Almost every sketch of Boris Johnson includes the same adjective: gaffe-prone. And with good reason – during his chequered political career, the current London mayor has variously accused the city of Liverpool of “wallowing” in its “victim status”, compared Tory party in-fighting to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing”, and described anti-capitalist Occupy protestors as “hemp–smoking, fornicating hippies in crusty little tents”.
But even for a man with such a vertiginous list of blunders and non-sequiturs, Johnson’s recent broadside against the St Patrick’s Day dinner in London seems particularly ill-conceived. In an interview with The New Statesman, Johnson dismissed the event, which ran from 2002 to 2008, as “lefty crap”. “I’ll tell you what makes me angry,” the London Mayor told interviewer Jemima Khan, “spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein”.
First things first, the facts. As reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, the St Patrick’s Day dinner was part of the annual celebrations established by Johnson’s predecessor in Mayor’s office, Ken Livingstone, but was not directly funded by the public pursue. The dinner never cost 20 grand: it was self-financed with any profits made donated to a London Irish charity.
The £150-per-ticket black tie event was cancelled in 2009 when Johnson decided to reduce the Mayor’s contribution to the St Patrick’s Day parade and festival from £150,000 to £100,000. As a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office said at the time: “Although the St Patrick’s Day Dinner has been self-financing in the past, this could not be guaranteed.” On these rather tenuous grounds, an event which had been popular with Irish politicians, celebrities and dignitaries (and was certainly not “for Sinn Fein”) was canned.
In some respects Johnson’s outburst is of a piece with David Cameron’s visions, still inchoate despite over a year and a half in power, for a ‘Big Society’. Without doing his homework – hardly a first for the former Have I Got News for You contestant – the London Mayor lashed out what he assumed was a government-sponsored event, the kind of state involvement that the Prime Minister frankly would like to see less of. Unfortunately, the mythical Dorchester dinner was just that, a myth. As Cameron himself is discovering, the boundaries between state and civil society are not as clearly delineated as Westminster mandarins might imagine.
However, there is a more worrying aspect to Johnson’s factually inaccurate, mean-spirited attack on the St Patrick’s Day event in London. If the spin is to be believed, Boris represents the cuddly, approachable face of modern Conservatism. With his thatched hair, smiling phizog and penchant for self-deprecation, the London Mayor putatively epitomises how far the Tories have come from the “nasty party” of Thatcher and her ilk.
But behind the sharp suits and the media training, the Conservative and Unionist Party – to give its full name – retains a deep rooted ambivalence towards Ireland and its cultural and political expressions. Johnson’s reduction of the St Patrick’s Day dinner to Sinn Fein attests to an inability – or unwillingness – to appreciate and engage with the diversity of Irish people and political visions that survives to this day, despite the successes of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.
Given their own historical baggage on the Irish Question, it’s hardly surprising that the Tories have found it most difficult to adapt to the post-Good Friday Agreement dispensation. Last year, Johnson’s Deputy Richard Barnes, publicly compared the cost of high speed rail upgrades to the work of “Irish builders”, while too often the new, shiny Conservatives cry ‘Sinn Fein’ or ‘IRA’ to de-legitimise Irish issues and concerns, just as Boris himself has done in this instance.
The latest gaffe could turn out to be a costly one of the incumbent in May’s mayoral vote. Polling figures released earlier this week suggest that Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are neck-and-neck in the race for London Mayor. In a tight contest, the Irish vote could turn out to be crucial, especially in London’s outer-ring where many older Irish people have moved to and which is likely to be a key election battleground.
During his tenure, Boris Johnson has attempted to improve his links with Black and Asian communities, with some degree of success, but has concentrated less attention on the Irish community in London. The mayor’s latest outburst is unlikely to endear him to Irish voters.
With more and more young people leaving for London every month, Irish interest in London politics has seldom been higher. Last weekend, the Irish Independent even dedicated a leader to the contest. It’s title? ‘Why Boris is So Out of Touch’. The short piece ended with a question: ‘what are the odds that the London Irish community will exact their revenge on Mr Johnson in next May’s mayoral election?’ What odds indeed.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Post.