Last year I led an independent Government review which allowed me a brief and privileged glance into our national security arrangements.
My area of enquiry was Islamist extremism in prisons and how to combat the lethal threat it poses. During the course of the review I had access to people and information which helped inform my recommendations, many of which have now been adopted by Government.
I learnt that our police and security service response to violent extremism is world class. It needs to be. As Max Hill, the current independent reviewer for counter terrorism legislation, has stated, the threat to our society from Islamist terrorism is at least as great as that from IRA terrorism in the 1970s.
Remember the IRA? I do. I was brought up in the unionist tradition near the Fermanagh border during the height of the Troubles in the 1980s. The murderous violence unleashed by militant republicans on my community was cruel and squalid.
In my part of the world, it manifested itself in the assassination of usually defenceless part-time members of the security forces and other completely unconnected members of isolated Protestant border communities – in their shops, on their doorsteps, on their post routes, on their bus runs, on their farms.
The psychological scars of this onslaught remain with survivors and relatives to this day. Of the 112 people killed in the course of the troubles in Fermanagh, the vast majority came from the Protestant community. And the vast majority of these crimes have never been solved.
The purpose of this cowardly violence was utterly cynical: to push the Protestant community back from the border so as to allow terrorists free reign. This spasm of murderous sectarian rage had nothing to do with revolutionary socialism. It was about territory, pure and simple. No amount of revisionism can change the hateful logic of the graveyards seeded with, as far as the IRA were concerned, the wrong sort of Irishmen.
In the mid-1980s, when my community faced an almost daily onslaught from these faceless cowards, Jeremy Corbyn met Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political mouthpiece. He was being arrested while on a pro-IRA protest at the trial of the Brighton bomber who tried to murder the entire British cabinet. He was “happy to commemorate all those who died fighting for an independent Ireland” at a pro-IRA meeting in 1987, months before an IRA bomb slaughtered 11 people in Fermanagh’s county town, Enniskillen, as they gathered around the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.
Corbyn has subsequently claimed that these types of engagements were an attempt to help militant Republicans embrace peace and stop violence. He has claimed with apparently no sense of his ludicrous grandiosity these meetings were equivalent to secret talks being carried out by Government at the time.
Similarly, his shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, a man who argued for the IRA “armed struggle” to be “honoured” as late as 2003, now says this was an in an effort to bring “dignity” to both sides. He seems to miss that, by his own logic, that would mean sitting down with loyalist terrorists as well.
Corbyn and McDonnell have never had the slightest interest in understanding or curbing the avowedly murderous intent of the loyalist UVF and UDA – one assumes because these were simply regarded as colonial lackeys without either class consciousness or revolutionary legitimacy.
More recently, Corbyn has continued to provide his singular contribution to world peace by his various engagements with extremists in Iran and Gaza. Iran actively works for and supports terrorism engaged in the destruction of the only functioning liberal democracy in the Middle East – Israel.
Again, the rationale provided, as with IRA engagement, is that uncomfortable conversations are necessary (and, of course, brave) to bring people towards resolving their differences through peaceful means. The glaring defect in this sanctimony is that at no time has Corbyn or McDonnell ever seriously engaged with those on the opposing side to their ideological fellow travellers.
Our national security is protected and made worth protecting by a complex stew of laws, cultures, rights, freedoms, compromises, technologies and people but above all else it relies on values.
The core beliefs of people who wish to lead this country matter more than ever. We live in a fearful world, cowed by sadistic trans-national ideologically inspired violence. In matters of national security, the past character of our potential leaders is the best guide to their future conduct.
Both Corbyn and his closest ally McDonnell have provided more than enough evidence of their values despite relentless and often comically inept attempts by Labour spinners to beat those inconvenient rhetorical swords into ploughshares.
They have both indulged and feted terrorist organisations who have murdered British citizens on British territory and who posed a direct threat to our national security. By your words shall ye know them. Our shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer – the second most powerful figure in a future Labour Government – has said, “It was the bombs and bullets… that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”
Corbyn himself repeatedly refused to condemn IRA murders when asked to do so five times on the BBC Radio 5 Live Nolan show and then hung up. This wasn’t the 1980’s by the way. It was 2015.
Only this weekend, he refused to condemn the IRA directly when asked by Sophie Ridge on Sky News, instead saying that “all bombing is wrong”.
Fermanagh is now a place transformed. Identity has ceased to matter so much as people have stopped trying to murder their neighbours to change it. Local issues matter more in this hauntingly beautiful land of bog, mountain and lake. And thank God for the small mercies of municipal grousing. The lonely roads and lanes where the IRA operated with virtual impunity in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the frontier of Protestants are now simply scenic ways of getting from A to B.
What endures, beyond that awful legacy of hurt is a simple question. Is a man who was during the worst excesses of IRA violence a supporter of that organisation’s means and objectives a fit person to entrust our national security as Prime Minister? I think not.