Conor McGinn Interview: My Dad Stood For Sinn Fein But Harriet Harman Is A Hero To Me

Conor McGinn

The 2015 General Election saw 176 MPs elected to the Commons for the very first time. In a series of exclusive interviews, The Huffington Post UK is speaking to 15 MPs from the 2015 intake of the Conservatives, Labour and SNP. This week, it's the straight talking Conor McGinn...

Conor McGinn has spent a lot of time in jails, but thankfully always on the right side of the bars.

The St Helens North MP used to work for a prisoners charity, and saw just how easily someone can make the wrong choices in life.

Conor's own choices involve dropping out of university to work in a pub, losing an election to his own wife and freely admitting he likes Country and Western music.

A child of the peace process, Conor counts punk hero Feargal Sharkey as a friend, worked for Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker and is the son of a former Sinn Fein councillor.

An impressive maiden speech marked him out as a rising star in the Labour Party.

Here is Conor McGinn's 15 from '15:

1) Where were you born and raised?

I was born in a village called Camlough in South Armagh. That’s where I grew up and went to school until I moved to London when I was 18 to go to university – Goldsmiths College, University of London and then London Metropolitan Uni. I went to Goldsmiths for a couple of years and studied history. I was working in a pub in Tooting in my second year and enjoyed that much more than my study, and subsequently flunked my exams. I then went and got a full time job working for a mental health charity and I converted to London Metropolitan University and completed my studies part time in history and politics.

2) What did you want to be when you were a child?

Ireland football captain as a combination of Jurgen Klinsmann and Gary Lineker! Actually, do you know what – a postman. We lived in a semi-rural area I always thought it was a nice thing to have a job where you walked and drove around and got to talk to people. I was a big Postman Pat fan, so I thought it was a bit like that. I expect postmen find more favourable responses on the doorstep than politicians most of the time.

Tottenham Hotspur legend Jurgen Klinsmann

3) When did you first become interested in politics?

Growing up in Northern Ireland when I did during the 80s and 90s, at the beginning of the peace process, it was hard not to be aware of politics and what was going on around you. My mum worked in the health service and was involved in the trade union so we always had that influence. I grew up in a house where we were encouraged to read, to form our own opinions, take things and people as we found them.

My father was Sinn Fein councillor. He was elected in 2001 and he had been involved in the community before that. We would have been aware of politics in the house as such but because politics was around everything because of the circumstances where we grew up, it never dominated. I don’t really remember us talking that much politics when we were growing up.

I think politically Dad probably just sees it [being a Labour MP] as a different context and he sort of left the council a couple of years ago.

We’ve had discussions where we’ve disagreed on things and taken opposing views on things. Not related to Northern Ireland necessarily, just generally. My old man is much more left wing than I am, and he gets more rebellious with age.

I was old enough to understand the peace process. I definitely, acutely understood how important it was, and I think I realised the possibility that what my parents had been through and their generation had been through on all sides, there was a possibility I wouldn’t have to go through that. I think that was an amazing thing.

For a kid of 14 from a working class community that had really suffered because of the Troubles and was characterised by the history of the Troubles, what it gave me was a really strong sense of ambition that I could achieve things that I hadn’t before, that I was being given a chance that previous generations didn’t have. It was a really powerful thing.

Blair is still popular and respected [in Northern Ireland]. It was Blair’s personal drive, determination and commitment to peace in Ireland, working with the parties locally and the Irish Government and he and Bertie Ahern had a tremendous partnership. I think that more than anything else brought it over the line. That personal magnetism that he had, the fact that he understood how to communicate with people, the fact that he acted as a conduit for grievances and concerns from both sides and processed that. He had great people around him, Jonathan Powell, Alastair Campbell and others who again were focused and committed to it. It’s a great legacy that the Labour government left.

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair

4) Do you have any political heroes?

Loads. At a sort of fundamental level in terms of being inspired by people, Nelson Mandela is the one. I went to South Africa when I was 17 or 18 for a couple of months; I went on a fellowship and worked for the ANC, and got to see about the country and the way that he transformed it, I think, particularly somebody from my background the way in which despite the appalling history that there had been there, the fact that he forgave and had no bitterness – genuinely and sincerely so – and that he took people with him was incredible.

On a more political level Harold Wilson is somebody who I greatly admire. He was a fantastic Prime Minister and the achievements of his government, particularly the first government, were incredible in terms of bringing Britain out of the post-war doldrums and making us a great country again that was a world leader. I also admire the way he held together and won elections and built coalitions and survived.

Internationally, I think Clinton was fantastic, and Blair and Brown and what they did and how they changed the country.

I have a lot of time for Harriet Harman. The sort of dismissive way some male MPs talk about the importance of having women in politics and gender equality is so passé .The first thing is it’s not, and the second thing is when Harriet came to Parliament in a by-election in 1982, pregnant and one of a dozen, if even that, of women here, it was not easy.

The Labour Party went through a horrendous decade and she was there for that, and when we lost in 2010 and the party was coming to terms with being out of power, she was there. She did the hard slog, she picked it up and tried to take the fight to the Tories. When we suffered the defeat in May with everybody heartbroken, depressed, wanting to hide, who was there again? Harriet. She’s hugely respected in the party and across the House of Commons. I think she has real grit and steel. People wouldn’t immediately assume that a working class bloke like me who is very much a man’s man would see Harriet as one of his political heroes but I think the service she’s given the Labour Party and the service she’s given the country is incredible, if I achieve as much in my career as she’s done in hers I’ll be incredibly happy.

Harriet Harman campaigning to enter Parliament in 1982

5) When did you first stand for election?

This was the first election I won. I stood for election to the Students’ Union and was unceremoniously humped in that one. I stood for election to local government in 2006 in Islington and was beat by 80 votes. Then I stood for election in 2010 in Islington and it was a split ward. I was bottom of the list alphabetically of the Labour candidates. So we had an awkward moment where my wife was elected and I wasn’t!

6) What did you do for a living before becoming an MP?

When I first moved to England I worked in a pub, which I loved. The Ramble Inn in Tooting. A great pub run by a Tipperary man.

I did that for a while and then I worked for a mental health charity which was great and I’m really glad I did that at such a young age as it really stood me in good stead in terms of understanding the importance of the issue.

Then I worked in prisons. I worked for a charity that worked with prisoners and their families, so I visited about 50/60 prisons across the UK in about 18 months. That was a really tough job. The people I met in prison – women’s prisons I found really tough. I thought it was awful and the stories that I heard from women that were so institutionalised had spent so long in prison and on Christmas Eve, or the day before Christmas Eve, would shop lift so they would have somewhere safe and secure to be on Christmas. It’s just appalling. I met some great people who work in prisons – chaplains, prison staff, health workers.

Maybe this is too superficial way of looking at it but it’s my experience. I would say 10 per cent of the people I met in prison were bad people, very bad people who had done very bad things. I‘d say 50 per cent of them were just arseholes – drugs, bit of thieving, obviously had committed offences but had got into a downward spiral of being on the take and being in prison and being out of prison.

Most of the rest of them were just lads like me who had made bad choices or who didn’t have a choice at all, and who didn’t want to be where they were and weren’t getting any support to stop being what they were. Don’t get me wrong, they tried to pull the wool over my eyes and they would be ducking and diving and all that carry on that goes with the territory but it’s a fine line I think.

You and me are sitting here now, but for a set of circumstances, as I always thought to myself, there, but for the grace of God, go I.

I still feel like that about it. I’m not allowing them to abdicate responsibility for their actions on to society or what’s happened – people who do wrong have to face the consequences but it just seems to me that scenario where a fellow goes into juvie or youth offenders at 16, 17, 18 and comes out, the he’s back in again, and then he sort of graduates, for want of a better term to adult prison, there’s got to be an intervention there somewhere to help stop that being the case.

I don’t believe in writing people off. I just don’t believe in it as a principle.

7) What do you do to relax?

I was going to say Spurs but that hasn’t been very relaxing over the past few years. Simple enough pleasures, like sport, like football, like horse racing. I’m a big fan of Gaelic sports and I was involved in a team for a long time in London and I like seeing the lads to catch up. I like a pint with mates.

The one thing I really miss about Ireland actually and growing up in a village in Ireland is the spontaneity of being able to go into a pub and knowing people in it. I get a bit of that in St Helen’s now, which is great and people there are absolutely rock solid and I always bump into somebody for a bit of craic but you are still on duty because you’re the MP. I like spending time with family.

We’ve got a 15-month-old boy who’s great fun at the minute and full of babble and walking in fits and starts.

8) If you could run any Government department, which would it be?

Defence is an area which I’m interested in and I think it’s an area we as a country could do much better on. It’s so critical to Britain’s role in the world and if we make a mess of it, which I think the Government is doing, it has repercussions beyond. Home Affairs I quite like. I’m sounding very ambitious here! I want two or three departments – maybe we could amalgamate them into a super department. My concentration at the minute is on getting the job done in the constituency, spending as much time there as possible and issues that people there have are the ones that I will be taking an interest in as a priority.

Labour's Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker - who Conor used to work for

9) What is your favourite film?

The Godfather – I’m conforming to all the stereotypes here, aren’t I? This is terrible! But I have to tell the truth. Although what’s great about having a kid is having an excuse to watch The Jungle Book all over again. It’s brilliant.

The Godfather

10) What is your favourite band/artist?

I love all sorts of music but my taste is really eclectic. I like a bit of what I call ‘wedding music’ – a bit of Rod Stewart and all that sort of stuff. I like a bit of Country and Western. If I’m in the car or travelling I can do a bit of classic. I’m trying to think of a trendy one I can give you, because politicians are obligated to have at least one trendy person they can name but I’m struggling a wee bit. I watched Glastonbury, and Kanye West I just didn’t understand for the life of me. The woman the night before was good – Florence and the Machine – she was good. Lionel was good. Weller’s good, he’s just class.

Conor doesn't understand Kanye West

11) What is the best thing about the House of Commons?

The sense of history there is in the place. Dave Watts, my predecessor who is a great man and a working class man from Huyton, I said to him that coming here and coming into the Chamber where great people have gone before, you think about Churchill and Gladstone, or for me someone like Charles Parnell, Dave said to me that you have to treat it like a place of work. He said: ‘It’s your place of work and you have as much right to be there as anybody else’. I have tried to do that but it is hard.

You can be overwhelmed by the history, but because I like history, you just never fail to be amazed at coming into this place every day to do your job. That’s what I like about it and you get a great sense of that, of convention and history and tradition, and I know I’m going to sound very establishment when I say this but I love all of that. I think it’s important. I like the fact that we call each other honourable members, that we have to vote, ourselves, in the lobby, that there’s conventions around the Speaker and the Queen’s Speech and opening of Parliament because I think they’re important and we should have a bit more pride about that.

12) What is the worst thing about the House of Commons?

I hate having to wear a monkey suit and a collar and tie everyday. It can be restrictive in those ways – where you go and what you can do, all that sort of stuff. All things considered I’ve worked in a lot of places and this is one of the better ones.

13) What is the one thing you would change about UK politics if you could?

The result of the election in May! But failing that, there’s got to be a way for politicians to be more respectful of ourselves and the role we play whilst also understanding that the public are frustrated with us and feel we are out of touch. If all we ever say is we are shit, and crooks, and gangsters, then how do we expect the public to believe anything to the contrary? What politicians have to do, and should be obligate to do, is go into the worst, roughest pub in your constituency and if you can’t take the flak that you get, or know somebody in it, you’re not doing your job properly.

14) What one reason would you give someone to visit your constituency?

People. Absolutely top class people. Can’t say enough about them. Great people, welcomed me and my family. We’ve got lots of attractions there. We’ve got Haddock Park racecourse, which is one of the best in the country. We’ve got Saints Rugby League Club, at the fantastic Langtree Park, we’ve got beautiful countryside, beautiful scenery, we’ve got the Transport Museum of the North West in the town, we’ve got the glass museum as the town of glass. We’re very close to Manchester and Liverpool.

15) What are the best and worst aspects of your personality?

The best and the worst aspect is that I have an emotional reaction to things sometimes that is honest and raw. I’m not overly concerned about what I say or who I say it to, and that can be a good thing and a bad thing.

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