Sunday, September 02, 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and Red Action: Sorting truth from smears

[POST SLIGHTLY EXPANDED 3 SEPTEMBER. I have added in three footnotes, corrected some typos and added a couple of links. The footnotes are also here if you already read the whole piece. If you have any additional details or I got anything wrong, please do leave a comment or contact me directly.]

The Sunday Times of 19 August published an article by Andrew Gilligan entitled "Police examined Jeremy Corbyn links to pro-IRA group Red Action". (A screenshot of the article can be found here; an article in the Belfast Telegraph based on it can be read here.)

Andrew Gilligan is former Press TV employee, Boris Johnson acolyte, best known for his role in the events leading up to David Kelly's suicide.

Red Action were a smallish group who emerged at the end of the 1970s/start of the 1980s from activists - mainly young, mainly male, overwhelmingly working class, often of Irish background - who had gotten involved in the Socialist Workers Party via the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism out of anti-fascist conviction. Many were involved in "squads" which protected left-wing paper sales from violent right-wing attacks. The SWP wound up the ANL in 1981, but as early as 1978 had been trying to dial down militant confrontation with fascists in order to keep ANL's appeal to the mainstream (as this recollection by Jim Kelly makes clear, as do Steve Tilzey's and Red Action's own accounts) and eventually the militant activists were derided as "squadists" and expelled (much as the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s expelled those who formed squads to combat Mussolini's rising power). The SWP had only recently (in 1977) constituted itself as a Leninist-style party, veering away from the more libertarian, Rosa Luxemburg-inspired Marxism of its forerunner, the International Socialists. By 1978, the SWP guru Tony Cliff saw a "downturn" in working class militancy, and the expulsion of the working class "squadists" more or less coincided with the purging of the party's industrial "rank and file" organisations formed in the early 1970s, as both of these offered models of potentially autonomous working class militancy that didn't prioritise party-building.

Subsequently, Red Action developed a unique political perspective that had three distinguishing elements: uncompromising support for physical alongside ideological resistance to fascism, a sophisticated critique of the middle class left and in particular the Leninist tradition exemplified by the SWP from which they emerged, and strong commitment to Irish Republicanism.

Some context for my interest: I was involved on and off in Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) between about 1988 and 2000, not in any kind of leadership role but just as a rank and file footsoldier. Red Action played a central role in AFA and so I got to know quite a few members, and read their newspaper. I liked a lot of things about them (their militant anti-fascism and critique of the left), but also had some strong criticisms (specifically of their version of Republicanism), as will be clear from the rest of this blogpost.

Andrew Gilligan on Red Action and Corbyn

In the first sentence, Gilligan claims "Jeremy Corbyn came to the attention of police after becoming involved with Red Action, an ultra-left group that expressed its “unconditional and uncritical support” for IRA atrocities and included members of an IRA bombing team." There's a lot going on in that first sentence, including a lot of misdirection.

First, the "after". It's not clear if he is suggesting Corbyn came to police attention because of a Red Action link, or simply chronologically later. Later, he sort of specifiies that a "senior police officer from the period" said Corbyn came to their attention "for" these links "and" for hosting IRA (he means Provisional IRA - see footnote 2) and Sinn Fein speakers at parliament. It also makes clear the police found insufficient evidence to pursue anything. Former Special Branch officer Peter Francis ("Officer A" in this story) adds that Corbyn was investigated "over his IRA links", without any mention of Red Action. Given that we already know that MI5 and Special Branch had files on Corbyn for his IRA (i.e. Provo) links in this period, and that those links were extensive, it seems unlikely any connection with the marginal Red Action would have been the reason for any police attention.

The sentence ending, that Red Action "included members of an IRA bombing team" is also a little disingenuous. We now know that the 1993 Harrods bomb (no victims) and a bomb planted on the train to Ramsgate a few weeks later (no victims) was carried out by two Englishmen, one of whom, Patrick Hayes, was a Red Action member, on behalf of the Provisional IRA. Although Hayes' collaborator, ex-soldier Jan Taylor, has been described in the Irish Times and other papers as a Red Action member, more detailed sources don't mention it, and other sources dispute it. Moreover, as the bombings hadn't happened yet, Corbyn couldn't have known them in the 1980s or 1992. In fact, Hayes' involvement was a complete surprise to everyone that worked with Hayes in Red Action and AFA too.

More problematic is precisely what "becoming involved" meant. The links that Gilligan spells out are all fairly flimsy. The sum total of Corbyn's "involvement" seems to be:
  1. "Corbyn spoke at at least three Red Action meetings between 1985 and 1992"
  2. The group "sometimes met at his then constituency office"
  3. RA "provided security for Corbyn and others" at pro-Republican events
  4. RA were central to AFA, and Corbyn was connected to AFA
Let's look at those one by one.

Did Corbyn speak at Red Action meetings?

Gilligan claims Corbyn was a keynote speaker at RA's national meeting on 23 February 1985 and then "In mid-1992 Red Action co-ordinated a speaking tour with Corbyn and others to protest against the treatment of republican prisoners."

Red Action's paper mentions the national meeting of 1985, but doesn't mention Corbyn speaking there. A history of AFA narrated by Red Action activists mentions his presence in the building, describing how the meeting was violently attacked by fascists with hammers. But the wording suggests Corbyn was at the venue (Caxton House, St Johns Way - a community centre in Corbyn's constituency, which hosted all sorts of community and political events) for a different meeting:
"So I’m standing there when Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn opens the door of the centre and peeps out. ‘Have they gone?’ he says. ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Were they here for you or me?’ he says. ‘It was us,’ I reply. You could see the relief visible on his face. ‘Oh, good!’ he remarked cheerfully. Then, with a quick look in both directions, he skipped off down the road. I remember laughing at the time. How ironic, I thought. Here we have a Member of Parliament, no less, having to skulk around his own constituency for fear of rampaging fascists everyone else seems determined to deny exist.” (p.104)
Gilligan's claim is too specific to be totally made up, but I'd like to see what his source was, as it seems really unlikely that a Labour MP would speak at the annual national meeting of a group that was completely opposed to any support for the Labour Party.

The 1992 claim,  in contrast, is very vague, and I suspect that RA were just one group on a list organised in some kind of prisoner support meetings, i.e. that these weren't "Red Action meetings" in any way that anyone normal would use that phrase. Again, there is nothing in the 1992 issues of the RA paper to confirm Gilligan's claim.

Verdict: may be half true.

Did Red Action meet at Corbyn's office?

Gilligan details this allegation later in his article, stating that meetings were held at 129 Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Park, including one in 1990 at which Corbyn wasn't present.

Anyone familiar with the London left will know that this was the Red Rose Club, which was used by a huge range of groups. Here's an oral history of the building. It was rented from a dairy by the local Labour Party, and Corbyn sub-let a tiny caretaker's flat above it to use for his constituency surgeries for a while. Corbyn moved out around 1990. Centrist NEC candidate Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and Mark Lamarr were among the acts who performed at comedy nights there. I myself went to Spanish classes there, which presumably means Corbyn is also responsible for all the times I broke the law.

Verdict: almost certainly false.

Did Red Action provide security for Corbyn?

Here's the claim in full: "Red Action's journal, seen by The Sunday Times, says it provided security for Mr Corbyn and others in their work with the Troops Out Movement and Labour Committee on Ireland, which sympathised with republicanism." We already knew that Corbyn (along with Livingstone, Abbott, McDonnell, and actually quite a wide range of people on the left - see footnote 4 below) were involved with TOM and LCI, so the new "revelation" here is that RA provided security for some of its events.

As anyone who was involved in Irish causes at the time would tell you, RA stewarded lots of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Republican events were frequently the targets of far right violence (the English far right had close connections to Loyalist paramilitaries (see this story, this story, this story).

But Gilligan appears to be being a bit dishonest here: unless he has evidence otherwise, there's no reason to think that Corbyn would have been the person who arranged security for these meetings he spoke at. 

Verdict: probably a half truth at best.

Did Corbyn work with Red Action in AFA?

Gilligan claims Corbyn was either the national secretary or honorary president of Anti-Fascist Action when it launched in 1985, that he was "involved with it" until the mid-1990s, and that RA "made up the activist core" of AFA.

It is indeed true that Corbyn held such an office in AFA when it was formed, as can be verified in Nigel Copsey's excellent academic history of anti-fascism in Britain, as well as another article by him, and a 2012 MA dissertation for which Corbyn was interviewed.

However, what Gilligan doesn't mention is that this incarnation of AFA came to an end within a couple of years, as described here by Copsey:
However, this original AFA unravelled due to internal tensions between militant anti-fascists and more moderate anti-racists. ‘The basic contradiction, from which everything else flowed’, we have been told, ‘was between the opposing concepts of AFA as a militant action group and AFA as just another law abiding anti-racist protest group independent from political affiliations’. By 1988, fractured by in-house sectarianism, AFA had all but collapsed. The following year, however, AFA was resurrected as a militant, physical force antifascist group.
The dissertation similarly says that the question of physical violence divided AFA, with Corbyn falling on the side of non-violence:
This strategy would spit AFA in 1989, Jeremy Corbyn whilst stating he believed there was no ‘absolute right to free speech’ believed that only purely defensive physical confrontation should take place, thus, no pre-emptive violence.
I can't find a source for when Corbyn ceased to hold office in AFA, but am confident it was before the 1989 relaunch. The student dissertation says he was "involved until 1989". What's crucial to note is that the 1985 incarnation was a broad-based organisation, involving liberals and Labour members (and Red Action was briefly suspended from membership by the liberal leadership in 1987) - whereas it was the 1989 incarnation in which Red Action made up a good part of the activist core. I was involved in this later period, and I am 99.5% certain that Corbyn wasn't. That is, I am pretty sure that Gilligan is wrong when he says Corbyn was involved until the mid-1990s.

Corybn is mentioned twice in the "official" history of AFA, Beating the Fascists [pdf/buy], which reflects the Red Action version of the story. The first is the 1985 incident noted above. The second (p.121) is to note that he spoke an AFA event on Remembrance Sunday in 1986, a peaceful event designed to reclaim the day from the fascists who had been marching through London annually. There were violent incidents involving AFA in the 1985-89 period, but Corbyn was not involved in them; nor did he endorse the use of violence by AFA members.

Verdict: barely half-true.

Did Jeremy Corbyn have anything to do with the Warrington bombings?

There is one small further twist in this story, which is a bizarre claim made in 2013 that Red Action was somehow connected to the 1993 Warrington bombs claimed by the Provisional IRA. The claim seems to be based solely on some circumstantial similarities between the Harrods bomb, whose co-perpetrator, Patrick Hayes, had been a Red Action member; it is pure speculation, with absolutely no evidence. Because this speculation was mentioned in a Wikipedia article, David Aaronovitch raised it in a tweet in the wake of the Gilligan story (see footnote 1 on the role of Wikipedia in this story, see footnote 2 for whether the Warrington speculation has an plausibility).

Unlike Harrods and Ramsgate, there were victims in Warrington, so if they were involved this would add weight to the case against Red Action. However, in relation to Corbyn, this story simply adds another degree of separation and speculation. Corbyn may have had links to the Provisional IRA, but not via Red Action.


Having looked at this fairly thoroughly now, whatever grains of truth in Gilligan's account are heavily diluted by half-truths and falsehoods. I am not making this point to defend Corbyn, but to defend truth. If Corbyn is to be indicted, let it be for things he actually did.

Red Action's legacy is a mixed one. Its support for the physical force form of Irish Republicanism is highly problematic, and the fact that some of its members were passionate enough about this to get drawn into the P.IRA's terrorism accentuates this. On the other hand, Red Action did more than any other group to defeat the violent fascists who were a significant presence in England up until the mid-1990s, and should be celebrated for this. It is important to remember that far right activists murdered or inspired the murders of several black people in Britain in that period, regularly physically attacked left-wing paper sales, and sold openly Nazi material in public; Red Action and AFA curtailed this.

Red Action's politics were contemptuous of the form of leftism Corbyn represented. Like Orwell, they derided "sandal-wearing", pacifist, do-gooding leftists. They accused the Labour Party of having abandoned working class communities. I don't agree these days with Paul Stott (a former AFA activist who has written about Red Action academically), but this thread captures the relationship between RA and JC well:

1. A footnote on Wikipedia

The pro-Corbyn alt-media has of course also been keen to debunk any relationship between Red Action and Jezza, including alt-left conspiracy-mongers The Canary, blogger Tim Fenton of Zelo Street and George Galloway. They have drawn attention to the role of Wikipedia in this, suggesting some kind of co-ordinated smear against Corbyn involving the Murdoch press and Wikipedia editors.

It is true that after Gilligan wrote about Red Action, someone edited the Red Action page to mention the article, and that this occurred before Aaronovitch tweeted. But this is easily explained by the fact that people who edit Wikipedia might be looking at pages relating to stuff in the news. More Corbyn defenders than Corbyn attackers have been editing the relevant pages since this event, presumably not as part of a co-ordinated action but because they care about what Wikipedia says. This paranoid narrative about co-ordinated smears seems to have attached itself to Wikipedia in the last four months, with George Galloway and his followers promoting various bizarre and elaborate fantasies about GCHQ or Murdoch newspapers directing Wikipedia edits (Galloway offered a £1000 reward for the identity of one Wikipedia editor). This kind of conspiricism is a feature of too much of the pro-Corbyn internet, and makes it harder, not easier, to disentangle truths from smears in the media frenzy around JC.

2. A footnote on the "IRA"

Gilligan, and many of those who talk about Corbyn's IRA connections, use the word "IRA" rather sloppily. The term is used for a number of different organisations. In particular, the organisation known as the IRA from 1922 onwards split in 1969 between 
The Official IRA (OIRA), the remainder of the IRA after the 1969 split with the Provisionals; was primarily Marxist in its political orientation. It is now inactive in the military sense, while its political wing, Official Sinn Féin, became the Workers' Party of Ireland.
The Provisional IRA (PIRA) broke from the OIRA in 1969 over abstentionism and how to deal with the increasing violence in Northern Ireland. Although opposed to the OIRA's Marxism, it came to develop a left-wing orientation and increasing political activity. (Wikipedia)
The Official IRA was initially the larger of the two IRAs, although the P.IRA soon outgrew it, and was often called "the Stickies", due to the stick-on lillies they sold on Easter Sunday; the P.IRA is more often known as "the Provos". The Stickies were less engaged in armed struggle (and mainly directed violence at the British military, rather than civilian targets), particularly after declaring a ceasefire in 1972.

The INLA was a breakaway from the O.IRA that opposed the ceasefire, and one former Red Action member, Liam Heffernan, was involved in planning a foiled INLA terror campaign (convicted on the evidence of a paid informant turned MI5 agent), and Red Action probably had closer links with the political wing of the INLA than with either of the IRA wings. Heffernan is mentioned in the Gilligan piece as another indictment of Red Action, although it is unlikely other RA members knew of Heffernan's INLA connections, and inconceivable that Corbyn might have.

The point to take away is that when Gilligan and his ilk throw the term "IRA" around without qualifying who they are referring to, they show their ignorance of the complexity of the Troubles, and their lack of credibility in reporting on this.

3. A footnote on the Warrington bombs

I think there are lots of reasons to be doubtful about the speculation about Warrington.  Hayes himself couldn't have carried out the Warrington bombs - the perpetrators of the first Warrington bomb, in February, were caught, and Hayes was already in prison when the second one occurred in March. So the speculation is that he was somehow "connected" to it, e.g. was part of the supply chain for the explosives, or that it was someone "like Hayes", i.e. another Red Action member. In fact, it is unclear if Hayes was actually a "member" of the P.IRA, if the campaign Harrods was part of was "sub-contracted" to him (a very unusual practice in P.IRA history - they were extremely paranoid about infiltration) or if he was working in their name and under their influence without being a formal operative (much as many terror actions are carried out by "self-radicalised" individuals in the name of ISIS who are not actually ISIS "members"). Hayes had a large quantity of weaponry in his flat when arrested, which has very rarely happened with actual P.IRA operatives, who would not take that risk. He was already known to police because of his work with AFA, so it would be risky to use his active service too widely. All his other actions were in the London area. He confessed at his trial to incidents in the London area he was not charged with, yet never mentioned Warrington. All in all, the association between Hayes or Red Action and Warrington is completely tenuous.

4. A footnote on Republicanism in the London left 

Image from History is Made at Night
As noted above, support for one or another form of Republican militancy was not unusual in the London left in this period, especially in parts of London where there was a large Irish community, such as Corbyn's Islington (then only at the beginning of the gentrification that has remade it as a middle class area). Even Peckham's Harriet Harman, for example, can be seen here engaging with the Communist-dominated Connolly Association, which maintained links with both P.IRA and O.IRA, and the Association and the Labour Committee on Ireland successfully lobbied for Labour Party support for Irish unification. Rubber bullets, a covered up shoot to kill, miscarriages of justice, the daily persecution of Catholics in Belfast and Irish migrants in London all contributed to a sense of solidarity from many on the left for the cause, if less so for the tactics - and the escalation of terrorism against mainland security targets in the early 1990s did a lot to erode that support.

The Troops Out Movement was one of the more broad-based pro-Republican groups, which didn't explicitly support armed struggle. I remember attending their London march in around 1991, probably one of the annual Bloody Sunday commemorations, which were supported by a range of other Irish groups and well attended. By the later 1990s, I had turned against all forms of nationalism, but did, as part of AFA, help steward a couple of these kinds of events, as they were regularly subject to fascist violence. For example, over 300 fascists were arrested attacking the 1993 march. The obverse, intimacy between the English far right and armed Ulster Loyalism in this period, is also now little remembered. This context is vital for understanding Corbyn and McDonnell's politics. 

Further reading: 

Previous posts:


Flintock said...

Excellent article. A few thoughts of my own.

1. One thing this demonstrates is how many people are apparently incapable of not making Corbyn utterly central to their analysis, even when he's irrelevant to the topic being discussed. That's as true of his most zealous critics as his zealous supporters.

2. Which leads to really really bad analysis. "Mr Corbyn in The Times" was so obviously out of his depth in that whole discussion that it was embarassing to watch. Or for a perfect example, have you seen the Red Roar article on the Anti Nazi League?

It would take an entire article of mockery to actually dissect quite how bad it is, so some highlights.

He doesn't seem to understand the difference between ANL Mk1 and Mk2.

He thinks that the SWP leadership supported the squaddists and doesn't know they expelled them.

He cribs entire paragraphs from Wiki while carefully removing any reference to AFA.

He thinks that Searchlight are no more than a "precursor to Hope Note Hate" and quotes them favourably. I don't think it's a big secret to say that the falling out between AFA and Searchlight had nothing to do with Searchlight suddenly deciding that using force against fascists was wrong. (It's probably unfair to ask how he reconciles that with Gable's membership of the 62 Group, as he is highly unlikely to know who the 62 Group are).

Flintlock said...

3. Speaking of the 62 Group it's very noticable that the same people bleating about AFA will not, under any circumstances, put their money where their mouth is and attack 43 and 62 on the same grounds. Even when challenged to directly. If you're using the AFA connection as "proof" that Corbyn supports political violence then the Jewish Chronicle also do, as their positive obituary of Morris Beckman showed. (As someone who had the pleasure of meeting Morris I can state categorically that he did not in fact repudiate physical force antifascism in his later life). Hell, if we're taking "support for AFA" as a bad thing you're also going to have to include a lot of Union of Jewish Students members back in the day. I'd have more respect for the people trying to play this card if they had the bottle to apply it consistently.

4. Onto Irish republicanism specifically. It's worth remembering the context this was taking place in. It wasn't universal, but at least critical support for Irish Republicanism was widespread on the left. What made RA stand out was that a) they didn't play it down for recruitment reasons (the SWP had "critical support for the IRA" as a policy at the time but you didn't see that in the pages of Socialist Worker) and that compared to other groups that had equally fiery pro IRA rhetoric (the RCP in particular) a Red Action member moved in beyond words. To Corbyn though, it must have seemed more of the same.

5. I haven't looked into it, but I'm pretty sure if you actually looked into Labour Party MPs who attended pro Republican meetings in their younger days it wouldn't just be Corbyn or just the Labour Left. I won't name her, but I personally know of at least one "moderate" Labour councillor who was both strongly pro AFA and pro Irish Republicanism in her early 20s. Not to the level of RA, but she used to wear a green ribbon when I knew her.

6. On AFA and RA. Sometimes I did get slightly annoyed by London using their control of Fighting Talk to stick overtly pro Republican articles in. However, I am of the view that the official policy of "we are a single issue campaign and take no position either way" was the correct one. To me people who think AFA should have taken an explict policy of not allowing supporters of Republicanism in are making exactly the same argument as those that didn't like our refusal to take a position on Zionism/Anti Zionism. In both cases it was utterly irrelevant to a British anti fascist organisation.

Jim Denham said...

Excellent, balanced piece of research/analysis which must surely be the definitive piece on these allegations. Well done, Bob!

Anonymous said...

This is very good and, based on my reccolection of some of the events, accurate.

I did look at a couple of the links, especially concerning the early days of AFA, which seemed to downplay the involvement of central groups like the Newham Monitoring Project whilst the involvement of Class War was always contentious - I think they had affiliation declined. Small points really I guess.


Jim Denham said...

Excellent work, Bob: the definitive piece of research/analysis on this matter!