Jeremy Corbyn will have disappointed any unionist hoping for a distraction from the continuing political vacuum. Deftly skirting the traps set for him by the DUP to meet (presumably mainly unionist) victims of the Troubles and uniquely denounce the IRA, he slipped in and out of Northern Ireland unscathed. Instead he played a straight bat, Declining to become a persuader for unity, he would back a border poll only “within the terms of the Agreement” and he deserved unionist gratitude however grudging, by rejecting special status for Northern Ireland within the EU. He might have uttered hints of retribution against the DUP for keeping the Conservatives in power, but if he was tempted, he forbore. The verdict of the New Statesman bears repetition.
The longer the government’s inaction continues, the less crazy the idea of welcoming a Labour government seems. The party’s 2017 manifesto, one senior figure in the Northern Irish business community told me, was “not that mad” but “almost Blairesque” on the issues that mattered. Its propositions of extra investment infrastructure and training were attractive. There is also the fact that Labour’s vision for Brexit – if it can be described as such – offers more answers for business than Theresa May’s. Contrast this if not explicitly friendly than unquestionably receptive attitude to Corbyn with the frosty reception Karen Bradley received from businesses enraged by the NIO’s sluggish, laissez-faire approach to restoring devolution then it is clear that Labour are faced with an open goal.
The less Corbyn is seen to stir memories of Northern Ireland’s troubled past and the more he is seen to offer practical solutions to the anxieties of the future on Brexit and devolution, the more credible his Labour will become as a UK-wide government in waiting. There remains the question, however, of how credible Corbyn himself can ever be. He did not offer the unequivocal and specific condemnation of IRA violence many have asked for. On Wednesday, his spokesman said he still believed in a united Ireland as a point of principle. Labour cannot normalise its relationship with unionism under Corbyn if these running sores are not cauterised. There appears to be no plan to do so.
Perhaps- but somehow healing the running sores no longer seems so crucial if the calm public reaction is any guide and after Corbyn had shown the formal impartiality required by the GFA in a would be prime minister.
Jeffrey Donaldson found something 1to denounce in Corbyn’s call to convene the British –Irish Intergovernmental Conference to end the “unconscionable” Stormont stand- off and give Northern Ireland “ a voice “ on Brexit. But here, although Sinn Fein of course welcomed the idea, the Newsletter found the DUP’s response ambivalent rather than implacable. The paper is right to think of the BIIC as “totemistic.” For decades now British and Irish ministers have met anytime without worrying about the label. Only if the BIIC became a standing institution making joint declarations of policy would it rightly be seen a form of joint authority opposed by Conservatives and unionists alike. Which is why it isn’t going to happen like that.
From the Irish point of view perhaps there is merit in John Bruton’s suggestion ( recently put by Simon Coveney) in forcing a crisis earlier in June rather than later in October. But any initiative on Stormont next month coinciding with the two governments facing each other on opposite sides over the Brexit withdrawal agreement would be a bold one indeed. Perhaps by finding common ground over restoring power sharing they could agree on a Brexit backstop? It seems a tall order.
How ready are the DUP and Sinn Fein for any such initiative? The indicators are not promising. In the Irish News Patrick Murphy treated us to even handed derision.
THE silly season started early this year. The summer months, in which frivolous stories tend to replace hard news, began this week when Sinn Féin and the DUP argued over which party was the more inclusive.
Since both parties are exclusively sectarian, it was not just all very silly, it was sadly insincere, because it is the non-inclusive nature of SF and the DUP which has led to the current political impasse. Welcome to the world of self-delusionary politics.
Arlene Foster’s repeated lament about how she personally would feel about unity –(“ I could not assimilate ”) are hardly the words of a confident leader on top her game. She fails to understand that by making her commitment to belong less than absolute, she weakens her position from the start and concedes the old republican trope that unionism is an inferior category to nationalism. All it takes now is for Gerry Adams to offer her comfort.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London