When Ian Paisley stood up in the European Parliament in 1988 to denounce the Pope as the Antichrist, or when Martin McGuinness was jailed in the Irish republic in 1973 for running arms, no one could have imagined that either man would become the subject of a major international film. But that is exactly what is happening at the Venice film festival, as The Journey receives its world premiere, with Timothy Spall playing Paisley and Colm Meaney playing McGuinness.
The Journey contains both literal and figurative meanings: it is about the friendship that developed between these clashing figures of Northern Ireland’s conflict-riven Troubles, and which enabled the peace process solidified by the Good Friday agreement to continue and achieve previously unthought-of levels of stability and progress. But it also alludes to a real-life journey in a private jet the pair took together when they were thought to be barely on speaking terms, returning from negotiations at St Andrews in Fife, that appeared to trigger the thaw in their relations.
Little is known about what, if anything, was said in their conversation during the trip, but the idea was enough to plant a seed in the mind of Nick Hamm, the Belfast-born director of The Hole and Killing Bono. Hamm says: “Paisley and McGuinness not only had a friendship but also a semi-political relationship of need. There’s no doubt that these two individuals were implacably opposed to each other, but what fascinated us was how these two people – so different in age, morality and politics – ended up having a friendship. And it was a friendship that to a certain extent underpinned the peace agreements after 2006. If they hadn’t had that relationship, it’s my understanding that the back-channelling that went on after that would not have been so successful.
“How do you dramatise that? We knew for a long time that Northern Irish politicians often travelled together, to avoid getting shot or blown up, basically. They had an underlying agreement, even though they never admitted it. That for us was the starting point.”
The script for The Journey was written by Colin Bateman, the prolific Northern Irish novelist, who says that the lack of concrete information made his job a little easier, and allowed for some manipulation of detail to improve the film’s dramatic potential. Bateman says: “It would be difficult to set a film on a small jet so we made the decision to put the film in a car; that allowed us to stop, have them get out, and things like that.
“After the script was written, we went and met with both the Paisley and the McGuinness camps, and they each told us completely different versions of what happened on the plane. The Paisley side said: ‘Oh they got on fine, they were joking and laughing right from the start.’ The McGuinness side said: ‘Nothing happened, they just said hello.’ That freed me up. At the end of the day, all films based on historical events are fiction anyway – even documentaries. If you weren’t there, you’re just putting things together afterwards. This is drama: we’re not pretending it’s 100% fact; it’s a story that explores how things might have got to where they are today.”
The Journey takes place in 2006, during negotiations for what became known as the St Andrews agreement: these were talks aimed at restarting the Northern Ireland Assembly, which had been in effective suspension since a police raid on the Stormont offices of Sinn Féin in 2002. In the intervening period, Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party, which had opposed the 1998 Good Friday agreement, had overtaken the Ulster Unionists as Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party. The uncompromising Paisley therefore became the central figure in the St Andrews negotiations, and the presumptive nominee for first minister should agreement be possible.
McGuinness’s position was equally critical: he was chief negotiator for Sinn Féin, who by 2003 had become the largest nationalist party in the Northern Ireland assembly. However, Bateman says, at the start of the St Andrews talks “they had literally never spoken to the unionists”, and, according to Hamm, refused to cooperate with the UK government in security matters, and were not part of the unspoken travel agreement. “They didn’t have any of that,” says Hamm. “The Northern Ireland office used to rent private jets, and we knew the one that McGuinness and Paisley shared had been rented from Chris de Burgh. That was hilarious in itself.”
“What happened on that journey we don’t know, but what we do know is very soon after that they sat together in Stormont, privately, and started to make sense of the peace agreement.”
Hamm says that as soon as Bateman turned in his script, the ball started rolling very quickly. “It was so good it attracted talent and money immediately, and it got financed more quickly than any other movie I’ve worked on.” Bateman has proved adept in the past at picking his way through the political minefield that the Troubles still represent – but in any case seems more exercised about a Photoshopped version of the cover of his first novel, Divorcing Jack, onto which the face of “Mrs Terror”, Isis propagandist Sally Jones, has been superimposed. (“It’s the Daily Mail’s fault. Every time they run a story on Islamic State, they reproduce it.”)
Neither unionist nor republican side has been permitted to screen or indeed veto any part of the film, Hamm says. “We were clear when we set out we wanted to make a fair, balanced film, but that doesn’t mean we were going to be anodyne – we were prepared to make both sides feel uncomfortable. We wanted to be respectful of both parties’ ideologies. You can watch this film as a nationalist and feel equally uncomfortable and celebratory as anyone from the unionist side. Otherwise we are wasting our time.”
Ultimately, however, The Journey’s success is likely to be judged by how it fares outside the UK and Ireland, where Paisley and McGuinness are far less well-known figures, and where their individual political stances will be less resonant. Hamm is confident that it will translate. “In the end, it’s about two people who are relatively unlikable, and represent relatively reprehensible views, culturally speaking, to most people as we understand it. Neither was that popular, in global terms, but we are trying to say something about the nature of politics: in the end, you have to talk. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like what someone is saying; you have to sit down with them.”