For many of us actually affected by IRA violence, the most offensive aspect of the current debate is not Corbyn's comments but being used as a cheap political point.by Siobhan Fenton / May 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
Many in Northern Ireland have been greatly surprised to find that our little region is now top billing on news bulletins. As one of the smallest and most overlooked portions of the UK, Northern Ireland seldom gets a look in when it comes to general elections. Labour and the Liberal Democrats don’t bother running candidates there, while the Conservatives do so only as a symbolic gesture to their unionist ideology.
THE SUN FRONT PAGE: ‘Blood on his hands’ #skypapers pic.twitter.com/xVdPhCBlD3
— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 22, 2017
With few votes to be gained and subsequently little incentive to court the Northern Irish electorate, the region largely remains an afterthought to both political parties and the media outlets following them along the campaign trail.
However, Northern Ireland has been thrust into the media spotlight once again due to recurring claims that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has sympathies for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The terror group committed a number of major atrocities during the Troubles conflict which engulfed Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement peace treaty in 1998.
The Labour leader, like many political figures, met with IRA members during the Troubles. He was perhaps more open about it than others, especially as it has since emerged that the British government was instigating contact with the group at times when its official position was denial of any such contact.
Contact with the Republican side was by no means a sign of sympathy with the IRA. Such talks were engaged with and attended by many members of the British government, despite their personal distaste at what the groups stood for, in a bid to end the conflict. For many politicians, it was a matter of them putting the ultimate goal of peace above principled but fruitless refusals to talk to terror groups. Indeed, this was a position the British government came to adopt on due course.
The claims are nothing new. Corbyn does not dispute that the meetings happened. But while the parties are in election mode, Labour’s rivals have returned to the topic to accuse him of insulting IRA victims and being a threat to national security. He has been asked to outright condemn the IRA and has instead responded by saying that he condemns all forms of murder during the Troubles, telling Sky News: “There were Loyalist bombs as well. I condemn all the bombing by both the Loyalists and the IRA.”
The press has cried offence
Right wing politicians and the right wing media have been quick to cry offence at the comments. On behalf of the Northern Irish people, they have declared themselves aghast and offended. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, for instance, said: “I have listened with interest and concern to the various attempts by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to explain their attitudes towards IRA terrorism during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Their complete failure unequivocally to condemn terrorism, and to attempt to contextualise it, are deeply worrying coming from two people who in just over two weeks seek to be entrusted with the security of the United Kingdom.”
Curiously, in Northern Ireland, the comments have received little attention or caused little distress, beyond some sound bites from hardline loyalists.
The Troubles will always be remembered as a fiercely contested civil war, with its legacy debated to this day. However, this much is clear: it was a horrendous conflict, in which no side had clean hands. Loyalist terrorist groups also committed mass atrocities and targeted assignations. Likewise, the state-backed police force which policed Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was known for its brutality against Catholic citizens. The British state, too, was responsible for numerous deaths, ranging from British soldiers shooting children dead, to what now appears to be state-backed collusion aiding loyalist terrorist groups.
Corbyn’s comments, therefore, were not as outrageous to many in Northern Ireland—where most people have a far more nuanced awareness of the conflict—than as has been portrayed in England.
The reality is that for many of us actually affected by IRA violence, the most offensive aspect of the current debate is not Corbyn’s comments but being used as a cheap political point by English people with next to no actual awareness of or human compassion for Troubles victims.
Ignoring the real issues
It is a grave hypocrisy that the Conservatives cry offence on behalf of IRA victims when they also harm them through their austerity cuts. Due to the Troubles, Northern Ireland has a much higher proportion of people with major disabilities per population than elsewhere in the UK. Many of those injured physically or psychologically by the violence face poverty due to welfare cuts.
And victims seeking to get judicial justice amid the many historical claims pending in courts face legal aid cuts which could bar them from any realistic chance of having their case fairly heard. While the Conservatives issue lofty press statements claiming to champion the rights of Troubles victims, they also cut their benefits and access to legal aid, exposing how insincere and shallow their rhetoric really is.
Similarly, the biggest threat to security in present day Northern Ireland comes in the form of Brexit, which will see the Irish border called into question again long after the matter was resolved by the Good Friday Agreement. That the Conservatives, as the newly self-appointed party of Brexit, are championing this while also accusing Corbyn of being a threat to Northern Irish security is at best illogical, and at worst distasteful hypocrisy.
Furthermore, the English media and politicians’ claims to care about justice in Northern Ireland on this topic are grating when they ignore so many others. Northern Ireland has many social injustices which deserve full and frank debate at a national level: Catholic and Protestant children continue to be educated in separate schools due to a segregated school system, women who have abortions face life in prison and marriage equality for same-sex couples is still banned.
These are serious social injustices which deserve attention. Yet, we in Northern Ireland know the national media and national political discourse will never touch on these topics because Northern Irish society isn’t really important unless it provides an opportunity to make cheap points about unrelated issues.
It is disappointing for many in Northern Ireland, long shut out of serious political debate and sincere compassion from English politicians, yet it is unsurprising. Soon the news cycle will move on, and Northern Ireland will find it ceases to be mentioned again before polling day, save by English people scoring low blows in mock outrage.