Nick Hamm’s historical fantasy The Journey is based on a real-life incident that took place near the end of the decades-long civil conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland. In October 2006 the British and Irish governments, along with the major political parties in Northern Ireland, convened in Saint Andrews, Scotland, to hammer out a power-sharing arrangement between the Democratic Unionist Party, led by the fire-breathing Protestant minister Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin, the left-leaning Irish republican party. During the negotiations, Paisley was permitted to fly home to Ulster for an evening to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary, and as a security protocol (to protect his plane from a possible ground-to-air attack), he was accompanied by Martin McGuinness, a leader of Sinn Féin and a former chief of staff for the Irish Republican Army.
According to McGuinness (who died in March at age 66), he and Paisley (who died in 2014 at age 88) never spoke during the trip and had their first conversation only the following spring, after the DUP chose Paisley to serve as first minister of the new government and Sinn Féin nominated McGuinness as deputy first minister. Yet Hamm and screenwriter Colin Bateman have turned the October trip into an extended dialogue between Paisley and McGuinness, men divided by their politics but united by their common extremism. Paisley, played with quiet fury and lordly wrath by Timothy Spall, was a religious fundamentalist whose loathing of the Catholic Church had energized the unionist side since “the Troubles” broke out in the late 1960s. McGuinness, whom Colm Meaney invests with both grit and polish, said he left the IRA in 1974, though as a politician he was dogged by accusations that he maintained ties to the group and monitored its ongoing campaign of bombings and assassinations. The Journey functions primarily as a hopeful story of people overcoming their differences, but it also looks at how each man rationalized his own role in the endless violence.
Founder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Paisley was a biblical literalist and a bitter foe of the worldwide ecumenical movement that was building bridges between the Protestant and Catholic faiths in the 1960s. His fire-and-brimstone speeches assailed not only the Catholic majority in Northern Ireland but also the British government, which he accused of being in league with the pope. His incendiary rhetoric during the civil rights marches of the ’60s, when Catholics protested against job discrimination and the Protestant minority’s control of government, fueled the rise of the Ulster Volunteer Force, responsible for a series of bombings and street murders. “He was our savior, our Moses, our champion,” remembers one UVF veteran interviewed by journalist Peter Taylor for the book Loyalists, though all those questioned maintain that Paisley was carefully insulated from the group’s activities. Elected to Parliament in 1970, Paisley was enormously popular at the polls and had strongly resisted the peace process (the DUP was the only major party not to endorse the Good Friday Agreement that signaled an end to the conflict in 1998). He arrived in Saint Andrews as a man to be courted.
McGuinness was a 19-year-old butcher’s apprentice when he got swept up in the street violence between Catholics and Protestants in Derry in 1969, and he held a variety of command posts in the IRA during a period when it killed dozens of British soldiers and innocent civilians. In the 1970s he became increasingly prominent in Sinn Féin, though his past service to the IRA would always be central to his political identity. Over the years he categorically denied stories that he was still involved in the organization. (Taylor, reporting for the BBC in 2008, alleged that McGuinness had reviewed plans for the IRA’s infamous “Remembrance Day” bombing, which killed 11 civilians in the town of Enniskillen in November 1987.) By the late 90s, McGuinness had moved into a senior leadership role in the party, and along with its president, Gerry Adams, he took an active role in negotiating the peace agreement. In fact, his reputation as a secret IRA man helped legitimize the peace process in the eyes of republican hard-liners.
I’m not a big fan of fictionalized history like this—it only encourages people to fictionalize the present—but at least Hamm is up-front about the matter, explaining in the opening title that the whole movie is a big what-if. Instead of letting Paisley and McGuinness sit silently in a private jet, Bateman has invented a brewing storm in Saint Andrews that forces them to travel by chauffeured car to the Edinburgh airport, and then car trouble so they can get out, stroll around the forest, and argue amid the gravestones of a local cemetery. Unbeknownst to them, their fresh-faced driver (Freddie Highmore) is really an MI6 agent keeping an eye on them, and a hidden camera broadcasts their conversation to a flat screen in a little command center, where it’s monitored by a veteran Anglo-Irish diplomat named Harry Patterson (the late, great John Hurt) as well as Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley Jr., Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, and a comically fretful and feckless version of British prime minister Tony Blair.
This little audience gives Bateman a chance to fill in the political implications of the private conversation, with Patterson dispensing periodic pearls of wisdom, but the real story happens in the close confines of the car. Paisley and McGuinness are understandably awkward with each other. Their driver volunteers that he once drove Samuel L. Jackson to a golf outing; Paisley has never heard of Jackson, and McGuinness wryly suggests they take in a screening of the new Snakes on a Plane. When McGuinness, whose cell phone is out of range, asks to borrow Paisley’s phone, the minister refuses. “A text is not gonna kill you,” McGuinness complains, adding slyly, “Unless, of course, it’s an order.” Paisley turns out to be no slouch either: when McGuinness implores him to “extend the olive branch,” the minister cracks, “I imagine you’d be more familiar with the Special Branch,” referring to the British security service, and dissolves into a wheezing, self-delighted laugh.
Before long, though, the men arrive at their defining conflict as Paisley attacks McGuinness’s conscience and McGuinness denounces the intolerance Paisley bred for decades. “Do you know why, in nearly 30 years, the IRA has never, never once, tried to kill you?” McGuinness asks him. “Because you—with all your bigotry, all your save-Ulster-from-sodomy campaigning, seeing antichrists around every corner—you have done more damage to your lot than the IRA ever could have done with 1,000 bombs.” When they happen upon an abandoned country church, Paisley can’t help but climb into the dilapidated pulpit, and Spall shows the minister’s deep discomfort as he recalls his own familiar cry of “Never! Never! Never!” Paisley speaks reverently of Martin Luther King Jr. as a Christian martyr, but he has no credible answer when McGuinness reminds him of his own fierce opposition to civil rights marchers at home.
Just as Paisley retreats into scripture to defend himself, McGuinness retreats into the mental construct of the Troubles as a military conflict, despite the fact that it claimed hundreds of civilian lives. In his view, he was only a soldier, but Paisley won’t let him get away with this. When they move from the church out to the graveyard, Paisley confronts McGuinness with the Remembrance Day bombing and the example of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed in the attack but who publicly proclaimed his forgiveness of the IRA. “It was a mistake, OK?” McGuinness admits. “It did irreparable damage to our cause.” He relates an emotional incident in which his daughter’s innocent question about the bombing set him on the path to peace. But Paisley scoffs at his “crocodile tears,” suggesting he share his tender story with the families who lost loved ones. “Tell them that you suffered too,” Paisley thunders, “that it caused your side ‘irreparable damage.'”
As in any road movie, the bumps in the road turn fellow passengers into grudging companions, and once the men have unloaded on each other and the driver has gotten the car moving again, Paisley and McGuinness relax into a more comic mode. (In office, they would grow so chummy that people referred to them as “the Chuckle Brothers.”) By the end of the movie McGuinness convinces Paisley that sealing the peace, to the anger of their respective followers, is their opportunity for martyrdom, an argument that resonates with the minister. But when they finally shake hands, they do so clear-eyed, Paisley declaring, “I despise everything you’ve done,” and McGuinness replying, “I despise everything you stand for.” If The Journey rings true, then nothing united these two antagonists like their shared need to justify their own militance and disown the tragedy it inflicted on so many. v