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18 May 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's three decades of comfort and aid to the Provisionals

The Labour leader is haemorrhaging traditional supporters among the armed forces. Given his views on Northern Ireland, is it any wonder, asks Ruth Dudley Edwards.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has a long history of sympathising with Irish republicans
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has a long history of sympathising with Irish republicans

The other day, on a London radio station, I heard a furious man denouncing the government, after which the interviewer said: "So, you'll be voting Labour, then?"

The chap almost exploded. "I will not! I was a squaddie."

It was one of the encouraging indications that England hasn't forgotten the IRA and that journalists have begun to do their duty and remind people how Jeremy Corbyn gave them aid and comfort.

When Mr Corbyn became MP for Islington North in 1983, he was already an important figure in pro-IRA circles, such as the Troops Out movement and the Labour Committee on Ireland (LCI), and was on the editorial board of the Trotskyist political magazine London Labour Briefing (LLB).

These groups had no time for any Northern Ireland political parties other than Sinn Fein.

A few weeks after the 1983 Harrods bombing that killed six people, Mr Corbyn flew to Northern Ireland to meet Danny Morrison, famous for having asked a Sinn Fein ard fheis in 1981: "Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?"

Troops Out marched for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British soldiers. To the more political LCI, Northern Ireland was a colony, SDLP voters were "cannon-fodder ... manipulated and directed by a sophisticated management caucus" and, in the words of activist Diane Abbott - Mr Corbyn's one-time lover - unionists were an "enclave of white supremacist ideology".

LLB surpassed all of them by praising the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the October 1984 Conservative Party conference.

The objective had been to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and as many members of her Cabinet as possible in revenge for her refusal to capitulate to the demands of the hunger strikers three years earlier.

Five people died and 31 were injured, some of whom were disabled for life.

The LLB editorial had described it as a "serious political misjudgment", but this was utterly disowned in the next issue by the editorial board - of which Mr Corbyn was now general secretary.

He had already made his feelings clear by flaunting Gerry Adams in the House of Commons as his guest.

"We refuse to parrot the ritual condemnation of 'violence', because we insist on placing responsibility where it lies," said the LLB retraction.

"Let our 'Iron Lady' know this: those who live by the sword shall die by it. If she wants violence, then violence she will certainly get."

The only answer was "an unequivocal British withdrawal, including the disarming of the RUC and UDR".

The editorial board also allowed some light-hearted contributions. "What do you call four dead Tories? A start," was one of the rejoicing readers' letters.

The Provisional IRA were fast becoming Mr Corbyn's new best friends.

In 1986, he was arrested for obstruction at a Troops Out rally outside the Old Bailey, called "to show solidarity with the Irish republican prisoners put on trial by the British State".

These included Patrick Magee - the Brighton bomber - and Martina Anderson (now an MLA and then described by the judge as a "hard, cynical young woman... at the centre of the plot") and four other "comrades" arrested when planning a bombing campaign in 13 English towns.

Mr Corbyn and Ms Anderson would be reunited in 2007, when they both spoke at a meeting organised by the Islington North Labour Party.

From 1986 to 1992, Mr Corbyn spoke annually at Sands/Connolly (Bobby and James) commemorations in London to show support for IRA "prisoners of war" and remember the IRA dead. He would pop up frequently at protest meetings honouring "martyrs", like the dead of Loughgall in 1987, sometimes alongside his comrade the Marxist Leninist Trotskyite John McDonnell, an MP from 1997, who in 2003 said publicly: "It's about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle... The peace we now have is due to the action of the IRA."

At one such event, held in 1988, a week after the IRA murdered three British servicemen in the Netherlands, where the programme said "only force of arms... could bring about a free and united socialist Ireland," Mr Corbyn attacked the Anglo-Irish Agreement, because it "strengthened the border".

Having unexpectedly, in September 2015, become Labour Party leader, Mr Corbyn and friends have sometimes felt it necessary to misrepresent what are now rather embarrassing aspects of their past.

I've heard two supporters on radio recently claim that his arrest in 1987 had nothing to do with the IRA, but was at an event demanding the release of Nelson Mandela.

Confronted with embarrassing evidence that they had no difficulty in endorsing an organisation who murdered hundreds of soldiers, police and ordinary trade unionists, along with many others, messrs Corbyn and McDonnell claim they were all the time working to bring about peace and save lives.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said piously on TV: "I don't think that people should judge Jeremy for trying to talk to people who might be open to a settlement in Northern Ireland."

He did no such thing. He talked only to the representatives of, or sympathisers with, republican killers.

Indeed, Corbyn and McDonnell were no fans of the peace process ("the settlement must be for a united Ireland," Mr McDonnell said early in 1998), though they came to heel when told to do so by the Sinn Fein leadership.

Throughout his adult life, Mr Corbyn has supported pretty well any revolutionaries as long as they're anti-American, but the IRA - unlike his country's forces of law, order and defence - has a special place in his heart.

Now he aspires to be Prime Minister, Mr McDonnell is shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Ms Abbott is shadow Home Secretary.

Is it any wonder that squaddies are so sickened that veterans are putting signs in their windows telling Labour canvassers to stay away?

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards