Roy Greenslade and the IRA: I was his editor. His admission raises hard questions
The Guardian’s former media commentator should have been clear about his sympathies
Sinn Féin: as key figures in the Irish republican movement, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams eventually persuaded the overwhelming majority of republican gunmen to lay down their weapons. Photograph: INM/Getty
One of the strangest encounters of my life took place in the basement of an anonymous office block just behind Buckingham Palace, in London. There was a big state dinner that evening, and the area was stiff with security. Did any of the police notice two men whom they and their colleagues might have regarded as terror leaders slip through a doorway?
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, both key figures in the Irish republican movement, had been asked 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 relationship of trust with McGuinness.
Though by then retired, James maintained an active, if unofficial, interest in securing peace and had become concerned in late 1999 that the Belfast Agreement was in trouble over the question of decommissioning.
Adams and McGuinness sat in something like respectful awe as the former MI6 officer read out a prepared speech explaining that their silence on decommissioning the IRA’s weapons was seriously damaging their credibility
The two Irishmen sat in something like respectful awe as James, an old-school figure of some charisma, read out a prepared speech explaining that their silence on decommissioning the IRA’s weapons was seriously damaging their credibility and was leaving Tony Blair and Bill Clinton looking increasingly exposed.
It was a scene I will never forget, this beady-eyed, paternalistic establishment figure from British intelligence addressing the two leading Irish republicans of their generation about political realities.
When he had finished it was McGuinness’s turn to speak. Decommissioning, he explained, was a totemic issue for the republican movement, and he and Adams had a licence from the leadership to pursue political options provided they did not discuss it. “If Gerry were to make a speech about decommissioning,” said McGuinness, “some young lad would come and shoot him tomorrow.” Memories of Michael Collins do not fade.
Over an hour or more they went back and forth on the dilemma all such leaders have faced through history when they have tried to bring their movements around to using solely political means rather than advocating the use of guns.
Why was I there? From James’s point of view my presence was a signal that there was no government involvement in the meeting. From my point of view – even though I could not write about the meeting itself at the time – there was considerable journalistic value in being able to understand the thinking of the 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 prolonged, stumbling, nuanced journey to some form of new politics and reconciliation involved a huge leap of faith on all sides.
The Guardian believed early on that peace was possible; that the veteran Sinn Féin leaders were sincere about the negotiations; and also that they had a reasonable chance of eventually bringing the men of violence with them
I was editor of the Guardian at the time, and it, more than most British newspapers, believed early on that peace was possible; that the veteran Sinn Féin leaders were sincere about the negotiations; and also that they had a reasonable chance of eventually bringing the men of violence with them.
But we knew we could be wrong – and to that end, I repeatedly took every opportunity I had to check that we were not acting naively.
That involved a great deal of legwork by myself and my colleague Jonathan Freedland, who was writing most of our editorials. We questioned not only senior republicans but also Blair himself, along with his point man on Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell; the Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam; intelligence chiefs; the most senior police officers; sources in the US and Irish governments; and the full range of political players in Northern Ireland.
Freedland was in regular contact with, among many others, David Ervine, the former paramilitary who had served jail time for possessing bomb-making equipment and who had gone on to become a progressive unionist leader. I myself met his mentor, Gusty Spence, a former paramilitary leader, who had also abandoned violence and who was critical in persuading the Ulster Volunteer Force to decommission.
With the benefit of more than 20 years of an albeit fragile and flawed peace in Northern Ireland, a fair-minded view might be that the Guardian broadly called it right. The Belfast Agreement was signed, and McGuinness and Adams did eventually persuade the overwhelming majority of republican gunmen to lay down their weapons. McGuinness went on to become deputy first minister. Sinn Féin is, of course, now a major political force both north and south of the Border.
It was understandable at the time that the staunchly pro-unionist newspapers were suspicious both of the peace process and of the Guardian’s belief that it was something to be argued for. Though few criticised our straight reporting or balanced comment pages, we became used to being labelled “pro-IRA”, even if it was untrue. Equally untrue were conspiracy theories about who was supposedly pulling the strings of the puppet leader writers.
I am not alone among his former editors and colleagues in feeling let down by Roy Greenslade for leaving it until his retirement to place on public record his sympathies for the armed struggle
Which brings us to the matter of Roy Greenslade, a former media commentator on the paper, who, with rather strange timing, recently outed himself as someone who was not only a republican but also a supporter of the use of physical force.
Greenslade, whose long career included senior editorial positions at the Sunday Times, the Sun and the Daily Mirror, had made no secret that his political leanings were much more nationalist than unionist. But his publicly known views on Irish politics were no obstacle to him being offered, and accepting, a media column on the robustly pro-unionist Daily Telegraph in 2005.
In one sense this is all a red herring. Greenslade had no role at all in Guardian editorial conferences and wrote not a single Guardian leader on Northern Ireland. When he and I spoke, it was to do with the media columns he wrote, not his ambition for a united Ireland.
But his belated decision to “come out of hiding” does raise difficult questions about the possible overlap between journalists’ private beliefs and their work. I’ve worked with numerous journalists who have strongly held political views and affiliations, some private, some public. To what extent should they feel obliged to place those on record, even if they sincerely believe they are unconnected to what they write?
I am not alone among his former editors and colleagues in feeling let down by Greenslade for leaving it until his retirement to place on public record his sympathies for the armed struggle.
Those beliefs were irrelevant to the vast majority of his output at the Guardian. But he did very occasionally write about Ireland and media coverage. Given what he has now shared, I believe he should have avoided those topics – or, at the very least, have been consistent in letting readers know more about where he was coming from – especially as the Guardian’s own guidelines have long been explicit about declaring interests.
In particular, Greenslade had criticised transparency in a 2014 piece about a BBC programme on Máiría Cahill’s claim of rape by an alleged IRA member. Given his own lack of transparency, that was, at best, hypocritical.
The piece spectacularly fails on transparency grounds. Had Greenslade been open with me back in 2014, I would have been able to come to a different judgment about it overall. So I am sincerely sorry to Máiría Cahill, both for the article and for the upset it must have caused her. Both the Guardian and Greenslade have also apologised.
But I will make no apologies for the Guardian’s role in, correctly, believing that peace was possible at a time when many not only doubted it but worked actively to frustrate the attempts to achieve it. Unlike Greenslade, we were never “pro-IRA”. There was no “republican cell” pulling editorial strings. We did journalism. And, in the end, we were right: peace was possible. – Guardian
Alan Rusbridger was editor of the Guardian from 1995 to 2015; he is principal of Lady Margaret Hall and chair of the steering committee of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, both part of the University of Oxford; he is also a member of the Irish Government’s Future of Media Commission