UUP aims to work with Jeremy Corbyn despite past IRA stance

Jeremy Corbyn MP

The Ulster Unionist party (UUP) has asked for a bridge-building meeting with Jeremy Corbyn over his past support for the Provisional IRA.

Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader who has taken his party out of the Belfast power sharing government and into opposition, said: “Some of the things [Corbyn] said in the past are deeply deeply offensive to unionists and to all those who suffered very badly, physically and mentally, at the IRA’s hands during the Troubles.

“But Jeremy Corbyn is there because he got a mandate from his party as leader. So we have asked for a meeting with him. We are seeing Vernon Coaker [new shadow Northern Ireland spokesman] next week, whom I have had a very good relationship with in the past, and I wait for word from Mr Corbyn.”

In an interview with the Guardian, the UUP leader said: “I want to look [Corbyn] in the eye and say, ‘I’d rather work with you than against you’. We will tell him that you have taken positions in the past, during the Troubles, that were deeply hurtful to our community.

“We will ask him to confirm that Labour still stands by the principle of consent, which is the absolute key to better relations.”

Nesbitt said he also wanted to challenge Corbyn to state that he will not change Labour’s support for the policy of the principle of consent.

Underpinned in the 1998 Good Friday agreement the principle of consent entails there can no constitutional change to Northern Ireland’s status within the UK unless a majority in the region vote to leave and join the Irish Republic.

In the past, Labour leftwing MPs including Corbyn regarded the principle of consent as giving unionists a near permanent veto over any constitutional change in Northern Ireland.

In the run up to the agreement, Tony Blair changed Labour’s position to a policy of neutrality between unionism and nationalism.

Nesbitt said there was one area of interest that he felt the UUP could work constructively with Jeremy Corbyn – the mental trauma inflicted on thousands as a result of the Troubles.

The UUP leader has been campaigning for the creation of a mental health treatment centre, which would in particular care for those suffering from Troubles related post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Here is an area where I think Jeremy Corbyn and I could really work together. We can identify mental health and wellbeing as a legacy issue from the Troubles,” said Nesbitt.

“Everywhere in the UK has mental health issues, but here in Northern Ireland if you take a map of the Troubles and look at the areas were the violence raged and then you took a map of the hotspots for mental health matters and problems you will see they are the same, there is a clear match.

“It might surprise some people given his past utterances and stances in support of republicanism that the UUP wants to enlist Jeremy Corbyn’s support for our mental health campaign.

“But this is a vital area of co-operation where we can work together and ask him to help us get ring-fenced finance for an internationally recognised trauma centre.”

Nesbitt has presided over a reversal in fortunes for the UUP after it was eclipsed by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) a decade ago as the leading force in unionism.

The UUP has 90 councillors and won two Westminster seats in the May general election – Fermanagh/South Tyrone, from Sinn Féin and South Antrim, from the DUP.

Despite the revival, Nesbitt said his preferred option in the next Stormont assembly was to remain in opposition of what he described as the Sinn Féin-DUP carve up.

With fresh elections a real possibility if the talks fail to solve the current power sharing crisis at Stormont, and in an appeal to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Nesbitt said: “The logic of saying if you have a cross-community, unionist and nationalist government than there should be a cross-community opposition to hold that administration to account. On the current figures it would appear the next government after assembly elections would be led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

“So if you are offering an alternative to the Sinn Féin-DUP carve up, then it seems logical that the assembly needs a cross-community government of ourselves and the SDLP. That would be my preferred option in the next Assembly.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd September 2015 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010