The way things were
Throughout much of the later half of the 20th century, backbench British Labour Party Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn worked tirelessly to end the so-called “troubles” which gripped Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and late 1990s. As part of this campaign, Corbyn met with Irish republican campaigners including Gerry Adams of the republican Sinn Féin party – a group that advocates a united Irish Republic. As Corbyn’s meetings with Adams took place in the 1980s when the Irish Provision Army (IRA) continued to attack English cities, the meetings were controversial at the time. But with the benefit of hindsight, Corbyn’s meetings were no more controversial than when subsequent British Prime Ministers met with Adams and his lieutenant Martin McGuinness as part of a wider peace process, while in the early 21st century as part of the power-sharing agreement in Belfast, arch-Unionist (one who believes that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom) Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness famously shared an uproarious laugh during a meeting – a spectacle few could have fathomed prior to its occurrence.
By all accounts, like many on the British left, Corbyn still believes in a united Ireland policy, something which is the total opposite to the stance of the Democratic Unionist Party, the most powerful Unionist party in Northern Ireland which currently supports Theresa May’s ruling Conservative Party in the UK Parliament. But within the peculiar context of Brexit, this only tells half of the story.
Trouble in the Irish Sea
As the current leader of the UK Labour Party, there is no evidence that Corbyn has changed his views on Irish affairs, however, within the context of Brexit he is now arguing for a vastly more Unionist policy than that which is being proffered by the Conservative Prime Minister.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Brexit process is that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union threatens the status quo of an open border separating Northern Ireland (a UK territory) from the Republic of Ireland (an independent state and contented member of the European Union). As the European Union does not normally allow for open borders between member states and non-member states, without a bespoke Brexit agreement between London and Brussels, there is a danger that there could once again be a full-scale border checkpoint between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. Such a development puts the peace process at risk as maintaining an open border is an integral part of the process that has largely brought peace to Northern Ireland as well as to parts of England once targeted by the IRA.
As a compromise measure, the European Union has proposed a fail-safe option to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open. Known as the backstop, should the EU and UK not be able to agree on a bespoke withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland would remain in the European Union’s customs union and most aspects of its single market in order to maintain an open border with the Republic of Ireland. This however has proved to be unacceptable to Unionists as such an agreement would imply that Northern Ireland has more in common with the laws and customs of Dublin than those in London. Because of this, it has been proposed that the UK as a whole should remain in the EU customs union and parts of its single market if no final agreement can be reached by the end of the year 2020. This however has infuriated English advocates of a full withdrawal from the European Union. The overall result is that both interpretations of the backstop are highly dissatisfying to various elements of the current UK Parliament.
While the UK Conservative party has a long history of Unionism, its current leader Theresa May is a strong advocate of the so-called backstop which could set in motion the wheels of a process which could see Northern Ireland become integrated into the Irish Republic. Inversely, in spite of his long held views in support of Irish republicanism, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is now stating that he is completely opposed to any form of the backstop and therefore any agreement that could potentially see Northern Ireland having a different future relationship with the European Union than England, Scotland and Wales (the three nations of Great Britain). Corbyn instead claims that if he is able to form a government he would work on a bespoke deal with the European Union that would see the same rules apply to all of the UK while also maintaining the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As such, Corbyn’s party has reportedly held talks with the Democratic Unionist Party about allying to bring down May’s government in a vote of no confidence which would also be supported by the opposition Scottish Nationalists, Green Party and Liberal Democratic Party. While Corbyn and the Democratic Unionist Party hardly agree on anything, they both seem to agree that it would be wrong to use Brexit as a justification for treating Northern Ireland differently than the three nations of Great Britain.
Jeremy Corbyn has come a long way from controversial 1980s meetings with Gerry Adams to now attempting to form a short term alliance of convenience with Britain’s most staunch Unionist party. Yet because Corbyn wants to see a Brexit that will cover all of the UK as currently compromised, he has perhaps by accident became one of the UK Parliament’s strongest advocates for bolstering the Union at a time when the Conservative Prime Minister seems all too happy to plant the seeds for a Northern Ireland that could become united with The Republic of Ireland. Of course this says more about the strange world of Brexit politics than it does about any transformation of the traditional positions of the UK’s two main parties vis-a-vis Irish affairs.
Nevertheless, in so far as strange moments in European political history are concerned, this is certainly one of the strangest.