Brian Críostoir is a teacher, trade unionist and activist based in Newcastle. Originally from Derry, he regularly writes on Irish politics from a emigrant perspective.
On Monday, the five largest parties (SF, DUP, UUP, Alliance and SDLP) welcomed Hilary Benn to Stormont’s Parliament Buildings, where he met with party leaders and called, as expected, for a return of devolved institutions. Commentators were rightfully discussing what Benn’s shadow-ministry signified, given that a Westminster election may happen within a year and Starmer is widely-predicted to secure a comfortable majority and lead a new government.
Keir Starmer had appointed Hilary Benn as the Shadow Secretary of State, opposite his Tory counterpart Chris Heaton-Haris, in the first week of September, but he hasn’t done or said much since and was arriving in Belfast for the first time in his tenure.
The event has now been overshadowed by Starmer’s comments about a unity poll, to the BBC on Thursday:
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near that kind of question. It’s absolutely hypothetical. It’s not even on the horizon.”
Nationalists were quick to point out that it is the Secretary of State, not anyone else, who holds the constitutional keys to a poll on a United Ireland. That power is outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. But this legalistic argument is meaningless because no Prime Minister would stomach their minister making such a decision independently. Benn has been selected for two reasons. First, he represents the hard-faced Blairite wing, which claims kudos for the Agreement in 1998 and secondly, Benn is committed to British imperial power in exactly the way Tony Blair was. Sending him to Belfast sends a strong message that London intends to keep a firm grip on the North, by blocking any discussion of constitutional change.
The appointment is also significant because Benn is a Labour ‘big hitter’ and it shows that Starmer is taking seriously the need for an agentive rather than reactive role where our island is concerned, where the Tories have often played ‘catchup’ on developments that could easily have been predicted, such as the Protocol/Framework saga and the collapse of power-sharing.
There is a tendency among nationalists to view Labour with rose-tinted lenses. And it’s hardly surprising. During the Thatcher years a small but important number of Labour MPs, notably Hilary’s father, Tony Benn, were vocal and active in the movement for peace and justice in Ireland and were unashamed in demanding a withdrawal of British troops and a new settlement. Indeed many favoured a United Ireland, tacitly if not explicitly.
As a result the Labour government from 1997 also sent political heavyweights like Peter Mandelson, Mo Mowlam and Peter Hain to Belfast, bolstering the view that the ‘Peace Process’ was a priority for their administration. For all of the rhetoric that the Troubles were driven by IRA violence, it’s often overlooked that as soon as Westminster had a government that took political progress seriously, something of a ‘settlement’ was quickly reached, albeit in a way that favoured British power through devolution and an end to armed struggle.
But those nostalgic retro-glasses need to come off. Benn is not a progressive on international issues. He is, in fact, one of the chief craftsmen of aggressive, chauvinist British foreign policy. And he will be no friend to those of us who want to see lasting constitutional change and renewal on the island of Ireland. It was during that time that 121 Labour MPs defied Benn’s instructions to vote for the most disastrous war of our times – the invasion of Iraq. His side was bolstered by such stalwart human rights activists as Michael Portillo, who later that year applied to be the Chairman of BAE systems, a company that received over £100 million in arms contracts as part of the war.
In this same period Bush and Blair flew to Ireland for a multi-party conference. They used their ‘progress’ in Ireland to demonstrate their credentials as ‘men of peace’ precisely at the time when they were on TV night after night baying for war on another continent.
While many Labour MPs were later modest enough to admit that they had been duped by misinformation in the heady days of the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Benn doubled down. Despite the unthinkable destruction of whole cities and skyrocketing casualties, he continued to argue at every stage for further military intervention in the Middle East.
Later, almost inexplicably, Corbyn acquiesced to him taking up the role of shadow foreign secretary, assumedly so he could provide the Labour right-wingers with the ‘balance’ they wanted, enabling them to sabotage the party’s new stance for peaceful diplomatic action to resolve conflicts.
This mutiny was led by Hilary Benn in spectacular fashion. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn had been a founding convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, which organised some of the largest and most sustained demonstrations for peace and justice in the history of these islands, Benn was always pushing for more British intervention. When, in 2015, new demands were being raised to extend the war in Iraq to Syria, Benn took the dispatch box as shadow foreign secretary and declared:
“I believe that we have a moral and practical duty to extend the action that we are already taking in Iraq to Syria”.
The Tory benches, breaching House of Commons rules, reacted with a deafening thunder of applause. Here was a Labour front bencher, siding with the government, calling for more bombing!
Benn’s was not argument made in the naivety of the early days of the War on Terror, but one launched in the same Commons that had witnessed the collapse of Iraqi society as a result of the western invasion over the preceding decade. We had all witnessed the explosion in terrorist attacks across the world. In the period when Benn spoke of extending the War on Terror to Syria, suicide bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan averaged 30 per day and had done since the invasion of Iraq. They had been virtually zero beforehand. The NATO mission in Afghanistan was over a decade old and the Taliban were emerging stronger than ever before. Libya, another benefactor of NATO intervention, had become a failed state and the world capital for slave markets. Benn knew all of this, but his commitment to British answers to foreign problems trumped any rational analysis.
This, we should be clear, is the man who a few months from now will most likely hold the constitutional power, agreed by international treaty, to determine whether or not the people of Ireland can vote their way out of British rule. Colum Eastwood and Michelle O’Neill are welcoming him with open arms. But we’ve been here before. When London sends a wolf, don’t be fooled by the sheepskin coat.