John McDonnell, the new shadow chancellor, has apologised from the “bottom of my heart” for suggesting in 2003 that the IRA should be honoured for the bombings which brought the British government “to the negotiating table” during the Northern Ireland peace process.
Speaking after David Cameron said he should be ashamed of his remarks, McDonnell said he rejected all political violence, adding that he had been trying to encourage republican hardliners to support the peace process at a delicate time.
His voice cracking with emotion, McDonnell told the audience on BBC1’s Question Time: “If I gave offence – and I clearly have – from the bottom of my heart I apologise. I apologise.”
The shadow chancellor also apologised for joking in 2010 that he would assassinate Margaret Thatcher if he could go back in time: “It was an appalling joke. It’s ended my career in standup, let’s put it that way, and I apologise for it as well.”
McDonnell, who used his appearance on Question Time to try to make a fresh start after a bumpy first week for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, also explained that Corbyn had failed to sing the national anthem at a service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain because he had been so moved. McDonnell said: “I spoke to Jeremy afterwards and I said: ‘Why didn’t you sing’? He said: ‘Well, actually I normally do’ but it was quite a moving event and it was casting his mind back to the war.”
McDonnell issued his apology after senior members of the shadow cabinet expressed deep unease about his comments on the IRA. In 2003 he said at an event remembering the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands, we now have a peace process.”
McDonnell, who chaired Corbyn’s leadership campaign, told Question Time that he made his remarks to encourage republican hardliners to take the final steps towards delivering a full political settlement in Northern Ireland. Unionists were expressing reservations at the time about the peace process in the wake of the slow progress by the IRA in decommissioning its arms and its failure to disband five years after Sinn Féin signed the Good Friday Agreement. The IRA fully decommissioned in 2005 and formally announced an end to its armed campaign, paving the way for the settlement which led to Sinn Féin and the DUP agreeing to share power in 2007.
The shadow chancellor, who looked upset by the hurt caused by his remarks, issued his apology after an audience member described him as an “IRA terrorist sympathiser”. McDonnell said: “In 2003 we were trying to impress upon all sides that we should sign the peace process, the Good Friday agreement. At one point in time it looked as though we were going to lose the peace process. There was a potential for the republican movement to split, there were many that were arguing they would continue what they described as the armed struggle.
“I went out and argued for the peace process and I made this speech to a group of republicans because one of the problems we had is that if there was a feeling that they were defeated or humiliated – and this was on both sides – they would not stand down. So I made this speech and I urged them to put their weapons away and to participate in the peace process. It was a difficult time.
“I think my choice of words was wrong. I accept that. I should not have said the issue about the honouring. I actually said afterwards that there is no cause that justifies the loss of life in this way. What I tried to do for both sides is to give them a way out with some form of dignity otherwise they wouldn’t lay their arms down.
“I accept it was a mistake to use those words. But if it contributed towards saving one life or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing because we did hold onto the peace process. There was a real risk of the republican movement splitting and some of them continuing with the armed process.”
Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP at Westminster who raised McDonnell’s remarks in the Commons on Wednesday, welcomed his apology although he questioned the timing.
Dodds said: “That John McDonnell attempts even now to justify his words taints his expression of regret and suggests tactical and presentational considerations. John McDonnell needs not merely to say sorry but to mean it and understand why the thousands of innocent victims of terrorism were so disgusted by what he said and who he supported.
“John McDonnell’s attempt to address this issue is welcome and long overdue. This should not have been dragged out of him by entirely justified public outrage only once these appalling remarks were brought to general attention.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 00.18 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010