Corbyn’s Northern Ireland headache explained

Unionists may have been pushed to side with Cameron on crucial votes


In the fog of confusion and uncertainty now engulfing the Labour Party, the public would be forgiven for forgetting what happened last week.

The defeat of the government over the purdah rules surrounding the forthcoming European referendum, coming so early on in the parliament, was a blow to the prime minister’s authority and a reminder of just how slim his 12 seat majority is.

With more votes likely to be equally difficult, government whips will be looking for all potential opportunities to notionally boost the ranks of his supporters.

Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) might now be prepared to bolster the Conservative Party in parliament in a way that it has not yet done.

When a hung parliament was predicted in the run up to the General Election, the DUP made clear its readiness to work with either Conservatives or Labour.

“We could work with either of those parties,” declared the party’s leader, Peter Robinson, although the DUP’s five-point plan for a hung parliament included a call for the bedroom tax to be scrapped altogether, a position that placed them firmly in line with Labour policy.

With an all-important vote on military intervention in Syria likely to take place after conference season, the votes of DUP MPs in such a finely balanced parliament could be crucial.

In 2013 the party’s MP’s sided with Labour in voting against taking action against the Assad government, arguing that they had not been convinced that it would have led to material improvements in the situation on the ground.

If David Cameron is to gain the assurances that he is seeking that a further vote could be won, winning over the DUP will be vital to his plans.

In the aftermath of Labour’s leadership contest and shadow cabinet reshuffle the DUP might just have been persuaded to provide more vocal support for the government, making Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to further air strikes that bit more difficult.

If Gerry Adams’ swift message of congratulations for  Corbyn following his election victory, declaring him to be a ‘good friend of Ireland’ had not been bad enough, then having appointed as shadow chancellor someone who, in 2003, called for members of the IRA to be ‘honoured’ for taking part in their ‘armed struggle’ will have put relations with the DUP into the deep freeze.

And sure enough, as one DUP source told the Spectator:

“Corbyn was a punch to roll with. He was elected after all. And ultimately he’s a ‘holy fool’ of the left; it’s not to say he’s harmless, just that he’s fundamentally naive. But McDonnell? He was *chosen*. It’s sending us a message loud and clear and we’ve heard it.’”

The sad truth is that the Labour Party which, under Tony Blair, had been able to count the Good Friday Agreement as one of its proudest achievements now risks losing its position as an honest broker in Northern Ireland.

Vernon Coaker, who has returned as shadow Northern Ireland secretary, now has a mountain to climb in regaining the confidence of the unionist community.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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11 Responses to “Corbyn’s Northern Ireland headache explained”

  1. Selohesra

    “With an all-important vote on military intervention in Syria likely to take place after conference season, the votes of DUP MPs in such a finely balanced parliament could be crucial.”
    Actually I think Dave might not go for that vote now – I doubt he cares much either way about military action but might not want to give Labour MPs opposed to Corbyn a chance to rebel and vote for action. Dave wants to keep Corbyn in power for a while not undermine him too soon.

  2. Elaine

    While Unionists won’t be wild about the appointment of McDonnell, their allegiances rarely lie with Labour anyway, and they would almost always prefer to work with a Conservative government given the choice. Their policy on the bedroom tax is less principled than it is self-serving; NI has suffered under austerity as it is generally a lower income, lower employment area, and the DUP were scrambling for votes from the working class unionists. So I don’t think Labour will suffer excessively, although I don’t envy Vernon Coaker his job right now.

  3. David Lindsay

    The DUP despises the Tories.

  4. David Lindsay

    There being, as much as anything else, no National Health Service in the Irish Republic, Unionists do not share Jeremy Corbyn’s aspiration that Northern Ireland be incorporated into that Republic with the consent of the greater number of the inhabitants of each of the two current jurisdictions. However, they do recognise that that aspiration is shared by considerable numbers of people in all parts of Northern Ireland.

    They do not necessarily agree with Corbyn’s equal condemnation of all violence by State and non-State actors alike during the course of the Troubles. However, they do acknowledge that that, too, is a legitimate view, and that it includes a full condemnation of Republican paramilitary activity.

    In expressing his desire to see abortion and same-sex marriage extended to Northern Ireland, positions with either or both of which at least most Unionists are in strong disagreement, Corbyn accepts that those questions can be decided only by the Northern Ireland Assembly. His parliamentary and wider support within the Labour Party contained and contains the full range of opinion on those matters.

    Although Corbyn is in principle in favour of the replacement of the monarchy with an elected Head of State, he gives that no priority, and there is in any case no possibility that any such proposal would ever pass in a referendum that he has indicated that he would not even seek to hold.

    Corbyn is a supporter of the Palestinian cause, but he has repeatedly expressed his acceptance of the existence of the State of Israel. Again, there are staunch friends of Israel among his supporters in his own party. Unionists will not be unaware of the anti-British terrorist past of modern Zionism, or of the views of Arab Protestants in the Holy Land today. The DUP and Sylvia Hermon remain as opposed as ever to war in Syria, and Lady Hermon is even opposed to Trident.

    Those who remain devoted either to Margaret Thatcher or to Tony Blair are the last people in any position to accuse anyone else of disloyalty to the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland, a community, moreover, that is suffering no less than any other as a consequence of the present British Government’s austerity programme. Corbyn’s is a leading parliamentary voice against that programme, and, like most Unionist MPs including all of the DUP, he votes accordingly, even while others prefer the abstentionism of Sinn Féin.

    All in all, there is no reason why Unionists could not work with him. They already do.

  5. Elaine

    The DUP despises pretty much everyone, besides the DUP. Surely we can agree that they are more in line with Tory views than Labour views, generally?

  6. David Lindsay

    No. They voted against war in Syria. They voted against the Welfare Reform Bill, unlike the three abstainers, and look what became of them. They want to abolish the Bedroom Tax, even though it does not exist in Northern Ireland. They are in favour of the huge levels of public spending and of public sector employment in Northern Ireland. Their hatred of the very name of Margaret Thatcher is like nothing else that I have ever heard, even from former miners. They are an Old Labour party, and they would probably tell you so in those words.

  7. David Lindsay

    The DUP will vote with Corbyn against the tax credits cut tonight. The notoriously plastic Unionists of the Tory Press can dream on.

  8. Elaine

    I wasn’t suggesting that they are the same thing as the Tories and had never voted against them. There are very specific reasons they are in favour of things like huge levels of public spending and public sector employment – namely that NI could not function without it. Their feelings about Thatcher are motivated by something entirely different to the motivations of most Labour supporters, namely the Anglo Irish Agreement. I was referring to their central philosophy rather than to their positions on certain issues which in many cases are dictated by NI’ s specific circumstances. I’ve had more than one doorstep canvassing conversation with DUP candidates, and they really have nothing in common with Old Labour, and I doubt any of them would say so. And on social issues, they make the Tories look like raving lefties.

  9. David Lindsay

    What do you mean by “social issues”? Most opponents of abortion in Great Britain, and at least half of the opponents of same-sex marriage, are Labour voters. At least one MP who takes both of those views was and is a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.

  10. Steve Larson

    The Unionists have always been distrustful of Labour, seeing them as a hotbed of communists, atheists, supporters of homosexuality and papists.

    They were not going to side with Labour in any case.

  11. Elaine

    I’m not sure where you got your statistics from, so I can’t question those directly, but again I was referring to the party’s position, not the views held by its supporters. As far as I’m aware the Labour party has been in favour of a woman’s right to choose since the 1960s, meanwhile in 2015 the DUP tried to block a bill allowing abortion (only) in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities. Does this sound like a meeting of minds? They want to teach creationism in out national museum, they refuse to let lgbt folk donate blood – even though there is such a shortage of blood here that it has to be imported..from places where lgbt folk can donate blood. I think it would be useful to look up some of their activities here in NI and their voting record in Stormont. It will be illuminating in terms of showing their true conservatism.

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