Colm Meaney on playing Martin McGuinness: 'He was born into this'

The star of The Journey reveals how his own involvement with Sinn Féin helped him understand the late IRA commander turned peacemaker

As a Dubliner who has lived in Los Angeles for three decades, Colm Meaney says he always keeps an eye out for Irish scripts – but he confesses to a slight feeling of dread when one lands on his doormat. Cliched characters, simplistic politics, shonky dialogue – he’s seen them all. The 63-year-old has been lucky with some – particularly the trilogy of Roddy Doyle adaptions that began with 1991’s The Commitments and won him a Golden Globe nomination for The Snapper two years later – and less blessed with others that have come his way. “Oh yes. Mentioning no names but … oh yeah.”

So when he first heard about the Northern Irish novelist Colin Bateman’s script for a drama about Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, with the latter role potentially his, he says: “My ears pricked up immediately, but I thought – this could be difficult”. Meaney knew and liked McGuinness and supported him politically – he hosted a rally for the late Sinn Féin politician’s unsuccessful campaign to be Irish president in 2011. Reading the script was a relief and a thrill, he says. “You felt they had actually got the complexity of Irish politics, the complexity of the characters, the humour of these two men.” By the time he got to the end, “I desperately wanted to do it.”

Timothy Spall on McGuinness and Paisley’s friendship: ‘It was almost preposterous’

Certainly the film, the brainchild of its director Nick Hamm and entitled The Journey, offers Meaney and his co-star Timothy Spall, unrecognisable as Paisley, plenty to get their teeth into. It also tells one version of an extraordinary story, one that still has close observers of Northern Irish politics scratching their heads and asking: “Did that really happen?”

In October 2006, when the film is set, Paisley was the bombastic leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the elderly Presbyterian prophet-firebrand who had railed against the Good Friday agreement, which put in place a power-sharing arrangement between the province’s bitterly divided tribes, as “the greatest betrayal ever foisted on the unionist people”. McGuinness was the former senior IRA man who had helped lead his republican party to peaceful negotiations, but remained unrepentant for his past. The two men, McGuinness told Hamm as he was researching the film, had never exchanged a word; Paisley refused even to acknowledge McGuinness’s presence if they passed each other in a corridor.

And yet, seven months later, Paisley and McGuinness were sworn in as the first minister and deputy first minister of a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. Even more astonishingly, out of mutual loathing came a boyish friendship that earned them the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers”. Paisley died in 2014. When McGuinness also died last month, the unionist leader’s son revealed that the two men’s deep mutual affection had continued even after they stopped working together.

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in The Journey.
‘The Chuckle Brothers’ … Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in The Journey. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

How on earth did it happen? Nobody really knows. They certainly didn’t go from frost to thaw in the space of a single car journey from St Andrews to Edinburgh airport, as the film fictionalises (though the two men would travel together occasionally, even during tense negotiations, which offered the genesis for Hamm’s idea).

Paisley and McGuinness were deeply divisive characters in their homeland and much further afield, and the ongoing controversies about the roles they played in Northern Ireland’s Troubles didn’t end when either man died. McGuinness was praised by many following his death in March for his move from terrorist to peacemaker, but many remained unable to forgive his past or allegations over his involvement in a number of the worst terrorist acts of the period.

Meaney is firmly in the former camp, expressing exasperation that McGuinness faced constant questioning during his presidential campaign over his IRA past. “To listen to these fuckers, these revisionists, you would think Martin McGuinness created this situation, that he came up and singlehandedly created a fucking war in Derry. He was born into this.”

Spall, though two decades younger than Paisley was in 2006, adopts an alarmingly accurate voice and look as the DUP leader; but Meaney’s McGuinness is more of an interpretation than impersonation. McGuinness is probably the more sympathetic of the two characters, reaching out to try to make peace while being rebuffed by Spall’s righteous reverend (Paisley is surely one of a rare number of characters whom it is almost impossible to overplay). But then, when he expresses remorse for the victims of one bombing atrocity, Paisley scorns his “crocodile tears”. Hamm has said he was at pains to make the film an equally discomfiting watch for those of all political backgrounds in Northern Ireland.

In any event, the two lead actors clearly relished their roles. Meaney and Spall both appeared in 2009’s The Damned United, Meaney playing Don Revie to Spall’s Peter Taylor, “but we didn’t really have anything to do together, so it was really like meeting meeting him for the first time”, says the Irishman. “And it was extraordinary. We didn’t have to sit down to discuss how he works or how I work, there was none of that. We just eased into it. And fortunately we got on very well, because we were stuck in the back of that car for prolonged periods, in very close proximity.”

Ian Paisley, George W Bush and Martin McGuinness at the Oval office in 2007.
Ian Paisley, George W Bush and Martin McGuinness at the Oval office in 2007. Photograph: John Harrison/PA

Meaney himself was born in 1953, coming into his young adulthood as the Troubles were catching alight 100 miles to the north. “All those events are very clear in my head,” he says. “Crystal clear. And I totally, totally understand where McGuinness was coming from when he said that when his community was attacked, he would have been ashamed if he hadn’t joined the IRA.”

But for his own part, a teenage member of Sinn Féin largely because of its leftwing policies, Meaney says he fiercely opposed the use of violence by the Provisional IRA after the republican movement split in the late 1960s. “I believed they had to negotiate, and the Provisionals came to that position in the mid-90s. I wouldn’t say that to Gerry or Martin though! ‘About time, boys!’”

His own active political engagement lapsed as he started to get more into acting, first at the Abbey Theatre School in Dublin, later moving to London where he worked at the Half Moon theatre in the East End and with various touring companies.

By the early 80s, Meaney had moved to New York (“I loved the energy, but became aware that there wasn’t a lot of work apart from daytime soaps. Even Broadway was dead”). He settled in Los Angeles a couple of years later, earning small parts in TV shows such as Moonlighting and Remington Steele and battling for the hard-won breakthrough that wouldn’t really come in film until The Commitments. On television his break was landing the role of Chief Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role he played for more than a decade.

He has remained up to date with Irish and British politics, however, and makes a point of telling me that both he and his wife, French costume-designer Ines Glorian, are paid up Guardian members. “The last year and a half... here [the UK], the US, everywhere. It’s just extraordinary. Demagoguery seems to rule again.”

Meaney says he has hope for The Journey, however, and its tale of peace and rapprochement. Referring to Paisley, he says: “It takes one of history’s great demagogues and shows him making this extraordinary journey towards a reconciliation. You would hope that that would be at least an aspirational piece for people to take on board.”

  • The Journey is in cinemas from 5 May.

•This article was amended on 4 May to change the headline, as the original quote was intended to be about Ian Paisley, and the article has been edited to make it clearer.


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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