Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Queen’s University Belfast was short on the controversy some commentators tried to stir up, writes Paddy Wilson.
Jeremy Corbyn certainly picked a good day to make his first visit to Belfast as leader of the British Labour Party. The spring sunshine that graced his presence in Belfast made sure that more than one attendee to his talk and Q&A in QUB hoping that he always brings the weather with him.
However, the good weather certainly didn’t do much for the standard approach of the media coverage. This morning’s edition of the notoriously controversial Steven Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster ran with his supposed refusal to condemn Republican violence, in particular that of the Provisional IRA.
This is all despite Corbyn’s repeated insistence that he condemns all violence that occurred in Northern Ireland, regardless of the perpetrator. Certainly, the hypocrisy of those who attack Corbyn was clear for all when Nolan asked DUP MLA Jim Wells if he was willing to condemn violence conducted by State forces, who said that he “wasn’t briefed” on the topic, therefore refusing to pass comment.
What cannot be argued is that Corbyn certainly draws a varied and large crowd to his events. Attendees included Michelle O’Neill, Vice-President of Sinn Fein, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, SDLP MLA Claire Hanna, and PBP MLA Gerry Carroll, among others. There was certainly a broadly progressive mood in the wall, with the campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment well represented with numerous ‘Tá’ badges and REPEAL jumpers.
The opportunity to put forward a political programme was also not lost on some groups. A large group of the local British Labour Party branch in Northern Ireland were on display with banners on the steps of the hall, handing out leaflets calling for the party to end its “undemocratic ban” on Labour standing candidates in Northern Ireland and calling for a development of “anti-sectarian Labour politics” in Northern Ireland.
Also on display with a visible banner were members of ROSA NI, distributing a leaflet with an open letter to Corbyn. Noting how the visit was occurring on the eve of the Referendum poll in the South, ROSA wished to highlight that a woman’s right to choose is also denied in Northern Ireland. A recent UN report described this situation as “violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
ROSA’s call to Corbyn was that if he should be elected Prime Minister of Britain, he should bypass devolution and use Westminster to not simply extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland but to also decriminalise abortion by repeal of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
In the end, Corbyn’s speech to the packed hall was light on the controversy that the morning’s Nolan Show hoped to stoke. What he did say was no different from what his position has been in the past and reiterated current Labour Party policy on issues affecting Northern Ireland.
Given his visit is around the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Corbyn spoke of and praised the efforts of everyone involved in securing peace in the North. From the visible actors of Mo Mowlam, Trimble, Hume, Adams, Paisley and McGuinness to the lesser-known but vitally important work of people like ICTU President Inez McCormack who “throughout her life overcame numerous obstacles to bring about change to her society.”
An open border is a symbol of peace
Corbyn reiterated his commitment on the restoration of devolution and power sharing in Northern Ireland: “It means tough choices. It means compromise and give and take. But we owe it to the people of these islands not to allow political disagreements to open the way for any return to the grim days of the past.”
When asked directly if he would enact a border poll if he was Prime Minister, Corbyn responded clearly by saying that he wasn’t “asking for it. I’m not advocating it”, but referred again to the Good Friday Agreement. If it were deemed necessary to hold one under the terms of the Agreement, he would be duty bound to do so, he added.
On Brexit, Corbyn again stuck to the party script, saying Labour will not support any Brexit deal that includes the return of a hard border, either on land or in the Irish Sea. He remains committed to “a customs union” with the EU that is co-operatively negotiated with the EU, as opposed to the belligerent approach chosen by some Tory ministers.
One astute comment was that he refused to have the debate on the border reduced to that of economics, trade and paperwork: “an open border is a symbol of peace, two communities living and working together after years of conflict, communities who no longer feel that their traditions are under threat”.
What Corbyn said he does want to see is increased investment in the people and services of NI and a firm support for local manufacturing. “Shipbuilding is no lame duck, and can have a high tech, high skilled and exciting future right here in Northern Ireland”, he said.
All in all, while he hardly set the world alight, what Corbyn did say is what he has always said. He wants to work towards continued peace for Northern Ireland, a fair deal for Northern Ireland’s workers and freedom from the “free market fantasists” leading the Brexit negotiations in the Tory government.