International  •  Politics & Economics

Corbyn, the IRA and Britain’s war in Ireland

24 May 2017

The latest Tory and media attack on Jeremy Corbyn comes at a time when the polls are showing a Labour revival. That is, they need to portray the Labour leader as a Sinn Fein/IRA supporter, therefore a security risk and unfit for government.

The Daily Mail rages that Corbyn refused five times to explicitly condemn the IRA in a TV interview, calling it “a kick in the teeth for IRA victims”. The Tories are similarly “outraged” that he would not “unequivocally condemn the IRA”.

In fact Jeremy did condemn the IRA; his response has been to “condemn all those who do bombing, all those on both sides”. On being involved in meetings with Sinn Fein before the ceasefire, he said, “I wanted to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. You have to talk to people with whom you don’t agree. And I did.”

Indeed Jeremy’s contacts with Sinn Fein were quite open and public, whereas a succession of British governments had “behind the scenes” discussions with the IRA – under Edward Heath in 1972, Margaret Thatcher in 1981 and John Major in 1993 – while they were claiming in public they would never talk to terrorists! So how ironic is it that when Church leaders, the SDLP or Tony Blair facilitated a peace deal they were heroes but when Corbyn attempted a similar feat that makes him a “terrorist sympathiser”.

But what niggles the likes of the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party’s Arlene Foster most is Corbyn’s support for a British withdrawal and a united Ireland. Other Labour lefts have also supported this aim, like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. In 1981 Tony Benn declared for a united Ireland and even the not so left wing Kevin McNamara, Kinnock’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, thought that partition was the ultimate cause of the conflict.

This kind of talk is anathema for the British ruling class and its Unionist hangers-on in the north of Ireland. If removing the border were ever going to be an option for Britain, it would not be at the expense of alienating Unionism. A soft border with its economic benefits would be preferable for British capitalism but Brexit has thrown this option into the water.

Partition is the problem

Britain’s partition of Ireland in 1921 created a “prison house” for Catholics and those identifying as Irish in the north of Ireland. A Protestant Unionist majority was created by drawing the border around only six Ulster counties (instead of the historic nine).

Years of discrimination and repression of Catholics followed: in housing, jobs, wages and education. When workers’ unity bridged the religious divide, sectarian Loyalist gangs organised pogroms, firebombing Catholics out of their homes.

When the non-violent Civil Rights Movement was battered off the streets in 1968 by The Royal Ulster Constabulary (an almost exclusively Protestant force) as well as loyalist thugs, it became clear that peaceful struggle was not going to get anywhere.

As Catholic areas came under siege in Belfast, it was imperative to organise self-defence. Citizens’ Defence Committees sprung up where the state refused to defend those communities. The Provisional IRA grew out of this struggle. If the sectarian Unionist state only existed because of British backing, then it is hardly surprising the fight boiled over from a struggle for civil rights into a war against partition.

Successive British governments, Labour and Tory alike, mounted an unconditional defence of the Unionist state. Among the first of the inflammatory acts was Internment without trial in 1971 where many prisoners were tortured. This was followed by British Army massacres in Derry on Bloody Sunday and in Ballymurphy. Britain had “lost” the Catholic and nationalist areas completely.

Labour’s shameful record

The Labour Party pursued a blatantly pro-Unionist and bipartisan policy with the Tories on Ireland throughout the so-called “Troubles” – in fact a war. This meant supporting and, in government, implementing a policy of military repression against any resistance to the Unionist state.

Some on the Labour left viewed this as a failed policy. Among them was the Labour Committee on Ireland that throughout the 1980s and 1990s organised a campaign advocating an alternative policy of reunification of Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn stood in this tradition, an anti-colonial tradition that argued for the Irish people to determine their future rather than Britain. Red Flag has always argued that Irish people had every democratic right to defend their communities and drive out their oppressors, and that this goal justified the IRA’s military struggle against the British presence.

We did this despite expressing criticisms of their strategy for doing so – a guerrilla warfare strategy that could never have driven out a vastly superior force, one which moreover had the support of the majority of the North’s population, many of whom were armed. The failure of the guerrilla campaign particularly the bombing campaign and its reckless civilian casualties represented the final bankruptcy of the IRA’s strategy.

Only working class action north and south of the border including mass self defence could have broken the deadlock. A significant obstacle to this was the role of the southern governments who were opposed to reunification and colluded with Britain in the repression of Republicans.

However Britain had and still has no right to be in Ireland, let alone to impose its rule by terror and force. In common with many other opponents of British occupation of the North, Corbyn opposed the bombing of economic or civilian targets whether in Ireland or Britain. Despite just criticisms of the counterproductive nature of the IRA’s strategy, the duty of British socialists always was and remains to work for Britain’s withdrawal from the Six Counties.   

Reunify Ireland

Unfortunately, the whole question of reunification had been lost since the Good Friday Agreement was brokered, thanks largely to Sinn Fein. All we’ve had is a Stormont wracked by scandal and corruption and more than a large dose of austerity dished out. Moreover a Stormont based on a sectarian head count that reflects the deeply sectarian nature of the northern state.

There is provision within the agreement for a border poll on unity. A majority for unity would trigger a poll in the south. But the decision to call a poll rests with the British government!

So the agreement effectively acknowledges the current Unionist majority and its veto over unity. The Irish people as a whole do not have the democratic right to determine the future of the north.

The aftermath of the Brexit referendum result though has raised the issue of the border and reunification once more. The economic disaster in the waiting, following the likely erection of a hard border, provides a new opportunity to demand British withdrawal from Ireland.

We need a new campaign within the Labour Party and trade unions to press for reunification.

The outrageous insinuations directed at Jeremy Corbyn should be politically answered by Jeremy saying why he was always right to call for a united Ireland and that it is still the way forward now.

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