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
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