A fierce row has broken out over a “docu-drama” portraying the unlikely friendship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness that developed during the Northern Ireland peace process.
The Journey is a fictionalised account of the relationship of Paisley and McGuinness during the political negotiations in Scotland that led to the 2006 St Andrews agreement and paved the way to a once unthinkable power-sharing partnership. The film stars Timothy Spall as Paisley, the former Democratic Unionist party leader, and Star Trek actor Colm Meaney as McGuinness, the Sinn Féin politician and one-time IRA chief of staff.
Veteran watchers of the odd-couple bromance of Paisley and McGuinness have told the Observer they regard the film, on release from last week, as abusing poetic licence to create a myth that distorts history. The criticism concerns the film’s central plot device, in which a scheme is hatched to throw Paisley and McGuinness together in the Scottish wilderness so that they can bond. In the film, the two are delayed by an MI5-engineered “crash” on the road to Edinburgh, as Paisley tries to return from the peace negotiations to attend his 50th wedding anniversary party in Belfast.
MI5, headed by the late John Hurt, has placed a secret camera inside the car and security service agents alongside Tony Blair then watch the relationship between Paisley and McGuinness develop. Paisley’s son, Ian Jnr, and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams are shown as in on the plot to push the two political leaders together.
Arthur Aughey, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Ulster, described the plot as “fake news on celluloid”. Aughey said: “In these post-truth times it is easy to see how this piece of thinly stretched fiction could become an accepted version of the actual events in only a few years. We could end up with some of my first-year students telling me this was what happened at the St Andrews negotiations when it so obviously didn’t. That is why, in the interest of historical truth, that this film should come with a major health warning.”
The screenwriter, Colin Bateman, who is based in Co Down, said his critics were confusing documentary with drama, and that “every film ever made about historic events is a work of fiction, from Saving Private Ryan to Schindler’s List”. He pointed out that McGuinness and Paisley did travel home together to Belfast during the negotiations.
“This was confirmed to us – after the script was written – by both parties. But the interesting thing from my point of view was that neither side could agree on what happened on their flight home, McGuinness saying they just said hello and Ian Jnr telling us that they got on like a house on fire. We’re telling a story that in reality played out over 40 years within the confines of a 94-minute movie – this is what drama does.”
The film has also been criticised over the omission of key participants in the talks, most crucially George W Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss.
In her definitive account of the St Andrews negotiations and their aftermath, Peace Without Consensus, American academic Mary Alice Clancy revealed that it was Reiss who pressured the Blair government not to back down over the DUP’s insistence that Sinn Féin must support the policing and justice system before entering government.
“Those who were willing to tackle the issues of policing and criminality, Mitchell Reiss and Michael McDowell [the Irish justice minister at the time], are wholly absent from the film,” she said.
“Perhaps the film can be written off as a bit of harmless fluff, but the danger is that such cultural artefacts often become shorthand for wider understandings of the peace process. The plot is admittedly ridiculous and a work of pure imagination. That said, the film appeals to some audiences as it taps into what we want to believe about peace: that once implacable enemies can find common ground by recognising the other’s humanity.”
Ed Moloney, co-author of a critically acclaimed biography of Paisley, said while he had only seen trailers and reviews of The Journey, the storyline “strikes me as a cartoon, fictionalised and make-believe version of the peace process”. He said it appeared to be “a perfect example of why Hollywood should not be allowed anywhere near recent history. Unfortunately a lot of people will see this film and believe it.”
Nick Hamm, director of The Journey, said: “This is not a documentary and we have been extremely clear from the beginning that this is a work of fiction. The film has played to thousands of people, including a rather extraordinary and emotional premiere in Belfast on Thursday night. We screened it to schoolchildren in Belfast, not one of whom mistook what we were doing for historical fact. We also showed the film recently in the House of Commons. Former ministers, civil servants involved in the talks and family members were present. None expressed any trouble with being able to separate fiction from reality.
“The believed ‘truth’ is that both these men forged a friendship and that friendship went on to enable and encourage a peace process that we felt deserved celebrating. As we all know it is very hard to achieve peace but harder still to keep it.”