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Arts & Culture

'The Journey' Imagines How Two Political Opponents Overcame Differences

Unionist leader Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall), left, and former IRA member Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) are lifelong political enemies forced to share a long car ride in "The Journey."
IFC
Unionist leader Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall), left, and former IRA member Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) are lifelong political enemies forced to share a long car ride in "The Journey."

New film looks to how Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness came to St. Andrews Agreement

Companion viewing

"Cal" (1984)

"Elephant" (1989)

"Bloody Sunday" (2002)

"'71" (2014)

For 40 years, Catholics and Protestants were engaged in a bloody civil war in Northern Ireland. But in 2006, political enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness met and emerged with an agreement to end the conflict. “The Journey” imagines how these two men might have overcome their differences.

“The Journey” arrives in the U.S. as American politics feel especially polarizing. So a film about real life political opponents who come together and engage in negotiations that resulted in a model for conflict resolution might be just what we need.

Timothy Spall plays Unionist leader Ian Paisley and Colm Meaney is Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein politician. Negotiations at St. Andrews are stalled as Paisley prepares to head home to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. But a storm prompts a decision to send Paisley to the Edinburgh airport by car and McGuinness insists on traveling with him. The idea being that a car carrying both political opponents is less likely to be targeted for violence by either side.

Director's statement

That was actually the starting point for the film as Nick Hamm explained in his director’s statement.

A journalist told me a story once: about a common practice amongst politicians in Northern Ireland. According to him, when traveling overseas, it was customary for politicians from opposing factions to travel together to prevent assassination attempts.

I was born in Belfast. I was at school there during the beginning of The Troubles. I knew something of the character of the politicians he was referring to and was fascinated by this notion.

I began to investigate further and discovered one particular journey that took place in Scotland during the 2006 Peace Talks. The Talks happened to coincide with Ian Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary, which required him to fly back to Belfast; Martin McGuinness, through force or freewill, decided to travel with him.

These two men had never spoken. Paisley had ignored any attempt by McGuinness to engage him in the previous years. And yet they ended up on a private jet together with nowhere to hide.

This is all true.

But the exact details of what happened on that plane remain open. My conversations with both the Paisley camp and with McGuinness himself ended with no firm conclusions. One side said they spoke, the other denied it, and thus, the reverse mirror of truth that is Northern Ireland politics continued.
Fictional account of what might have happened

The road trip that is at the core of “The Journey” is a conceit of writer Colin Bateman to force these lifelong enemies into close quarters to share each other’s company for a long road trip. It is also the means by which Bateman can consider what actually led these two men to finally bridge their difference and come to the St. Andrews Agreement that brought an official close to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

But this road trip is not merely the writer’s device, it turns out to also be a contrivance masterminded by MI5’s Harry Patterson (John Hurt) in the film. He engineers to have an MI5 operative (Freddie Highmore) pose as a limousine driver while Patterson watches on a hidden camera and feeds prompts for the operative to use to try and get the two politicians to engage with each other. The film presents McGuinness as the one to break the ice and try to get the rigid Paisley to open up to partnership to end the violence.

This structure allows for occasional lively banter between the two men. But Bateman and director Nick Hamm also want to take this opportunity to educate viewers about the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They do this in part through newsreel footage and archive materials but also through Paisley and McGuinness rehashing events that they must already know all too well.

The film gives us the main figures at St. Andrews as types rather than fully fleshed out characters. Tony Blair comes off as a glib and somewhat ridiculous career politician; McGuinness is all folksy charm; Paisley is severe and unyielding; and Patterson is like a Greek chorus commenting continually on the proceedings so we know what’s at stake and what each of the players is doing.

The film takes a complex subject and reduces it to a feel good drama about longtime warriors finally reaching a compromise. It hints at the extraordinary story behind the negotiations and boasts two engaging performances but ultimately, it lacks real depth and insight.

“The Journey” (rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent images and language) has a positive message about persevering through difficult negotiations and about politicians who are willing to put aside differences in order to find a way to compromise.

Here is a list of films about the Troubles from the BFI.

'The Journey' Imagines How Two Political Opponents Overcame Differences
For 40 years, Catholics and Protestants were engaged in a bloody civil war in Northern Ireland. But in 2006, political enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness met and emerged with an agreement to end the conflict. “The Journey” imagines how these two men might have overcome their differences.