Jeremy Corbyn has put some distance between himself and Sinn Fein by ruling out the British and Irish governments jointly running Northern Ireland if he was prime minister.
In an interview with the News Letter yesterday during his first official visit to Northern Ireland as Labour leader, Mr Corbyn clarified comments which he made earlier in the day when he called for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) to be convened.
In the continued absence of either devolution or direct rule, nationalist parties and the Irish government have been calling for the BIIC – a formal mechanism for Irish ministers and their officials to talk to their British counterparts – to meet.
Last week Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney presented the body as something which could see the Irish government provide “appropriate political direction and governance” and “governmental oversight” in the absence of Stormont.
The DUP has dismissed the BIIC as “a talking shop” and highlighted that under the Belfast Agreement it is prohibited from discussing devolved matters. Any suggestion that it would see the Irish government helping to run Northern Ireland would be explosive within unionism.
In comments which may to a limited extent reassure unionists who have long been sceptical about Mr Corbyn because of his long-standing support for Irish republicanism, he put some distance between his position and that of Sinn Fein.
Mr Corbyn said that in the absence of Stormont there was a “democratic deficit” in Northern Ireland and that he wanted to see the Northern Ireland parties come together and agree to re-enter devolved government.
“I think if they can’t do that, then the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) would be a good boost to it,” he said.
“After all, the history of bringing about the Good Friday Agreement was, to begin with, work between the two communities but also work between both governments – and both governments coming to it could help.”
However, when asked for clarification on whether he wanted to see the body take decisions about public services in Northern Ireland which would normally be taken in Stormont, Mr Corbyn said: “No. It’s to bring them together.”
New shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd said that “constitutionally, it is not supposed to [deal with devolved matters]” and Mr Corbyn added: “It can’t do that constitutionally.”
Mr Corbyn also clarified how he would handle any future referendum on Irish unity, saying that he would remain neutral – in sharp contrast to David Cameron who frequently pledged as prime minister to “never be neutral on the Union” and campaigned with Labour for Scotland to remain within the UK.
He said that the agreement allowed the people of Ireland to decide on their future but “we’re a long way off that”.
When asked if he had any view on a united Ireland, Mr Corbyn said: “We would not be advocating for it or campaigning for it. We’d be neutral on it.”
The leader of the opposition ruled out an amnesty for all those involved in the Troubles – whether terrorists or members of the security forces.
Variations of the amnesty proposal have recently come from multiple sources including Northern Ireland’s former top prosecutor and some Tory MPs concerned about investigations into former soldiers.
Mr Corbyn said: “Our view – and we’ve obviously discussed this – is that the PSNI should go where the evidence takes them and that I think has to be the right thing to do.”
When asked if, as he looked back on his many contacts with Irish republicans and members of the IRA at a point when the IRA was murdering people, he thought that he was naive or had been taken in by some individuals involved in violence, Mr Corbyn did not directly answer, saying: “I always wanted – there’s plenty on the record – a political process to bring about peace and I always said nobody’s going to win a war in Ireland.
“You are only going to win a war when we bring about a peace process. The Good Friday Agreement was a culmination of movements within both communities. The Hume-Adams accord within the nationalist community, the work of David Trimble and many others in unionism which eventually brought about the two ceasefires and particularly the second ceasefire which then led eventually to the Good Friday Agreement.”
Asked if he was standing over all his contacts with republicans during the Troubles or regretted any of them, he said: “My position has always been: I want to see peace through dialogue and through justice and an end to all forms of discrimination and so that has been my stand all along.”
The Labour leader also defended the Irish government’s tough line with London in the Brexit talks, something which the DUP has objected to as being unnecessarily inflexible.
Mr Corbyn said that the Dublin government “obviously have concerns about Brexit because a very large proportion of trade from the Republic is either with or through the UK to the rest of Europe, and clearly there is a common travel area anyway and there’s a very close level of economic integration so they are obviously very concerned about the restoration of a hard border with Northern Ireland, and so I don’t see that they’ve behaved particularly badly. Quite the opposite. They have in Brussels sought to be constructive in the negotiations.”
Mr Corbyn spoke to the News Letter at Lagan College in the Castlereagh Hills above south-east Belfast where he met pupils and staff at the integrated school.
Belfast-born Labour peer Baroness Blood, who is a long-standing advocate of integrated education, was among those welcoming him to the school which she said “was not begun by government but by passionate campaigners and we’re all very proud that from small beginnings within this school more than 35 years ago, the movement has grown and spread throughout Northern Ireland”.
The Labour leader later met with trade union leaders in central Belfast.
ICTU assistant general secretary Owen Reidy said they had “a warm and friendly meeting with Jeremy and briefed him on some of the most pressing economic problems facing working people in Northern Ireland, in particular low pay and insecure work, and the social impact of austerity for public services coupled with a decline in quality jobs in the private sector”.
Mr Corbyn will today travel to Londonderry where he will make a speech to business leaders and visit the border.