03 Jun 2017
June 3, 2017
A few years ago I visited Bogota with a group of trade union leaders. The trip was sponsored by the trades union funded Justice for Colombia. We met the new president-elect Santos and encouraged him to get a peace process going with FARC. Then we visited FARC members in prison and elsewhere in Colombia. Our trip was denounced by the departing president, Alvaro Uribe, as ‘talking to terrorists’.
At our meeting with Santos, the UK trades union leaders laid into him politely but pretty mercilessly about Uribe’s treatment of trades unions in general. In return, they got equally polite responses which were, shall we say, far from dismissive of the central claims. Santos’ Vice President, also present at the meeting, was himself a senior trades unionist.
When we visited a mass grave site deep in the jungle, we were trailed by Uribe’s officials who obviously hated every moment of our presence in Colombia. They even ordered a cafe-owner not to serve us ‘terrorist lovers’ while we waited for our light aircraft out of what was obviously a strong FARC area.
Fast forward a few years, though, and FARC and Santos have indeed reached a remarkable and historical agreement. There’s great credit on both sides and of course Santos was justifiably awarded last year’s Nobel prize.
One person helpful with Justice for Colombia’s work was Martin McGuiness; for obvious reasons. McGuiness had still in effect been in charge in Derry when I’d been an Army officer there until 1993. A number of the people I met in my daily work liaising with local people in Derry were IRA men, known to us as ‘players’. The feeling at the time amongst my superiors and colleagues was that McGuiness and a fair number of other IRA men were about to be part of a momentous change in Northern Ireland’s fortunes. It was quite clear to us that there were back-channels all over the place.
In the meantime, we facilitated an intelligent relationship with local republican representatives as much as we could. I had regular meetings in civilian clothes in a number of public places, one of which was a primary school classroom after dark. Mine was far from the most dangerous job in Northern Ireland, but walking out alone into a pitch black carpark after a meeting with local representatives – my identity open – was always, er, memorable.
After one such meeting, the man convening the meeting touched my shoulder on the way out and explained that another of the attendees wanted me to know that he understood why I would come in to a children’s classroom armed (I had) but there was no question of an opportunistic attack there or at any other of my meetings with locals. I must admit I always still took precautions in the usual way, but I appreciated the gesture from a man who I was confident was not a fan of British soldiers in Derry.
In 1994, the IRA ceasefire was announced.
Years later, I met McGuiness in his office as, effectively, co-First minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I knew a lot of people who feared and hated him, yet there was no doubt in my mind that whatever their past activities, he and Gerry Adams were also prime movers in what is today a (relatively) peaceful Northern Ireland.
For me, the question which arises in all the ‘Corbyn spoke to terrorists’ excitement of the past few days is whether it can ever be the state’s sole right to maintain channels of communication with people who are killing its citizens. Think, perhaps, of Adams and McGuiness’ meeting with Willie Whitelaw on Cheyne Walk in 1972 or the many documented meetings between officials and IRA members in the 1990s. My own conclusion is that it cannot be just a state matter, because if it were then FARC would still be in the jungle today. The state can get it wrong and since we live in a democracy it must be possible to challenge it.
So if this thing cannot be the sole preserve of the state, how is contact with ‘the enemies of the state’ best managed? My own conclusion is that such relationships are best managed through elected politicians and journalists who have some protection in law through the ‘public interest’ clause. But in any case, even serious matters of security can never be simply a matter for a ‘deep state’ apparatus.
One does not have to be a fan of Corbyn, I think, to appreciate the need for well-disposed people who dispute the state’s view to have some room to work on their own ideas. And while I completely understand why many people instinctually recoil at the idea of Corbyn meeting IRA commanders and of course I cannot tell if his meetings helped or hindered progress towards the ceasefire, I have no doubt that Corbyn’s meetings – about which officials will have been well-briefed – at least did no harm.
To my mind, Corbyn’s intention was good and his role as an elected member of parliament gave him the right and even a responsibility to challenge the state’s treatment of the Northern Ireland ‘problem’ at the time. My instinct is that in the broadest sense, even if simply showing then IRA men that they could become part of a genuinely better way of governing, then he likely did some good.
It’s opportunistic nonsense then, and a bit juvenile frankly, for people to be jumping all over Corbyn because he didn’t constrain himself to organising walks and petitions. Certainly, the notion that he worked against our security interests is an obvious political play. It’s the Tories’ job to mount opportunistic attacks on Corbyn at the moment, of course. But Labour folk, from whichever wing of the party they may come, might at least think twice. After all, Labour folk who join in this nonsense are simply doing the Tories’ job for them.