One Man’s Terrorist…

Queen and Martin McGuinness shake hands, 27 June 2012. Photo: BBC News

JVL Introduction

We all deplore terrorism but there are deep political divides as to who exactly is to be labelled as a terrorist.

Calling Jeremy Corbyn a “terrorist sympathiser” is, as Daniel Finn argues, simply meant to discourage awkward questions about the double standards that govern Britain’s relationship with the outside world.

This article was originally published by Guardian on Wed 20 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

Calling Corbyn a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ is just a way to prevent awkward questions

Labour’s leader draws fire because he doesn’t go along with the double standards ruling the UK’s relations with foreign powers

Last week Jeremy Corbyn was branded a “terrorist sympathiser” by a heckler in Glasgow, who demanded to know where his “Islamic jihad scarf” could be found.

The moment, gleefully covered by the rightwing press, lost some of its lustre when it emerged that the heckler, a Church of Scotland minister called Richard Cameron, allegedly had a back catalogue of Islamophobic and homophobic tweets. But the reverend’s terrorist sympathiser insult did not come out of nowhere. David Cameron, then serving as prime minister, denounced Corbyn and his colleagues in precisely the same terms when he opposed airstrikes in Syria in December 2015. And Boris Johnson accused Jeremy Corbyn of seeking to “legitimate the actions of terrorists” in his speech after the 2017 Manchester bombing.

Johnson seemed confident that public opinion would share his view of Corbyn’s speech as “absolutely monstrous”. But polls suggested that the majority of people agreed with the Labour leader that terrorist attacks on British soil were connected, at least in part, to the country’s foreign policy. The “terrorist sympathiser” label appears to be as subjective as the word “terrorist” itself.

Much of the criticism directed at Corbyn focuses on his relationship with Sinn Féin in the 1980s and 90s. During the 2017 general election campaign, Boris Johnson tweeted a photo of Corbyn with Martin McGuinness in 1995, deriding his claim to have never met the IRA: “You cannot trust this man!” By the time that photo was taken, the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, had already shaken hands with the then US president, Bill Clinton; two years later, McGuinness would be a guest in Downing Street. It has been widely reported that Adams and McGuinness were still members of the IRA’s army council at the time. But Clinton, Tony Blair and the Unionist leader David Trimble all held talks with them in their capacity as Sinn Féin politicians – a distinction vital for the entire peace process.

While successive prime ministers insisted publicly that they would never “talk with terrorists”, there was in fact discreet contact between British government officials and the IRA throughout the conflict. William Whitelaw, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland at the time, even negotiated directly with the IRA leadership during the truce of 1972. Pragmatic considerations trumped any sense of moral outrage.

Corbyn’s critics insist that his record of engagement with Irish republicans is very different, because he supported their political goals. It’s quite true that leading voices of the British Labour left argued for Irish unity in the 1980s, much to the displeasure of unionists in Britain and Northern Ireland alike. Corbyn himself wasn’t a prominent figure at the time, and became an MP only in 1983; Ken Livingstone, then head of the Greater London Council, was much better known, and his comments on the Northern Irish conflict attracted a great deal of controversy. If support for a united Ireland made Corbyn and Livingstone into fellow travellers of the IRA, by the same logic, those who defended the union with Britain shared a political objective with the loyalist paramilitaries responsible for hundreds of deaths during the Troubles. The argument of guilt by association can easily backfire on those who deploy it.

The Labour leader has also faced sharp criticism for his meeting with representatives of Hamas in 2009. But even Mike Gapes, the former Labour MP who is one of Corbyn’s fiercest critics, had called for talks with the “moderate” elements of Hamas in 2007, and Tony Blair later described the boycott of Hamas after it won the 2006 Palestinian elections as a mistake. Blair himself met in private the Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh only four years ago.

And while Corbyn expressed “regret” for using the term “friends” in reference to delegates from Hamas – after it elicited an indignant response from critics – there was no such outrage when Conservative and Labour politicians referred to the Saudi royal family as valued “friends”, allies and partners of the UK in the course of a parliamentary debate on continued arms sales for the Yemen war, which those MPs supported. It is certainly difficult to imagine a consistent set of principles for a prospective British prime minister that would put Hamas beyond the pale yet allow for a close relationship with the Saudi Arabian monarchy, given the UK’s support for its war in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Of course, violence against civilians – from the Isis-inspired massacres in France to the deliberate targeting of civilians in Yemen – is a crime in all circumstances. But the way we talk about terrorism, and the application of the “terrorist” label by governments, has always been arbitrary and self-serving. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan denounced the African National Congress in South Africa as terrorists, while supporting insurgent groups elsewhere whose record of violence against civilians was incomparably worse, from Angola to Afghanistan, Cambodia to Nicaragua. The Clinton administration initially branded the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as a terrorist organisation, before enlisting it as an ally against Slobodan Milosevic. In recent years, the US and the UK have kept the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on their list of proscribed terrorist groups, but accepted Syrian groups closely linked with the PKK as partners in the war against Isis. “Terrorism”, in this sense, is simply the use of violence by non-state groups without the blessing of the US State Department.

If Corbyn had been willing to internalise this value system and its peculiar set of taboos, he would have attracted much less controversy in his time as Labour leader. But the foreign policy consensus works much better when it doesn’t have to be explicitly articulated by those who support it. Insults such as “terrorist sympathiser” are meant to discourage awkward questions about the double standards that govern Britain’s relationship with the outside world.

Daniel Finn is a journalist and historian from Ireland, and author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA

Comments (5)

  • Dr Paul says:

    ‘In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan denounced the African National Congress in South Africa as terrorists, while supporting insurgent groups elsewhere whose record of violence against civilians was incomparably worse, from Angola to Afghanistan, Cambodia to Nicaragua.’

    Very true: in the 1980s the Thatcher government kindly gave money, arms and moral support to the Afghan jihadis who were busy destroying a secular reforming government that was trying to bring the country somewhere close to the twentieth century. And one of the few MPs who spoke out against this real support for terrorism was, yes, Jeremy Corbyn.

  • Mary Davies says:

    Daniel Finn shines a light on the hypocrisy of governments regarding terrorism.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Labelling Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathiser is for the purpose of demonising him, and that, in turn, is so as to try and undermine support for him amongst the electorate, as with the anti-semitism smear campaign and labelling him an anti-semite. The irony is that those who label him as such – and those who label groups such as Hamas as terrorists – are themselves by FAR the biggest terrorists on the planet, and responsible for millions of deaths since the end of the Second World War. The Nazi mindset didn’t just suddenly materialise out of thin air in the 1920s and 30s, and it didn’t suddenly vanish into the ether when the Nazis were defeated. But for the fascist psychopaths, the reality we live in would be totally different, as would our history.

  • Tony Dennis says:

    I think that as often, we on the Left may be too defensive over the ‘terrorism’ accusation. As Daniel Finn says, the claims against Corbyn just don’t hold water. What may well justify further investigation, though, are the links -past, and maybe present, too – between the Tories’ allies, the DUP, and Unionist para-military groups in the North of Ireland. I’ve seen at least one post from a North of Ireland source which highlighted the remarkable lack of attention paid to this issue by the British media.

    I’m not suggesting that a revelation of such links would somehow justify sympathy for terrorism by our side. Terrorism – even allowing for disagreements about how it should be defined – is never justified, by anybody. Such an investigation would nonetheless show up the hypocrisy of the Tories, and their media mouthpieces.

  • Mark Francis says:

    The Campaign Against Antisemitism employs several full time staffers to data mine for anti semitism against corbyn and momentum yet the best they can do is to find often unbelievably contorted “evidence” against people corbyn once met fifteen years ago. Yet it remains schtum against direct right wing antisemitism. Its almost as if they have some kind of agenda here.

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