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21 September 2015

John McDonnell gave us a sorry excuse for an apology

John McDonnell

I am at a loss to understand why anyone could take as genuine John McDonnell's so-called apology on Question Time last week.

McDonnell has been a bosom buddy of Irish republican leaders since before he became an MP in 1997 and ever since. In 1999, the first time I saw him, he was chairing a meeting in Westminster at which Francie Molloy - now, God help us, an MP - gabbled incomprehensible reasons why the IRA couldn't decommission.

McDonnell has been frequently reported in An Phoblacht/Republican News, marching for a united Ireland here, demanding the disbanding of the RUC there, marking anniversaries of Bloody Sunday, and honouring 'martyrs' from James Connolly to Bobby Sands.

In 2004, in London, in honour of his assistance to "the republican community in the Six Counties over many years", he was presented with a hunger strike commemorative plaque by Gerry Kelly.

Later that year he spoke at the Parnell Summer School in County Wicklow, explaining that the Irish in Britain suffered "cultural denigration - with the same images of the Irish as a sub-human species being deployed in the media in the Eighties as they were in Parnell's time."

I wrote indignantly at the time: "The majority of the Irish have done well in Britain because they ignored those spokesmen who whinge and blame and foment anti-British feeling. John McDonnell is no more a good friend to his Irish constituents than he is to the Muslims he encourages to think like victims."

His republican pedigree would have been unknown to most MPs until last Wednesday. Prime Minister's Questions had gone pretty well for Jeremy Corbyn until Nigel Dodds' fine intervention recalling the serving MPs "murdered by terrorists as they stood up for democracy and the British way of life".

The plaques honouring them "are a reminder of the savagery and brutality of terrorism, as are the gravestones and the headstones in Northern Ireland and right across this land".

Corbyn, Dodds pointed out, "has appointed a shadow Chancellor who believes that terrorists should be honoured for their bravery." He asked the Prime Minister to "join all of us, from all parts of this House, in denouncing that sentiment and standing with us on behalf of the innocent victims and for the bravery of our armed forces who stood against the terrorists".

In response to the roars of approval, the Prime Minister said Dodds had "spoken for many in this House and, I think, the vast majority of people in our country".

Then the media got to work and found the precise quote, from 2003, at a time when McDonnell was chair of the Labour Party Irish Society and Secretary of the all-party Irish in Britain parliamentary group.

"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 (hunger striker) Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA."

To save his job, in interviews and on Question Time, McDonnell apologised for giving offence, but claimed it was at a time the republican movement was at risk of splitting, "we were going to lose the peace process", and that if his words "contributed towards saving one life, or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing, because we did hold on to the peace process".

I'm glad to see that Twitter has been ridiculing him, with spoofs of him releasing Nelson Mandela, fixing Apollo 13, winning the Battle of Trafalgar and so on. The Daily Mirror, which is loyal to Labour, had a savage piece on him, which summed up neatly what was wrong with his apology.

"1. The peace process did not need him, and he did not help it

2. He did not save a single life.

3. It was not 'worth doing because we did hold on to the peace process'. We held on to it despite, not because, of John McDonnell

4. He apologised, but only 'if' he gave offence

5. He still believes the thing he apologised for."

Fortunately, most of us are smarter than John McDonnell thinks.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards