Spending the day with Gerry Adams

Patrick Belton spends the day with Sinn Fein's president and reflects on the possible deals that wil

In a Dublin where no stretch of horizon lacks a crane, Gerry Adams and I pass the day before elections in working-class Northside neighbourhoods whose inhabitants have not all tasted the Celtic Tiger.

He permits me to accompany him on the hustings and we speak in the sluggish moments; we go to city centre where Sinn Féin’s national chairperson Mary Lou McDonald hopes for a seat in Dublin Central, and later to Finglas, where IRA bombmaker turned councillor Dessie Ellis seeks his in Dublin North-West.

This is Sinn Féin’s moment. In all, the party will add five to seven seats to its current set of five; it is projected to poll 10 per cent in today’s count of votes, against 7 in 2002 and 3 in 1997. With the governing Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition locked in close war with the alternative Fine Gael-Labour-Green alliance and neither tipped to command a majority, Sinn Féin could end in government both north and south. Should the Dáil be hung, Sinn Féin is set to be its kingmaker.

Adams its president is respectful, unhurried, generous with his time, listening carefully to what his interlocutors have to say. He wears a fáinne and a breast cancer ribbon, for his assistant Siobhán O’Hanlon who died last April; under his blazer his shirt is open at the neck, and not tucked in.

Unlike the GPO - the building that was HQ to Pearse and Connolly's republican organisations during the 1916 Easter Rising - today’s Sinn Féin is eager to cover up its bullet holes. But why are so many otherwise sane people, in a peaceful nation enjoying the strongest economic growth of the EU-15, disposed to vote now for a party headed by a former member of the IRA's Army Council and a socialist?

The answer lies partly in cultural dislocations caused by a Celtic Tiger economy (where low taxes fuelled an average annual GDP growth of seven per cent over the last decade), in part concern for how this wealth is being spent and not least the support of those feeling left behind.

With its message of social levelling, Sinn Féin’s gains are strongest amongst members of the working classes unmoved by the Tiger. Other parties are in economic policy understandably prescribing more of the same; SF’s manifesto alone calls for redistribution through higher taxes. Amongst the more wealthy, Republicanism finds an elegiac centre for a society which has spawned the new Irishman—represented by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Paddy Power’s Popebetting, cheeky and likely to have made a bundle in property in the 90’s but not necessarily up on his Yeats or his Irish.

There also is the benefit of SF’s ambiguity, a political Rorschach spot riding what Adams acknowledges is an electoral bubble of favourable publicity following formation of a coalition government in the North with Ian Paisley’s loyalist DUP.

There’s little in their manifesto they’ve not pulled back from when pushed; and to the extent Republicanism stands for nothing (apart from 32 counties), everyone can be a Republican. A touch of inscrutability has its privileges, as a taoiseach’s personal financial foibles and misstewardship of the health service weigh him with negatives on the one hand, and the opposition leader’s repute as a policy lightweight does like work on the other.

With Adams by some polls having the highest favourable ratings of any Irish politician, many voters from across the political continuum flirted with Gerry. One is actress Máire Greaney, who with her Maureen O’Hara looks, auburn hair and fluent Irish, is Hollywood’s fantasy of the West of Ireland. The Galway resident is a lifelong Labour voter but like many, she confides, in this election 'I started to ask myself, am I a Republican?'

Yet 90% of Irish voters are not republicans, not of Gerry Adams’s sort anyway. (The Irish system of PR with multiple member districts and a single transferable vote, which in coalition parleys will magnify their influence, dryly dates to the closing days of British Southern Ireland, and a desire to confine the sway of Sinn Féin of a century ago by nurturing smaller parties.) They have at least two decent reasons not to be. First, how long must Bono sing this song. The Good Friday Accords were signed in 1998; the Colombia Three were arrested in 2001, for offering bomb making and urban warfare expertise to the narcotrafficking FARC in return for €25 million. Each of them had Sinn Féin as well as IRA connections.

Niall Connolly was the Latin American representative for the party and had been arranging Gerry Adam’s visit to Havana; Martin McCauley was an election worker in the Upper Bann constituency in 1998, and James Monaghan was voted to the party’s Ard Chomhairle in 1989. A bit rich, then, the party’s manifesto promises a crackdown on drugs.

And whatever allowances can be made for such technology in the confused environment of communal reprisal in the North in 1975-76 and 1987-95, there can be no excuse made for their export outside Northern Ireland, to drug lords in Colombia. This is the lesser reason. More importantly, they’ve not taken the socialism out of (their) Irish politics. The history of nationalism combined with socialism is not a uniformly happy one. Their manifesto likes high corporate and individual taxes, the opposite of the growth recipe Fianna Fáil have been pursuing for the last decade. This is the strongest reason not to put an IRA gun to the Celtic Tiger's head.

I ask Adams whether he is concerned the party’s call for more spending on social services would kill the tiger. He counters that no one with whom he’d spoken on the hustings had shared that concern, that they instead were pressed down on every day by overly dear housing and inadequately managed hospitals if they fell ill.

He also points to the €5.6 billion budget surplus, evidence taxes needn’t be raised and an inculpation against the government for not spending it on the poor. Yet Stormont, financially dependent upon Westminster’s largesse, is meagre as a training pitch for financial prudence. And the solution of the manifesto, repeated over and over, is greater levies against the public purse. (A reading from the book of republican economics manifestoes includes a ‘Combating Low Pay’ portion on page 40 that opens with ‘immediately increase the minimum wage ... and abolish age and experience differentials.’ ‘Raising Household Incomes’, on page 44, counsels the state to ‘double the living alone allowance’ and ‘increase the Family Income Supplement by €68 per week and make it an automatic payment. Ensure all those eligible take it up...’ It continues for 74 pages.)

I ask what Republicanism means today, and whether 32 counties takes precedence over the economics. Adams refuses to subordinate one to the other, and says its presence at local council and national levels means Sinn Féin can move simultaneously towards Irish unity and a more equal, just society. When I note his calls to move water and health to an all-Ireland basis and ask him whether his tests whether to move a service to 32 would include that it could be furnished more cheaply at all-Ireland level, he ducks slightly and remarks the business community has come to view Ireland in island-wide terms, and it facilitates investment accordingly to harmonise jurisdictions, laws and regulations.

I ask him his criteria for joining Fianna Fáil’s coalition, or offering it support from outside in the Dáil as a minority government, if their current junior partner PDs face their expected political annihilation. He says Sinn Féin will not be easily lured, and there would need to be agreed joint steps both towards United Ireland and expanded social protection; he lingers over housing.

Two observations going forward. One is coalition arithmetic. If the Dáil is hung, protracted negotiations lasting in the weeks could precede forming a government; Ahern faces hard sums. Though he and opposition leader Enda Kenny of Fine Gael have both forsworn Sinn Féin as a coalition partner, in political circles the vow is roundly considered false.

Ahern has already cracked a window by stating he couldn’t stop SF deputies from voting to prop up the government if they so chose, though of course there could be no quid pro quo. With its smaller vote harvest, Sinn Féin would require fewer portfolios if insde than would Labour. Yet there are alternatives for Ahern if the costs charged to the Tiger’s economic policies prove too high.

The Greens may be in play. Labour’s Pat Rabbitte has slammed the door to cooperation with Ahern, but his party includes many veterans from the last Labour-FF government, and clientelist rural Irish politics being what it is, Labour’s rural TDs have as close ties to Fianna Fáil as to the international labour movement.

There have been suggestions Ahern would even ponder allowing an FF-Labour government to be led by someone other than himself, in which case De Valera would remain Ireland’s unique threepeating taoiseach a bit longer. How much sway would Sinn Féin exert as a junior partner? If the influence of the PDs is instructive, the junior party’s influence will focus around one issue.

The PDs selected the finance portfolio when they first did business with Bertie; given the party’s free-market line, the presence of a substantial PD closet within Fianna Fáil and the PD’s own origins as an FF breakaway party, focusing their energies on the economy let them boast a success they did not enjoy subsequently, when seeking to widen their appeal they moved into justice and health, a fatal tactical mistake.

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, completing a doctorate at Oxford

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, and is currently completing a doctorate at Oxford.
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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle