Jeremy Corbyn could be Northern Ireland’s best hope. But so far, we are unable to have a conversation about it because any discussion of the Labour party and Northern Ireland has led to a tiresome and endless debate about what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell may or may not have said about Irish republicanism in the past.
Associating Corbyn with the IRA is not being done out of concern for victims of the conflict, or even to help unionists. It is being done to serve the interests of British Conservative politicians scared of a potential Corbyn government, and desperate to head this off by unleashing every smear they can muster.
I’m not a Labour member, but it’s clear that in the North, we are all poorer for having a serious discussion blocked in this way.
The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is nearly upon us. Many in Northern Ireland will feel a curious sense of pride and disappointment – pride in having largely ended the brutal violence that scarred us for so long. But disappointment, because here we sit with no government, a flagging peace process and little hope for the restoration of either. This is not where we thought we’d be 20 years on from 10 April 1998.
While the focus has been on the inability of Sinn Féin and the DUP to agree a deal to restore power-sharing, huge problems are lurking underneath the surface. We have large and growing income inequality. We have the highest recorded rate of PTSD in the world, with a report suggesting 40% of the population have suffered a conflict-related traumatic incident. We also have the highest rate of suicide in the UK.
A full 20 years after the people came out in never-before-seen numbers (and not seen since) to vote for peace, the vast majority of housing and schooling is still segregated. We have more ‘peace walls’ now than before the Agreement. Policing is being cut back, especially community policing, putting a strain on police intelligence and making the task of restraining violent dissidents more difficult. Public spending cuts are placing a huge strain on an already volatile society.
These are the true roots of our conflict. Social ills common to the rest of the UK have a deadly multiplier effect in Northern Ireland. They amplify sectarianism and disorder. Community workers on the ground in interface areas believe that the worsening economic situation is a “breeding ground” for dissident terrorism. These issues mean that our peace process could completely collapse unless they are dealt with. The situation even moved the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council to say in 2012 that “Northern Ireland seems in danger of lurching back into the past”, and that the current situation could only be a “generational truce”. Developments since then with the collapse of the Assembly have only made things worse.
We need radical change and it seems that only Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has the stomach and the power to provide it. The Conservatives have no interest in providing Northern Ireland with the help it needs, because it is anathema to their ideology. Their commitment to shrinking the state leaves them unable to countenance the kind of spending and investment programme that is needed. A £1bn bung to the DUP to prop up the government will not cut it, and its existence removes the government’s position as an honest broker (as the UK’s chief Northern Ireland negotiator from 1997 to 2007 believes).
We need massive investment to fund conflict transformation, to eradicate inequality and other social problems. We need peace and reconciliation funding to replace the EU’s peace programmes, £208m of which will disappear after Brexit. And we need the political will to take brave decisions such as desegregating housing and pushing for more than just 7% of school children to be taught in integrated schools. We need public spending on good, decent, secure work for all. It seems that only Jeremy Corbyn was bold enough to stand on a platform of unashamed public spending to eradicate social ills.
After nearly a decade of disinterested Northern Ireland secretaries, spending cuts ripping apart the fabric of our society, this is the North’s only hope – a prime minister unafraid of government intervention to pull us back from the brink – someone unafraid to make brave political calculations. More of the same is equivalent to the government taking their hands off the wheel and waiting for the inevitable crash.
We need to have this discussion – but we can only have it if we are willing to look beyond the 30 year old distractions that are being put in our way.