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

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.