During the general election, claims that Jeremy Corbyn was a supporter or even a member of the IRA were a prominent part of how he was demonised. Despite Johnson’s reliance on support from the bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) there was remarkably little discussion of the context for the IRA campaign or the left’s attitude to it. Pat Stack puts the record straight.
According to many who canvassed for Labour in the recent general election, there was much greater personal hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn than in 2017.
I am not referring here to his Brexit stance, which has been debated endlessly elsewhere. I’m thinking of the rather more personal smears, and in particular, the ‘smear’ that he was friendly with, associated with, or apologised for the IRA (the Provisional Irish Republican Army).
This smear began shortly after he became leader, but its impact seemed minimal. For younger voters, this was ancient history, and even for many older ones, the IRA had long ceased to be an issue.
This time round though in a more febrile right-wing atmosphere, and with the endless attacks on Corbyn by the media, the smear began to get a hearing. Particularly, I am told, in the ‘lost Labour heartlands’. That the IRA argument could get more traction in these areas is almost certainly connected to the fact that these were the areas (the northeast, poorer sections of the north-west, Wales), where most recruitment to the British army had come from.
Scotland was also a huge recruiting ground, but the political trajectory up there was very different from the ‘left behind’ areas of the north and Wales.
What is interesting is that this smear took place without context. So he was pro ‘IRA’, but what exactly did that mean? Why was it bad? Who were the IRA?
The simple answer is of course that they were ‘terrorists’. The use of the word terrorist is in itself telling. It immediately implies ‘bad, mad and murderous’. Terrorists are violent, terrorists don’t care about human life. No decent person can support terrorists.
Yet the politicians telling us this usually have far more blood on their hands than any terrorist could ever hope to spill. Tony Blair and George W Bush were ‘against terrorists’ whilst raining more death and destruction and human misery on the people of Iraq in one day than most terrorist organisations achieve in a lifetime.
In fact, every major world leader past and present who has been involved in major military operations has been ‘against terrorists’.
Every major newspaper that supported these leaders’ military adventures is ‘against terrorists’.
In other words, they are only against people using violence to achieve political ends if it’s not their state-sanctioned violence, to meet their political ends. They will weep buckets for the dead after a ‘terror attack’ but have no tears (indeed urge us to rejoice) when they themselves kill far more people.
Who gets labelled a terrorist?
It is also instructive to see who they have described as terrorists.
Most famously the African National Congress (ANC) were terrorists. Yes, long before Nelson Mandela became everybody’s favourite world leader he was denounced as a terrorist, and Tory students (half of whom are probably in parliament now) wore badges saying ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’.
Various movements in Africa trying to end colonial rule from Britain, Portugal, Belgium or France were denounced as terrorist. The irony of their colonial masters complaining about political violence was surely lost on few.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) seeking a Palestinian homeland against a violent Israeli state were ‘terrorists’.
So it was never about how many you killed, or how you killed, but ‘which side you were on’.
Which brings us to the IRA. Now I can’t speak to exactly where Jeremy Corbyn stood on the issue, though I can attempt a general ballpark, I can say where the vast majority of revolutionary socialists stood (with nuanced differences of course, or it wouldn’t be the revolutionary left!).
The struggle for Irish independence
To do so it is necessary to take a dip in the sea of history. Fear not, I do not intend to wade through 800 years of British oppression in Ireland, but it is necessary to go back to the earlier part of the 20th century, if only briefly.
When the First World War broke out, Ireland was still entirely under British rule. The majority of the population were Catholic and nationalist – basically in favour of some sort of devolution (home rule).
On Easter Sunday 1916 a rising was staged by militant republicans and revolutionary socialists which was crushed by the British army. The leaders were executed in a macabre day by day execution process.
The rebels had only the support of a small minority, but within two years the mood of the country had switched dramatically, with an overwhelming majority now favouring an independent Ireland. Republicans organised in Sinn Fein won almost every seat in the subsequent general election. The home rulers were obliterated. Only in the north of the country where there was a substantial Protestant population did the republicans not dominate electorally.
Ireland had voted for independence, but Britain refused to grant it. The (original) IRA emerged, claiming an armed unit in every parish in the country, and launched a war of independence. The British attempt to break this was one of the nastiest and bloodiest episodes in Britain’s shameful history in Ireland.
Eventually, military stalemate led to talks, and the British imposed a border in Ireland. 26 counties gained independence, and a new concocted six-county state remained part of the UK, becoming Northern Ireland.
This led to a split in Republicanism and a civil war, but the pro-deal forces won and Ireland was partitioned along the lines Britain had insisted on.
The great Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly (one of those executed in 1916), had predicted that if Ireland were ever to be partitioned there would be a ‘carnival of reaction’ both sides of the border. He was proved correct. The south became a deeply conservative society in which the Catholic church wielded enormous power. The north became a sectarian state in which the Catholic population who made up about one-third of the population were systematically discriminated against, disenfranchised, and subject to great state repression. The first Prime Minister of this state Craigavon made it clear he was building a Protestant parliament, in a Protestant state, for Protestant people.
In reality, the state was being built for the Protestant capitalist class, and in the interests of Britain, but sought to buy off Protestant workers, by showing that they were favoured for jobs, social housing, industrial development etc. The Protestant poor were poor, but were encouraged to think ‘you’re better off than the Catholics’.
For the best part of the next 50 years, successive British governments (Tory and Labour) turned a blind eye to the behaviour of this highly sectarian, discriminatory undemocratic and repressive state. There was some attempt at minor reform by a ‘modernising’ Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, which was resisted by the vast majority of Unionists, but it was the emergence of the civil rights movement in the mid to late 1960s that finally began challenging the state.
Civil rights, repression and the re-emergence of the IRA
Demanding one person one vote, equal access to jobs and housing, the movement fought for a basic level of reform that would merely have meant Northern Ireland conforming to how the rest of the UK was run. In any other context, these demands would have been seen as moderate common sense. The civil rights movement was not demanding a united Ireland or an end to the border. But in the context of Northern Ireland, it challenged the state’s very existence.
A peaceful (if increasingly militant) movement was met with the full force and brutality of the Northern Irish state. Marches were attacked by armed police and by loyalist mobs in collusion with the police. The leaders were denounced, harassed and even imprisoned.
The movement demanded peaceful change. Not only was that denied, but the Catholic community was now feeling the wrath of the loyalists (aided by the police). Pogroms were taking place with families fleeing their homes.
The British army was supposedly sent in to keep the peace, protect the Catholics and restore normality. But the normality they would be restoring was that of a sectarian and undemocratic state. Quickly the British army switched from ‘protecting the Catholics’ to policing the ‘hooligans and trouble makers’. This switch became clear with the introduction of internment without trial (aimed almost exclusively at Catholics) and most dramatically with the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry where the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 unarmed demonstrators in the Bogside.
What of the IRA? The IRA had continued to exist all along, opposed to the border and for a united Ireland, but they had been a marginal force. There had been a brief and unsuccessful military ‘border campaign’ in the 1950s, but by now they were ageing and largely dormant.
Now a new generation that had demanded change peacefully was witnessing not only failure to deliver the most moderate of changes, but also the violent loyalist response, the viciousness of the police and judiciary and the murderous behaviour of the British army.
Youngsters began to flock to the two wings of the IRA, with the Provisional IRA emerging as the real force of republicanism and ultimately mopping up most recruits.
Prior to all this Northern Ireland had the lowest crime rate anywhere in Britain. Now we were asked to believe that a generation of bloodthirsty psychopaths had emerged from nowhere. In reality, a population desperate for change had witnessed the failures of peaceful protest and the violence of the state.
Unconditional but critical support
In this context, the revolutionary left (or most of it) knew where it stood.
It was with those fighting for change against those fighting to preserve the status quo. It was with those who wanted to smash this sectarian state against those who sought to preserve it by any means.
It was with the ‘army of liberation’ against the army of ongoing repression. It was with the nationalist uprising against the murderous sectarian loyalist paramilitaries (and their secret backers amongst British spooks, the police and all those on the side of reaction). It was with the cause of a united Ireland, against the reactionary, imperialist partition of the country.
In this our stance was unconditional, we did not weigh up every statement, every bombing, every tactical disaster to decide which side we were on. Yes, we reserved the right to be highly critical of republicanism, its strategy, its all-class nationalism, and at times its ill-judged, disastrous and heart-breaking military actions, but between the oppressor and the oppressed, we knew where we stood.
The Labour left
There were some on the Labour left – Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Clare Short and yes – Jeremy Corbyn, who whilst they may not have fully endorsed the stand of revolutionaries, recognised that republicanism had emerged due to just grievances. They saw that the shrill ‘anti-terrorist, total support for the British army and British state’ stance of all mainstream politicians was reactionary and wrong.
They believed that the troops should come out of Ireland and that the voice of republicanism needed to be given a hearing. Did they share platforms with Sinn Fein speakers? Probably. Were they right to do so? Definitely.
Of course, all the while the British government were secretly talking to these same republicans. Eventually, the British establishment sat down with them and did a deal, in reality acknowledging what Benn, Corbyn et al had been arguing: the British won’t win an armed conflict, they will have to negotiate.
So it was never about being ‘friends with the IRA’ (I have no idea what Corbyn’s personal relations were with Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness), but it was about saying I will stand against injustice, legal repression, and cover-ups of army atrocities.
They probably believed that in the end, a united Ireland would be the only solution, a position that is probably more widely held today in Britain than ever.
There is of course an ex-Labour-leader with huge amounts of blood on his hands, he was ‘friends’ with George W Bush, he freely lied as he ordered death and destruction, he bears much responsibility for the war in the middle east today. Corbyn on the other hand, in his own modest way, contributed to the peace in Northern Ireland… I know which one I’d be ashamed to call a friend.