THEOne of the strangest encounters of my life took place in the basement of an anonymous office building just behind Buckingham Palace in London. That night there was a big state dinner and the area was stiff for sure. Did any of the police officers notice that two known terrorist leaders slipped through a door?
Gerry adams and Martin McGuinness, two key figures at the Irish Republican moment, had been invited to the meeting by a former MI6 officer. Let’s call him James. James had been closely involved in the development of the peace process in Northern Ireland and had established a trusting relationship with McGuinness.
Although he was retired by then, James had an active, if unofficial, interest in securing the peace and, in late 1999, became concerned that the Good Friday Agreement he was in trouble over the decommissioning issue.
The two Irishmen sat in something of respectful respect as James, an old-school figure with a certain charisma, read a prepared speech explaining that his silence on dismantling the IRA’s weapons was seriously damaging his credibility and leaving Tony Blair and Bill Clinton increasingly exposed. .
It was a scene I will never forget: this bright-eyed, paternalistic figure from British intelligence addressing the top two Irish Republicans of his generation about political realities.
When he was done, it was McGuinness’ turn to speak. Dismantling, he explained, was a totemic issue for the Republican movement and he and Adams had a license from the leadership to pursue political options as long as they did not discuss it. “If Gerry made a speech about decommissioning,” McGuinness said, “some young man would come and shoot him tomorrow.” Memories of Michael collins do not fade away.
For an hour or more, they talked back and forth about the dilemma that all terrorist leaders throughout history have faced in trying to make their movements use political means instead of weapons.
Why was I there? From James’s point of view, my presence was a sign that there was no government participation in the meeting. From my point of view, although I was unable to write about the meeting itself at the time, there was considerable journalistic value in being able to understand the thinking of Sinn Féin leaders at such a crucial political moment.
Peace in Northern Ireland was not won overnight, despite the signing of the Good Friday agreement in April 1998. The long, shaky and nuanced journey towards some form of new politics and reconciliation involved a great act. of faith everywhere.
The Guardian, more than most British newspapers, believed from the beginning that peace was possible; that veteran Sinn Féin leaders were candid about the negotiations; and also that they had a reasonable chance of eventually bringing violent men with them.
But we knew we could be wrong, and to that end, I, as an editor, repeatedly took every opportunity I had to verify that we were not acting naïve.
That involved a great deal of groundwork by myself and Jonathan Freedland, who was writing most of our editorials. We question not just high-level Republicans, but Blair himself, along with his point man in Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell; the Secretary of Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam; intelligence chiefs; the highest ranking police officers; sources from the US and Irish governments and the full range of political actors in Northern Ireland. Freedland was in regular contact with, among many others, David Ervine, a former paramilitary who had served time in prison for possessing bomb-making equipment and who had become a progressive union leader. I myself met his mentor, Gusty Spence, a former paramilitary leader, who had also dropped the violence and who was instrumental in persuading the Ulster Volunteer Force to withdraw.
With the benefit of more than 20 years of a fragile and flawed peace in Northern Ireland, an unbiased opinion could be that The Guardian broadly called it the right thing to do. The Good Friday deal was signed, and McGuinness and Adams eventually persuaded the overwhelming majority of Republican gunmen to lay down their arms. McGuinness became deputy prime minister. Sinn Féin is now a major political force both north and south of the border.
It was understandable at the time that staunchly pro-union newspapers were suspicious of both the peace process and The Guardian’s belief that it was something to argue about. Although few criticized our direct reports or our balanced comment pages, we got used to being labeled “pro-IRA,” even if it wasn’t true. Equally false were the conspiracy theories about who was supposedly pulling the strings of the leading puppet writers.
Which brings us to the matter of Roy Greenslade, a former media commentator at the newspaper, who, with rather strange timing, recently stood out himself as someone who was not only a Republican, but also supported the use of physical force.
Greenslade, whose long career included senior editorial positions in the Sunday Times, the Sun, and the Daily Mirror, had made no secret that his political leanings were far more nationalistic than unionist. But his publicly known views on Irish politics were not an obstacle to his being offered, and accepted, a strongly pro-union Daily Telegraph media column in 2005.
In a sense, this is all a red herring. Greenslade had no role at all in The Guardian editorial conferences and did not write a single Guardian leader on Northern Ireland. When he and I spoke, it had to do with the media columns he wrote, not his ambition for a united Ireland.
But his belated decision to “come out of hiding” raises difficult questions about the possible overlap between a journalist’s private beliefs and his work. I have worked with numerous journalists who have held strong opinions and political affiliations, some private, some public. To what extent should they feel compelled to record them, even if they sincerely believe that they are unrelated to what they write?
I am not the only one among his former editors and colleagues to be disappointed by Greenslade for leaving him until his retirement to publicly record his sympathies for the armed struggle.
Those beliefs were irrelevant to the vast majority of his Guardian output. But very occasionally he wrote about Ireland and the media coverage. Considering what you’ve now shared, I think you should have avoided those topics, or at least been consistent in letting readers know more about where they came from, especially since The Guardian’s own guidelines have long been explicit. about declaring interest.
In particular, Greenslade had criticized transparency in a 2014 article on a BBC program about the allegation of rape of Maíria Cahill by an alleged IRA member. Given its own lack of transparency, that was hypocritical at best.
The piece fails spectacularly for reasons of transparency. If Greenslade had been open with me in 2014, I might have come to a different judgment on it overall. So I’m sincerely sorry to Maíria Cahill, both for the article and for the inconvenience it must have caused her. Both The Guardian and Greenslade have also apologized.
But I will not apologize for the Guardian’s role in believing, correctly, that peace was possible at a time when many not only doubted it, but actively worked to thwart attempts to achieve it. Unlike Greenslade, we were never “pro-IRA.” There was no “republican cell” pulling the editorial strings. We did journalism. And, in the end, we got it right: peace was possible.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism