Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.
“The truth is what happened. It ain’t what come out of somebody’s mouth”. John Grady, All The Pretty Horses.
My father has been a racing man all his life. Over in Belfast that mainly requires an eagerness to slalom between bookmakers shops and bars, clutching betting slips, resting wee pens behind your ear and holding your beer.
Every Saturday, for over 50 years now, my dad has taken the bus into Belfast city centre and spent the afternoon in crowded bars watching English horse races on the TV. He heads home in time for his tea, checks his football coupon in front of Final Score, sleeps for an hour or two and then gets up and goes dancing. As weekly rituals go it is a perfectly agreeable one.
But on 10 October 1992 the convivial rhythm of these Saturday afternoons was violated and in the most brutal way imaginable. Jim Douglas my dad’s drinking mate had just returned to the Monico Bar from the Eastwood’s betting shop round the corner.
He was getting his round in when he was approached by two men in baseball caps. They walked up him insouciantly and shot him in the head three times with a .357 Magnum revolver. He died instantly. My dad hauled him up off the floor and rested his bloodied body in his arms until the ambulance crew turned up. He then called Jim’s wife to tell her that her husband and father of her two children would never, again, be coming home.
On the same day, a few hours later over in London David Heffer, a 30-year-old psychiatric nurse from Luton, died in Charing Cross Hospital. The evening before he had been talking to the manager in a packed Sussex Arms in Covent Garden when a bomb was detonated in the pub toilet.
Later the IRA claimed that the police had not reacted quickly enough to a warning that Scotland Yard said was ‘misleading and deliberately imprecise’. At the inquest after his death David’s father Brian, a postman, said: ‘It keeps coming back. It never goes away. You look at the photos and talk to the fellas. I and my family are very bitter, very bitter’
The most reliable account of all people who died as a result of the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ is contained in David McKittrick’s extraordinary Lost Lives. Not so much a book as a monument, Lost Lives catalogues, with encyclopedic detail and exemplary dispassion 3636 deaths variously attributed to paramilitary groups, the security forces and others without affiliation.
58.8% of these deaths were the responsibility of republican terrorist organisations, 28.9% loyalist groups and 10.1% security forces. Of the 2139 deaths that were the responsibility of republicans, 1771 of these were attributable to the IRA. The British Army were responsible for 301 deaths and the RUC 52.
Last weekend Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, appointed John McDonnell to be his Shadow Chancellor. Twelve years earlier McDonnell spoke at an Irish republican event in London and expressed a view that IRA murderers who had either shot, bombed or beaten to death men, women and children deserved to be both honoured for their sacrifice and commended for bringing the British government to the peace table.
At no point in the intervening years had McDonnell offered either an apology for the offence he must have known his remarks had caused nor a retraction of the statement he made.
Last Wednesday, at the first Prime Minister’s Question Time since Corbyn’s election, the banality of the new opposition leader’s approach was jolted by the intervention of Nigel Dodds of the DUP. Rising up, rigid with indignation, he listed the names of MPs who has been killed by terrorists and asked the Prime Minister to comment of the appointment of a shadow chancellor who praised the IRA’s bravery?
You can watch the exchange here.
The Telegraph sketch writer Michael Deacon recorded the Labour reaction:
Had their leader noticed that it wasn’t only the Tories looking angry about Mr McDonnell’s appointment? We couldn’t tell. Mr Corbyn was engrossed in slipping a pen into his jacket pocket and carefully adjusting his glasses. It was as if he hadn’t heard a word.
Everyone glanced about for Mr McDonnell. He didn’t seem to be on the Labour front bench. Apparently he’d slipped out.
In August during the triumphant final leg of his leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn took part in a BBC Five Live interview with Stephen Nolan. During the course of the interview Nolan offered Corbyn an opportunity to condemn IRA murders. Asked outright five times, five times he refused to do so. Finally, having proffered the idea that they might discuss this some other time, the line goes dead.
Corbyn hung up.
Last Thursday, McDonnell — a largely unknown MP until last week — was a guest on BBC1’s Question Time. By now he must have known or have been told that he would have to address issues arising from the comments he had made 13 years previously.
Political apologies are rare but if made with conviction and underpinned with genuine moral compassion they can be incredibly poignant. David Cameron’s Commons statement following the Saville enquiry into Bloody Sunday was arguably his most noble act as Prime Minister. It was an apology delivered without a trace of equivocation or qualification.
McDonnell will never now escape what he said in 2003. On Question Time he expressed not so much the remorse of a man who had offended people more someone who regretted that this had all come back to bite him. It should be noted that he did not retract what he had said in 2003, he merely accepted and apologised that his comments had caused offence.
The inconvenient truth for Jeremy Corbyn is that we, of course, know why he hung up on Stephen Nolan and we know why it took John McDonnell 13 years to offer such a risible, caveated apology.
It is because they wanted the IRA to win.
Their pious homilies to the peace process will not wash with anyone. Their commitment to a united Ireland was total. The relationships they invested in for decades were with terrorists organisations not democratic nationalist parties. It has proved a hard habit to break for them as Nick Cohen and others have demonstrated.
Corbyn and McDonnell had nothing to do with the peace process. Not a single person involved in the negotiations that led to the Belfast agreement has come forward to support McDonnell’s assertion that he played an active role. No historic accounts of the process include them. Corbyn and McDonnell were partisans. They were irrelevant bystanders. McDonnell’s abject attempt to suggest that he was acting as a peacemaker remains almost as insulting as the remarks that prompted the forced apology.
If the peace process could be said to have started anywhere it began with the signing of the Anglo Irish agreement in 1985. The House of Commons approval of the agreement produced the largest parliamentary majority of Mrs Thatcher’s reign — incidentally she was to regret signing it for the rest of her life — 473 voted for and only 47 against. All Unionist parties raged against it but with the support of nearly all Conservatives and Labour MPs and the SDLP it passed.
Jeremy Corbyn voted against the agreement and spoke in Parliament against it:
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of us oppose the agreement for reasons other than those that he has given? We believe that the agreement strengthens rather than weakens the border between the six and the 26 counties, and those of us who wish to see a United Ireland oppose the agreement for that reason.
In 1985 Corbyn was prepared to put his support for an united Ireland before the peace process and we have no reason to believe he has much changed his mind since.
In the furore following McDonnell’s appointment his old boss at the GLC Ken Livingstone took to the airwaves to defend his appointment. He was asked if he had finally accepted the principle of democratic consent, a bedrock of the Belfast agreement, and, of course, he couldn’t.
We know the political tradition that Corbyn, McDonnell and Livingstone emerged from. The provenance of their views is not a mystery. They were deeply entrenched with the Troops Out movement. They have no history of engaging with those on the unionist side in Northern Ireland.
The reason they can’t condemn IRA murders and think their perpetrators are worthy of honours is because they think that they are not entirely to blame for the atrocities they committed. They stand by a view that British was illegally occupying Ireland and that the IRA was fighting back against this.
Self inculpation was their stock-in-trade and so it remains in the age al-Qaeda, Hamas and ISIS.
We are now being told that Jeremy Corbyn represents a new kind of politics, one that is principled, has authenticity at its heart and eschews spin.
Last week they should have been honest with us but instead they tried to spin their way out of it. It was truly lamentable.
Corbyn and McDonnell became intimately involved with the representatives of very violent people. There is nothing inherently dishonourable about British politicians supporting Irish unity. They are free to espouse these views and equally we are at liberty to judge them accordingly.
McDonnell will not now be allowed to escape his past and nor should he. Those who watched his apology now have a full measure of the man. He won’t survive for much longer and nor does he deserve to.
For the families of Jim Douglas and David Heffer and thousands of others it can’t come soon enough.
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real”. John Grady, All The Pretty Horses