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Sunday 19 February 2012

Boris Johnson and Sinn Fein

Published in the Irish edition of the Sunday Independent but never made it on-line

With the next mayoral election due on 3 May, and with his predecessor and challenger Ken Livingstone only just behind him in the polls, had Boris Johnson any good reasons to tell an interviewer that what made him angry was ‘lefty crap’ like ‘spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein’?

Plenty, actually, but first let’s first look at the reactions.

Labour was muted, however one aspiring politician had quite a bit of press coverage.  ‘Boris’s lazy and stupid remark is utterly factually wrong,’ said Christine Quigley, a Dubliner hoping to win a Labour seat in the London Assembly elections.  ‘The fact is that the annual St Patrick’s Day event he refers to was a self-financing community event attended by a wide range of Irish actors and politicians from many parties, community figures and celebrities, including Bob Geldof, the Irish Ambassador, Dermot O’Leary, Richard Corrigan, and Pauline McLynn.  It did not cost the taxpayer £20,000 and it was not a Sinn Fein event.’

Ms Quigley was a signatory to a protest letter to The Guardian based around a shortened version of her quote.  ‘Many Londoners will be disturbed by the mayor of London’s contemptuous remarks about a community which has given, and continues to give, so much to our capital city,’ it concluded.  ‘These views belong to a time we all hoped had been consigned to the long and distant past.’ 

Along with Ms Quigley, were Labour MP Vernon Croaker, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Stephen Pound, the Shadow junior minister, two Labour MPs, the chair of the Labour Party Irish Society, the chair of London Irish Labour councillors, Richard Murphy, an accountant, and the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union.   The other two were Northern Irish actor Adrian Dunbar and the chef Richard Corrigan.

When the Irish Independent asked Boris for a comment, his spokesman said: ‘The mayor does not believe he was elected to organise exclusive and expensive dinners at the Dorchester Hotel…He appreciates and admires the Irish like every other community in this wonderful cosmopolitan capital.’

OK, here are a few facts.  Ken Livingstone became the first directly-elected Mayor of London in 2000, with a huge vote from the London Irish, partly, said an ecstatic An Phoblacht (Sinn Fein’s official organ), because of his willingness to engage in dialogue with Sinn Fein long before it was considered acceptable’, i.e., when the IRA was bombing London.   

Ken set about generously subsidising ethnic festivities. The first official St Patrick’s Day celebrations were in 2002, when Sinn Fein Chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin, was an honoured guest at ‘The Mayor’s St Patrick’s Day Dinner’ at the Savoy (very expensive) and walked at the head of the Parade along with Ken and the Irish Ambassador.  In 2003, Sinn Fein Belfast mayor Alex Maskey spoke at the Mayor’s Dinner, now at the Dorchester (ruinously expensive), and with the Irish Ambassador and Ken, was a platform speaker at the Parade. 

Star guest in 2004 at both events was Pat Doherty, MP, for decades Gerry Adams’s and Martin McGuinness’s most intimate colleague in all their endeavours, and proud brother of Hugh Doherty, a member of the London-based Balcolmbe Street gang, who - with guns and bombs - murdered at least sixteen people. The amiable Pat was Vice President of Sinn Fein from 1988 until 2009, when he was replaced by Mary Lou McDonald, and for years has been Sinn Fein’s effective Westminster lobbyist. 

Fast forward to 2008, when An Phoblacht had a fetching photo of the Mayor’s dinner, with Ken draping a manly arm around Martin McGuinness. Then disaster struck and Ken lost the election.

Now it may well be that by now the dinner was self-financing, but it was still called the Mayor’s dinner, so Ken was getting credit for it and the City was underwriting it. When Boris axed it, along with many other events he thought unaffordable, Sinn Fein were so upset that in 2009 they staged a Sinn Fein London dinner, where Ken was an honoured guest, Adrian Dunbar (see above) was ‘Fear an Ti’ (Master of Ceremonies) and Richard Corrigan (also see above) inspired the menu. 

That’s the Sinn Fein bit.  The ‘lefty crap’ might also be related to the late Redmond O’Neill, a revolutionary socialist and Ken’s well-paid policy director, who was as enthusiastic about the oppressive Venezuela regime as he was about Sinn Fein.   Pat Doherty spoke at his funeral.  

I’m not sure who’s being lazy and stupid here, but I don’t think it’s Boris.  Maybe he’s been a bit unwise, but I expect him to turn on the charm for the St Patrick’s Day Parade, which he subsidises modestly, publicises and sometimes attends: as he always does, he will enthusiastically laud Ireland’s contribution to London’s life and culture. 

But – even in an election year - he won’t be hosting any lefty Sinn Fein dinners at the Dorchester.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards