Peace is hard, but peace is possible

Peace is hard, but peace is possible

A plea for peace by Jeremy Corbyn MP, former leader of the Labour Party and long time supporter of Ireland and the Irish community in Britain

 “The world should be absolutely horrified. The world should be absolutely outraged. There is no safe space in Gaza and the world should be ashamed.” — Irish barrister Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh

EARLIER this year, South Africa launched a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention. I attended the hearing as part of an international delegation. It was devastating — horror after horror, laid out in plain sight for all to see. The arguments were brilliantly marshalled by South Africa, and they should be commended for doing so. One of the most powerful oral submissions was delivered by Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh. “This is the first genocide in history where its victims are broadcasting their own destruction in real time,” she said, “in the desperate and so far vain hope that the world might do something.” Ní Ghrálaigh spoke for millions of people around the world who have been utterly appalled by the horrors unfolding live on our screens.

The significance of Ní Ghrálaigh’s speech cannot be overstated. Here was an Irish lawyer — who had previously worked on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry — speaking on behalf of South Africa, in support of the Palestinian people. The speech will go down in history as a momentous display of international solidarity. The ICJ found a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza. Despite this, Israel has continued its bombardment of Gaza, and has overseen catastrophic levels of starvation, dehydration and disease. Children in Gaza have been seen gathering flour from the ground, eating grass and drinking polluted water. Since the hearing, there has been growing pressure on Ireland to support South Africa’s case, and for good reason. The people of Ireland know the meaning of occupation. They know what it’s like to endure cycles of endless violence. And they know what it takes to achieve peace.

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. I was proud in July 1998 to vote for the Northern Ireland Bill in the British House of Commons. I welcomed it then by saying that I looked forward to peace, hope and reconciliation in Ireland in the future. 25 years later, the GFA remains an historic achievement - and I pay tribute to all those who made it possible. At the same time, we must remain vigilant of those who seek to drag things backwards and unpick the hard-won gains of the political process.

The DUP’s boycott of the Assembly was a disgraceful act that jeopardised the prospects for peace. I was immensely pleased, then, to see devolved powers restored in Northern Ireland in January. As I said in Parliament, the British government now has a decision to make. Will it respect the hard-won gains of the Good Friday Agreement? Or will it obstruct Irish self-determination? Most importantly, the GFA states that “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.”

Both the Conservative government and Labour leadership have, at times, struggled with this very simple mantra. Indeed, across Parliament, there is an air of arrogance and superiority in the way that Ireland is treated, spoken about and treated. This stems from an inability – or unwillingness - to grapple with Britain’s colonial past. As my old friend Tony Benn said, there isn’t an Irish problem in British politics. There’s a British problem in Irish politics.

In my own constituency of Islington, there is a long history of Irish immigration. Many of those came to Britain in order to escape the poverty and find work when times were tough in Ireland. Last year, we unveiled a wonderful mural outside Archway Tavern in Navigator Square. The term navigators, or “navvies” for short, was first applied to the Irish who moved to England to build the canal systems in the 19th century. There’s also a plaque in memory of Roger Casement, a slavery abolitionist and a prominent figure in Ireland’s fight for independence, Casement was executed for treason in Pentonville Prison in 1916. Most recently we unveiled a plaque for Michael Collins. The plaque was unveiled in Barnsbury Street, at the site of the former Barnsbury Hall, where Collins was initiated into Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1909.

These plaques are an eternal reminder of how the history of Britain is inseparable from the history of Ireland. The history of Ireland is a great teacher of human oppression and brutality, as well as imagination and poetry. It is a history that the Irish remember and the British forget. That’s why I’ve always said that the history of Ireland should be taught more widely in British Schools. For it is only by understanding our past can we begin to devise a new future.

Indeed, if our politicians were better educated about Irish history, they would treat the peace process with the gravity it deserves. And, when grappling today’s conflict-ridden world, they might take note of what people across Ireland have achieved. At the time of writing, 31,000 people have been killed in Gaza. Such is the scale of the unfolding horror that once you’ve finished reading this article, that number may already be outdated. Hundreds of thousands of us continue to demonstrate because human beings continue to die. The demonstrations have been made up of people from all faiths, backgrounds and ages, united in a call for an immediate ceasefire, for the release of hostages and for a just and lasting peace.

A just and lasting peace is not possible without understanding the root cause of its absence. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which bubbled to the surface in 1969, did not come from nowhere. They came from the abominable treatment of the Irish people by successive British governments over centuries. They came from the great hunger of the nineteenth century. They came from the Dublin lockout of 1913. They came from the Easter Rising. They came from the civil war. Just as we have to understand the history of the occupation of Ireland, we have to understand that Palestinians are living under a system of apartheid. Without a serious political intervention, this endless cycle of violence will just go on and on and on. There is only one path to a just and lasting peace: an end to the occupation of Palestine.

In times of horror, we need voices for peace and diplomacy, not death and destruction. When I speak at these demonstrations, I look out to a sea of Palestinian flags, and I am buoyed by the determination of people to show solidarity with those living under systems of violence and occupation everywhere. Some of the loudest cheers are reserved for those who emphasise that what’s happening in Gaza is not the only war that is going on. As I say at these demonstrations, I want us all to be active as well for peace and justice everywhere.

I have been a longstanding supporter of the people of Ireland and of Palestine, because I believe occupied peoples deserve to live in freedom and peace. For some, our hope for peace is naïve. For those who grew up in Ireland, their existence is proof that peace is hard, but peace is possible.