- 04 Mar 20
Recently re-elected as MP for St. Helens North, CONOR McGINN comes from a staunch Northern Irish republican background in Newry. It gives the 35 year-old Labour representative a unique perspective on politics both here and in the UK. In a fast – and occasionally furious – interview, he talks Sinn Féin, border polls, terrorist atrocities, Brexit, Boris, Jeremy, Facebook – and why he was ready to quit politics.
I don’t know what you were doing at 2.30pm last Monday, but I was having my groin area closely examined by a burly, bearded man wearing latex gloves and a stab-vest. Lest you think I was on a particularly frisky Grindr date, I should point out that this is standard procedure if you happen to ‘bip’ going through the House of Commons’ airport-style security.
Keeping a watchful eye on proceedings were two even burlier policemen with submachine guns cocked and ready to fire if the contents of my boxers had turned out to be in any way threatening. With two of their colleagues killed during the 2017 and 2018 terror attacks on Westminster and Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, highlighting the unprecedented level of risk to MPs as they go about their parliamentary business, you can understand the levels of combat readiness around this part of London.
Among those who’ve been glad of the beefed-up police presence around the House of Commons is Conor McGinn, the Newry-born Labour MP for St. Helens North, whose pro-EU stance didn’t go down at all well with ardent Brexiteers. The 35-year-old has also received serious flak for asking questions about British security forces collusion in terrorist atrocities – oh, and the fact that his father, Pat, is the former Sinn Féin mayor of Newry and Armagh,
Elected to the House for the first time in 2015 – leadership hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey was also among the year’s intake of new MPs – Conor was a Labour star in the ascendent, only to fall foul of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, the party within a party who helped Corbyn bag the Labour top job and has anointed Long-Bailey as his successor.
McGinn, whose private member’s bill lead to the introduction last week of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, is backing Keir Starmer as the person to lead Labour out of its present malaise. Paddy Power currently has him as the hot 1/8 favourite to emerge victorious on April 4, but with Momentum furiously scheming away the odds on Long-Bailey have started to shorten.
Located in the new-ish Portcullis House extension to the Commons, Conor’s office is a modest affair with a tower of books that includes Robert Fisk’s In Time Of War, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-1922, Tony Blair: A Journey and a hefty tome on Gerry Adams.
As somebody who prides himself on seeing both sides of an argument, it’s noticeable that his cup of tea is served on a ‘To Remember And Honour’ poppy coaster and mine on one commemorating the Derry Civil Rights march that turned into Bloody Sunday.
An ardent musicians’ rights campaigner, he plays a mean whistle and counts Rory’s brother Donal Gallagher and Fergal Sharkey among his close friends.
So, strap yourself in for a fast and occasionally furious interview with the man who’s been described as “Northern Ireland’s proxy Labour MP in Westminster.”
Stuart Clark: Have you seen Donal or Fergal recently?
Conor McGinn: No, but I texted Fergal to say, “By the way, mate, I’m doing an interview with Hot Press on Monday” and he texted back saying, “I’ve been on the cover twice with The Undertones, go and fuck yourself!” There’s no one like Fergal to bring you back down to earth with a bang. We’ve known each other a while and I was really delighted when Fergal came in here for my maiden speech. I know Donal through the Irish community. He’s a great man who does so much, and his wife, Cecilia, is heavily involved in the Women’s Irish Network. We’ve a friend in common in Andy Heath, the music publisher, who’s chair of the umbrella industry here, UK Music. The two boys and me ended up going for dinner down the Chelsea Arts Club, and I could’ve listened to them all night as the old war stories – you’re not able to publish them in this day and age – came out.
As Noel Gallagher pointed out to Hot Press, Oasis wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun as they did in the ‘90s if everyone had been armed with smartphones.
Totally – and I’m not talking about anything illegal! When I lived in north London, the Irish music scene on the Holloway Road in Camden, which is pretty earthy, would have been my stomping ground. I’d have taken the whistle up at a fair few sessions. My friends are always slagging me about it, but one of my party pieces is ‘Boys From The County Armagh’. You can’t do it anymore because somebody takes a photograph and it’s misconstrued. Having a pint in front of you is a killer for politicians nowadays.
Did you watch the Irish General Election results unfold on TV?
I did. If you’re a political junkie like I am, the proportional representation system makes for fascinating viewing. I’ve friends in all political parties in the Republic who I hoped would do well. What struck me watching the RTÉ coverage is that, compared to here, there were no chancers, no grifters, no bullshit merchants. It was proper grown-up analysis.
Are you surprised that Sinn Féin is now the most popular party in the Republic?
Well, you could tell Fine Gael was in a spot of bother. I texted a few friends in Irish politics, including a cabinet minister and someone who was running the Fianna Fáil campaign, and said, “From the outside in, the Leo/Fine Gael campaign looks very much like the Theresa May Conservative campaign of 2017.” It’s asking people to be grateful for what you’ve done and, in politics, you’ve got to realise that people don’t remember the bread they ate yesterday. They’re interested in what you’re going to do for them. Fine Gael seemed to speak over the heads of the people, that’s despite the fact that you had Simon Coveney who’s hugely respected here and put in such an incredible effort over Brexit.
Were you impressed by the Sinn Féin campaign?
Yeah, it reminded me a little bit of our campaign in 2017 where it just spoke to people’s anger and despair and offered them something entirely different and radical.
What’s your assessment of Mary Lou McDonald?
I’ve known her for a long time. First thing is she’s a formidable politician. She’s incredibly intelligent and great fun. Mary Lou’s shown a real toughness and tenacity in terms of bringing Sinn Féin to where it is now.
What sort of a welcome would she get from Boris Johnson?
In the Westminster system there is at best a benevolent ignorance of all things Irish. At worst – and this is particularly the case in the Tory establishment – there’s a sense of, “Well, they’re still a part of us, really. Why are they doing all this with Brussels? Can’t they just do something bilaterally with us?” You’ve also had senior commentators being spectacularly wide of the mark with their analysis of the election result. If it hasn’t been totally usurped by Dominic Cummings and his operation, I think that the system here, in terms of Whitehall and the civil service, will take the view that Ireland is Britain’s closest ally and will work with ministers from whichever party including Sinn Féin. Mary Lou has had a programme of engagement with politicians from across the House of Commons so, if she’s Taoiseach or a minister, the novelty will very quickly wear off and people will realise that Sinn Féin has a job to do.
Is it possible for someone who describes Slab Murphy as “a very nice person” to distance themselves fully from criminality?
People have showed in this election that they made their decisions about Sinn Féin based on housing, health and the economy. Fundamentally, Sinn Féin will be judged on their policies and how they conduct themselves in either government or opposition.
Sinn Féin had the opportunity to tilt history in favour of Leave, but chose to maintain their abstentionist stance. Was that a mistake?
My personal view has always been that Sinn Féin should take their seats at Westminster, but they stand for election on the basis that they don’t. Coming from where I come from, I understand that it’s a deeply ingrained part of the Republican psyche. You could argue as well that had they taken their seats it would have sent the twenty or so Tory rebels who were with us on these issues running back to Boris.
Why didn’t Labour reach out to Sinn Féin?
I don’t know what, if any, discussions went on between the leadership of the Labour Party and Sinn Féin in relation to Brexit. I’d be one of the voices encouraging them to come here and participate. From my perspective, it’s good to have the SDLP back at Westminster.
Wouldn’t Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s engagement with Gerry Adams, going back to the height of The Troubles, have given them leverage with Sinn Féin?
It would have taken a lot more than Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to persuade Sinn Féin to take such a seismic decision. It was never going to happen.
Did you have a strong fear during the Brexit process of violence returning to the North?
Like all right-minded people my blood ran cold when news came through of Lyra McKee being shot. I didn’t know her but we had a lot of people in common, and she’d been on my radar. There are lots of occasions like the Manchester and London Bridge attacks when we’ve had to switch the news off because we don’t want our three and five-year-old kids, who are pretty clued in, upset. I really hoped that we’d never have to do that in relation to something happening in Northern Ireland. It felt to me more like an insolated incident and I pray that’s still the case. I was more worried in terms of Brexit undoing all of the progress that has been made since violence stopped. That lends itself very easily to sporadic violence or civil disobedience.
What sort of feedback were you getting from family and friends in Newry?
There was a palpable sense of anger in the Nationalist community that they’d voted for the Good Friday Agreement and given up Articles 2 and 3 and been told that there’d be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position – which they took to mean their place in the EU as well as the UK. I was worried about that disconnect. I was worried about what that would lead to in terms of working-class Loyalism. The concerns of the Chief Constable at the time, George Hamilton, who I have enormous respect for, were around physical infrastructure. People say, “There won’t be checkpoints”, but if you put a camera on the border somebody’s going to cut it down and be displeased with the person who’s sent to put it back up. So you have a target and the people who want to take us back to where the vast majority of us don’t want to go. Once you step outside of the process created by the Good Friday Agreement, nobody knows where it’s going to take you.
Having successfully brokered the new Stormont agreement, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has been sacked essentially for being a Remainer. Isn’t that just petty vindictiveness on Boris Johnson’s part?
His sacking shows that politics is certainly not meritocratic. It’s a blood sport, but even by the ruthless standards of the game, it’s a pretty poor show to sack someone who was doing their job well. You’ve got to judge people on what they get done and you have to give Julian Smith ten out of ten for getting the institutions back up and running. He really grabbed the brief by the scruff of the neck and pushed things, like the historical institutional abuse compensation. He hasn’t been afraid to mix it with the Northern Ireland parties, and has also been out and about in the community. It was clear that he and Simon Coveney respected each other, and you’ve definitely detected a real shift in the language used by the Northern Ireland Office since Julian Smith came in. It’s much more the language of being in partnership with the Irish government. He cast off some of that really grating language that they used to use, as if they were trying to roll back the idea that it’s both governments, who are co-guarantors, working together.
Boris Johnson made a campaign promise to British Army veterans that they wouldn’t be pursued for historical offences, and then flip-flopped in order to broker the new Stormont agreement. Can he be trusted on anything to do with Northern Ireland?
The Conservatives will tell people something one day, and happily renege on it the next. I’ve met lots of veterans who served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland, and most of them are working-class lads who were sent over not knowing anything about the political context and were placed into a really awful situation that they had no comprehension of. It’s just not true, though, to say there has been this plethora of complaints and investigations into former members of the armed forces. On one hand, I understand why people are so angry about the prospect of not getting justice for their loved ones. I think of my friend, Michael O’Hare, who’s still haunted by his 12-year-old sister Majella being shot dead by the army in 1976. On the other hand, I see how if you’ve served in the armed forces and acted with propriety at all times, the idea that you might be unfairly punished and have to carry the can for the people who sent you out to do that job, would also be the cause of considerable anger. Fundamentally, that’s a class issue.
Do we know the full extent of British security forces collusion in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings?
I’ve asked for all the papers held by the Ministry of Defence on not just Dublin and Monaghan, but also other issues like Loughinisland, to be released. They haven’t been. I’ve worked closely with the Finucane family on getting to the truth of what happened to Pat. I also know the widows of RUC officers and prison officers who’ve had no justice in relation to their husbands’ murders. I never had anybody directly belonging to me killed, but my Granny’s pub was blown up by the Glenanne gang. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know. The problem with truth and reconciliation in a place as small as Ireland is that often it was your neighbours. They didn’t come from Mars to plant the bombs in Dublin or Monaghan or put a booby trap under cars. The hard thing would be to discover that it’s people in your community that did it. I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.
Do you identify as a Catholic?
Yes, very much so. I’m a practicing Catholic. Now my parish priest would probably say I need to practice a little bit more. My faith is really important to me.
How do you reconcile your faith with your support for abortion, which in the eye of the Catholic Church makes you a sinner?
You won’t hear this very often, but I do what I do because I’m a Catholic and because of Christ’s love and compassion. Fundamentally, it was about equality and making good law in the interest of society in the wider sense. Close friends and people who I never knew had gone to England for abortions have told me how traumatic and lonely an experience it was. Why should women in Northern Ireland be treated differently to women anywhere else in the UK – or, indeed, on the island of Ireland? A politician’s job isn’t to judge or moralise, but to empathise.
The introduction this week of same-sex marriage in the North is a rare example of cross-party cooperation in the House of Commons.
I feel a bit sheepish about this because, while we had a couple of years of hard graft, other people have been working on it for decades. I knew from personal friends, including somebody who works for me here and another who’s my little boy’s godfather, that you had this anomaly whereby people could get married in England, Scotland and Wales but not in Northern Ireland. A Newry neighbour of ours married a Yank over in America, arrived back in Belfast and suddenly they weren’t married. I got in touch with the Love Equality people and said, “Why don’t I table a private member’s bill on this? Even if it fails it’ll highlight the issue.” It was the grassroots campaign that got this over the line. At a time when there’s a lot of negativity and despair in politics, it felt really great to affect change.
Are you in favour of a border poll?
I understand the argument for it in the sense that it sets a parameter to the debate about the future of the island of Ireland. So it gets people talking about unity. My worry is that it’s just so binary. I’m not at the stage yet where I’m willing to accept that you can’t continue with a job of persuasion and cooperation about what a new Ireland looks like. My idea of a united Ireland is not like some Hong Kong-like handover where one flag comes down and the other goes up and that’s it, all over. I want to see how the new dynamic created by Britain leaving the EU and Scotland wanting a second independence vote pans out before making it a binary choice. What exactly are we dealing with now?
What’s your gut in terms of what will and won’t be agreed by December 31?
All of the mood music emanating from the government here suggests leave with a No Deal and blame the EU.
Do you want to see a united Ireland?
Instinctively, I think the best framework for people to live together and to build reconciliation alongside what would be in the best economic interests of the people on the island of Ireland would be, yes, if it were contained within a united Ireland. I come from a Nationalist community on the border. It would absolutely have been better off if partition hadn’t happened. But I also think people like me have a duty to say to Unionists, “Your aspiration to remain in the United Kingdom and your Britishness are legitimate.” Unionists have their own culture and identity that will need protections in a new Ireland. You could maintain the Stormont institutions for a transitional period or keep them in perpetuity and switch the relationship they presently have with London to Dublin.
You could argue that Northern Ireland, with one of the lowest GDPs in Europe, is the definition of a failed state. Who’s going to pick up the €15 billion a year subsidy bill if unification happens?
These are all questions that will be teased out in the event of a border poll. How would you deal with all those issues around public spending and integrating laws? There’s been no thought given to any of that yet. I would see a referendum as being at the end of that process rather than at the start of it. If I’m being honest, my experience of the 2016 (Brexit) one has scarred me to the extent that I don’t see a referendum causing anything other than division.
The only people in Parliament Square today are tourists, but that wasn’t the case prior to January 31 when you had pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners squaring up to each other. How bad was the atmosphere?
Look, honestly, I haven’t said this to anybody before but I really thought about jacking it in last autumn. Everything about it was so soul destroying. There was such a toxic environment and negativity. I don’t expect people to have sympathy for politicians: we sign up for this and know the rules of public office. A lot of people work away from home. My own father did it shoveling shit in this country away from his family. I get that, right, but being in the middle of all that sound and fury and noise really made me miss my wife Kate and the kids back in St. Helens. We’d suddenly be told, “You can’t leave through this or that entrance.” There was nasty stuff on social media, which I don’t really go on much for that reason; calls and emails to the office; and people screaming things at you on the street. It was just a really bad time.
Were you worried that something really serious could happen to you, like it did to your close friend, Jo Cox?
From a security perspective, yes, I was worried. No matter how strong a sense of public service you have – and I do feel this is a noble vocation – you have to think about the potential cost to you and the people you love. It takes a toll on your mental and physical health. You’re here late; you’re not eating; you’re worrying about yourself and your family; you’re not getting any sort of break from it. That’s where I’d got to with it all, but then somebody gives you a shake and tells you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it. You’re always conscious of the fact that there are people in far worse positions than you, but, for me, you have to maintain the rule that there’s only a certain price you’re prepared to pay for something. My own sanity and safety, and that of my family, is paramount.
Jo was the subject of horrendous abuse and defamatory comments on social media. The same thing’s happened recently to Jameela Jamil and Philip Schofield. Should the likes of Facebook and Twitter be bound by the same laws and regulations as, say, the Daily Mail and the BBC?
You have to look at how you regulate them. We’re ten years behind on all of this. You don’t want to do it how the Chinese government does it, though, which is to censor and subjugate. The ability of those organisations to influence through their harvesting of data is pretty scary. I’ve gone full circle from about six years ago thinking, “God, isn’t all this technology amazing? I can link up my iPhone to my TV and synchronise everything.” I’m on the other side now and worried about all of that. Twitter, particularly, has ceased being useful in terms of allowing people to have any sort of considered engagement with politicians.
During the UK election, 87% of Conservative ads on Facebook contained falsehoods, as opposed to the Labour figure of 7%. How do you police that?
The first thing to say is in the root cause lies a root solution; politicians stop telling lies about your opponents. You wouldn’t get away with doing it in print or broadcast journalism, so why should you get away with doing it in the online space? Facebook gives people the ability to set up their own pages and engage in a way that traditional media doesn’t, which is a positive thing, but when it’s about messaging, buying advertisements and harvesting people’s personal data, there’s huge issues around not just regulation for the internet, but around the law and people’s ability to retain privacy over their own data.
Data harvesting, of course, being one of Dominic Cummings’ specialties. Have you had any personal dealings with him?
No, thank god, but I took part in the referendum campaign and saw the tactics they employed. And during the recent election I had banners hung on the main road in my constituency calling me a traitor and a Remoaner. So, actually, yes, that’s my experience of Dominic Cummings. What’s missing in our politics at the moment – it’s a result of Trump, it’s a result of Brexit – is evidence-based policy making. People want to divide the world into black and white when it comes to issues of morality or regulation.
Talking of Trump, is he going to be re-elected in November?
I fear that he will. As unpopular as it might be for readers of Hot Press to see this in print, I think Joe Biden is the only man who can beat Trump. But I could be wrong.
Sticking to your Remainer guns in a constituency where 60% of people voted to leave can’t have been easy – as that ‘Traitor’ banner underlines.
I was saying very clearly, “Look, as a Labour politician and a socialist, I can’t do anything that’s going to make people poorer.” It’s just rule number one of being a liberal politician. I had to keep doing what I was doing in terms of stopping a no deal Brexit. Because otherwise what really was the point of being here?
Were you surprised at how key an election issue anti-Semitism within the Labour Party became?
I’ve known it to be a problem in the Labour Party for a long time. I had Jewish friends say they were scared about what it would mean if Labour won the election. They felt they couldn’t stay in the party any more. By not dealing with it effectively at the outset – and by allowing the perception to develop that we didn’t really consider it an issue – we were inviting people to think negatively of us. Heartbreakingly, Labour was seen as the nasty party during the election rather than the Conservatives.
How badly broken was your relationship with Jeremy Corbyn?
Look, I’ve known Jeremy for a long time and was very active on his behalf in his constituency of Islington. We had a lot of interaction on Irish issues, which he’s very nuanced on. Although we were politically different bits of the party, we were always very friendly. It was surreal and difficult when he became leader of the Labour Party, which is not something either of us ever thought would happen. We’d have spoken to each other on at least a weekly basis and debated our differences, but as a result of the system enveloping him, that stopped pretty much overnight. There are things I said I regret, and I’m sure he’s the same, but I was angry…
... at being told by a group of posh English public schoolboys that I wasn’t left-wing enough. I was angry about being told that I didn’t understand working-class people and what they wanted. I was angry about the introduction of this “You’re either one of us or you’re not” mentality, which had never been my experience of Labour before. In my involvement with trade unions and socialist societies, we’d always had robust and strong debates and then gone for a beer afterwards. That sense of comradeship and collegiality started to evaporate. Jeremy took it as a personal slight four years ago when I said Labour was losing touch with working-class communities and needed to reengage.
It must have hurt seeing some of those working-class communities turn their back on Labour.
Oh, I was heartbroken. An old woman held my hand and said, “I’ve been Labour all my life, son. We see you out and about with your kiddies, but I just can’t vote Labour this time because of Jeremy Corbyn.”
Will he go down as the man who destroyed the Labour Party?
Well, the party’s not over yet. I think he bears a lot of responsibility, and the people around him do as well. I’ve no doubt that Jeremy was well intentioned but leadership is about something quite different. It was the worst Tory government in living memory, absolutely fractured from top to bottom over the issue of Brexit and the party who’d presided over nine years of austerity, and we let them off the hook.
Is there anything about Rebecca Long-Bailey that’d differentiate her from Jeremy Corbyn?
Well, she’s a woman for a start (laughs). Fundamentally I like Rebecca. She’s from a Manchester-Irish family. She’s really smart but there isn’t a lot of difference in terms of her analysis of what the problems are; her approach to party structure; and how it needs to change and respond better.
Is Momentum really a party within a party?
It’s quite obvious that they are. I’ve always had the belief that everyone in the party had its best interests at heart. Or at least they did. My tradition in the party – working-class, trade union, ‘old right’ for want of a better term – has become virtually extinct at a time when the country is crying out for an Ernest Bevan or Denis Healy.
So if Rebecca Long-Bailey and Momentum win the leadership contest, you’re going to be sat around for the next five years knowing that she’s not electable.
I didn’t say she wasn’t electable. I am however clear that Keir Starmer is the best person to lead the party. In my constituency, you’ve both ardent supporters and ardent critics of Jeremy backing Keir. They see in him strengths that could make us win an election again. Since becoming shadow Brexit Secretary, he’s listened to every concern including those relating to Ireland. He’s got a keen interest from his time as Director of of Public Prosecutions and understands the legacy issues. Labour people in constituencies like mine are so fed up of not having the ability to do things. They don’t want to be a protest movement; they want to be in power.