The Whitla Hall at Queen’s University has reached full capacity today, for the visit of Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
As I take my seat and await his arrival on the stage from which he will give his lecture, I am struck by the variety of age groups present in the crowd. The one thing they all seemed to have in common, however, is the enthusiasm with which they applaud the man (affectionately dubbed ‘Jezza’ by his younger electorate) as he enters.
This is Corbyn’s first visit to Northern Ireland as the leader of the British Labour Party, and he is met with an elongated standing ovation from most in the room. After a brief introduction by Professor Richard English, Corbyn begins his lecture with a seemingly heartfelt thank you to the university. He praises the “iconic institution” as a “cradle of free speech” and a “champion of civil rights”.
Stressing the need for a hopeful future for all communities in Northern Ireland, he emphasises the necessity of building upon the achievements of the past. One particular achievement he notes is the Good Friday Agreement, the 20th anniversary of which falls on this week.
The vote to support the agreement he says “changed the course of history for Northern Ireland”, something that at one point seemed “utterly impossible”. He expresses gratitude that many young people today do not remember a time when “the bloody hand of violence” was felt by many.
Remembering the past is a concern here, but Corbyn makes clear that “the spirit of determination” with which the agreement was constructed is needed once again, if we want to achieve “twenty more years of peace and greater prosperity (utilizing Labour’s campaign slogo) for the many, not the few”.
He praises the creators of the Good Friday Agreement: “all had to be willing to take risks and make sacrifices, all had to be willing to compromise”. He specifically notes the often overlooked input of Labour MP Mo Mowlan, who underwent the process of creation and negotiation while terminally ill.
“To bring real change” he contends, “you have to talk with whom you may not agree”. This is something he encourages the leaders of NI to do today: “We need all sides to come together and make devolution work again”.
“There is so much more that could be achieved” he muses, “from a full-scale upgrade of the Northern Ireland economy, to the investment of good jobs for all in the community, to the historic step of equal marriage”.
Although sporadic applause for various statements occurs throughout the lecture, none are as enthusiastic as that which follows Corbyn’s final point.
The fact that Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where equal marriage is illegal is not lost on Corbyn’s audience, or the politician himself.
In the event that the current stalemate in Stormont cannot be sorted out, Corbyn calls on the UK government to reconvene the British and Irish Intergovernmental Conference, in order to “find a creative solution in the spirit of the good Friday agreement” that avoids a return to direct rule and “lays the ground of further progress to all”.
Discussing the unavoidable topic of Brexit, the leader of the opposition condemned the current Tory Government: “Week after week it becomes clearer and clearer that they are too divided to make the right choices”.
“Let me be clear”, he states firmly, “Labour will not support any Brexit deal that includes a return to a hard border on this island”.
Notably absent from Corbyn’s lecture is any reference to the referendum occurring tomorrow in the Republic on whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution. Indeed, this topic only emerges in one of only four questions taken from the audience.
Stephen McCrystall, president of the Student’s Union, asks Corbyn how he sees the role of the student in building a positive future of social and political change in Northern Ireland. He cites a bill created by Armagh-born MP Conor McGinn calling for marriage equality.
In response to this, Corbyn states that he firmly supports McGinn’s bill, although he admits he is not quite sure he can offer much optimism of it “getting through in its current form”. “How can [a student] influence politics? By doing what you’re doing” he says. He encourages students to speak up and “contribute to political debate as a whole” with the aim of reestablishing a working Stormont.
One question that seems to get a particularly animated reaction from the audience is one posed by an A-Level Politics student on whether or not Corbyn would support a border poll for a United Ireland. Corbyn makes clear that while he is “not advocating it”; such a decision “could be made within the terms of the Good Friday agreement”. “It is quite clear” he says, “that it’s there for a poll on both sides of the border, should that be something that is demanded”.
The undoubtedly charismatic Labour leader concludes his lecture with an appropriate quotation from Irish poet Seamus Heaney and with his hopes for the future of Northern Ireland. “Let the history of the last twenty years and our hopes for the future guide us” he says, “as we make the history of the years to come”.