Sentamu's bulldog to become top church spin-doctor

The Reverend Arun Arora has been appointed head of communications at Church House.

The smart money may be against him, but the Archbishop of York remains, at least in the minds of headline-writers, the favourite to succeed Rowan Williams at Canterbury next year.  So it's with some interest that I read that John Sentamu's former spokesman, the Rev Arun Arora, has been appointed head of communications at Church House, the Church of England's administrative headquarters.

Rev Arora, who is forty and a former solicitor, is currently leading a Christian outreach project in Wolverhampton called Pioneer Ministries.  But before that he was a church press officer for almost ten years, first for the Bishop of Birmingham and then (after his ordination) for the Archbishop of York.  In that position (which he called "one of the best jobs in the Church of England") he was once described as "a determined publicity-seeker for the archbishop".  In February this year, though no longer working for Sentamu, Arora wrote a post on his ministry blog in defence of the archbishop's decision to write for the Sun on Sunday.

He wrote that very few of Sentamu's critics in the church "would turn down the opportunity to preach the Gospel to 6 million people" and compared them to the pharisees who had condemned Jesus for associating with sinners.  And he went on to explain his approach to News International and the publicity opportunities it afforded:

As Sentamu’s former press officer it was one of my goals when I began in 2006 to make full use of the pulpit offered by both the Sun and the News of the World. From 2006 – 2009 numerous articles were placed on the precious op-ed page, often with accompanying editorials supporting the central message- usually but not always related to Easter or Christmas. Over time I established a good working relationship with Colin Myler, the then editor of the News of the World, his deputy and various people on the Sun, one of whom agreed to accompany the Archbishop in jumping out of an airplane to raise money for Paratroopers wounded in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Arora did turn down an invitation for Dr Sentamu to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, saying that "We don't do celebrity."

Last month, Arora accused certain people within the church, and also media commentators of "besmirching" Sentamu. He wrote of "anonymous whispering" and coverage that was "in stark contrast to the way other bishops are being portrayed".  Some of this -- such as the comment of an unnamed don who had allegedly described Sentamu as "brutish" -- Arora attributed to "the naked racism which still bubbles under the surface in our society, and which is exposed when a black man is in line to break the chains of history."

Greeting the news of his new appointment, Rev Arora says that the church has "a fantastic story to tell of lives and communities being transformed by people in God through faith" and promises to publicise the work of a "largely unnoticed army of men and women" in parishes up and down the country.  It's a fair bet, however, that like his predecessors Arora will spend a high proportion of his time fending off stories about splits in the church, especially over the issue of sexuality.  His appointment, though, does perhaps signal that the C of E intends to be rather more pro-active in its media engagement than has sometimes been the case.

Of course, the process for appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury is in no way connected with that for choosing a director of communications for Church House.  But some might see today's news as some sort of omen.

 

Balloons are released as Dr John Sentamu becomes Archbishop of York, November 2005. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser