In May 2000, two years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the regional and international peace treaty that effectively ended the Troubles or thirty-year insurrection in the UK’s legacy colony in the north-eastern corner of the island of Ireland, the then journalist and magazine editor – and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – Boris Johnson conducted a press interview with Martin McGuinness, the Vice-President of Sinn Féin and a senior Member of the Army Council of the Irish Republican Army. The meeting took place in a private room at Stormont, the seat of the nascent local assembly and executive established under the 1998 accords, and by all accounts it was a somewhat cool affair as the Londoner quizzed the Derryman over his political and military career, which included McGuinness’ role as the IRA’s General Officer Commanding the Northern Command from the 1970s to the ’90s and his brief tenure as the Chief of Staff in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
However what makes the interview published in The Spectator that year so interesting is the perspective it offered on Johnson’s rather resigned view of the Irish-British peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s. And his belief – shared with his then fellow magazine contributor Michael Gove, a likely minister in Johnson’s forthcoming 2019 government in London – that the Good Friday Agreement represented the capitulation of the United Kingdom to the Republican Movement – or “Sinn Fein/IRA” as he would describe it – after thirty years of bloody insurgency and counterinsurgency.
…if you keep going down the marble corridor, and up about three flights of stairs, you will come to something rather odd. ‘Crinniu ar siul bain usaid as an doras eile’, barks the notice on the door, in what one takes to be a Gaelic demand for privacy.
Behind it sits the blond-curled and sweatered form of a man who has spent his entire adult life engaged, as he confirms, in a programme of terror, whose objective has been to destroy British power in Northern Ireland. He has almost succeeded in chopping the Royal Ulster Constabulary; he has brought about the release of hundreds of terrorist prisoners…
…he will once again serve as education minister; and he has done it without renouncing violence, or even causing a single weapon to be handed over.
In the words of the IRA historian Kevin Toolis, no other living person is a greater threat to the British state.
He welcomes me with great friendliness, and his charm perhaps partly explains the chronic weakness of the British government in dealing with him.
He’s in and out of Downing Street; he’s penetrated the highest levels of the British establishment; he’s bombed his way to power. Don’t you feel a sense of triumph, I ask him. ‘Triumph? Why? You have to understand that we are Irish Republicans. What we want to bring about fundamentally is an end to British rule in the North and the establishment of a 32- county republic.’
After Bloody Sunday, the British state in Northern Ireland was under siege. In 1972, 500 people were killed, including 150 members of the security forces. In a panic, Willie Whitelaw flew the Provos to Paul Channon’s house in Cheyne Walk. I wonder whether that was when McGuinness first sensed the irresolution of the British state?
…I come away better understanding why successive British governments have decided that, in spite of his past, he is the man they must deal with, and who, with Adams, holds the key to peace. In the long struggle of wills, he won, and the British government connived in its own defeat. The best hope now and of course it is morally bankrupt, but not wholly despicable — is that the ‘peace process’ should grind on…
These views, never disavowed, were written by a politician who will now serve as the leader of the minority Conservative Party government in Britain, where once again the future course of this island and its inhabitants will be shaped and contorted by the selfish needs and aspirations of the British. And it might well turn out that Boris Johnson, like his predecessors, will seek a historic compromise that was previously thought unthinkable in the corridors of power in London. Because when it comes to his personal career “Bojo” has repeatedly shown himself capable of abandoning principle for necessity. Or ambition.