by Kevin Meagher
John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are a pair of Philips screwdrivers. That’s not meant as a derogatory analogy (‘a pair of spanners’ etc) but merely to point out that, hitherto, during their long years as Members of Parliament, they have performed a single, unique function.
As “campaigning backbench MPs” of a type that Labour has a long tradition of indulging, they champion causes that are outside ‘safe’ political confines. This is not to everyone’s taste, clearly, and from time to time they will say something, or be photographed or share a platform with someone that gets them into trouble with the political mainstream.
But that’s fine; political parties need to be broad churches under first-past-the-post and reach out to as many people as possible. So, every once in a while, an issue that’s deemed to be beyond the pale today graduates into everyone’s favourite cause tomorrow. In this context, MPs of the kind Corbyn and McDonnell were can have a legitimate and sometimes useful role as a conduit to bring those outside in from the cold. (That said, whether they are visionaries, or merely contrarians, is moot).
I say were because a problem arises when you try to use a Philips screwdriver on the more familiar slot-headed screw. It’s an awkward fit. Actually, it doesn’t fit at all. Like when you take “campaigning backbench MPs” and put them into the top two positions in the Labour party. All their previous views and associations are pored over and thrown back at them. Such is the price for rebels turned statesmen.
The issue has crystallised around John McDonnell’s explanation about why he spoke to a gathering of Irish republicans back in 2003, making the case that it was the IRA’s “bombs and bullets and sacrifice” that brought the British state to the negotiating table. Speaking on last week’s Question Time, he apologised for any offence caused by his remarks, arguing it was a genuine attempt to engage wary republicans and deter them from drifting away from the peace process at a critical time.
McDonnell’s explanation has been met by no small amount of hostility. Wasn’t the Good Friday Agreement signed five years before he made those remarks, so how could he as “a campaigning backbench MP” have anything meaningful to offer?
In McDonnell’s defence, the point about the Northern Ireland political process is that it is just that, a process. There is no destination, no endpoint where ‘normal’ politics is possible. In all likelihood, there never will be. It is naïve to think that either Irish republicans or Ulster unionists will suddenly stop being so because they get to sit in a plush office and administer agricultural grants. So there is no shared future in prospect, just a parallel one. Still, that’s better than what went before.
So it requires constant vigilance on behalf of the British and Irish governments, as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, to keep things on an even keel. However, the Northern Ireland peace and political processes are not just about high-level statecraft, but also about the thousands of voices, from all sides, each helping to chivvy the key participants along.
Whether that is Corbyn and McDonnell reaching out to republicans, or Kate Hoey’s work in trying to keep David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists in the game. Or Mo Mowlam ‘s willingness, controversial at the time, to meet jailed loyalists to secure their buy-in to the process.
And it’s worth remembering just where things were back in 2003 when McDonnell made his remarks. The assembly had been suspended the previous October and the process was gummed up over the issue of weapons decommissioning. On May 1, Tony Blair postponed scheduled elections to the assembly. Five days later, the IRA’s army council issued a statement warning about an“abuse of trust” following the leak of its proposals for taking the process forward.
Especially over decommissioning. It’s hard to overestimate how difficult this was for grassroots republicans to swallow. For many, it felt like surrender and the risk of a rupture (greater than that which we did see with breakaway republican dissident groups) was a very real prospect.
So when McDonnell, acting as an outrider, made his remarks on May 29, he was doing so in that context – one where the entire process was stuck in a rut. It was an entirely legitimate and potentially useful thing for him to do. As he wrote at the time, his message to Irish republicans was that it was “time to move on” from armed struggle and pursue their objectives through peaceful, democratic politics.
More bluntly, he also argued they had to “face the fact” that the use of violence has resulted in “unforgivable atrocities” and that “[n]o amount of political theory will justify what has been perpetrated on the victims of the bombing campaigns.”
Coming back to the key point though, it isn’t ideal for Labour’s top two to be pulled off core domestic issues and into contextualising remarks they made years ago on issues, albeit important ones, but which, nevertheless, fail to win over British voters. This is what happens, though, when the journey from backbench radical to the heights of mainstream political leadership is made so quickly. (Tony Blair had a whole decade to junk his initial enthusiasm for CND before he became leader).
Indeed, there is a good reason why political class-types are all things to all people and never say anything interesting. As Labour’s new leader and shadow chancellor are presently finding out.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut