How serious are Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbynites about winning power? Deadly serious, if the remarkable tactical flexibility he displayed on his first official visit to Belfast as leader of the Labour Party is anything to go by. Corbyn took care to genuflect not just to nationalist idols such as Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and John Hume, but also to three Unionist big beasts – Arlene Foster, Ian Paisley Sr and David Trimble.
The Labour leader has not suddenly become a “revisionist” in the affairs of Northern Ireland, which to this day remains one of his longest-lasting and deepest ideological commitments. He has engaged in no “agonising reappraisal “ of his view of the historical roots of conflict on the island of Ireland – 800 years of British oppression and all that. Corbyn still talked about the Troubles being a 'plague of violence' – as if this was a natural phenomenon and not the choice of human agents. The lion’s share of that violence was, of course, dished out by the republican movement to which he was rather close during the IRA’s “long war”.
The Labour leader spoke just yards from where the gifted Queen’s University law lecturer Edgar Graham was murdered by the IRA in 1983 – dubbed by some as the “lost leader of Unionism”. As Graham’s sister Anne pointed out, Corbyn singularly failed even to acknowledge the fact. His office said he didn’t have time in his busy schedule to meet victims of IRA violence.
But the wider language Corbyn employed deserves greater attention than it has received so far. First of all, he talked of the British Labour Party (even as he refused to meet Labour activists who would like to organise CLPs in Northern Ireland, which the national headquarters still declines to do). Second, he talked of “Northern Ireland” – not “the North” or the “Six Counties”. He accepted the Good Friday Agreement which enshrines the consent principle on the ultimate Constitutional status of the Province.
To be sure, Corbyn didn’t talk about “valuing” the Union in the way that Tony Blair did on his first speech in Northern Ireland as Prime Minister in 1997. But there was little here about being a “persuader” for a united Ireland – the traditional line of those on the British left who have taken a nationalist stance. And in an interview with the pro-Union News Letter, he also appeared keen to signal to the readership that he ruled out Sinn Fein’s concept of Joint Authority with the Republic as a staging post to a united Ireland (even if he signalled a desire to reconvene the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference that so vexes Unionists).
All in all, what Corbyn said bore a family resemblance in substance and tone to the remarks of two Green friendly Labour secretaries of state of an earlier epoch: John Reid’s spontaneous neutralism on the question of the Union as expressed in his Irish Times interview in 2001 (“pro-choice, not pro-Union”, in the words of the headline) and Peter Hain’s loftier articulation of the concept of constitutional neutrality at Chatham House in 2007.
The current Labour leader’s team clearly calculated that the mood music towards the end of his speech – about supporting provincial manufacturing and investing more in public services – would go down well in the part of the UK with some of the highest regional percentages of state employees and welfare dependents. So why the respectful reference to senior Unionists, including Ian Paisley Sr? Might Corbyn actually calculate that he will need the Unionists – in the next parliament or even in this one? Do this month’s disappointing local election results suggest to his inner circle “the forward march of Labour halted?” (to adapt Eric Hobsbawm ‘s formulation in Marxism Today).
Some Corbynistas fear that Labour’s support has peaked at around the 40 per cent mark – and the best they can hope for is a plurality in another hung Parliament. And there will be no relief for them in the Division Lobbies from Sinn Fein: its leader, Michelle O’Neill, maintains that republicans will continue their proud policy of abstention from Westminster (no doubt with an eye on the residual challenge from dissidents).
Labour and the Unionists might also need to make common cause in the near term over the proposed reduction in Commons seats from 650 to 600. The DUP may also need to show their independence from the Conservatives on those social and economic issues that are beyond the terms of the confidence and supply agreement with the ruling Government.
Corbyn’s spokesman appeared, for a moment, to relapse into a more traditional “Green-speak” – when he seemed to suggest before the big speech last week that the Labour leader believes there is majority support for unification in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. But Corbyn swiftly repositioned himself, if only in tone, and stated that any such referendum (or “Border Poll”) would have to be triggered under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and then only by consent. Again, it was emphasised that he would stay neutral in the event of such a poll under his Premiership.
But have Corbyn and his team misread the post Brexit “correlation of forces” in Northern Ireland? In this they are not alone: Jonathan Powell, a key figure in the peace process as Tony Blair’s chief of staff, speaks for many establishment figures in his analysis of the 2016 Brexit plebiscite that the narrow Remain result in Northern Ireland fatally detached a segment of once unionist “Middle Ulster” from their traditional communal moorings. These establishment figures believe that this leaves much of “Middle Ulster” (especially in the business community) up for grabs in any plebiscite for Irish unity.
This is off beam, to say the least. The best way of illustrating this is neither through opinion polling (such as February’s Lucid Talk NI Tracker, which spooked the British government on the levels of support for Sinn Fein among the under 45s), nor through anecdotage, but rather through the only really scientific measurement in democratic societies: election results.
So in the General Election of 2017 – a year after the referendum – support for the pro Leave DUP shot up by over 10 percentage points. Support for the pro Remain UUP dropped by nearly six percentage points, and support for ultra Remainer-ish Alliance Party fell as well.
The point is made more eloquently still by the electoral outcomes in a corridor of three relatively “cosmopolitan” and middle class seats in the greater Belfast area which might have been thought to be susceptible to a neo-Remainer message post-Brexit (and where support was always greatest for “reformist” Unionist projects, from Terence O’Neill’s day through to David Trimble’s era). These are the constituencies of North Down, East Belfast and South Belfast.
So in North Down – sometimes described as the most “English” seat in Northern Ireland – the pro-Brexit DUP almost overhauled the independent unionist and militant Remainer Lady Hermon; privately, DUP strategists say that had they known how thin her margin would be, they would have put a lot more skin into the game there. In East Belfast, Gavin Robinson of the DUP substantially increased his majority against a heavily pro-Remain Alliance Party challenge. And in Belfast South, with its share of leafy suburbs as well as housing estates, Emma Pengelly of the DUP captured the “university” seat on a plurality; certainly, there was an increase in the combined pan-nationalist vote, but the still substantial unionist bloc coalesced round her (again, no apparent serious haemorrhaging to pro-Remain parties amongst pro-Union voters on account of Brexit). One might also add Strangford – another mix of wealth and estates – where the DUP percentage of the total poll rose by 17 points. Again, no “Brexit wobble” in the golf and rugby clubs of “Middle Ulster” there.
These results suggest that the sight of a very Green new Irish Taoiseach in Leo Varadkar ganging up with the EU in the Brexit negotiations on a British Prime Minister has had an entirely predictable effect: this pincer movement has actually diminished support for the Remain cause (and therefore the cause of Irish unity) among unionists post the 2016 EU Referendum. Varadkar’s singular contribution to Northern Ireland’s politics may therefore turn out to be to replace Protestants’ waning, atavistic fears of Catholicism with resentment of another imagined community – the EU.
All this means that there is serious case for suggesting that the Government should call Corbyn’s bluff on a Border Poll – and declare, “bring it on” (at least once the Brexit negotiations are done). Such a poll could then be held in the lifetime of a British Conservative government, with pro-Union forces making a case akin to the “Better Together” message of the Scottish independence plebiscite of 2014. Moreover, even Varadkar has not called for such a Border Poll; like his predecessors, he too believes that a mere majority for unity in Northern Ireland would not be sufficient to effect reintegration of the Irish national territory.
Certainly, a Border Poll would be a risk. But it would not be as risky as allowing Corbyn, should he ever become Prime Minister, to determine the circumstances and timing of any Referendum – even under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and even with him making nice to Unionists for the first time in his career. Much better to settle the matter under the present Government for at least seven years, as mandated under the Good Friday Agreement, if not for another generation: now that really would give Viagra to the consent principle, even if we do end up in the age of Corbyn.
Dean Godson is Director of Policy Exchange and the author of Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism