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Corbyn’s Position on Northern Ireland

June 3, 2017

Here’s a question: is Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Northern Ireland the only one consistent with true faith in the peace process?


He has been hammered by the Conservative British press for responding to the question “Do you unequivocally condemn the IRA?” by saying that he condemns all violence against civilians, whether committed by Irish nationalists or British nationalists.

Why is this a problem? On my understanding, the whole motivation behind the peace process in Northern Ireland is to acknowledge that the violence committed by both sides was wrong, unjustifiable, and needed to stop. That means that, whether violence is carried out by one side or the other, it should be regarded as an equal affront to us all (irrespective of nationality) as a threat to the peace that we have worked so hard to maintain.

To focus, in one’s rhetoric, on condemning and blaming one particular “side” is to fall back into that old trap of vilifying the “other side” while refusing to be honest and open about the evils committed by “one’s own side”. As Orwell argues in “Notes on Nationalism”, this is the hallmark feature of nationalism: a complete refusal to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about your own group’s complicity in injustices. Condemning the violence of both sides in the same breath, as Corbyn insists on doing, is the only way I see to avoid this nationalist pitfall.

That pitfall is not just regrettable in its own right, it is what fuels nation-vs-nation conflict in the first place. To see one’s own nation as a lone crusader for goodness against the evils and barbarities of foreigners is usually what makes it possible to see war against those “evil-doers” as a viable and even attractive option. Make no mistake, it is that ideology which lies behind the British press’ condemnation of Corbyn’s comments. Why hammer somebody for saying both sides are unjust unless you refuse to accept that “one’s own” side shares some guilt?

When you pick on one side only, part of the problem is that it fuels a negative and reinforcing cycle. Since you pick on one side, the people (historically associated with) that side feel aggrieved, and start picking on you back, and hating you back. Just the kind of negative cycle that spirals out of control to the point of war.

You could also ask: Where are the British reporters demanding to know if party leaders unequivocally condemn the actions of British soldiers on Bloody Sunday?

It is true that some British voices have condemned the killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday. David Cameron’s apology was at least honest in condemning the British Army’s violence against civilians as unjustifiable. But what I am worried about now is whether those voices – the voices genuinely loyal to the peace process – are going to continue to speak up and not to fall on deaf ears.

You may think I asked that question about Bloody Sunday because I am, in truth, an Irish nationalist and an IRA apologist who wants to attack the British establishment. On the contrary, I am saying only that genuine commitment to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland requires that we abandon the kind of nationalistic jingoism which thinks it appropriate to publicly condemn only the “other side” and to brush “our own” side’s sins under the carpet. Corbyn appears to have done that. Have other party leaders?

Various commentators have drawn attention to the fact that, after Brexit, the Irish border is going to become problematic. All serious parties have paid lip-service to keeping the border safe and maintaining peace, but the truth is that if we are going to weather the oncoming storm, we need to transcend playing petty nationalistic blame-games. We need to stop naming and shaming historical opponents while deflecting the troubling past of our own nations. To do anything else should be considered an affront to the spirit and the security of the peace process.

That’s why the question should be, not “why did Jeremy Corbyn refuse to pick out the IRA?”, but rather, “aren’t the British press fools, for repeating the same mistakes that led us to war before and could lead us to war again?”


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