Kevin — Why I stood up for Bobby Sands

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The Guardian Tuesday June 3, 2003
Why I stood up for Bobby Sands
Expulsion would be an odd reward for telling hard truths
by John McDonnell
The search for weapons of mass destruction in
Iraq has deflected attention from the continuing
search for peace in Northern Ireland. As each
day passes without a solution to the political
impasse, the danger of a drift back to violence
The next breakthrough in the peace process needs
to offer the prospect of a lasting solution, but
this will only come with a dramatic change in
how we confront the trauma experienced over
Northern Ireland. On all sides we have to start
telling each other some hard truths. Painful,
even dangerous it may be, but avoiding this
massive leap in conflict resolution would mean
that even if we can get past the current impasse
we would only be back here again in another few months.
This is the type of hard talk I engaged in when
I spoke at a commemoration of the hunger striker
Bobby Sands last week. Talking in terms
republicans would understand, I told the harsh
truth that the negotiations on the future of
Northern Ireland would not be taking place if it
had not been for the military action of the IRA.
Let me be clear, I abhor the killing of innocent
human beings. My argument was that republicans
had the right to honor those who had brought
about this process of negotiation which had led
to peace. Having achieved this central objective
now it was time to move on. The future for
achieving the nationalists’ goals is through the
political process and in particular through the
Northern Ireland assembly elections.
The leadership of Tony Blair has undoubtedly
produced advances. But the tragedy at present is
that the peace process is being jeopardized by
the government’s suspension of the political
process – in the form of the Northern Ireland
assembly elections. This leads to a dangerous
vacuum. Therefore I see my task now as doing all
I can to get the political show back on the
road, to create the kinds of formulations
through which the IRA, the loyalist
paramilitaries and the British army can all
depart the scene without a sense of abiding
grievance. No side will move if movement is
portrayed as humiliating surrender.
Among British people there has to be an
acceptance that the violence of the past 35
years had a root cause. It wasn’t some
pathological trait of the Irish. Britain faced
such violence in virtually every colony from
which it was forced to withdraw, from the Mau
Mau in Kenya to the nationalists in India. We
have to face up to the fact that without the
armed uprising in 1916 Britain would not have
withdrawn from southern Ireland. And without the
armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30
years, the Good Friday agreement would not have
acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations
of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And
without that acknowledgment we would have no
peace process.
Irish republicans have to face the fact that the
use of violence has resulted in unforgivable
atrocities. No cause is worth the loss of a
child’s life. No amount of political theory will
justify what has been perpetrated on the victims
of the bombing campaigns. An acknowledgment is
also needed that loyalist paramilitaries were
motivated by the same dedication to their cause
as IRA volunteers and that many British troops
demonstrated similar bravery in what was in
reality a long and brutal war. Above all else,
republicans need to accept that the time for
violence has gone. Only the political process
offers the real prospect of a united Ireland at
peace with itself.
Unionists must now appreciate that the majority
of British people are indifferent to whether
Northern Ireland is part of the UK or of a
united Ireland. There needs to be an honest
admission that their position can no longer be
sustained by a combination of paramilitary
violence and the force of the British army.
Given that within a generation there is likely
to be a nationalist majority in Northern
Ireland, Unionist politicians will serve their
people best by preparing for that inevitability,
rather than continuing to jockey for personal
Despite my 25 years’ involvement in Northern
Ireland politics, the tabloid-led response to my
recent remarks took me by surprise. After all,
I’ve been speaking at this annual event for more
than a decade, and throughout the 1980s and
1990s I expounded the same message: that with
political will on all sides, the period of armed
struggle could be replaced by engagement in a
peaceful process capable of realizing the
nationalists’ historic goal, a united Ireland.
Why, I wonder, has my speech become an issue now
– both for the media and for nameless
spokespersons within the Labour party? We should
put behind us the days when the tragedy of
Northern Ireland is used by British politicians
and media for short-term gain. Certainly the
constructive expression of an alternative policy
approach has never in the past been the basis
for a threat of expulsion from the Labour party.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington,
chair of the socialist campaign group of Labour
MPs, convener of the RMT and FBU parliamentary
groups, chair of the Labour party Irish society
and secretary of the all-party Irish in Britain
parliamentary group.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003