Boris Johnson apologises to London Irish community

Mayor says his comments in the <em>New Statesman</em> were exploited to suggest he had anti-Irish fe

Boris Johnson, no stranger to gaffes, is well-practiced in the art of laughing off any offence caused. However, the mayor's buffoon act did not deflect his comments about London Irish community in last month's New Statesman, and he has now apologised.

Interviewed by Jemima Khan, Johnson made this throwaway remark:

"I'll tell you what makes me angry -- lefty crap," he thunders in response. Like? "Well, like spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein!"

As my colleague Mehdi Hasan pointed out, this was not founded in fact:

Is the mayor referring to the annual St Patrick's Day Gala Dinner, the £150-per-ticket black tie event that ran between 2002 and 2008 and was, ahem, self-financing? The dinner that Boris cancelled in 2009 to save money despite the fact that it was, um, er, self-financing? The dinner that wasn't held "for Sinn Fein" but at the request, and for the sake, of the Irish community of Kilburn, Cricklewood and other parts of the capital?

The remarks triggered a strong reaction among the Irish community. The front page of the Irish Post proclaimed "Boris: your attitude stinks".

Now, a month later and struggling to get ahead in the polls, Johnson has apologised for any offence caused. He told the Irish Independent: "I am profoundly sorry if I have offended any Irish person." He added: "I hope that people will see I was making a point about cost cutting."

The mayor's office has also released a letter send to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith to clarify his position. In it, he says that his comments were exploited to suggest he had anti-Irish feelings, saying that this was "deeply upsetting". In a rather non-apologetic apology, he said:

Although I note that the guests of honour at the 2008 St Patrick's Day dinner were Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty, these were not dinners for Sinn Fein and, of course, I make absolutely no assumptions about the political allegiances of those who attended the dinners.

He makes no mention of the fact that the dinner included Irish public figures from across the spectrum, with a guestlist including Bob Geldof, Dermot O'Leary, the mayor of Dublin and the Irish ambassador to the UK.

In a classic Johnson move, he emphasised his apology for the "unintended offence that I may have given" with the gag: "Mayoral culpa, mayoral maxima culpa." One wonders whether this will be enough to undo the damage done by his reiteration of the old stereotype that all Irish people are Provos.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.