A Northern Irish candidate for a northern English stronghold
Conor McGinn, the son of a former Sinn Féin councillor, is a Labour Party candidate for a safe seat in May’s UK general election. His political journey would have been ‘inconceivable’ 20 years ago
Portable politician: Armagh-born Conor McGinn at Windle Labour Club, in St Helens
Conor McGinn’s class at St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook, in south Co Armagh, would get a few more minutes than pupils elsewhere to complete their oral examinations, because of the noise that came from the nearby British army helicopter base, once the busiest in Europe.
When he was 13, he, his brother and their mother came on the scene shortly after Stephen Restorick, the last British soldier to die in the Troubles, was killed by an IRA sniper’s bullet, at a vehicle checkpoint, in February 1997.
Three years earlier Bessbrook police station was blown up, McGinn, who is now 30, says as he walks on the quiet Furness Terrace housing estate in St Helens, on Merseyside. “School was closed the next day.”
Today the son of a former Sinn Féin councillor is the British Labour Party’s general-election candidate in St Helens North, a place that sent his party colleague David Watts to the House of Commons four times with never less than half of the votes cast.
McGinn’s selection in a close battle was a surprise. He stood against the Labour leader on St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council, Cllr Barrie Grunewald, a former mayor, Cllr Andy Bowden, and three other shortlisted candidates.
On a chilly Saturday Bowden is campaigning for the man who defeated him. “It was a hell of a contest,” he says. “Conor came through . . . I wouldn’t say I’m bruised, but, sure, I’m disappointed. But it is a democratic party. It’s incumbent on all of us to get behind him.”
Outsiders are not unknown in St Helens. In 2001 the former Conservative MP Shaun Woodward was parachuted into the neighbouring constituency, two years after defecting to Labour. Woodward, who is married to a Sainsbury and often described as the wealthiest MP of all, is retiring in May. His modest terraced house in the constituency is already up for sale.
Westminster-based special advisers to MPs and ministers – mostly educated at public school, often from southern England, and pejoratively known as Spads – are typically first in line when safe seats come up for grabs.
Route to Westminster
Later he got a job with Immigrant Counselling and Psychotherapy, a London-based Irish mental-health charity. “I’ll always be really grateful to them,” he says. “I finished my study part time at London Metropolitan University. I got a first. I would never have got a first if I had been a full-time student. I was paying for it; it wasn’t just a rarefied experience.”
From there he was chosen by Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland spokesman, Vernon Coaker, as his special adviser. This raised a few eyebrows given his south Armagh background.
“Twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable for somebody like me to have done that,” McGinn says. “I have had the chance to get to know, to get to trust people that somebody of my background would never normally have had the chance to do.”
Coaker later moved to the shadow defence job. McGinn moved with him, ending up sharing anecdotes with the chief of the general staff of the British army “about the geography of Armagh and Down”.
Such conversations evoked memories. “I always remember the dignity that my mother showed even in the face of disrespect and provocation from soldiers and police officers, on occasions,” he says. “I always remember feeling a great sense of injustice about that. By the same token I have met soldiers who served there, ordinary squaddies who were frightened of their lives and told that we were all the enemy. They were totally sincere and genuine about it. These were all the kids of the English working class, a lot of them from the constituency that I hope to represent.”
Such conversations illustrate the progress made. “People are getting into a space where they are much more comfortable with each other,” he says.
News that McGinn is running for the House of Commons has not been universally popular in Armagh. “You’ll have to ask people there,” McGinn says carefully. “There are a range of different views about things in south Armagh. I have always been incredibly proud of where I come from and the people I come from, and I have always kept my links with the place.
“My best mates are still the lads I went to school with. My first port of call when I go home is Doyle’s pub in Camlough.”
He mentions his ties to home repeatedly: the text he received on the day of the selection convention from Oisín McConville, who scored the goal that helped Armagh to its first All-Ireland title, in 2002, or the copies of the Crossmaglen Examiner and Newry Reporter sent each week, wrapped up in brown paper, by his 90-year-old grandmother, Peggy McGeeney.
McGinn and his wife of six years, Kate Groucutt – “she’s from Abergavenny; parents are Brummies” – thought hard about St Helens when the opportunity arose.
Now the parents of a one-year-old boy, Tomás, the couple have committed themselves, if McGinn is elected in May, to basing themselves in the constituency, during nonsitting times, until their son is of school age. Then they will move there permanently, he says.
“The baby is portable for now. But after he goes to school we’ll be here . . . I made these people a promise; I am not going to let them down.”
Closely knit, and mad about rugby league, St Helens is a proud town, badly damaged by the closure of the mines in the 1980s.
The fact that McGinn is not local does come up, but the fact that he is Irish does not, or not negatively at any rate. His agent, Cllr Linda Maloney, says, “You won’t go far or need a long stick to touch Irish here. I’m a Maloney; I was previously a Duffy. Lots of Irish Catholics came here. We accept everybody, wherever they come from. Accent doesn’t make the person – even if, in his case, it is a lovely accent.”