Jeremy Corbyn’s first visit to Northern Ireland as leader of the opposition was never likely to be greeted with enthusiasm by unionists.
Hardly anyone is gullible enough to fall for his attempts to explain away decades of overt sympathy for the IRA.
He retains links to Sinn Fein’s leaders and, just days before his arrival, he reaffirmed his preference for a ‘united Ireland’, which, his spokesman says, “the majority of those people across the island” want to see.
Even before Corbyn arrived in Belfast last week, his itinerary generated controversy.
The Labour leader did not meet local members of his own party, who have been involved in a protracted struggle with their leadership to stand candidates in Northern Ireland elections.
They argue that voters deserve ‘equal citizenship’ and the chance to vote for parties that can form the UK government, but they’re unlikely to persuade Corbyn, who hasn’t renounced his belief that the British state is an occupying force in Ireland.
He also declined to meet victims of terrorism, claiming that, by the time the idea was suggested, it was too late to organise. The DUP doesn’t agree, saying that it proposed a meeting with victims groups in Derry almost two weeks before his visit took place.
Then there was Corbyn’s decision to deliver a keynote speech at Queen’s University, Belfast.
In 1983, the unionist politician and law lecturer, Edgar Graham, was murdered at the university by the IRA.
Sylvia Hermon, who also worked in the law school at the time and is now MP for North Down, was in the student union when the death was announced and was revolted to hear students cheer news of the murder.
The killing was particularly traumatic for unionists, because Graham was blatantly targeted due to his political beliefs and it hardened a perception that Queen’s had become a hostile, potentially dangerous place for those who saw themselves as British.
For an inveterate ally of physical force republicans, like Corbyn, the university was potentially a provocative venue for a high-profile address. But, then again, where in Northern Ireland could he speak that hasn’t been touched by the blood-lust of his fellow-travellers in the IRA?
Maybe it was for exactly that reason that the substance of Corbyn’s remarks was rather less republican in flavour than some had expected.
Although he said he backs the idea of a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, he denied that he is calling for one and said that he would not campaign actively for Irish unity were one called.
While he supported recalling the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) — a vehicle for co-operation between London and Dublin, set up by the Good Friday Agreement — he rejected Sinn Fein’s demand for this body to assume ‘joint authority’ over devolved matters, in the absence of a functioning Executive or Assembly.
When he was asked whether the BIIC should make decisions normally taken in Stormont, Corbyn responded, “it can’t do that constitutionally”. He’s absolutely right, but that hasn’t stopped his republican friends, and even Leo Varadkar, implying that the conference could act as a type of interim government.
Corbyn also ruled out the notion that there might be an “effective border” in the Irish Sea, which is usually depicted as an unavoidable feature of the ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland sought by nationalists and the Irish government. Labour’s position is that it will agree a new customs union with the EU, with the effect that no ‘hard border’ is needed, yet informed commentators have pointed out that membership of the single market is the most influential factor when it comes to frictionless trade, rather than customs arrangements.
Corbyn did hearten some liberal unionists genuinely by taking time to visit Lagan College, which at its foundation in 1981 was Northern Ireland’s first integrated school. Politicians from the mainland, and farther afield, frequently take time to support integrated schools, but Sinn Fein is sceptical about children learning together.
The republican party, like its counterparts in the DUP, prefers to emphasise ‘shared education’, which is poorly defined but usually describes some kind of co-operation between segregated schools, rather than wholehearted integration. Indeed, Sinn Fein promotes the micro-sector of separate Irish language schools, that threaten to fracture still further our already deeply divided education system.
It was a tactful move by the Labour team to signal a preference for integration instead. Yet, a well-choreographed visit to Northern Ireland and some diplomatic language are unlikely to reassure unionists or make Corbyn look more like a potential prime minister for the whole country.
The fact that he’s promised not to campaign actively for a united Ireland, in the event of a border poll, is only remarkable because of the disdain he has expressed previously for Northern Ireland’s British status.
Corbyn also recently denied claims by the SNP MP, Mhairi Black, that he supported Scottish independence. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
There’s really very little that Corbyn can do to make a lifetime of comradeship with violent republicans less deplorable.
Even if it weren’t for this ghastly history, the Labour Leader still openly supports the break-up of the nation-state whose government he aspires to lead.