Coaker distances himself from McDonnell’s IRA kneecapping ‘joke’

John McDonnell  is reported to have made the comments in 1986
John McDonnell is reported to have made the comments in 1986

Labour’s shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last night moved to distance himself from extraordinary 30-year-old comments by shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in which he joked about IRA violence.

The Times on Friday revealed that in 1986 the then backbench Labour MP told a south-east London meeting attended by a Sinn Fein councillor that Labour councillors who boycotted the event because of the presence of the IRA’s political wing could be shot in the knees.

The attempt at humour was last night denounced by a representative of IRA victims as “sick”.

According to The Times, Mr McDonnell also called for the “ballot, the bullet and the bomb” to be used to unite Ireland.

According to a contemporaneous newspaper report uncovered by The Times, the veteran left-wing MP said that the Labour councillors boycotting the event were “gutless wimps” but that “kneecapping might help change their mind”.

Mr McDonnell’s spokesman claimed that he had always opposed violence: “John has no recollection of making these remarks. The quote is clearly taken out of context – John rejects all forms of violence and has done so all his political career.”

However, it is not the first time that comments have surfaced in which Mr McDonnell appears to endorse terrorism.

In 2003, he said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”

After being appointed shadow Chancellor in September, Mr McDonnell apologised for that comment, but claimed it was an attempt to advance the peace process.

On Friday night shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker told the News Letter: “I do not share the views as reported in The Times, nor would I want to be associated with them.

“There is never any justification for terrorism.

“I want to take this opportunity to emphasise that the Labour Party’s approach will remain bi-partisan, based on the consent of the people in Northern Ireland, as expressed in the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements.”

The chairman of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, Boyd Black, declined to comment on Mr McDonnell’s comments.

The DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, was withering about the nature of the current Labour leadership’s “radical mindset”.

The North Belfast MP said: “His comments are every bit as sick and disgusting today as they were when he first made them.

“There is little difference between the terrorist mindset that justified the bombing of the La Mon Hotel in 1978 and the Islamist terrorists who brought havoc to people socialising in Paris a couple of weeks ago.

“If McDonnell thinks Provisional IRA terrorism was something to be joked about then he should visit some of the Provisional IRA victims in my constituency who today live with an empty chair or still bear the physical scars of the IRA’s brutal and barbaric campaign of sectarian violence.”

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said: “On Wednesday John McDonnell was quoting from Mao’s ‘little red book’, now it looks like the shadow Chancellor has also been taking direction from the IRA’s ‘green book’.

“McDonnell’s irrational outbursts from his past and present do further harm to the office that he holds and heap derision on a once-proud Labour Party.

“He is clearly unfit to hold high office in a democratic society.”

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An individual who works with IRA victims last night accused John McDonnell of having gone “beyond the pale”.

Kenny Donaldson of victims’ group Innocent Victims United said that Mr McDonnell’s position was “absolutely untenable”. Mr Donaldson said: “Mr McDonnell was condoning terrorism and criminal violence as a legitimate means of pursuing a political objective. His comments amounted to incitement to violence.”

Mr Donaldson said that his comment about kneecapping was not black humour but rather “reveals the ugly reality of a man wedded to a political ideology which is fascist at its core”.

“John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have not even responded to our request for a meeting to discuss their position on terrorism, they treated innocent victims of terrorism and the law abiding community with contempt when they made comments such as those being highlighted and they continue to treat such individuals with contempt - where is their conviction, where is their courage?”

“Enough is enough, the UK Labour Party must step in and sack those who are apologists for terrorism.”