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“I’d have been ashamed not to join the IRA”

Sophie Elmhirst joins Martin McGuinness on the presidential campaign trail in Dublin, and finds an e

A little girl cartwheels nonchalantly through the hallway at the community centre in Ringsend, east Dublin. Not everyone, it seems, is excited at the prospect of Martin McGuinness's imminent arrival. Nearby, a boy holding a football, crimson-faced and out of breath, turns to a member of staff who is trying to corral the scattered children before the political delegation descends, and says: "So, what do we get for doing this?"

Outside, photographers and cameramen have gathered on one side of the street, the children on the other. The two camps shuffle and whisper in anticipation. A boy stands in the middle of the road yelling, "It's him!" every time he spots a car in the distance. Another TV crew arrives. "Will I be on telly?" asks a girl, already waving at the camera. And then they all surge forward, muscling each other out of the way, a photographer removing a spare child by his shoulders so that he can get a clear view of McGuinness, Sinn Fein's candidate for the Irish presidency in the 27 October election, walking down this street by Dublin's old docks.

He smiles as the children amass around his legs. McGuinness's ability to smile for hours on end, beyond the point of face-ache but in a way that always seems sincere, is noteworthy. "What's your name? And what's your name?" he asks the children one by one. They all give him fake names, giggling. One of their super­visors shakes her head and mutters under her breath that they would "buy and sell you in a day if they could".

The media pack soon takes over, pressing towards McGuinness. The questions are all on a single theme: the television debate that took place last night between the seven presidential candidates on RTE, the Irish state broadcaster. In the course of the programme, the presenter, Miriam O'Callaghan, asked McGuinness how his belief in God squared with his former life as a leading member of the IRA. He complained, and newspaper reports described him taking the presenter into a room after the show for a private conversation from which she emerged "shell-shocked" five minutes later. That's the way the Irish newspapers write about McGuinness: laced with a threat of violence and intimidation, a hardman enforcer in disguise.

Today, however, he's back on track, friendly and upbeat. The smile - a sort of wrinkly grin, grandfatherly (he has five of them) and oddly gentle - is fixed. McGuinness is the "People's President", according to his campaign literature. Visiting community centres of this sort is the "best part of the job", he tells the centre manager, as she leads him through a computer room - where people queue to have their photo taken with him - and out to a football pitch and a string of allotments lining the waterfront.

It's a fine afternoon, cool and sunny, and the photographers are relishing the inevitable prospect of McGuinness shedding his jacket, pushing up his sleeves and kicking a ball. The kids are ready, a goal is set up and he tells the photographers to swing their cameras off him and on to the tiny boy wearing over-large gloves who's sinking low to the ground, pre­paring to save the visitor's shot.

He's good at this, McGuinness. Not all politicians are - especially two tired weeks in to a month-long campaign, traversing Ireland from town to town, interview to interview. He has the gift of chatter, but more than that he looks like he enjoys it. At one point, as we pass the allotments, he tells the manager about his herb garden at home, the satisfaction he gets from growing tarragon and rosemary and thyme. She looks enchanted.

Such homely domesticity is not what you might expect from this former leader of the Irish Republican Army, who claims to have left the organisation in 1974 but whom no one believes. It is widely thought that he remained involved at the highest level throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

He is associated with years of violence, and has been accused of having a hand in the murders of civilians and soldiers. In 1993, the ITV investigative documentary The Cook Report suggested that McGuinness had encouraged the informer Frank Hegarty to return to Derry from a safe house in London, promising that he wouldn't be hurt. Hegarty came back and was soon murdered. He has also been linked to the 1990 death of Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic cook for the British army who, after his family was taken hostage, was forced to drive a bomb-loaded truck into a Derry army barracks, killing himself and five servicemen. (McGuinness denies any involvement in either case.) A few days before we meet, McGuinness has been confronted by the son of an Irish soldier, Patrick Kelly, killed by the IRA in 1983. These violent deaths are still close, still remembered.

McGuinness has since become a figurehead for peace, as Sinn Fein's lead negotiator in the long process leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, and then, following the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, serving first under Ian Paisley and then Peter Robinson. Paisley and McGuinness, once consumed by mutual loathing, became something approaching friends (an Ulster Unionist nicknamed them the Chuckle Brothers).

In his 2008 book Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, describes the highly charged early meetings they had with Gerry Adams and McGuinness (Powell's brother Charles, a foreign affairs adviser to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, had been on an IRA hit list for seven years): "It was a curiosity to meet people who had been demonised throughout my adult life. Television had not even been able legally to broadcast their voices and so for years the slightly threatening, bearded face of Adams and the clear, chilling eyes of McGuinness had been overlaid by the voices of actors." But there they both were, sitting in front of him, far more flexible, "articulate and interesting" than he had expected.

This is the side of his political life that McGuinness wants the Irish people to remember: the reformed man, the young, hot-headed idealist who learned the error of his ways and forged peace, an achievement that still wins him plaudits from around the world (his campaign website features photographs of him with Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela). To some in Ireland he is a hero - a man who stood up for the oppressed, who fought the British. To others, he was, is and will always be a criminal.

When we talk later on, after a rally in central Dublin, McGuinness concedes that he never thought he would stand for the presidency; that it would be his name printed on the side of a huge campaign bus. Sinn Fein, now the third-largest party in Ireland after the collapse of Fianna Fail in last February's general election, lacked a candidate. Gerry Adams ruled himself out; McGuinness was asked and, after much deliberation, said yes. What convinced him? "The dire state of the economy in the south and the need to stand up against the selfish and the greedy; those people who awarded themselves the big salaries, the big pensions and the big bonuses, effectively plunging the people of this country into misery and despair."

He knew that his opponents would relish dragging up his past. "I was prepared that people who felt that their position was threatened by entry into the race would stoop to any tactic to try to undermine the campaign," he says. "But you know, isn't it amazing that many of us have made peace with each other from the north and are working together to build a better future, yet we've seen a reaction to my involvement in this election from people who have yet to understand the art of peacemaking?"

This is his tactic: after any mention of his violent past, McGuinness reminds you of what came next - his status as a peacemaker. Who else among the candidates (they include the Irish-American singer and Eurovision contest winner Dana Scallon and an Irish Dragons' Den panellist, Seán Gallagher) has secured a peace deal ending years of conflict? McGuinness has unveiled other tricks, too. He has refused, as a symbolic gesture, to take his full salary if elected, proposing to take the average industrial wage instead and use the surplus to rescue six young people from the dole queue, funding their employment.

Such ideas chime well at our next stop on the campaign trail, a drug addiction centre in Irishtown, a poor neighbourhood in east Dublin. He listens to the former addicts who depend on the centre to stay clean and then to a speech from its manager about how funding cuts will threaten the service. He invites them all to the president's house once he's inside. "I'll be the voice of the voiceless," he promises.

There are more photos, more handshakes. With all the hugs and smiles, children thrust into his arms, it's closer to a US campaign than the awkwardly staged encounters of a British election. To these people, McGuinness - despite his suit and tie - is somewhere between a war hero and aged rock star.

After we leave the centre, he slips away with his advisers to rest before the evening event, a rally at the Mansion House in the centre of the city. He has been on the move since morning, travelling, meeting and greeting, and this will be a grand occasion: a roll-call of Irish celebrities, from sportsmen to Hollywood actors, is due to endorse him in front of the audience of 400. Long before he arrives, the media are once again on the pavement outside, waiting. As before, he makes a walking entrance, in classic politician-at-ease style, this time accompanied by his wife, Bernadette, and two sons. They stand in front of the banks of photographers, blinking into the flashes. As I follow him into the main hall, the swelling roar erupts as he enters, the large crowd up on its feet, music soaring over the noise.

The photographers race to snap him embracing Adams, who is sitting on the front row. It feels like a festival - there are whole families here, children on their fathers' shoulders, girls dressed up, old men cheering. On stage, the actor Colm Meaney (Star Trek, The Commitments) presides, introducing folk musicians, a hurler and a footballer, among others, all of whom make speeches of support.

At the climax of the long evening, McGuinness is summoned to the stage. He calms the feverish crowd. His oratorical style is understated; he's no grandstander, no tub-thumper. The speech is delivered quietly, evenly, and the best parts are the most personal - even one of his advisers confides that his attempts at rabble-rousing and policy prescription fall a little flat. The guests are most engaged when his voice drops and he tells the story of his life: born in 1950 on the Bogside in Derry, his father a foundry worker and devout Catholic who took communion every day, his mother a worker in a shirt factory. His parents, he says, supported him even when he joined the IRA as a teenager.

By the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry and was convicted in 1973 by the Republic of Ireland's Special Criminal Court after being caught with a car full of explosives and ammunition. He was given a six-month sentence. The following year, he married Bernadette after they were introduced by a friend, Colm, who always dressed like a Bay City Roller, and was later shot dead by a British soldier. He sounds choked at the memory. As if in direct response to his hounding in the television debate last night and the accusations in the newspapers over the past month, he squares up to the doubts, describing the years of oppression he and his friends in Derry endured at the hands of the British and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. "I would have been ashamed not to join the IRA," he says. The statement is met with whistles and long, warm applause.

At the end of the speech, the music kicks in, the audience rises and the hurler, the footballer and all the other speakers join him on stage as streamers fall from the ceiling. One of his advisers leads me up to a gallery, away from the fray, and we watch from above as McGuinness says hello to anyone who approaches while a press officer helplessly tries to extract him from the teeming admirers. Eventually he comes up, wearing the glassy-eyed stare of a man who has just emerged from bright lights and a boisterous crowd. I ask him if he feels like a different person from the man he described in his speech, the teenager who joined the IRA.

“When I was 21 years of age I never thought I'd live to 25," he replies. "We lived in a war zone - it was absolutely terrible. There is nothing glorious or great about war." It's a more humble tone from the mock-heroism of earlier. "I'm just glad that I've been part of what is, I suppose, a very small group of people who have effectively brought that to an end."

His task now, he says, is to unify Ireland, for north and south to become one country - a mission that will be thwarted at every turn by the unionists in the north. How can he deliver on such a promise? McGuinness describes it as "a process of evolution". Already, he says, "we have united the people of Ireland behind peace. And we have united the people of Ireland against violence. We're part of the All-Ireland Ministerial Council, the North/South Ministerial Council, where we meet with our counterparts in Dublin." He plans, if elected, to implement a ten-year period of reconciliation, an extension of the community work he has already done in the north with the Presbyterian minister David Latimer and the Catholic priest Michael Canny. Even if true unity is a distant dream, he feels he can get close symbolically.

We don't have long to talk. I ask him if he's still in touch with Blair ("He sent me a Christmas card," he laughs, and then hotly denounces Blair's Iraq misadventure), but his press officer is anxious to take him away. Every minute on the campaign is accounted for, and though it is late and he's tired, McGuinness's engagements are not over yet. We talk about his love of poetry - his heroes are Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney - and about how he no longer has much time to write his own. Then he is whisked down the stairs and out of the hall.

I watch him go and hang behind until I'm the only one left apart from the technicians dismantling the stage and the caretakers sweeping up the streamers. But when I walk out of the hall, there is the press officer, sitting on the wall with a look of surrender on his face, and behind him is McGuinness, being collared by an elderly supporter to whom he is listening carefully, taking in every word, nodding and agreeing and still, after all this time, somehow smiling.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

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The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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