The allegations in today’s Sunday Telegraph are the most serious made in modern times against a leading political figure. If Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were as close to the Irish Republican Army as Andrew Gilligan suggests then their current positions are untenable. With the important proviso that neither the Telegraph nor Gilligan can always be seen as balanced observers and that further independent verification is necessary. To understand the position we need to track back over 20th Century Irish history a bit and to place relations with Great Britain and the UK in focus.
I have always been in favour of a united Ireland. The treatment of the Irish in the first half of the 19th Century by Great Britain was an affront and it was this that led to the failure of the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" to survive. Ireland was technically not a Colony and, of course, there were Irish MPs and Peers at Westminster. But the rule of Ireland by the British was imperial in the extreme and Irish independence was a cause no less justified than the cause of (say) India. But as with India when it came (and equally bloodily) there was division. Northern Ireland, with its then Protestant majority, would not join the rest of Ireland as the Republic was formed. But the Irish of the North are no less Irish than the Irish of the South. The Union Flag waving is much more religious in its basis than it is political.
Come the dawn the island of Ireland will be, must be, one State. But how to get there? There is only one way and that is for the peoples of the South and the peoples of the North to want it. Separate referenda (obviously) will be held in the Republic and in the North and if both agree that Union should happen then it will. The time when this event occurs is anyone's guess but the changing demography of the North suggests it will be sooner rather than later.
I am not diminishing the struggle ahead nor the grievances that will be felt by the "Loyalist" community in the North. If they or (I would argue) any other Irish people would like to hold dual citizenship (Irish and British) that might be a way forward. We are very close, notwithstanding the past, and our cultures overlap. We all live in the British Isles after all! (For the avoidance of doubt I use "British" as a geographical and cultural descriptor, not a political one!).
The armed struggle against British (political this time) colonial rule in Ireland in the first decades of the twentieth century was (sadly) justified. The end result was a fudge but the Loyalists in the North had a right to protection in those uncertain times. Eighty years on and the Republic of Ireland is a successful European State and (in my view) the residents of Northern Ireland have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from being part of it. Great Britain does not have a case to hold on to Northern Ireland if the majority of its citizens want to become part of the Republic. Indeed I don't think many of us would try and make that case.
Which brings me to the IRA not in the time when it led the struggle in the early part of the 20th Century but in the post WW2 era when it sought to unite Ireland with violence. This was an obscenity and those years of the "troubles" shameful. The IRA spawned the paramilitary Protestant militia (equally vile) and a military response from the UK Government which at times was heavy-handed and excessive. Violence bred violence. My support for a united Ireland never for one second led me to sympathise with the IRA. I just despaired until the peace process under Tony Blair and Mo Mowlem finally moved things forward and an Agreement was reached.
It seems from the latest stories that the now Leader of the Labour Party and the Shadow Chancellor were if not IRA sympathisers as close to that as makes no difference. They gave comfort to the men of violence and openly identified with them. This is not about supporting the principle of a United Ireland (many of us did that). It was about the means by which it was achieved. Remember we are not talking about 1916 here; we are talking about the late 1960s. We are not talking about a time when the resort to armed struggle had some basis in natural justice. Yes in the 1960s there were institutionalised divisions in Northern Ireland and there was discrimination and injustices. But was that in any sense justification to start terrorist attacks. Of course not.
The post-war IRA was an evil construct and they did untold damage to the fabric of civilised society. Their violence spawned violence. That the Blair Government was to come to an accommodation with them (via their “legitimate” wing Sinn Fein) was Real Politick and uncomfortable though it must have been to sit down with terrorists or their apologists sometimes, pragmatically, that is what leaders have to do. But before the Peace Process to have identified with the IRA, as it is alleged Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell did, was an outrage. At the time it could have been shrugged off as the “Looney Left”. But no more. If the allegations are true there is no way that these two can continue their current roles. No way.