Despite media controversy ahead of his visit, Corbyn’s speech at Queen’s proved to be very non-controversial writes Conor McFall.
You wouldn’t think it given the headline hysteria, but Jeremy Corbyn delivered a very safe speech on his first visit to Northern Ireland as the Leader of the Opposition. Delivered to a packed Whitla Hall at Queens University, following being upgraded from a much smaller hall due to extraordinary demand, Corbyn entered the stage to a standing ovation from a crowd of students, academics, politicians and other locals. His unassuming entrance and awkward thumbs-up to the cheering crowd captured the essence of his aesthetic appeal, while his speech was delivered with an authority and credibility that most Westminster politicians simply do not have when it comes to Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, he generally did not rock the boat in an address that primarily centred on the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit. Here are my main observations from the speech.
Corbyn sought to appeal to all parties in his discussion of the Good Friday Agreement, placing emphasis on the importance of dialogue and diplomacy, which he often centres in his foreign policy discussion. Of note was the fact that the first people he paid tribute to were David Trimble and Ian Paisley, perhaps a sign of his attempt to build trust with unionists wary of his apparent Sinn Fein sympathies. It is interesting to note how, in recent commemorative events around the GFA, it is almost forgotten that the DUP have always opposed the agreement. The references to Paisley were another example of this. Corbyn also paid tribute to Tony Blair for his work during the peace process, an act of outreach to his own party. However, the acknowledgement that elicited the greatest response from the audience was that of Mo Mowlam, who’s contribution Corbyn promised would never be forgotten. Corbyn’s commendation of Inez McCormack, who he described as a “hero of mine”, and trade unions in bringing about the peace process was also an important contribution as this work is oft overlooked.
There was also a call for a return to devolution, as one would expect. With Michelle O’Neill and Colm Eastwood, among others, looking on, Corbyn spoke of his desire to avoid direct rule. Instead, he called for a return of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC). One moment I found comical was when Corbyn brought of the ‘achievements of the Stormont government’ which were of course embarrassingly slim. His statement that there must be a return to government in order to implement marriage equality did receive strong support in the auditorium however.
The major talking points of the speech centred around Brexit, where Corbyn reemphasised on multiple occasions the necessity of avoiding a hard border in Ireland. He extolled the deep cultural ties in border areas, stating that “an open border is a sign of peace.” Corbyn denounced the government’s handling of Brexit, noting on multiple occasions that Conservative Brexiteers were engaged in a “free market fantasy.” The Labour leadership has sought to position itself carefully with regards to Brexit, something one would not grasp from inhaling whatever fumes most recently emitted by the #FBPE foghorns. However, no reference was made to Keir Starmer’s ‘six tests’ for a Brexit deal as Corbyn instead chose push the party line of support for ‘a’ customs union. This is an area in which Corbyn still keeps his cards relatively close to his chest, although it can be assumed that he would be unwilling to retain full ties to the single market, which would potentially restrict his transformative ambitions for the British economy. His declaration that EU citizens in the UK should be given full rights to remain, as well as his condemnation of the government for failing to have guaranteed this, was a welcome step.
While the speech went over incredibly well with the audience, it is notable that Corbyn didn’t have the opportunity to say many things that were particularly left wing. Indeed, when he spoke of the economy he did so in a manner that suggested that he was rebranding as a technocrat. This is a frequent adaptation both Corbyn and John McDonnell have made when addressing more formal bourgeois audiences such as the CBI. His frequent references to ‘upgrading the economy’ are reminiscent of the early days of Harold Wilson’s premiership, in which Labour sought to embrace the “white heat” of technological innovation and position themselves as a ‘modern’ party. One can assume that Corbyn is referring to state infrastructure investment with this phrase, as he also pledged that a Labour government would provide greater funding for public services in Northern Ireland. He did make reference to Labour’s pledge to return shipbuilding to the UK, something that would be a welcome boost in terms of jobs but can all too easily be couched in reactionary language.
The questions following the talk, clearly a pre-scripted affair, were largely a non-event, and contained the inevitable ‘more of a comment than a question’ ramble from one of the speakers. They were perhaps most notable as a display of Corbyn’s political skill, as he neatly sidestepped a question about a border poll and avoided attempts to pin him down on Brexit, arguing that a ‘special arrangement’ for Northern Ireland would necessitate either a border on the island or a border on the Irish Sea, both which he wanted to avoid, while maintaining that the result of the Bexit referendum must be respected. Perhaps the most appealing of his responses came in answer to a question about the roll student activists could play, with Corbyn reiterating his 2017 manifesto commitment to scrap tuition fees and affirming to his adoring audience that “our human rights did not come from above, it came from activism”.