Respect for Tony Benn is right, completely rewriting history is not

by Kevin Feeney

When any controversial public figure dies, it is both normal and entirely natural for their followers and those inspired by them to whitewash their image a little in an effort to smooth out their rough edges.

Like most of those within the Labour Party who were rather less enamoured of the legacy of the late Tony Benn than other colleagues, I was entirely prepared to overlook the rather telling gaps in his more sympathetic obituaries. It was fine that they passed over his views on Mao, fine that they ignored his practical impact on Labour’s electability in the 1980s, fine that they left unquestioned his own claims as a tribune of democracy.

These were eulogies in the heat of the moment after a figure who they admired had passed on; the time for full and balanced reflections was later. Equally fine were those seemingly obligatory lists of “Issues where they were right” which we expect with any such figure; Benn certainly many of those, from Mandela to gay rights.

Except after a while, I started noticing something else creeping into that last list in Benn’s friendly obituaries. Owen Jones celebrated him not only for all of the above but also for ‘calling for peace talks when it was controversial to do so’ in Northern Ireland; praise he has reiterated in more than one place. It may be no surprise for Jones to rewrite history in such a manner, but less stridently left-wing voices have done so too; the editor of one prominent Labour website claimed that the presence of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at Benn’s funeral was a ‘reminder of the difference he made’ as though this were a positive thing.

Indeed, “Northern Ireland” has begun inexplicably to seep into several lists of the man’s positive contributions. These claims cannot be allowed to endure unchallenged; nor can they be allowed to become part of that acceptable list of “good things” we all agree Benn stood for.

The truth, of course, is that Benn’s views on Northern Ireland were a fundamental rejection of the very democracy which he claimed to hold as his core political compass. This does not just mean his support for a United Ireland which the majority of inhabitants of the North – including many Catholics, though not including this author – do not want; Benn’s position that such a decision would have to be made on an all-island basis is wildly unrealistic but coherent.

The way in which he chose to advocate for this belief however was through open support of Sinn Féin in the 1980s. Whatever they are now, Sinn Féin were at the time quite openly the political wing of a terrorist cell which killed an estimated 1800 people including at least 600 civilians, many of whose bodies are still undiscovered. A member of Parliament supporting a group which was in the process of murdering almost 2000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom may indeed be ‘making a difference’, but it can hardly be reckoned a positive one.

Nor can it be argued that Benn was in some way representing the interests of Northern Ireland’s Nationalist community when he did so. Yes, Nationalists suffered terribly at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army – but they too were not infrequent victims of the Republican violence which Benn was prepared to overlook. My own grandfather, a Catholic living in the most staunchly Catholic area of Belfast, the Falls Road, was held at gunpoint while his car was used for one of the PIRA’s acts of thuggery – and he was one of the lucky ones. Others, such as Catholic Jean McConville horrifically murdered in 1972 for helping a wounded soldier, were far less so. This was the way in which Sinn Féin and its armed wing represented Northern Irish Catholics while Benn spoke warmly in Parliament about them standing up for Ireland.

This cannot be excused by pretending there was a lack of Nationalist alternatives either; while he was justifying such crimes, the majority of Northern Irish Nationalists were consistently and repeatedly expressing their abhorrence for Sinn Fein’s methods by voting overwhelmingly for the non-violent Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which also supported a United Ireland but by entirely constitutional means.  Benn’s support for ‘democracy’ in Northern Ireland did not simply mean ignoring what its Unionist majority wanted; it also meant ignoring what most of its Nationalist minority wanted too.

What then of the claim that Benn championed peace talks, as Jones wrote, ‘when it was controversial to do so’? Well, that’s certainly one way of viewing it. What Jones neglects to mention is that the reason it was controversial at that time was because Benn wanted to hold talks while the IRA were still in the midst of their murder campaign. Talks happened in the 90s not because the British government was suddenly won over to Benn’s way of thinking but because the IRA ultimately did declare a ceasefire in 1993. This, in turn happened in large part because of talks with Sinn Féin leadership by constitutional nationalist John Hume – leader of the very SDLP which Benn spurned for the undemocratic violence of Sinn Fein.

It is true, and to Benn’s limited credit, that he supported the Good Friday Agreement which ended the worst of the conflict in 1998. Yet it beggars belief to in any way attribute him credit for this achievement when he consistently advocated policies, from removing British troops to open talks without pre-conditions with an active terrorist group, which would have rendered it unthinkable. Lest it should be dreamt that his support for Sinn Féin can somehow be distanced from its campaign of violence, we can read what the man himself had to say on the matter. In 2000 – after a fragile peace had been achieved – Benn was asked quite directly what his attitude was to the Republican armed campaign. His response was a master class in incoherent evasion and self-contradiction;

“It’s a difficult one that. My instinct is towards Gandhian non-violence, because violence destroys both sides in an argument. On the other hand we fought a war against Hitler, and Mandela was denounced as a terrorist because he was engaged in armed struggle. Armed struggles occur when there is no political solution, but I am a supporter of the peace movement. Yet in some cases without pressure, without violence you cannot make progress – that’s not endorsing it, it is just a historical fact, that is what happens. Anyway armed violence can lead to dictatorship.”

This attitude, needless to say, was not the one which was adopted by the British and Irish statesmen who actually did achieve the impossible dream of peace in the Six Counties.

As I noted at the beginning, I absolutely understand the convention that immediately after a death, their eulogists and devotees do not discuss the more questionable parts of their record. They should be allowed to celebrate the life of the deceased in peace. But equally, this cannot mean simply rewriting those questionable parts to pretend that they are positives. Having nothing nice to say does not give license to rewrite history. The Labour Party’s record on Northern Ireland, though flirting with disaster in the 1980s, is ultimately to its tremendous credit. Not only did Benn do nothing to further this record but for two decades he actively worked against it.  So by all means, we can praise him for many things – but his anti-democratic support for murderers and thugs should not be among them.

Kevin Feeney is a graduate student and a Labour Party activist from Belfast

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7 Responses to “Respect for Tony Benn is right, completely rewriting history is not”

  1. swatantra says:

    Peter Hain is right. We need to draw a thick red line under the whole affair.
    Unfortunately ‘Ireland’ will always be with us and haunt us until, the 2 bits are reunited. Lets hope that’ll happen in the next 50 years. Well, if its inevitable, why not make it happen now?

  2. Tafia says:

    Ireland will never be united this side of another 100 years at least. The majority of the population of Northern Ireland wish to remain British and that is all there is to it. Bizarrely, even a sizable chunk of the Sinn Fein voter-base wish to remain in the UK as well. It is a strange place to live in and anyone that has lived there will tell you that at election time your religion denotes who you vote for, then the border, then any minor thing such as NHS, education, defence etc etc – and they are minor issues over there.

  3. Robert says:

    Benn had many qualities but ultimately he was a disaster as a left of centre politician. His support for Sinn Fein during the 1980s was one of many examples of his naivety and stupidity.

  4. John reid says:

    Peter hain,is wrong on Northern Ireland, as his comments on there not being a two state solution to Palestine/Israel have proved,

    Good article espcially about the other Labour webiste saying benn somehow, helped Piece in Northern Ireland,by championing Sinn Fein/I.R.A terrorists

  5. Solomon Lamb says:

    And yet if you go over to one of the radical left obituaries for Benn (e.g. the Revolutionary Communist Group) he is accused of betraying the Irish nationalist cause by NOT consistently supporting armed resistance to British control of Northern Ireland. Moreover, if you read transcripts from some of the speeches he gave during the time of the Troubles, he is attacked for not being consistently pro-Republican – take, for example, the debate he had against Hilary Wainwright and Paul Foot (among others) in Westminster in 1980, he is heckled to the point of being almost unable to speak by supporters of the Irish Republican movement in the crowd and repeatedly has to address their comments.

    Benn was navigating a complex issue about which the author of this article is using the benefit of hindsight to paint in simplistic, and moralistic, colours. He would also have done better not to reveal his Blairite prejudices in the opening paragraphs, since it makes much of the rest of what he has to say somewhat questionable.

  6. If we had more politicians like Tony Benn I might still be a Labour voter:

    I doubt if Mr. Benn would have thought that compassion was a bad thing, unlike Class Traitor Miliband it seems:

  7. Donegal says:

    Sinn Fein were an abstentionist party throughout the majority of the Troubles and until the 80’s, were content at their position. They were not interested in competing in elections because the IRA’s armed struggle was the primary objective, a struggle that viewed the Northern Ireland state as illegitimate. But in nationalist areas they’re support was overwhelming. This is the reason Loyalist Paramilataries murder innocent Catholics; they hoped it would strike so fear into nationalists that they would retracted they’re support for the IRA. The IRA could not of operated for so long and so securely without the nationalist support. The story of you’re grandad was most likely true but means nothing.

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