Corbyn was not alone in having contact with Sinn Fein as IRA violence raged

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

It strikes many people as odd that Jeremy Corbyn’s long and ‘close relationship’ with senior Sinn Fein figures — many of whom also had direct links to the IRA — should be such a big story in this election campaign.

It strikes many people as odd that Jeremy Corbyn’s long and ‘close relationship’ with senior Sinn Fein figures — many of whom also had direct links to the IRA — should be such a big story in the middle of the present election campaign.

Let’s face it, both Labour and Conservative governments played a key role in ensuring that Sinn Fein — at a time when the IRA remained fully armed and active — would be included in negotiations from the mid-1990s onwards. And in terms of communication with Sinn Fein over the years, Corbyn just did in public what some much more influential figures in Westminster were authorising behind closed doors.

From at least 1972 successive governments maintained ‘back channel’ links with the IRA and Sinn Fein. John Major told the House of Commons, on November 1, 1993: “If the implication of his remarks (he was responding to a question from Dennis Skinner) is that we should sit down and talk with Mr Adams and the Provisional IRA, I can only say that that would turn my stomach and those of most hon. Members; we will not do it.

“If and when there is a total ending of violence, and if and when that ending of violence is established for a significant time, we shall talk to all the constitutional parties that have people elected in their names. I will not talk to people who murder indiscriminately.”

A month later it was revealed that government officials—although not Ministers — were already in negotiations with Sinn Fein and the IRA and that Major was aware of the negotiations.

On July 21, 1997, a day after the IRA announced a second ceasefire (the first one had ended on February 9, 1996 with a massive bomb at Canary Wharf), Tony Blair agreed that Sinn Fein would be admitted to the talks process before decommissioning had begun.

This followed the revelation that the NIO had been in contact with Sinn Fein for some time before the ceasefire began, even though there was supposed to have been an ‘official ban on contacts with Sinn Fein’.

On numerous occasions from April 1998 — including his hand-written pledges during the Good Friday Agreement referendum — Blair shifted his position on what was expected from Sinn Fein and the IRA.

And let’s not forget the promise from former Conservative Secretary of State Owen Paterson, in April 2009 (when the UCUNF electoral pact between the UUP and Conservatives had been agreed) that, if a Conservative government was elected, they would “insist no parliamentary allowances would be paid to Sinn Fein unless the party took their Westminster seats”.

Yet, seven years after the Conservative’s return to power, those expenses continue to be paid to Sinn Fein.

These are just a handful of examples from the 1970s onwards of when Conservative and Labour governments have done things which would be considered as ‘useful’ to Sinn Fein: and many of them were roundly condemned by unionist leaders at the time.

In fairness to Corbyn, his position on Irish unity was Labour Party policy until the 1997 manifesto and I suspect that many of his backbenchers and grassroots members still support the pre-1997 position.

That said, Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with Sinn Fein (and his links predate the peace process) was, I think, an ill-advised one; he clearly knew that the party was inextricably linked to an armed and active terrorist organisation.

Whatever his personal view, it was still extraordinarily stupid of him to have demonstrated so much difficulty in condemning the IRA. A potential prime minister (although he probably never thought he would even be Labour leader, let alone PM) cannot be seen to equivocate on terrorism, particularly when the terrorists concerned have killed UK security forces, civilians and politicians.

And that equivocation on the IRA also raises questions about his remarks in what I thought was an otherwise important speech last week:

“We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

“That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

“But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

“Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

“Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs...”

He’s right. We do need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions; the most difficult of which are: “Why are young Muslims, born in the UK, prepared to blow themselves and others apart; What is their motivation; Have we, as a state, fuelled their anger? How should we, as a people and as a state, respond to this terrorism?”

Corbyn is right to address these issues. But neither he, nor his supporters, should pretend that his ambiguous, nuanced stance on IRA terrorism; or his pre-ceasefire close relationship with Sinn Fein (including some IRA members) are not legitimate issues for him to discuss now.

He certainly wasn’t alone in having contact with them; but, so far, he seems to be the only one who was openly supportive of their long-term ambition and the only one who gave the impression that there was some sort of justification underpinning their campaign.

His own past does have an input to what he might do as Prime Minister—however unlikely the prospect.