An Irish republican perspective on Tony Benn

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness in conversation with Tony Benn.

Introductory comment by Stuart Munckton

March 17, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The following article provides an Irish republican perspective on Tony Benn. In some ways Ireland is a great prism through which to view Benn, his contradictions and his political development and radicalisation.

I read a book recently featuring essays by a range of British left and labour movement on Ireland and its struggle for self-determination that came out in 1985 -- the height of the troubles.

Benn's essay was fascinating because he was a cabinet minister when the then-Labour government sent in British troops to occupy Ireland's north. Benn, at the time, did not oppose it and said he knew very little of the situation. He said no one in the Labour government actually knew the first thing about Ireland and just did what they were told. He said he tried to get a debate started about it at one point, but was shot down.

By the mid 1980s (and remember at this time Benn was seriously vying to become Labour leader), as the situation became clearer and the horrific body toll grew ever higher and the role of Britain in causing the violence became obvious to anyone who wanted to see it, Benn had shifted to support Irish self-determination and to oppose British military occupation. He moved a series of motions in parliament around Britain's withdrawal from the six counties in Ireland's north.

There was no opportunist reason for him to do this -- there was nothing less "popular" or more likely to turn you into a pariah and get savaged in the press than to even advocate talking to the Terrorist Baby Eating Devils known as Sinn Fein. In the mid 1980s, it was like advocating a welcome for Osama Bin Laden just after 9/11. From a perspective of becoming electable, you could do little worse.

But more than that, the Troubles made Benn pay attention to Ireland, to read about it and discover full sordid history, usually left buried, of the role of his country in the oppression in Ireland. When you are in an imperialist state like Britain, you cannot truly radicalise without grappling with these things -- and Benn's ongoing radicalisation was bound up with confronting, and opposing, Britain's crimes in Ireland.

It is difficult to overstate the courage it took to do this -- most of the English left had not come to terms with it. To understand Tony Benn, and to understand British politics in general, Ireland is a key.

Former British cabinet minister and lifelong radical Tony Benn died March 14 at age 88.

March 16, 2014 -- Irish Republican News -- He was a republican, advocating an end to the monarchy, and once campaigned to have the British Queen’s head removed from stamps. He introduced four Bills to Westminster committing Britain to withdraw from Ireland, all of which were rejected.

His republicanism and dealings with Sinn Fein long provoked controversy, particularly his invitations to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to come to Westminster.

Mr Adams described Mr Benn as a true friend of the Irish people following his support for a united Ireland.

“A principled politician and activist, he spoke up passionately for the idea of a united Ireland. He remained an avid supporter of Irish freedom throughout his life”, he said.

Asked in 1994 by a journalist for Socialist Organiser how he saw the central problem in Ireland, he answered thus.

“It’s a complicated problem. It’s a problem of the British conquest of Ireland. It’s a problem of settlement in Ireland. It’s a problem of economic interest at one stage, which I think has disappeared, in fact I think it’s now quite the opposite.

"It’s a defence problem because of the attitude of the British during World War II. And the American attitude has been firstly one of protecting Western approaches from the U-Boats and then seeing there was not an independent Ireland between themselves and the Red Army.

"There’s a religious element in it. There’s a big class element in it, and trying to disentangle the ingredients of it and make sense of it all is quite complicated.

"I think one of the reasons it’s difficult is because the question of Irish unity and the question of British jurisdiction are separate questions and they always try to present them as the same question. My understanding is that now the British want to get out. The Americans have got no interest apart from having an Irish-American population, which is pro-nationalist in general terms. The British have no economic interest in it.

"Dublin has no interest in taking over the North. The last thing they want is to find Ian Paisley sitting in the Dail and Loyalist paramilitaries working in a United Ireland. Sinn Fein knows you can’t force the North into the South. I was trying to unpick it all and see if the bits of the jigsaw puzzle weren’t starting to become apparent.

"If you are going to get a settlement, first of all you’ve got to have talks between the two communities in the North. That is absolutely essential. [Constitutional Nationalist leader, John] Hume has talked to Adams but now we’ve got to get Sinn Fein talking to everybody else. If you want the British out, you’ve got to think what the long-term relationship is going to be.

"When the British government says that it has no economic or selfish interest in Northern Ireland, it must make it clear that there will be a point when British jurisdiction will end. The Bill which I’ve introduced puts this point at 31 December 1999 -- simply to put a marker so that people are starting to move to a new perspective. The thing that has got to be tackled if it is an Irish question -- which it is very largely -- and if the British occupation is no longer an issue, then how do you get things going?

"What I’ve given is a sort of tour of the ingredients. I think it’s very important to understand all these different elements if we are going to be helpful and useful.

"And in the end it is of course class, however you look at it, the poor Protestants and the poor Catholics, and the opening up of the possibility of some class unity within the context of an Irish solution. Then, if the North sorts itself out, its relationship with the South is less of a problem. You can imagine all sorts of arrangements. I don’t think that is a problem. The problem is the extrication of the British and the beginning of some serious discussion in the North about its future. I’ve telescoped it all, and it’s very simplistic, maybe, but that’s the way my mind is working.”

Tony Benn met the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on numerous occasions. He invited Mr Adams to a meeting in 1983 during the height of the IRA's campaign when the republican party's tolerance of violence was anathema to most in Great Britain.

After a visit by Mr Adams was blocked in 1993 he correctly predicted that he would eventually visit Downing Street, to become a regular occurrence during peace process negotiations under the Blair administration.