The above comment was made by new shadow Chancellor John McDonnell back in May 2003, as reported in the Guardian.
In late May 2003, Labour MP John McDonnell attended a gathering to commemorate Bobby Sands who died on 5 May 1981 during the Irish republican hunger strike in the Maze prison just outside Lisburn. Sands was himself an elected representative, having won the Westminster Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election on 9 April.
At the event, McDonnell said ‘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 Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.’ Further comment from McDonnell was that ‘the deaths of innocent civilians in IRA attacks is a real tragedy, but it was as a result of British occupation in Ireland.’
The Labour party moved quickly to distance itself from his comments, stating ‘the Labour party unreservedly condemns all atrocities perpetrated by the IRA and other paramilitaries.’ This statement was important as the Labour Party was in the midst of somehow taking the majority of the credit for the Northern Ireland peace process, despite not arriving in office until May 1997. The Provisional IRA called its lasting ceasefire on 19 July.
On 13 September, newly elected party leader Jeremy Corbyn appointed McDonnell to the senior shadow cabinet position of Shadow Chancellor. McDonnell has served as a Labour MP since the 1997 General Election in the constituency of Hayes and Harlington, a traditional Labour stronghold in West London which spent the 1980s outside the party when Neville Sandelson joined the Social Democratic Party and was subsequently defeated by Conservative Terry Dicks in 1983.
McDonnell was considered by a Guardian article of 30 May 2003, reporting on his IRA comments, to be ‘a thorn in the side of Tony Blair’ as the chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and a critic of the war in Iraq.
In 2003, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble called for McDonnell’s expulsion from the party, whilst DUP MP Nigel Dodds called for the party to discipline him.
McDonnell wrote in the Guardian in early June 2003 to qualify his statements at the Sands commemoration, an event he claimed to have spoken at for several years. ‘I abhor the killing of innocent human beings. My argument was that republicans had the right to honour those who had brought about this process of negotiation which had led to peace.’ Significantly, he added ‘the tragedy at present is that the peace process is being jeopardised by the government’s suspension of the political process – in the form of the Northern Ireland assembly elections’.
McDonnell is something of a departure from the Oxbridge educated MPs who have assumed senior positions in the Labour party since Tony Blair’s election as leader of the party, following the death of John Smith, in July 1994. His A-levels came from Burnley Technical College and he graduated from Brunel University in his late 20s. He spent time working for the National Union of Mineworkers in the late 1970s and then with the Trades Union Congress before working at Camden Borough Council.
McDonnell’s appointment as effectively Corbyn’s right hand man has drawn significant concern in light of Corbyn’s own apparent refusal to condemn the IRA. Corbyn, perhaps most championed as an opponent of apartheid (a famous meme depicting him protesting with an anti-apartheid sign alongside David Cameron’s infamous Bullingdon Club photo has circled the internet a few times), has also been vocal in his criticism of Israel and opponents criticised him during the leadership election for failing to fully explain his rationale for describing Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’, though an interview with Channel 4 saw him offer the following:
I am saying that people I talk to, I use it in a collective way, saying our friends are prepared to talk. Does it mean I agree with Hamas and what it does? No. Does it mean I agree with Hezbollah and what they do? No. What it means is that I think to bring about a peace process, you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree.
For what it’s worth, McDonnell’s initial comments on the IRA were profoundly incorrect. It was not the bombs and bullets that brought Britain to the negotiating table, it was the inability of the IRA campaign to achieve its stated goal of a united Ireland that brought republicans to the negotiating table. It is well documented that Gerry Adams first met with British officials in 1972, the start of a long dialogue between republicans and the British government.
The IRA and its supporters continue to trot out the idea of an ‘undefeated army’ which might be a generous interpretation of a group that gave up its struggle after having failed to achieve its objective. John Major shrewdly observed in his autobiography that 'when you make a concession, it is smart politics to claim victory.' The view of the long peace process strategy, driven by Adams, is shared by former volunteers.
Marian Price, one of the most famous members of the IRA and now a vocal critic of the Gerry Adams leadership commented in an interview:
I know of events around '77 that certain people were ousted from divisions within the republican movement who we now know would have totally opposed the path they’ve gone down. Adams and co. were extremely patient in what they were about. Gerry Adams is long credited with masterminding the so-called long war and I don’t believe that for a minute I think was Gerry Adams was orchestrating was the long peace process and I think that started in the 70s.
The irony of the whole thing was that while the leadership was attempting to throw the towel in, the IRA volunteers thought they were dying for the republic and were getting mowed down left, right and centre. The IRA volunteers on the ground, the guys going out on the jobs, the guy that were getting killed, the guys that were surviving, living their lives as IRA people hadn’t a clue that they weren’t actually dying for the Republic, the whole concept of that was gone there was going to be, no matter what, a border at the end of this campaign and people were still dying because they thought they were dying for the idea of a United Ireland and they weren’t.
McDonnell's 2003 comment therefore betrays a politician who does not understand what happened in Northern Ireland. He does not mention the hugely significant issue of conflict weariness that Sinn Fein leaders such as Gerry Adams were quick to pick up on several years earlier and he neglects to mention which side it was that gave up their armed struggle first, though he does allude to Major's comments in his own article: 'no side will move if the movement is portrayed as humiliating surrender.'
McDonnell's second round of comments, more considered, perhaps more accurately reflect the position of those on the Labour left – a strange concept in itself, but one which emerged during the Blair years – during the years of conflict. There can be no doubt that Britain’s policies in Ireland were unacceptable and deeply provocative. The Civil Rights campaign of the late 1960s seemed likely to force the necessary changes, until it was usurped by the IRA campaign, itself to an extent prompted by irresponsible and unacceptable actions by some of those responsible for security in Northern Ireland.
The appointment of McDonnell to the second most significant position in the shadow cabinet is an odd decision by Corbyn, though it does bring a like-minded individual to the fore. This is not to say that Corbyn, who has been more measured and consistent in his line on Northern Ireland throughout his career, agrees with McDonnell’s comments from 2003, of course.
The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is looking increasingly likely by the day and, just as McDonnell himself noted back in 2003, this is a move that could be hazardous to the progress enjoyed by Northern Ireland since the 1990s.