McDonnell and the IRA: a sorry excuse for radical politics
If anyone ever believed that John McDonnell, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man and shadow chancellor, was in any way radical, last night’s edition of Question Time should have cured that delusion.
McDonnell had been succeeding in giving boring answers to questions on taxes and ‘niceness’ in politics. But that was until a self-styled patriot from the audience decided to pull McDonnell up on his supposed past as an IRA sympathiser, especially the 2003 speech he made to commemorate the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in which he said, ‘It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table’.
McDonnell’s response to the audience member’s question was entirely in keeping with the cringeworthy emotionalism of Corbyn’s ‘new politics’: ‘If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart I apologise. I apologise’.
It was inevitable that McDonnell’s IRA statements were going to come under scrutiny at some point. During Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this week, David Cameron told McDonnell he should be ‘ashamed’ of his past IRA comments. This morning, many newspapers have continued to criticise McDonnell’s remarks despite his grovelling apology on Question Time. BBC News said McDonnell was ‘attempting to deal with the most toxic of his comments’ but failing. And Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jr told BBC Radio 5 live that McDonnell was ‘under pressure to apologise’ from senior members of the Labour Party, or face the axe.
But McDonnell’s apology is completely unnecessary. He never truly supported the IRA, or the radical call for British troops out of Ireland. In 1981, when McDonnell became the deputy leader of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, Livingstone was known for singing IRA songs in pubs to win over London’s Irish constituency. Likewise, McDonnell, too, flirted with the idea of Irish freedom. As someone who campaigned against the British occupation and for Irish freedom in the 1980s, I can tell you that the Labour left was never serious about ending the British occupation. Livingstone, McDonnell and friends would rather the Irish presented themselves as victims of violence than as active agents in a fight for freedom. McDonnell, as a member of the Labour Party, was in favour of the eventual unification of Ireland under a reformist Labour government, but not the ‘bombs and bullets’ of armed struggle.
At the height of protest against the British occupation of Ireland in the 1980s, some of us argued that there was only ever two sides to the conflict: the republican fighters and the British state. McDonnell, as a member of parliament, was always in favour of what is now known as the British solution, namely, the peace process. The negotiations for peace only began in the early 1990s when the IRA was almost defeated. In a May 1984 interview, Livingstone, a leading figure in the Labour left’s Irish campaign, asserted that he was ‘opposed to every act of violence’ and called for ‘a political solution and negotiations between the warring factions’. The likes of Livingstone, McDonnell and Corbyn, who had supported the Labour Party’s attempt to use Ireland to distance itself from Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, were not involved in the Irish freedom movement if it meant going to war with the British state.
What was really offensive about McDonnell’s appearance on Question Time was his slippery political stance. Not only did he apologise for using the word ‘occupation’, and therefore rejected the reality of the situation in Northern Ireland at the time; he also stated that he had lied to the republicans to cajole them into the peace process. ‘I had to use the language the republicans understood’, McDonnell told the Question Time audience: ‘One of the problems we had was that if they felt that they were defeated or humiliated… they would not stand down’.
This cynical political posturing and false representation of political views is at the heart of the Labour Party’s new politics. McDonnell also told the audience that Corbyn had forgotten to sing the national anthem because he was ‘distracted’ by fond memories of his parents who participated in the war effort. Give me a break. McDonnell’s performance on Question Time reveals the spineless, lacklustre politics of the Labour left, intent on making politics ‘nicer’ but not interested in change.
Denis Russell is an Irish builder based in London.