – has been over for almost two decades (2). The hastily dusted off pictures of Corbyn and McDonnell standing with Adams or McGuiness guilelessly ignore the pictures of countless statesmen and women – even Queen Elizabeth II – doing much the same thing. Nothing new and surprising has been revealed. Corbyn has been Labour leader for close to two years, why only now is this suddenly relevant? Well, what’s happening on June 8th?
Despite the DUP’s eagerness to jump on this, suiting their favourite narrative as it does, this line of attack is not about Northern Ireland. This is merely a stick to beat Corbyn, an electoral tactic. Northern Ireland barely merits a mention in television debates, no leaders from our parties appear on Question Time, Leaders’ Debates or Newsnight unless it’s a “special”. The centrality of the border issue to the upcoming Brexit negotiations is something that the Irish government and the EU itself had to insist upon. Westminster can intervene at any time to act on areas where our law contradicts human rights (3), but they choose not to. When the election is over, business as usual will return to Westminster, and to Northern Ireland as our usefulness expires. Regardless of our personal views on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, we all ought to let them know that it’s not good enough.