Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Garret FitzGerald – How He Got The Big One So Wrong

When Garret FitzGerald died last month, in the midst of the Queen of England’s trip to Dublin and points south, it was accompanied by what was, even by Irish standards, an excessive degree of exaggeration and distortion of the man’s true role in the defining event in recent Irish history, the Troubles in the North and more particularly how they ended.

Garret FitzGerald

The sheet had hardly been pulled over his head before his successor as Fine Gael leader and Coalition Taoiseach, Enda Kenny was proclaiming him as “a true patriot” whose “commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island and between Ireland and Britain had reached fruition” with Her Majesty’s Irish jaunt while his opposite number in Fianna Fail Micheẚl Martin, echoed him – minus the Queen bit – and praised FitzGerald as a “politician who made an immense and lasting contribution to peace and reconciliation on this island”.

To read and hear those as well as remarks from others – Martin McGuinness, who a few years ago might well have had someone shot for saying a kind word about FitzGerald, said the former Taoiseach had taken “great delight” in the progress of the Northern peace process – one could be forgiven for thinking that the peace process was nothing less than the outworking of all he had striven to achieve and teach on solving or at least putting aside the Northern conflict.

There’s no doubt that the way in which the Troubles have ended, with all shades of Irish Nationalism on both sides of the Border accepting the principle of consent, i.e. partition, is something that politicians of Garret FitzGerald’s ilk have long yearned for. That sort of endgame is what he and they were all about and he was never short of company under that tent. The real question is whether we would have got to where we are now if we had all followed Garret’s teachings on the North to the letter.

If there was one thing that defined his stance on the North it was an utter detestation of all things Irish Republican. It lay behind his famous, jaw-dropping denunciation of Charles Haughey when he was made Taoiseach in December 1979. Haughey was, in the eyes of Dublin Four – as FitzGerald’s political camp was less than fondly known in those days – responsible for the creation of the Provisional IRA and by extension had hands dripping with the innocent blood of the North’s dead.

His words in the Dail were: “Deputy Haughey presents himself here, seeking to be invested in office as the seventh in this line, but he comes with a flawed pedigree.” Remember that one of those seven earlier Taoisigh in whose footsteps Haughey intended to follow included Sean Lemass who was one of Collins’ Twelve Apostles, the band of IRA assassins who cold-bloodedly executed fourteen British secret agents, some shot dead in their beds, on Bloody Sunday, November 21st, 1920 – shootings which then led to the massacre at Croke Park – while Lemass’ predecessor was Eamon de Valera whose deviousness and dishonesty were probably responsible more than anything else for the Irish civil war. I would have thought that in the ‘flawed pedigree’ department those two gents could have shown Charlie a thing or two.

He was also the classic victim of his own propaganda. There’s little doubt in my mind that when he and his faithful minions in the Department of Foreign Affairs set out to cajole Margaret Thatcher into signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, he truly did believe that left alone Sinn Fein would have gobbled up the SDLP and all that was decent around them and having conquered the North, then made the whole island into an offshore Cuba from which to export revolution and the downfall of Christian civilization to the rest of Europe.

Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher - Agreed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement

There was one incident during the hunger strikes of 1981 that stands out as symptomatic of the FitzGerald paranoia about the Provos. It happened one night when a bearded, hairy and doubtless very smelly tramp called at chez FitzGerald in South Dublin, knocked the door and was about to beg for money. His wife Joan FitzGerald answered the door and nearly fainted with fright. That night RTE announced that Gardai were investigating reports that members of the Provisional IRA had attempted to attack the Taoiseach’s family and Mrs FitzGerald was suffering from shock  in the aftermath. In other words in the world inhabited by les FitzGeralds there was no distinction between the threat offered by one of Dublin’s indigent poor and an IRA terrorist.

The one thing that obsessed him for years was the fear that the British would talk to the Provos and come to some deal to withdraw, leaving Ireland at the mercy of bloodthirsty IRA gunmen and rampaging UVF bombers. His paranoia in this regard reached a peak during the extended IRA ceasefire of 1974-1975.

The IRA’s leaders and Garret FitzGerald did share one characteristic, loath though both would have been to admit it: they were both conned by the British into believing that the secret talks during that ceasefire were a preamble to withdrawal rather than what they really were, a largely successful effort to debilitate the IRA with a long cessation while preparing the ground for a deadly new security policy – criminalization – which came tantalizing close to finishing off the IRA for good.

So alarmed was FitzGerald by what he and his officials were picking up that he went as far as recruiting Henry Kissinger, then President Gerald Ford’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State – and the moral giant of his age – to intervene on his side against the British if it really came to the bit and the Brits did indeed  start to board their ships in Belfast Lough.

Of course that never happened because the British never intended to do anything like that, not only because they were ideologically indisposed to such a thing but because they had happened upon a whizz of an idea which they thought could really bury the Provos for once and for all. What is astonishing about the episode is that there was an abundance of evidence at the time about the real British intentions but none of it was picked up by FitzGerald and his advisors. That’s the problem with idees fixes – you can’t get rid of them. Another characteristic he and the then IRA leadership shared, an inability to see what was in front of their nose.

Charlie of the Flawed Pedigree - Actually Did Get It Right

So imagine that if instead of knocking on Charlie Haughey’s door in 1986/1987, Fr Alex Reid and Gerry Adams had called round to the Fitzgerald household to ask him if he would interested in talking about peace. The odds are that they would have been given the same reception as that unfortunate tramp back in 1981 and Ireland would still be living with the Troubles. And isn’t it ironic that the man who actually did agree to start talking to them, and by so doing launched the peace process, was the guy with the flawed pedigree? And along with it came a more convincing claim than Garret FitzGerald could ever stake to having made a contribution to peace and reconciliation on the island.

Brian Moore RIP

Brian Moore, aka Cormac, who drew cartoons in An Phoblacht-Republican News for over thirty years

I have just learned that Brian Moore, better known as the cartoonist Cormac, died recently in Belfast and reading some of the obits that appeared on the web and elsewhere, it struck me that his role in the development of republican, that is Provo republican, politics was not really given proper recognition by the various writers. He played a small part, for sure, but nonetheless an important one in its way in bringing about the leadership changes in the IRA and Sinn Fein that led us to where we are now.

He was originally a member of one of those Trotskyite groups – don’t ask me which one, but I have a notion it was an offshoot of the post-QUB, Peoples Democracy – which believed that national liberation struggles were more important than class ones, that supporting the Viet Cong and Che Guevara was more relevant than organising in the local Ford plant or giving out leaflets during strikes. In Ireland that meant backing the Provos and so it was that Brian Moore volunteered his services as cartoonist for Republican News and later An Phoblacht-Republican News (AP-RN).

As a cartoonist Brian Moore was strongly influenced by the American underground comix tradition of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s which was especially rich in the San Francisco area. That was no accident since San Francisco was at the centre of the Sixties counterculture ferment which was defined by political radicalism, disdain for mainstream values and liberal attitudes towards sex and drug use, all themes that were meat and drink in the world of underground comix.

The comix were mostly self-published and although they had small circulations the cultural influence of publications like Zap Comix and characters like Fritz the Cat or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was immense and stretched way beyond the west coast. One of the best of the underground cartoonists was Robert Crumb whose work and that of Brian Moore are strikingly similar. Two of Crumb’s creations, Mr Natural and Keep on Truckin’ could easily have jumped out of a Brian Moore cartoon in AP/RN or vice-versa.

Mr Natural, a character created by San Francisco cartoonist Robert Crumb, and an inspiration for Cormac

Keep on Truckin', another Robert Crumb cartoon

It was Danny Morrison who as editor in the mid-1970’s brought Brian Moore into Republican News, the Provisional weekly that was set up by the Belfast Brigade of the IRA in 1970 under the direction of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer, the latter a former Chief of Staff, the former an early Provo icon and veteran of the Thirties and Forties campaigns.

The early Republican News was almost a caricature of the early Provisionals and faithfully reflected the devout Catholicism and fierce anti-Communism of the new IRA’s founders. One of its first editorials railed against erstwhile comrades in the Official IRA, explaining the reasons why people of the calibre of Steele and McAteer had broken with them to set up the Provisional IRA in terms that Joe McCarthy would have been proud of: “Gradually into executive posts both in the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Red agents infiltrated and soon these men became the policy makers”. Its first editor later became a leader in the Tridentine Mass movement which was dedicated to returning the Catholic church to Latin rituals and the dogmas and attitudes of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

By the time Brian Moore joined Republican News, both Steele and McAteer were dead and the IRA in Belfast was moving leftwards under the direction of Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes whose influence was enormously significant even though all three men were in Long Kesh at the time, either as internees or jailed because of escape attempts from internment.

The IRA had just ended a long, debilitating ceasefire which had caused huge dissension within the organisation. The camp led by Adams, Bell and Hughes – then the IRA’s Young Turks – opposed the ceasefire, arguing that the leadership in Dublin had been tricked by the British into believing that withdrawal was on the cards. Instead, they said, the British had used the lengthy ceasefire to build up intelligence on the IRA and to refine their anti-terrorist strategy, notably by criminalising the IRA, which almost resulted in its defeat.

Danny Morrison, editor of Republican News, on a visit to Long Kesh, circa 1981

Danny Morrison had at first supported the 1974-75 ceasefire but was talked round by Adams and then became an enthusiastic convert to the anti-leadership cause. Adams & Co. were agitating to take over the IRA and the centerpiece of their argument was the conviction that a quick military victory was no longer possible, that the war against the British was going to be a long one and to survive that length of time, the IRA would need to become politically relevant to those from whom it drew support. That necessitated both that the IRA move leftwards and that it get involved politically, two ideas that not only would have been anathema to Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer and their confreres but contained within them the mustard seeds of the peace process.

Under Morrison’s editorship, Republican News became the vehicle for this agenda. Gerry Adams and like-minded IRA prisoners were given columns in the paper. Adams chose the Brownie byline (for a detailed explanation, see Voices From the Grave) to protect his anonymity as he pushed his programme, although everyone knew it was him, but others also wrote influential columns, not least Bobby Sands under the nom de plume, Marcella.

Hiring Brian Moore was an inspired move by Morrison and along with allowing the late John McGuffin, a friend and colleague of Moore’s, free rein to write The Brigadier column, an often hilarious send up of the British Army’s officer class, these moves helped make Republican News one of the most attractive and interesting political papers in Western Europe. The Cormac cartoon though was its distinctive feature and as Danny Morrison noted in his obituary of Moore it was often the first thing that readers would turn to.

The contrast represented by Morrison’s Republican News with the staid leadership that had led the IRA into the ceasefire disaster, old men with politics to match, could not have been greater. They were yesterday’s men, out of touch and out of date, whereas Adams & Co., as symbolised by their newspaper, were tomorrow’s young, vibrant and relevant hope for Irish republicans, people who were brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. In the world of political propaganda, hiring Brian Moore and transforming RN was the equivalent of ditching Thompson machine guns for Armalite rifles.

It was no accident either that when Gerry Adams made his move in the late 1970’s to consolidate the take over of the IRA that he and his allies had been long planning, they chose the organisation’s newspapers as a major battleground. In those days RN’s circulation was confined to the North; the IRA’s Southern supporters were sold An Phoblacht (The Republic) which was produced in Dublin and strongly reflected the views of the anti-Adams Southern leadership.

Adams’ victory, and his readiness to wade in the gutter to achieve it, was signaled when, after a fierce battle that involved badly smearing AP’s editor Gerry O’Hare, the two papers were fused. Any doubt as to who had won were settled when the first edition of the re-christened An Phoblacht-Republican News appeared. It was Republican News, in content, style and politics, with a slightly different name; An Phoblacht had been swallowed up and was no more. In this bitter little battle Brian Moore and Cormac had played a not insignificant role.

But what goes around, comes around. I doubt very much whether Danny Morrison’s observation remained correct throughout time and that when AP-RN moved into what can only be described as its Pyongyang Times phase, when pro-peace process political correctness became the stifling order of the day, people still as enthusiastically turned to the Cormac cartoon.

The truth is that, at the end, his cartoons became infected with the same malady, faithfully drawn to conform to that week’s orthodoxy. The cartoon chosen by AP-RN to accompany his obituary was typical of this, celebrating Stormont, once the symbol of partition and a prime target for destruction by the IRA, but now the Holy Grail partly because Sinn Feiners sit in its chamber but mostly because Unionists don’t like that. The cartoon is also, interestingly, a measure of how much sectarianism is now part of the Provo culture. In fact AP-RN became so dull that it is no longer sold as a newspaper, hawked as it once was, door-to-door by volunteers and is now only available on the web where it is read by an ever dwindling audience.

The politically correct Cormac cartoon chosen by AP-RN for Brian Moore's obituary

A Cormac cartoon from the time of the 1981 hunger strikes. More typical of the body of his work.

There was, though, another aspect of Brian Moore’s life that is worth remembering and that was as songwriter and performer for the Men of No Property, an eclectic group which produced original pro-IRA music and songs in the early 1970’s. Two of Moore’s creations, the self-explanatory England’s Vietnam and Jesus and Jesse, the story of Jesus Christ and Jesse James meeting in the Belfast of the early 1970’s, have become classics and also relics of what now seems to be a long-lost age. Their music is still on sale here. Here are those two songs for you to savour:

England’s Vietnam

Jesus and Jesse

Musings on the Irish General Election

Thanks to the Cedar Lounge for this link. It’s an RTE radio documentary called ‘Dogfight: Conor and Charlie’, that zeros in on one constituency, Dublin South-West during the recent general election campaign and the re-election bid of the area’s two former Fianna Fail TD’s, Conor Lenihan and Charlie O’Connor. Lenihan is the scion of a distinguished Fianna Fail family. His brother Brian was the finance minister in the FF-Greens coalition and the point man for the economic meltdown; his late father, also called Brian, was Charles Haughey’s ill-fated Tanaiste, and his aunt is Mary O’Rourke, a three time minister in Fianna Fail administrations.

Conor Lenihan, Charlie O'Connor and new FF leader Micheal Martin in happier days

It is a great piece of radio and is required listening because it graphically illustrates why the general election went the way it did. What comes across as Lenihan and O’Connor separately canvass housing estates in places like Tallaght, is the sheer venom of so many of the voters towards Fianna Fail. The verbal abuse directed at the two men, the sheer anger at what the Fianna Fail government did to the Irish economy and the damage done by people like Brian Lenihan to ordinary lives is extraordinary. There are a couple of instances in the documentary where the two, soon to be ex-TD’s, are lucky to escape physical violence on the doorstep.

That anger became quantifiable on February 26th. Between them Lenihan and O’Connor barely ended up with half a quota and the contrast with 2007 could not be greater. Four years ago Lenihan topped the poll, exceeding the quota on first preference votes and O’Connor was not far behind. This time O’Connor outpolled Lenihan (evidence, surely, that being a brother of the finance minister did him only harm) while Labour and Sinn Fein took their seats, improving their share of the first preference votes respectively by 81% and 41%.

The documentary gives colour and atmosphere to the wider message coming from the general election result, which is that it was not a judgement about other parties’ policies, ideas and competence as alternatives but overwhelmingly an opportunity, grasped eagerly by the voters, to give Fianna Fail a severe kicking. Fine Gael, Labour and the independents, notably the left-wing ones, all benefited enormously from this revenge factor in the voters’ minds and so did Sinn Fein. In fact one of the striking features of the documentary was how some of the angriest voters saw voting for Sinn Fein as the best way of doing the most damage to Fianna Fail.

In that respect Fianna Fail’s tactic of leafletting constituencies with warnings that Sinn Fein’s vote could increase unless the party faithful answered the call on election day badly backfired since it served only to alert voters that this was the outcome most feared by FF.

Protest vote or not the results were translated into bums on seats in the Dail chamber and in that department, Sinn Fein saw its group of TD’s more than triple to fourteen even if the first preference vote rose by less than 45%. This was the result that Sinn Fein had hoped for and expected in 2007 but had it come about then, the Provos would almost certainly be political toast now. With fourteen seats under its belt in 2007, Sinn Fein would, in all likelihood, have taken the place of the Green Party in coalition with Fianna Fail and now would probably be in the same place as that party: utterly destroyed and without a single TD to its name.

With a result like that four years ago, the Shinners would have been able to boast that the peace process strategy had reached its medium term goal, even if the holy grail of Irish unity was still out of reach. That goal was to have SF bums nestling on chairs around cabinet tables in both parts of Ireland and a voice in the formulation of all-Ireland policies in each jurisdiction.

The chief architect of the process on the Republican side, Gerry Adams would have hailed this as a vindication of the decision to dump armed struggle and the IRA – and of all that preceded and enabled this, especially the controversial offers, deals and non-deals that accompanied six of the ten deaths during the 1981 hunger strike and the consequent foray into electoral politics.

Sinn Fein’s surprisingly poor showing in 2007 deprived Adams of that triumph but fortuitously so, as it turned out. However, luck, one of the biggest housing bubbles in economic history, the Anglo-Irish Bank and the most stupid, incompetent and possibly corrupt Fianna Fail government in the history of the State combined in the period since then to give Sinn Fein a second chance.

It seems pretty clear that for Sinn Fein to achieve in 2015 or 2016 what it failed to obtain four years ago, a certain set of conditions would have to exist. The major prerequisite would be that in four or five years time the Irish economy is every bit as damaged and derelict as it is now. That’s a distinct possibility but the downside for Sinn Fein is that if this were so then emigration would in all likelihood have returned to the distressing levels last seen in the early 1980’s and many of those leaving Ireland’s shores would be natural SF voters and therefore no longer available to the party (hence, I suspect, the reason for SF’s demand that emigrants be given the vote).

Another set of requirements would be that the recently elected Fine Gael-Labour coalition would be every bit as venal and bungling as Fianna Fail was, that when the next general election is called the voters are as angry as they were last month and, last but not least, that Sinn Fein has shown itself as a talented and inspirational opposition. Again, all three of those preconditions are by no means impossible, but neither are they anywhere near certain.

Then there would be the question of whether Sinn Fein should aim, as it did in 2007, to be the junior partner in the post 2015/2016 coalition government or the senior one. Since the election campaign would be focussed on attacking the FG-Labour government, coalition with either of those parties would be automatically ruled out (just as FG could not now contemplate a partnership with Fianna Fail).

That means that if Sinn Fein wants to be in government in four or five years time, its likely partner, possibly the only one available, will be Fianna Fail. Here’s where it starts to get tricky for SF. If Sinn Fein’s support is going to grow in the next four or five years it will in the main be at the expense of Fianna Fail yet it will need Fianna Fail to have recovered a lot of the support lost in the recent election for such a government to be viable. How to balance those competing demands will be a challenge.

If Sinn Fein’s participation in the next government is dependent upon Fianna Fail’s recovery, where then would SF’s extra votes come from except from the many independents who were elected last month, or the Labour party? The other option would be to set out to absorb as much of Fianna Fail’s support as possible, effectively replacing it as the Republican party of Ireland, and then cobble together a coalition from the remnants of FF and the scattering of independents.

What matters here is that in either scenario, aiming to be the junior or senior partner in the next coalition government, Sinn Fein would have to grow and develop – and be led – like a normal political party. The problem for Sinn Fein is that it is not a normal political party. It came to life as an offshoot of the IRA and it continues to behave, particularly in the way it handles its internal affairs, as an offshoot of the IRA, where obedience to an all-controlling leadership comes before all else.

The symptoms of this were visible in the years after the 2007 electoral setback with a series of resignations from party ranks in both parts of Ireland – perhaps twenty in all – and most damagingly in Dublin. Perhaps the most telling of these was the defection of Dublin councillor Killian Forde to the Labour Party in January 2010, a rising star who many predicted would go far. He chose his words carefully when he resigned but their import was unmistakable:

“The leadership of the party appeared to not recognise or were unwilling to accept that changes are long overdue. These changes were essential to transform the party into one that values discussions, accommodates dissent and promotes merit over loyalty and obedience. It is only logical that if you disagree with the direction of the party and are unable to change it there is no option but to leave.”

He didn’t put a name to the problem but we all know who he was talking about. Last week Gerry Adams was chosen as leader of the new, expanded Sinn Fein group in the Dail, replacing the dull but dependable Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. He was picked for the job in the same way as Sadam Hussein was in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Josef Stalin in Soviet Russia, with no rival or dissent worthy of the name and success absolutely assured. His selection has to be ratified by the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle and it surely will be, as all his wishes have been.

Gerry Adams - President of SF since 1983 and now leader of the party in the Dail.

In assuming leadership of the Dail party, Gerry Adams may well have missed one of those opportunities that the great leaders recognise when they come along, that for the good of the party and the project for which they have struggled, it is time to stand aside for newer, younger and fresher blood.

Now it may be that Gerry Adams does see the reality of his situation and that when the new Dail sits, he will be leader in name only, that in practice he will let the Pearse Doherty’s shine and get their way in charting the party’s direction and shaping its decisions. If he does then Sinn Fein will have a betting chance of growing and, more importantly, attracting talented and ambitious people to its ranks and by so doing significantly improve the chances that it will end up in power in 2015 or 2016.

But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Even harder when there’s a great temptation to see the election result, and his own performance in Louth, as a massive vote of confidence in the way he goes about politics. Gerry Adams’ problem, as Killian Forde implied, is that he sees little difference in leading Sinn Fein and leading the IRA.

Surviving at the top of the IRA, as he did for so many years, required being on constant guard against dissent and brooking no disobedience of, or divergence from the leadership strategy, no matter how trivial, for fear that it will bloom and grow into a significant and even life-threatening challenge. (If you don’t believe this is how he ran the IRA, go ask Ruairi O Bradaigh, Ivor Bell or Micky McKevitt) That may be an acceptable style of leadership for an armed group waging a revolutionary war – or for a revolutionary leader intent on leading his army in a completely new direction – but it’s fatal for a political party in a democratic, parliamentary system.

It means, inter alia, that there’s a natural tendency for such leaders to surround themselves with untalented sycophants, valued mostly for their trustworthiness and dependability, or carpetbaggers who stare lovingly into their eyes and murmur compliments about standing on the shoulders of giants. These are precisely the sort of people who are not needed in a party that wants to flourish and expand.

In two years time, Gerry Adams will have been leader of Sinn Fein for thirty years. I can’t think of any European or Western party with a leader who’s been in office even half as long as he has. But over in North Africa there is one leader just as unwilling as he is to pass on the reins of power to others. Muammar Gaddafi, long time patron and sometime paymaster of the IRA, has been ruling Libya for forty years and is, as I write, stubbornly – and violently – resisting efforts to dislodge him from office. The two men’s lives intersected constantly over the last four decades and it looks like they will continue to do so till the bitter end.

Muammar and Me

بلدي مغامرة مثيرة في الشعبية الاشتراكية العظمى الجماهيرية العربية الليبية

(My Excellent Adventure in the Great Socialist Peoples’  Libyan Arab Jamahiriya)

The advert was tiny and it was tucked down by the Bunion cartoon, at the bottom of one of the back pages of the Belfast Telegraph, the ones usually filled with classified ads. ‘English Teachers required for University of Tripoli, Libyan Arab Republic’. it read. ‘Graduates with minimum two years experience at secondary level. Annual salary 5,000 Libyan dinars.’ A quick call to the foreign exchange department of the Ulster Bank: “What’s a Libyan dinar worth”, I asked. “Three pounds” came back the answer. Three pounds! You mean this job pays fifteen thousand pounds a year! So miracles can happen.

It was the summer of 1973 and life was miserable. Two years before I had graduated from Queen’s University in Belfast with a degree in Economics and Politics and little idea of what I was going to do with my life. Out of financial desperation I had drifted into teaching. It wasn’t something I wanted to do and I quickly discovered that I hated it. Since then my personal motto has always been: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. (Yes, I know that’s horribly unfair to teachers and as I’m married to one – a very good one, incidentally – I’m not allowed to forget how inaccurate and bigoted that statement is. Sorry, but it’s how I feel.) Anyway having become a teacher by default, I was determined to avoid teaching kids, something I knew I’d really, really hate, so I aimed at the tech college level where I thought the students, being older, would be more motivated, more fun to be with. They weren’t.

My first job was at Newtownards Tech College, teaching general studies to apprentice electricians, carpenters and bricklayers although with a surname like mine I’ll never know how I got it. This was Newtownards after all, east of Belfast and as Orange a town as could be found anywhere in the North. The nearest Catholic population of any size was miles away in Portaferry, perched at the end of the Ards peninsula as if they had been pushed there, out of sight, out of mind. If they had been edged any further away from Newtownards they’d have fallen into the sea. I don’t know why I was hired but my suspicion always was that the English accent confused the heck out of the selection panel.

My boss rejoiced in the name, Cecil Maquigg, an elder in his local Presbyterian kirk and a part-time RUC Reservist. The IRA was firing the first shots of its war when I started teaching there and Cecil was out every night, proudly walking the streets of Newtownards to protect it from the republican visigoths. An upright man, who rarely smiled, Cecil put the ‘d’ into dour and the ‘a’ into anally retentive. I am not sure he knew what to make of his newest recruit but he was polite if distant and left me to my own devices most of the time.

The students were a different matter though. It was in their DNA, an ability to sniff out a fenian (or an imagined one, as in my case) from 200 yards. No problem with the accent with these kids; if a guy has got a fenian name then he is one, end of story. If I say that on the Monday morning after Bloody Sunday, I walked into the first class of the day to discover ‘Thirteen – nil!’ chalked in large letters on the board, you’ll get a taste of what it was like to teach there. My next job, at Larne tech, was marginally worse. Bernadette McAliskey once coined the wonderful phrase, ‘Keeping his head lower than a Larne Taig’ to describe a friend who was trying avoid unwelcome attention. After a year in Larne, I knew exactly what she meant.

The two experiences were not entirely awful. I met some nice people, all Protestants, and gained a valuable insight into that community, one that would serve me well when I began life as a journalist. What really made life so wretched was poverty. When I finished at Queen’s I owed £2,000 in bank loans, an enormous sum in those days. This was 1973 don’t forget and to put that into context a teacher at my level earned an annual salary of about £1,100 a year. So I owed nearly two years pay and it looked as if it would take years to clear the debt, scrimping and scraping in the meantime to keep body and soul attached.

The little advert down by the Bunion advert was therefore a potential life-saver. I could pay off all my debts in a few months and by the end of a year I’d have a little nest egg. If I could get two years out of it, life would be changed beyond recognition. So I wrote off for an application, filled it in and a few days later was summoned to a semi-detached house off the Cregagh Road in east Belfast for an interview with a curious Englishman called Dennis Philcox.

I use the word interview but that’s a generous word to describe what happened. Dennis, a voluble, balding man in his early middle age who sprayed more than spoke sentences, was married to a little mouse of a woman from Iceland called Helga who rarely, if ever, opened her mouth. It soon became clear that the only thing on Dennis’ mind was filling his quota of recruits and as long as you had the bare requirements there’d be a job for you. (I later learned that he and a partner already on site in Tripoli were on a finders’ fee for the University, so the more they hired, the more they got paid). He told me that he’d spent his life in ‘teffel’, as he called it, hoped I’d enjoy it too and wondered how quickly I could quit my job and get over to Tripoli. ‘Teffel?’ I asked, a little stunned at the speed of events and not exactly sure what I was getting into. ‘Yes, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, T-E-F-L’, he explained. “Well, I’d have to give a month’s notice. That’s in my contract”. “Great”, he replied, “welcome aboard”. That was it. I was on my way to Libya.

This was my entree to the world of TEFL, and to the community of people who spent their lives traveling from one Arab country to another teaching English to schoolchildren, college kids, oil executives, army officers, the wives of rich businessmen and so on. They’d typically spend two or three years in Saudi before moving to Kuwait or Dubai or Bahrain and so on. Mostly they were single, addicted to the itinerant life and entranced by the Arab world. Oil-rich Libya had been on the circuit for a couple of decades but since the revolution led by a young Colonel called Muammar Gaddafi old certitudes had been shattered.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Tripoli that I began asking the obvious questions. What on earth was the University of Tripoli doing hiring teachers via display ads down by the Bunion cartoon in the Belfast Telegraph? And how come I had got a job, and a lavishly well-paid one to boot, for which I was not even remotely qualified; after all I hadn’t even heard of TEFL until I met Dennis Philcox much less know how to do it.

The answers to those question lay in the complex history and politics of Libya and to the fact that the young Colonel Gaddafi had upended all those comfortable certainties which in the past had ensured that Belfast would be the last place on earth where Libya would seek its English teachers. These events had already interacted with the lives of the two dozen or so teachers hired  by Dennis Philcox and they would interact in a wider and more far-reaching way with the politics and history of Ireland for the next several decades.

Ireland and Libya had one thing in common and that was an unhappy history as someone else’s colony and while Libya’s experience was every bit as miserable as Ireland’s, Libya could justifiably claim that hers was much, much longer. Libya was first occupied by the Roman Empire in 167 BC and ever since then one foreign power or another had taken the place over to enrich and empower themselves. After the Romans came the Moslems, then the Turks followed by the Italians who at first ruled via a local puppet monarchy, the Idris family, until Mussolini appeared on the scene, dispensed with the Idris clan and after a guerrilla war against Libyan partisans which cost many tens of thousands of Arab lives (a story captured in the movie, Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn), absorbed Libya fully into Italy.

What attracted these early foreign interlopers to Libya was its coastal strip. The soil is rich and the Mediterranean climate balmy for ten months of the year. The combination made the Libyan coastal strip Rome’s bread basket and so enriched

The ampitheatre at Leptis Magna, a Roman city west of Tripoli

Roman merchants that they were able to build two large cities on either side of what is now Tripoli (the ruins are spectacular by the way). The Turks came for the same reason, as well as the strategic advantage afforded by Libya’s geography, and so did the Italians, who shipped over thousands of farmers who, in shades of Ireland’s Plantation, stole land away from the locals to turn into vast olive farms.

The Italians were of course ejected after the Second World War and the victorious powers, America, Britain and France divided the country up into spheres of influence and installed the Idris family back onto the throne. The American sphere was in the west, around Tripoli where a huge airbase, Wheelus, was built. The French took the south, mostly scrabble hard desert but strategically important since it abutted on the French colonies of Chad and Niger, while the British took the east, around Benghazi and the scene of Montgomery’s victory at Tobruk over Rommel, conveniently close to Egypt and the Suez canal, which Britain was determined to hold.

The British used the adjoining desert as a military training ground. Veterans of the conflict in Northern Ireland will remember that after Operation Motorman in 1972 the British imported a fleet of Saladin and Saracen armoured cars to ferry their troops around the streets of Belfast and Derry. The vehicles stood out because instead of a dull shade of khaki like other British vehicles, these had been painted a bright sand yellow and the reason for that was that they had come directly from these training grounds around Benghazi.

By this time oil had been discovered in Libya. Not just any old oil but stuff that was so pure that it was said that it could be poured straight from the ground into a motor car’s engine. That meant it needed very little refining and was more than ordinarily profitable for oil companies. So Libya’s abundantly fertile coastal strip was replaced by oil as the motive for foreign interference and for the best part of a quarter century the post-war settlement prospered: the Idris family ran the place and cut deals with oil companies that enriched them both while the British, Americans and French supplied the Libyan elite with its needs and exercised huge cultural and political influence over the country. The Libyan masses though were left mostly untouched by this enormous natural bounty, as they had since the days of the Roman Empire. (Question: What did the Romans ever do for the Libyans? Answer: Nothing) By 1958, the United Nations calculated that Libya was the third poorest country in the world.

And then along came Gamal Abdel Nasser. Along with officer colleagues in the Egyptian army, Nasser overthrew the pro-British monarch King Farouk in 1952 and in 1956, on a platform of pan-Arab solidarity, social and economic reform and opposition to foreign interference in the region, he was elected President of Egypt. That year Nasser electrified the Arab world when he nationalised the Suez Canal, edging its two largest shareholders, Britain and France into a conspiracy with Israel to invade Egypt and recapture the Canal. The adventure failed, thanks largely to American disapproval (a stand that nowadays seems like it could have happened on another planet) while the debacle of Suez marked the final and undeniable sunset of the British empire. The Suez Canal had long symbolised Western interference in, and domination of the Arab world and Nasser’s move made him an Arab hero and a role model for a young Libyan army officer called Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s revolution was modeled entirely on Nasser’s and in many ways was a facsimile. Gaddafi overthrew a pro-Western puppet monarch, just as Nasser had, and he and his fellow revolutionaries shared Nasser’s enthusiasm for radical

A young Muammar Gaddafi with his hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

social and economic reform. They were also pan-Arabists and Gaddafi’s Libya applied almost immediately for membership of Nasser’s United Arab Republic, the ill-fated union of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. They were also determined to get pay back from the European powers who had colonised or exploited Libya for so long – and that’s where Dennis Philcox and his ad in the Belfast Telegraph enters the story.

Gaddafi and his co-revolutionaries made expulsion of Western oil companies and their governments a major and early priority. By 1973, BP and other foreign companies had been nationalised and oil production was firmly in the hands of the Libyans. The Americans had been forced to close the airbase at Wheelus (in 1974 you could still climb into the cockpits of abandoned American jets lying scattered around the base), the French had been chased out of the south and the British had emptied their military bases and training grounds around Benghazi.

Through the British Council, the British had also supplied the bulk of Libya’s English teachers but in 1972 Gaddafi cancelled their contract. The British Council was an arm of the Foreign Office, and regarded by the Libyans in the same light as the British Army, but it had long been viewed in the Arab world, and elsewhere, as a convenient cover for spies and that was another reason for kicking them out. (The notion that the British used teachers as spies was not, as I learned, that far-fetched. One non-British Council teacher in the agricultural department at the university one night confessed to me in his cups that MI6 had asked to see him during his vacation breaks so that he could be debriefed on a huge Gaddafi-inspired project to irrigate and farm part of the eastern desert. He agreed to help them.)

So that’s why Dennis Philcox was running around recruiting teachers for Libya

Gaddafi and fellow revolutionaries determined to rid Libya of Western influence

although it didn’t quite explain why he had come to Belfast of all places to do so. Strictly speaking Belfast should have been last on his list. The Belfast accent is about as far away from RP, as the TEFL pros call it, as you could get. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, or, if you prefer, a BBC accent and the idea that young Arabs were being taught English by people with such coarse, incomprehensible enunciation horrified and outraged those few British Council leftovers still working out the remnants of their contracts when we arrived in Tripoli.

No, the reason Dennis had set up a base in Belfast had more to do with Nasser, the Suez Canal and Gaddafi’s desire to tweak the noses of the old imperial powers, especially the Brits, than it had with any teaching skills or fluency in English. Dennis had come to Belfast, unwittingly or otherwise, I do not know, to provide camouflage for the Libyans so that they could install an agent of the Provisional IRA in Tripoli, an ambassador if you prefer because that is how he was treated, to liaise with them over weapons and financial assistance for the IRA’s war in the North. That agent wasn’t in our particular group but he was one of dozens of Irish teachers recruited, North and South, at that time, so many that one would not stand out and therefore would less likely come to the attention of MI6 or other agencies that kept a wary eye on Gaddafi’s dealings.

I have written extensively elsewhere about that liaison between the IRA and Gaddafi, how the agent, a small, elf-like man from a town in Co. Monaghan who was known to the Libyans as ‘Mister Eddie’, would teach English to the children of Libyan Army officers by day but at night retire to his villa in Tripoli’s embassy district where he would dine off exquisitely embossed plates confiscated from King Idris’ palace and discuss the war in Ireland with his contact from Libyan intelligence.

IRA man fires a rifle supplied by Gaddafi

I have also written about the last dramatic chapter in that liaison which culminated in the capture of the gun-running ship, the Eksund in 1987 and how that event transformed the IRA’s fortunes, closing off for good any lingering hopes of military victory, but planting the suspicion of high-level betrayal and the seeds of a bitter split in the IRA while accelerating the infant peace process. This is not the place to rehearse all that history but to make a broader point about the Gaddafi-IRA relationship.

The striking aspect of their association is the extent to which the stories of the Provos and Muammar Gaddafi have run on parallel tracks, more or less, throughout the years of their existence, beginning with their genesis. They started out in life at more or less at the same time: Gaddafi’s revolution happened on September 1st, 1969 while the Provos effectively came into being a fortnight earlier, on August 15th, 1969 when the inability of the disarmed/unarmed IRA to defend Catholic homes from Loyalist petrol bombs inspired a revolt and split in the ranks. Gaddafi threw off the yoke of a monarch he regarded as a puppet of the West while the Provos rejected a leadership seen as being just as out of touch with the needs of their people.

They both then shared years of commitment to revolution and a conviction that only violence and armed struggle could achieve their aims, Gaddafi through funding and arming anti-imperialist insurrections throughout Europe and Africa and the Provos by bombing and shooting, by killing and destroying.

Both then shared an existence marked by failure, isolation and near defeat followed by re-assessment and a rejection of their old ways. Gaddafi’s volte-face came about thanks to international sanctions imposed in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing and other incidents and culminated in two highly symbolic acts, both designed to signal a radical change in direction. Only one is really known about. That was Gaddafi’s surrender in 2004 to George W Bush’s demand that he dismantle his ‘weapons of mass destruction’, as overt a genuflection towards Washington as it was possible to make.

The other act, which happened years before, is less well known. When the IRA

Semtex explosive - Gaddafi's gift to the IRA

made the arrangements for the arms shipments of the 1980’s, Joe Cahill, who had been chief of staff when the relationship with Gaddafi began, accepted a Libyan insistence that the real identities of the IRA personnel involved in the operation, from leaders like ‘Slab’ Murphy and Micky McKevitt through to the foot soldiers who had been sent to Libya to train in the weaponry, be recorded by the Libyans. Each man was obliged to fill out a form detailing exactly who they were which was then handed over to Libyan intelligence. When Gaddafi began to repair relations with Britain in the early to mid 1990’s he handed over those details to MI6 as a sign of his bona fides along with the manifest of weapons shipped from his armories, a concession that facilitated the demand during the peace process that the IRA decommission its weapons. Muammar did the dirt on his old mates, in other words, to save his skin.

The Provos faced defeat and isolation at a much earlier stage than Gaddafi and while it was the 1981 hunger strikes and the subsequent foray into electoral politics that stimulated, at least amongst the leadership around Gerry Adams, a re-assessment and eventual renunciation of armed struggle and their old ways, both they and Gaddafi ended up in the same place, as friends and allies of those they had hitherto spent their lives and expending their energies trying to destroy.

Consider some of the links Gaddafi is said to have forged in recent years. According to the Washington-based Politico website, the grand-daddy of the neocon hawks, Richard Perle, aka ‘the Dark Prince’ and one of those who agitated behind the scenes for the invasion of Iraq, became a Gaddafi adviser and frequent visitor to his desert tent beginning in 2006. Perle was working on behalf of the Boston-based consultancy firm, Monitor and debriefed VP Dick Cheney on his chats with the Libyan leader. Also recruited by Monitor as Gaddafi confidantes were the ‘end of history’ neocon icon, Francis Fukuyama and arch neocon, Bernard Lewis, said by some to be the single most persuasive influence on George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. By their friends shall ye know them.

Gaddafi - the former revolutionary, ravaged by forty years of power and corruption, counted US neocons amongst his confidantes at the end of his reign.

Last June, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi revealed the identity of another intriguing recruit to his father’s stable of advisers, telling The Daily Mail that Tony Blair had become ‘a personal family friend’ of the Libyan leader and that the two men were now on first name terms. Saif said that Blair, who is also an advisor to the Wall Street bankers J P Morgan and reportedly within sight of acquiring a personal fortune of some £20 million, had become a consultant to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund which has assets of around $65 billion and had visited the country ‘many, many times’ since quitting as prime minister. Their relationship prospered, he said, when Blair negotiated the release of the Lockerbie bomber in return for a lucrative oil contract awarded to BP.

Tony and Muammar

Blair denied the Mail story but Saif Gaddafi was adamant: ‘Tony Blair has an excellent relationship with my father”, he insisted. “For us, he is a personal family friend. I first met him around four years ago at Number 10. Since then I’ve met him several times in Libya where he stays with my father…….He’s an adviser to the LIA, the Libyan Investment Authority. He has some consultancy role.’

The facts are much less clear cut when it comes to the relationship between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair but given revelations from Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell that he and his prime minister helped draft IRA statements at key moments during the decade-long peace process, and that Blair’s strategy of boosting Sinn Fein with concessions during negotiations, no matter the collateral damage done to the Unionist leader David Trimble or Sinn Fein’s Nationalist rivals, John Hume’s

Tony and Gerry

SDLP, helped make it the dominant Nationalist party in the North, questions about the ties between them – was Blair an adviser or just a helper? – will be debated long after both men are dead. It could hardly be otherwise. You could say that Tony Blair destroyed the centre ground of NI politics in his quest to boost the Sinn Fein leader and you can’t get more buddy-buddy than that.

Whatever the truth there’s no doubt that in the case of Gerry Adams – and with Gaddafi until recently – their respective political turnarounds brought respectability, success and a new sense of security – as well as a new and surprising set of friends.

The fortunes and life stories of the Provos and Gaddafi may have travelled on parallel tracks for most of the past forty years but no longer, or so it seems. As I write this, Gaddafi faces extinction in Libya while, thanks to those pesky bankers, Adams is enjoying something of a revival in fortunes with a good result in the recent Irish general election. Will their paths now diverge? Who knows, but bear in mind what Chou En-Lai once said about the lessons learned from the French revolution – it’s far too early to tell.

As for me I had a ball in Libya. I spent two years there teaching in the language laboratory (the accent again doing me a favour) and I met some great Arab students, none more memorable than Juhanah, a Palestinian girl with perfect English whose family had twice been driven from their homes by Israelis, in 1948 from their farm near what became Tel Aviv and in 1967 from their home in West Jerusalem. Her father, a Cambridge educated philologist and as sophisticated a man as you could meet on a long day’s walk, had been obliged to take a low ranking job in a Libyan ministry to keep his family fed and clothed, taking orders from bullying oafs.

I lived in a villa on a farm cum fruit orchard that had once been owned by Italian colons but was now back in Libyan hands that was within driving distance of

Happy Days!

empty, silvery Mediterranean beaches where many an afternoon was spent snorkeling, swimming and sunning. These were the early years of Gaddafi’s revolution. No wall-sized portraits of the dear leader stared down at you from street corners and the oil money went where it should, to the building of new apartment blocks, schools and hospitals and the wallets of ordinary Libyans.

Life was good. Booze flowed like oil from the desert wells (the Libyans turned a blind eye as the European and American expats brewed home-made beer or distilled ‘Flash’ with skills honed in the Glens of Antrim or the woods of Kentucky) while government subsidies on food meant that at night, as the cicadas sang their entrancing song, we barbecued whole sirloins or fillets of beef bought at the same price as stewing meat and feasted like kings. We were young, we were single and, for the first time in our lives, we had money in our pockets. I paid off all my debt, came home with enough money to buy a house and the energy and drive to make teaching a thing of the past.

I will always have a great affection for Libya but I hope Muammar goes to where all the hypocrites and tyrants should go. If he does, I’m sure he won’t want for company. And if he waits long enough he just might be joined by some old friends.

Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness

Not too long ago anyone who publicly doubted the honesty and integrity of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was, in some quarters south of the Irish border, risking the sort of response usually reserved for child molesters and war criminals. Few could be more withering and condemnatory, especially behind one’s back, than Fianna Fail, although to be fair the Department of Foreign Affairs always gave them a run for their money.

I am of course speaking of the days of the peace process, especially pre-Northern Bank robbery, when to suggest that Gerry Adams was anything less than a fountainhead of truth and candour was on a par with concocting a breakfast recipe that featured fattened Protestant babies in the main course.

Now it may have been the case that people like the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his Northern point man Martin Mansergh truly believed that Adams was being sincere and straight in his peace process dealings but I seriously, seriously doubt it. Something as difficult as getting the IRA to end its war on the terms that were finally accepted was not the sort of project that could be steered to success without a considerable amount of falsification and dissembling. And Bertie and Martin would have known that very well.

So when Gerry Adams or his nom de guerre, P O’Neill, would routinely assure the troops that IRA decommissioning was just not on the cards, my hunch is that Bertie and Martin would look at each other and wink. They would, or should have known via Garda Special Branch that this was nonsense and that plans to do just this were already being laid just as they knew that Adams was aware that decommissioning was the price he’d have to pay to get Unionists to share power with him.

But they would also have been acutely conscious of another peace process reality: lying to and deceiving the Provo grassroots in this way was the only assured route to eventual success. It kept the IRA rank and file content and quiet, lulled into a false sense of security until it was too late for them to do anything about it. In the same way, Bertie and Martin would, I suspect, have grinned and borne it whenever Adams or P O’Neill denied that the IRA robbed this or that bank, knowing this would also keep the grassroots bamboozled, convinced that their leaders were trustworthy, had once again successfully hoodwinked the Irish government and that the IRA would never go away.

Bernadette McAliskey once compared the peace process to pushing a fly down the neck of a wine bottle. Eventually a point would be reached when there was no traction left and the fly would fall, helpless, to the bottom of the bottle where it would drown in the dregs. Mendacity was the stick that pushed the fly down the neck of the bottle.

In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the ability of Gerry Adams to lie and fool so expertly was the peace process’ most valuable asset. Had Adams been straight and honest with his people about where the IRA was going to end up, he would have been found long before 2005 in a ditch somewhere in South Armagh, trussed up like a Christmas turkey with several bullet-shaped holes in his skull. Without his talent for dissimulation we would never have got to 2005 when the IRA, finally divested of its Semtex and AK-47’s, declared its war against Britain to be over.

The corollary of all this was that a special venom was reserved by the Irish state for anyone in the media who dared suggest that the Sinn Fein leadership had less than a monopoly on the truth. Everyone knows the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes, how a child shames the crowd into admitting the truth, that the Emperor parading in front of them supposedly clothed in finery is actually stark naked. There is a special Irish version of the story with a very different ending. When the child cries out ‘the Emperor is naked’, the crowd reacts by turning on the child and beating it to death.

It is, of course, the job of government to lie and deceive or to connive at others’ lies in the pursuit of implementing policy. And many will say that telling lies in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland was not only excusable but laudable. But journalists are not politicians, or at least they shouldn’t be. They – we – have a special duty to the truth, even if that causes discomfort or difficulty. Whenever I was assailed by government officials, or more often by fellow hacks, for writing stories deemed ‘unhelpful’ to the peace process my response was simple: if this process cannot survive one of my stories then it’s doomed no matter what I write or do not write. Joining in the deception, either by commission or omission, wouldn’t make a jot of difference except to devalue the trade of journalism, to render it a useless and unconvincing charade.

So, I have to say that when I heard that the new Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin had challenged Gerry Adams to tell the truth about his past membership of the IRA, to “come clean” about his “baggage from the past” as he put it, I have to confess that I laughed out loud and long. “There is a fundamental problem for Gerry when he continues to deny his membership of the IRA”, said the bold Micheál, “because every time he talks in this debate during the election about honesty . . . it jars very much with his own position about the past.” Indeed it does Micheál but you didn’t have that problem back in 1998, did you?

Micheál Martin was not only a minister in the Fianna Fail cabinet from 1997 onwards, during the key years of the peace process when there a special premium on Adams not telling the truth, but he is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs whose civil servants not only helped Adams hone to perfection his  dissembling skills but often led the charge, employing a special sense of viciousness, against anyone who questioned the Sinn Fein leader’s honesty.

Micheál Martin, more than most people, has known for a very long time that, in relation to Northern matters, Adams and the truth have often been strangers and the fact that he chose this time to let us all in on the secret is a sure indication that in the forthcoming election the Fianna Fail party is headed down the toilet. Truth suddenly acquires virtue, one could say, when political destruction stares you in the face. There was a sense of desperation about what he said, as well as artifice, and I suspect the Irish voter picked up on it.

There was however one line in Micheál Martin’s statement that especially drew my attention and it was this: “Martin McGuinness doesn’t have a problem admitting his membership in the past but I think there is a huge problem for Gerry Adams in a credibility sense.”

Actually not entirely true, Mr Martin. Not only not the full truth but also unfair to Mr Adams. It’s unfair to Gerry Adams because in the narrative of Provo dishonesty peddled by the likes of Micheál Martin, the Sinn Fein leader is depicted as the singular voice of skullduggery in Sinn Fein whereas in fact Martin McGuinness has lied ever bit as flagrantly about his IRA history as Gerry Adams and, I strongly suspect, would have lied as comprehensively but for a few inconvenient pieces of newspaper and television archive.

The Martin McGuinness that I came to know as a journalist covering the Northern Ireland beat was rarely far from the very top of the IRA pyramid. In the mid to late 1970’s he was the IRA’s first Northern Commander, appointed to the job when on Adams’ advice a separate Northern Command was created whose effect, if not purpose, was to take power away from Southern IRA leaders. He then became Chief of Staff and held that post until 1982 when others on the Army Council insisted that he had to give it up if he wanted to run as a Sinn Fein candidate in the elections to Jim Prior’s Assembly.

He always hankered to get the job back and for years afterwards a vicious feud simmered beneath the surface between him and Kevin McKenna who took over the post and held it until he was succeeded by ‘Slab’ Murphy. McGuinness re-entered the military picture in a serious way in the mid-1980’s when, in preparation for the arrival of Libyan weaponry and the launching of the IRA’s version of the ‘Tet offensive’, he was again made Northern Commander with the special job of distributing Col. Gaddafi’s guns to the units on the ground. The task that he performed was done in such a way that it brought him into conflict with Michael McKeviit, then the QMG. McKevitt came to suspect that for whatever reason, McGuinness gave more weapons to units that were most likely to lose them, usually through the efforts of informers.

When the peace process got under way he played two key roles. One as the IRA’s (or at least Gerry Adams’) secret contact man via people like Derry businessman Brendan Duddy with British intelligence and the Northern Ireland Office; the other as Chairman of the Army Council, traditionally the IRA’s chief diplomat and representative in discussions with outside individuals and bodies. When the media would describe McGuinness as the ‘Sinn Fein negotiator’ during peace process talks they got it wrong. He was actually there representing the Army Council, as their official ambassador.

So in all the years between the mid-1970’s and 2005, Martin McGuinness was there at the very top of the IRA or thereabouts, playing a crucial role in both its military and political side.

But what does Martin McGuinness himself say about what he was doing during this period?

Well the answer to this question can be found in the report of the Saville Tribunal into Bloody Sunday, to be specific in the transcript of witness cross-examinations, pages 140-141 of day 391’s business. McGuinness was being questioned by Christopher Clarke QC, counsel for the Tribunal about the “Green Book’, which contains the IRA’s manual, statement of aims and constitution and this is how it reads:

Q. It may well be, sir, you had already left the IRA by the time this document in the form that we have it, came into existence. When did you leave the IRA?

A. Here we go again, on another trawl through the Martin McGuinness fixation.

Q. No, it is not at all, sir, not at all. May I just explain to you, because you have been very concerned, understandably, to be treated in the same way as the soldiers, and it is precisely the same question, word for word, as was asked, I think, of some seven or eight soldiers.

A. Were they asked when they left the British Army?

Q. Yes, simply because it was thought to be relevant to the way in which other people had reacted to what had happened on Bloody Sunday. You do not have to answer my question or any of them, I ask them, and I will not ask them twice, it is for the Tribunal to say whether you should answer them or not: I ask again, when did you leave the IRA, if you did?

A. I left the IRA in the early part of the 1970s.

So during all those years when we thought that Martin McGuinness was Northern Commander (twice), Chief of Staff and then Chairman of the Army Council, he was really a civilian with no connection at all to the IRA. How could he be anything else since he told the Saville Tribunal under oath that he had left the organisation in the ‘early’ 1970’s?

I can almost hear the readers’ response: “Sure, that’s bullshit but at least he admits he was in the IRA, if only for a bit!” And that’s true and it’s more than Gerry Adams has ever acknowledged. But why lie about the three decades or so after the ‘early’ 1970’s and not about the two or three years before it? Is it because there’s more to hide in the later years or because he screwed up in those early years, admitting things about his association with the IRA that he regretted later and which the wilier Adams would never have? And if he had not said or done those things would he too, like Adams, now be swearing to the world that he had never, ever been in the IRA?

Martin McGuinness at an early IRA funeral in Derry

There’s this for instance, something that falls into the rush of blood to the head category, a statement he made from the dock in Green Street courthouse, Dublin in 1973 when he was convicted of IRA membership:

“We have fought against the killing of our people. I am a member of Oglaigh na Eireann (IRA) and very, very proud of it.”

That’s something Mr Adams would never have said.

Then there’s this video of an appearance at an IRA press conference in Derry in June 1972, perhaps an example of McGuinness succumbing to the lure of the klieg lights. He is flanked by IRA Chief of Staff, Sean Macstiofain, Belfast Commander Seamus Twomey and Army Council member Daithi O Connail, and the purpose of press conference was to put forward an IRA ceasefire proposal to the new NI Secretary, Willie Whitelaw. There’s an even more famous television interview, broadcast on ITV but sadly not available on YouTube, in which a youthful McGuinness admits being the Derry Commander of the IRA. Again the shrewder Gerry Adams would have steered well clear of such exposure.

After blatant admissions like these it would be impossible for Martin McGuinness to deny he had been in the IRA in the ‘early’ 1970’s. But after that, in the subsequent three decades, he never made a similar mistake or engaged in such embarrassing frankness ever again and, thankfully from his viewpoint, it was so much easier therefore to resort to the lie.

There’s another part of the story of Adams, McGuinness and the peace process that is vital to an understanding of this period. For sure, Gerry Adams dissembled the IRA into decommissioning its weapons and ending its war with the British but he didn’t do this alone. He couldn’t have achieved it without McGuinness’ help for while Gerry was the Provos’ political leader, he never had the trust of the IRA rank and file that Martin had. The reason was simple: Martin had a military track record and Gerry didn’t. Martin had done the business and Gerry hadn’t. So when Martin would give substance to Gerry’s assurances that all was well, as in this video, it gave the whole project a crucial credibility.

In the days before my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ was published in the autumn of 2001, Martin McGuinness toured newspaper and television offices in Dublin and London to talk about it to editors and senior journalists. His purpose was simple, to blacken my name and label me a dissident fellow-traveller. It was partly an effort to do the book down and partly an exercise in intimidation, carrying with it the implied threat that any journalist treating my book sympathetically or seriously risked the same treatment. He even went to see my editor in the Sunday Tribune, Matt Cooper. Matt asked him did he believe Gerry Adams when he denied ever being in the IRA? “Yes” replied McGuinness, not missing a beat. “He looked me straight in the eye when he said it”, recalled Cooper.

Martin and Gerry

The Death of a Newspaper

The announcement last week that Tony O’Reilly had sent the bailiffs into the Sunday Tribune was a bit like hearing of the death of an old ailing friend; you had been expecting it for a long time but even so, the shock is still intense, the sadness real.

The Sunday Tribune was so much part of my life in Irish journalism that it really does feel like a limb has been chopped off (not that you would notice the difference these days!).

The paper was born out of the old Hibernia weekly magazine that had been run for years out of a Dickensian suite of offices near Dublin’s Custom House by John Mulcahy and his wife Nuala in their uniquely paternal but often inspirational way. They gave me my first proper job in journalism – for which I will always be grateful – and since I was there at the death of Hibernia, I can claim, I think, to have played a small part in the conception, if not birth, of the Tribune.

The Mulcahy’s had the good luck to come into ownership of Hibernia at the start of the Northern Troubles and they made the magazine’s name with a consistent record of investigative journalism on that side of the Border, burrowing into places where the mainstream press did not have the nous nor, as government-imposed and media self-censorship began to bite, the courage to delve. To its eternal credit Hibernia earned the wrath of Conor Cruise O’Brien in the flush of his Section 31 days; he took a hissy fit one day and condemned it as a cross between the good wine guide and Republican News. Mulcahy thought it a wonderful compliment.

Sadly it was the North that also brought Hibernia to its knees. An article by the late, great Jack Holland about the involvement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary alongside Loyalist paramilitaries in the intimidation and forced movement of hundreds of Catholic families from the Rathcoole area of north Belfast in 1972 spelled disaster for the magazine. Jack had named a couple of senior RUC officers as being in charge of the local police, and therefore responsible for what happened during those terrible days but unfortunately he got his information from a Constabulary gazette that was out of date. The cops sued, it was an open and shut case and that was the end of Hibernia.

(In a last desperate effort to get some dirt on the policemen, Mulcahy gave me two weeks off in the early part of 1980 to dig into the story for any evidence that they had been somehow involved. They weren’t, but my burrowing took me to the Twinbrook housing estate on the fringe of West Belfast where many of the Rathcoole refugees had been rehoused. One of the families I interviewed was called Sands and they told me that yes, the RUC had stood idly by watching, while they were forced by armed thugs to flee their home and their eldest boy, who was called Bobby, was so angry that afterwards he had joined the IRA and was now languishing in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. We’d soon hear a lot more about him.)

With Hibernia out of business, Mulcahy launched the Sunday Tribune later the same year with Conor Brady (originally editor of the Garda Review and later the Irish Times) as his editor. But then the Midas syndrome, the conviction that some businessmen develop that they can do no wrong or ever fail in commercial matters, intervened. The Tribune was doing well, its journalism was much admired and it was moving towards profitability when one of Mulcahy’s partners, Hugh McLaughlin insisted on launching a new daily paper, the Daily News which was a (deservedly) disastrous flop. When it failed the Sunday Tribune was brought crashing down alongside it.

In stepped Vincent Browne to buy the title and relaunch the paper. Sunday Tribune Mark II, the real Trib, was born.

If there is one man who made me the journalist I later became it was Vincent. By the time I first encountered him, in 1979, he was already a legend. He’d cut his reporting teeth for the Irish Press group and later the Irish Independent covering the North in the very early days of the Troubles. He was the very first to talent spot Gerry Adams, then working his way up through the ranks of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, and he penetrated the strange world of Northern Loyalism, something very few other southern journalists were able or willing to do.

One story, an interview with a youngish Ian Paisley caused a sensation when the Protestant leader effectively (albeit only temporarily) abandoned his Unionist politics and conceded that if Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were scrapped (they laid claim on the territory of Northern Ireland), he’d favour closer relations with the South. Changing the constitution in this way thereafter became a priority, even an obsession for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. They finally got their way in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

By 1968 he had already started one magazine, the monthly Nusight (which propelled that complex being, Kevin Myers into journalism) and then in 1977 he launched Magill magazine which had so many high points over the years  (the Arms Trial issues come to mind) that you couldn’t count them.

Two qualities marked Browne out as a truly exceptional editor and journalist: one was a real love for the skill of reportage, that is the ability to firstly identify where the story was and then to get at it and finally write it up in an attractive, readable yet penetrating fashion, and the second was his gift for spotting other journalistic talent. Some of Ireland’s most talented reporters and writers, from Colm Toibin (former Magill editor) to Paddy Agnew to Gene Kerrigan (Magill columnist) amongst many, many others, got their start with Vincent and I believe it is for this that he should be best remembered. He watered the garden of Irish journalism (often with more than the stuff that comes out of taps) and planted many of its seeds. Inasmuch as the garden has blossomed, it is in no small measure down to Vincent.

Vincent also gave me a start by commissioning a series of articles on the North in 1979. With those pieces in my portfolio I was able to persuade John Mulcahy to give me employment (landing a job with Hibernia was the equivalent then of waking up in Heaven) and the rest is history. I briefly rejoined Magill a couple of years later before moving to D’Olier Street and when the Irish Times and myself fell out in 1986, I was hired by Vincent as the Sunday Tribune’s Northern editor. I stayed there until 2001, outlasting him incidentally by nearly a decade. He could be extraordinarily kind and generous – he and his delightful wife Jean, once put me up for weeks in Dublin while I house-searched for my new family – and he always paid well if he was getting good work from you.

Vincent in his heyday

There was however another side to Vincent, as those who had dealings with him knew only too well. He could never make a friend without falling out with them, often in a tirade of angry insults and abuse. He had high standards to be sure and couldn’t abide it when others failed to meet them, as they often did. There’s nothing wrong with that but Vincent could be so unimaginably cruel to people who otherwise worshipped him that these confrontations often ended with the victim in tears, vowing eternal hatred for the man.

His editorial meetings on a Tuesday morning were such exercises in terror that I always found an excuse to skip them. That was the great advantage of working in Belfast, a hundred miles away; there was always a breaking story to cover or the plea that making the journey there and back would lose me a full working day.

I attended only a handful of them and they were truly awful affairs. The staff would filter into Vincent’s office with about as much enthusiasm as a condemned man facing the gallows. The bravest among them would take seats at the big editorial table while the rest hugged the wall as if praying that they would merge with the paintwork and go unnoticed. There was a good reason for that; Vincent would always descend upon one poor soul and rage about how pitiful their story that weekend had been. Even though the humiliation was heart-rending to witness, the rest of us would breathe a sigh of relief, quickly tempered by a horrifying thought: “Would it be my turn next week?”

Being stationed in Belfast meant that our paths rarely crossed and for that reason I probably stayed friends with Vincent longer than most. But inevitably the day of our falling out arrived. We quarreled about many things but at the root of our dispute was a fundamental difference about where the North, and specifically the IRA, was going.

Like most in the Southern media, Vincent had failed to spot the burgeoning peace process and by the early 1990’s he was openly advocating the re-introduction of internment to deal with the Provos. By contrast I was writing about the potentially huge ideological changes, and likely compromises to come, that were happening within the leadership of Sinn Fein and, therefore, the IRA. But as far as Vincent was concerned I might as well have been filing my copy from Mars, so out of touch with reality, so accommodating to the men of violence was my coverage.

We dueled furiously over ersatz issues and finally a fax arrived one summer afternoon. I was being transferred to work in the Dublin office. How quickly could I report for duty, he demanded? I replied ‘Whenever you wish’ and heard nothing more. He had obviously been hoping that I would object and refuse, and that would be a firing offence. In reality he wanted me nowhere near the Dublin office. And so it went on until deus ex machina-like, everything changed.

For that I have to thanks Vincent’s other failing, the fact that he was a lousy businessman. Like Hugh McLaughlin he was infected with the Midas virus and in the early 1990’s, as the Sunday paper was consolidating itself, he started the Dublin Tribune, a giveaway that was meant to form the beginnings of a new daily paper.

Now anyone who knows anything about the newspaper business can tell you that you produce freesheets with nothing more ambitious than two men and a dog; anything more and it becomes a sure money loser. But Vincent knew better and before too long there were more reporters working for the giveaway Dublin Tribune than were employed in the money-making parent publication. Admittedly the journalism was great and once again Vincent discovered some great writing talent – it was edited by the lovely Michael Hand and Rory Godson and, inter alia, included amongst its stars Ed O’Loughlin, listed for a Booker prize in 2009 for his novel ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ – but it was a commercial disaster and a drain on the Sunday Tribune.

Finally the board moved against Vincent and, in 1994, he was sacked. The Trib then became part of the Independent stable, bought by Tony O’Reilly we were told, to stave off a broader challenge to his titles from Rupert Murdoch’s empire.The Sunday Tribune never made Tony O’Reilly a penny, as far as I know, and it was always a mystery why he kept it going, especially since the rationale for buying it had long since been undermined by the Sunday Times’ success in Ireland. The only surprise in the move to put the paper into receivership is that it took so long to happen.

I cannot say that I have a word of complaint about O’Reilly’s management of the Sunday Tribune. They stood bravely by me when Scotland Yard attempted to destroy my career and always allowed me a complete free hand in my coverage of the North, especially during the controversial years of the peace process when the Irish media were sharply divided into the (larger) ‘helpful to the process, i.e. ask no questions’ camp and the (much smaller) ‘unhelpful, i.e. ask too many awkward questions’  bunch, of which I am proud to say I was a founder member.

But the Sunday Tribune for me will always be Vincent Browne’s newspaper. I will miss it just as I miss our friendship.

Any takers?

The Irish General Election

In the wake of the economic collapse in Ireland, the Fianna Fail-led coalition government headed by prime minister Brian Cowen has crumbled amid allegations of widespread lying and corruption in Irish political life. A general election will be held within weeks.

Gerry Adams Action Hero

Gerry Adams has quit his West Belfast seat to stand in Louth, and if elected will lead Sinn Fein in the Dail, the Irish parliament. Many observers believe Sinn Fein could do well, possibly well enough to become a partner in the next government. In the coming election the dishonesty of politicians and the extent to which their words and promises can be believed, will be major issues in voters’ minds. Here are some extracts from reports and interviews dealing with the central issue in Adams’ political life, the achievement of a united Ireland via the peace process. No comment from me is necessary.

BBC, 14th January 2000

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has predicted there could be a united Ireland in 16 years time.

Mr Adams made the comment to rousing applause at a rally for party supporters in New York on Thursday night.

He said the logic of the peace process would lead to unification – perhaps by the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which was seen a turning point for Irish nationalism.

“If we want to make progress then there is no reason whatsoever, from someone who has dealt with the unionists close up, who has dealt with the British close up, no reason why we cannot celebrate the 1916 Rising in the year 2016, in a free and united Ireland.”

Irish Independent, 18th November 2003

A UNITED Ireland by 2016 is on the cards, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness  predicted last night.

With nine days left to the North’s Assembly Election, the Mid Ulster MP said at his party’s manifesto launch republicans could attain their goal by the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

“As we develop the north-south implementation bodies and people co-operate and work together, I think people will see more and more the logic of that,” Mr McGuinness said.

“Certainly it is our view that it can be accomplished over a short period. Gerry Adams has said 2016 and I think that is achievable.”

Guardian, 15th September 2007 – Gerry Adams interviewed by Nick Stadlen,

NS: You said that a united Ireland could be achievable by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising …

GA: Well I didn’t quite say that. A colleague of mine said that and then when I was asked the question I said: “But if we don’t get it, don’t blame us”. Because it will not happen inevitably, it will only happen if we continue to pursue proper strategies, and if we’re able to develop the political strength and the political support … if we’re able to create the political conditions to bring that about, and I think that we have got the ability to create those conditions, but I wouldn’t be precious about it’s going to happen at such and such a date.

University Times (paper of Trinity College, Dublin), 26th January 2011 – Gerry Adams interviewed by Eugene Reavey

Q – It now seems that the party’s goal of achieving Irish unity by 2016 will not come to fruition. Are you still hopeful of achieving unity in your lifetime, or do you feel the political will amongst the other parties no longer exists?

A – The party’s primary political objective is to attain Irish reunification. I believe that it is a doable and achievable project. I want it to happen sooner rather than later.

The party never had a position of achieving this by 2016. It will happen when sufficient political and public support has been attained. Bear in mind that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the Government of Ireland Act was scrapped and replaced with a new constitutional arrangement. The British government is now committed to legislating for a United Ireland if a majority of citizens in the north want it.

That places a huge challenge before all of us who want Irish unity. We have to win support for it. We have to especially reach out to unionists. But we also need to make the border irrelevant by building on the all-Ireland dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement and harmonising relations between north and south.

‘Motiveless’ Murders

Watching and reading the tortured but determined efforts on the part of some to depoliticize the massacre in Tucson brought vividly back to mind a similar episode from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The parallels are, of course, not exact. They couldn’t possibly be. But there are some strikingly similar features — and lessons — to both.

The Belfast experience and the shootings in Tucson had a number of characteristics in common: a terrible loss of life caused by psychotic individuals, a background of traumatic political change (at least in the minds of the perpetrators) and a setting of fevered rhetoric from right-wing political leaders who were whipping their followers into a frenzy of derangement against their opponents, alleging conspiracies where none existed. And like the killings in Tucson, the ‘motiveless murders’ that took place in Belfast during the awful summer of 1972, brought with them a persistent effort by people in authority to deny or misdescribe the motives, to play down the political inspiration and accentuate instead the individual and the psychopathic aspects of the killers.

As we know well by now, attempts to characterize the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the murder of six people attending her ‘Congress on the Corner’ meeting at a Tucson strip mall and the wounding of fourteen others as the act of a madman motivated solely or predominantly by his own mental illness have gained considerable traction.

It is not just in Palin-land or the curious universe inhabited by Fox News that this is happening but in the mainstream media, or at least amongst some sections of it. By coincidence or not, in many instances some of the same media folk could be seen quite recently lining up against Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

Putting cynicism aside, it is not hard to see how they could come to such a conclusion. The alleged perpetrator, Jared Loughner is clearly crazy. Enough about his life has emerged, not least an alarming mugshot snapped not long after the killings and a disturbing video he shot at his community college, to support the view that he is quite probably a paranoid schizophrenic, a lone, delusional nut who was likely to kill or cause great harm to someone, some day.

But it wasn’t just ‘someone’ who he attempted to kill. His target was a Democratic politician who had herself been singled out for political destruction by Sarah Palin in her infamous ‘crosshairs’ map of vulnerable Congressmen. And the attempt to kill her came against a background of some two years of furiously violent and ‘eliminationist’ rhetoric, as Paul Krugman put it, from GOP extremists determined to wrest control of Congress from Democrats and ultimately to kick Obama out of the White House.

A madman Loughner almost certainly is, but he inhabits a country and a state where various levels of madness and irrationality define a large chunk of the political Right, where it is acceptable and even laudable for many to use language that suggests the violent removal of political opponents and for serious politicians to give currency to the most laughably absurd conspiracies.

And while Loughner seems not to have obsessed on the major bugbears of the Tea Party, such as the idea that Obama is a Kenya-born, Muslim Marxist or that health care reform is the first stage on a journey to a country filled with death panels and concentration camps housing dissident American patriots, he nonetheless shares enough of the views of the Right on hallmark issues — for example, Glenn Beck’s favorite obsession, restoring the gold standard, a fixation elsewhere on the Right — to qualify him as a member, albeit of its less well-defined fringes. And a recent interview with a former girlfriend suggests he may actually have been closer to classic Tea Party thinking than many believed, a guy who would ‘rant’ about the powers of the federal government with as much fervor as anyone on Fox News.

But back to Belfast in the summer of 1972. The phenomenon of which Tucson is a junior cousin became unavoidably visible in July of that year. Bodies of dead Catholics began showing up, thirty-one of them by the end of the month, dumped at the edges or sometimes in the heart of Protestant or Loyalist parts of the city. Many had been tortured or mutilated — “fingers, toes, genitals (were) cut off, or eyes plucked out”, according to one account — and all died horrible deaths. One victim had been suspended from a beam and tortured for hours; his body had some 150 knife wounds. Another’s body hair was removed with a blow torch.

So here is point one in the catalog of similarities between Tucson, January 2011 and Belfast circa 1972: the madness of the killers. Those in Belfast were undeniably sadists of a particularly evil sort whose slaughter was inspired by xenophobia and whose American equivalent would more likely be found in Mississippi or Alabama than in Arizona. But that the Belfast killers and Jared Loughner were both psychologically imbalanced in a deep and serious way is undeniable.

And like the slaughter in Tucson on January 8th, the killings of July 1972 in Belfast didn’t come out of the blue. Northern Ireland had been in a political ferment for over two years. A campaign for civil rights by Catholics had met violent resistance from the Protestant or Unionist majority which governed the place. Loyalist mobs (a note of explanation: Loyalist was the term used to describe hardline Unionists; they were the Irish version of the Tea Party, if you like) had attempted to burn down whole Catholic areas, Britain sent troops in and before too long the long-dormant IRA had been revived and was bombing and shooting in an effort to destroy the state. Faced with rising, uncontrollable violence and spreading political instability, the British decided to close down the Unionist government, known as Stormont after the building in which the parliament met, and rule the place directly from London.

Now Unionists and Loyalists both saw Stormont as the bulwark against Catholic domination and their protection against being absorbed by the rest of Ireland. They had been Britain’s surrogate in Ireland for centuries. Transplanted in the seventeenth century and given confiscated Catholic land, the Protestants of the North were the instrument through which Britain controlled the whole island. They had occupied a privileged place but this had been whittled away when most of Ireland won independence in 1921. Now they saw their last buttress being taken away from them; an appalling vista stretched before them. They were in great political shock.

Point number two in the list of similarities. The election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, in 2008, preceded by the financial collapse on Wall Street and followed by the great bank bailout and bursting of the property bubble, is the equivalent for many Americans — interestingly of similar social, racial and economic background and outlook to the Unionists of Northern Ireland — of the fall of Stormont. A safe, comfortable and predictable world had suddenly been taken away from them and an uncertain and threatening future lay ahead.

For the Unionists of Northern Ireland that uncertain future could, in their minds, mean only one thing: their absorption into the Irish Republic where they would now be the minority, condemned to live in fear that those who had once had their land taken away from them — and their jobs, houses and political rights — would now be out for revenge.

That this was in fact neither the intention nor the likely outcome of abolishing Stormont did not matter. The British wanted to reform Northern Ireland, to bring Catholics in from the cold and not to drive the place into the arms of the Irish Republic. Not only could the southern state not afford such a burden, it didn’t want it and it was already clear, as subsequent events would bear out, that Catholics would happily stay British as long as they got a fair deal. But at the time and in the atmosphere of the day such rationality fell on deaf Unionist ears.

For the Tea Party constituency, the Obama election and the financial crisis offered an equally alarming set of possibilities. To begin with, Obama’s success foretold the worst nightmare of White America: the coming demographic revolution that would see Blacks and Hispanics outnumber Whites, a fate that almost mirrored exactly the fears of Northern Ireland Protestants in 1972 that ahead of them lay a future in which they would become the exploited, victimized minority.

Meanwhile, the dramatic shrinkage of property values and retirement portfolios along with a background of near hysteria over Islamic terrorism combined to create an atmosphere in which the wildest of conspiracies suddenly seemed plausible and tenable. Obama was a Muslim, an alien and charlatan who could not prove his American citizenship, a Communist with roots in the radical left of the 1970s and a community organizer who would impoverish the middle class to subsidize the feckless poor and needy in the ghettoes.

As with Northern Ireland in 1972, it did not matter that this was utter nonsense. Like their Irish counterparts, the Tea Party constituency was impervious to reason, instead preferring to find a bizarre solace in imagining the worst.

In Northern Ireland there was no shortage of right-wing politicians ready and willing to put all the Unionists’ worst paranoid imaginings into words. The Rev Ian Paisley, the loud street-corner preacher cum extremist politician, was certainly one. But in those days he had lots of competition. Perhaps the most chilling Loyalist leader was a former Unionist government minister called Bill Craig, who in 1972 had set up a quasi-fascist political movement called Vanguard. He would organize massive protest rallies at which his uniformed followers would parade in their thousands, flags flying as Craig reviewed them from a platform, like a Hitler admiring his stormtroopers at Nuremberg.

A week before the British removed Stormont, Craig held a massive rally at a public park in south Belfast. The rally had been called to protest the anticipated British move and Craig did not mince his words: “We are firmly decided to defeat anyone who tries to subvert our constitution”, he told the 60,000 strong crowd. “We must build up the dossier on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country, because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”.

Almost exactly a month later the first Catholic was shot dead (above: a Loyalist murder victim of the 1970s) and each subsequent week saw more and more killings until by July the numbers of bodies being found on the streets of Belfast were multiplying so fast that it became impossible to deny that something very sinister was happening.

Words have consequences and these were the consequences of Craig’s angry words. Now it may be technically correct that Sharon Angle’s ‘Second amendment remedies’, Palin’s ‘Don’t retreat – reload!’ or Jesse Kelly’s invitation to ‘target’  Gabby Giffords’ defeat by firing a M16 automatic rifle with him, don’t quite match the sinister quality of Bill Craig’s threat, but they’re pretty darned close. And if they don’t, there’s no shortage of others in the conservative camp whose rhetoric over the last five or six years certainly does, like this gem from Rush Limbaugh: “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus — living fossils — so we will never forget what these people stood for.” Or Ann Coulter’s response in 2005 when asked if she’d rather not talk to a liberal: “I think a baseball bat is the most effective response these days.”

Bill Craig and other like him had opened a Pandora’s Box in Belfast. The killing of Catholics that began after his rally was of course very organized and deliberate. It was intended to terrorize the Catholics into turning against the IRA and it was carried out by Loyalist paramilitary groups whose ranks were populated with killers whose psycopathy would, over subsequent years, become every bit as notorious as Jared Loughner’s, men like John White , Davy Payne , Lennie Murphy, Michael Stone (pictured left) and Johnny Adair.

The deliberate and organized nature of the killing was an obvious piece of political wisdom to the Catholics of Belfast but the authorities decided to pretend that it was not happening. The police, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), christened the killings ‘motiveless murders’ and the British government, by now the sole political authority, agreed.

Minimal resources were allocated to tracking down the killers and the police, according to one account, even tried to blame the carnage on a single psycopath, “variously dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ or the ‘Shankill Butcher’, even when killings were taking place simultaneously in different parts of Belfast, some of the victims being bundled into cars by three or four men.”

The decision not to admit the obvious was motivated by a number of factors, primarily an unwillingness to open up another front in the war raging in Northern Ireland. The IRA was Britain’s main enemy and chasing Loyalist killers would be a distraction. As well, the British Army had begun to recognize that the Loyalists could be a useful tool to wield against the IRA, that the ranks of the paramilitaries could be infiltrated and their leaders directed towards desired military goals. 

Whatever the real reason the fact remains that next to nothing was done to halt the bloodletting. Unconfronted by the British, the Loyalist killers went on to kill more and more people. Within a couple of years, the paramilitary groups responsible emerged into daylight and the media was able to put names to them; one group was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), another the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The government could no longer deny that they existed or that they killed on a massive scale. But it was too late. By the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the UDA and the UVF, and their associated splinter groups had between them killed over a thousand people. The per capita equivalent in the U.S. would be 200,000.

The lesson from all of this for Americans in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords is that if the underlying reality behind Jared Loughner’s killing spree is not fully recognized, and that the significant role, however indirect, played by the hate speech of the Right remains unacknowledged, then the risk of more Tucson’s can only grow.

Oh, and there’s one more point of similarity between the Tucson situation and Northern Ireland of the early 1970s, and that’s gun ownership. In America, according to one poll, three out of ten people own a weapon. In Northern Ireland the figure is one in ten. By sharp contrast only one out of every 121 people in England and Wales owns a firearm.

*      *      *

SO, WHO’S THE CRAZYHEAD?

Jared Loughner may well be a crazyhead but take a look at these samplings from a libertarian website, Atlas Shrugs posted in the days following the Tucson killings. The blog is run by Pamela Geller, co-author of the anti-Obama diatribe, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America and a fanatical opponent of all things Muslim. She was a leading light in the campaign against the so-called ‘ground zero’ mosque in lower Manhattan and, at the height of the hysteria over that issue, Fox News brought her on to the network, giving her a slot as a contributor alongside John Bolton, Juan Williams and Judith Miller. Read these postings and ask yourself if in Geller’s world and Fox News’, Jared Loughner is really not mad at all but actually represents what passes for normality?

TRG said in reply to DanS….
Correct, what many people don’t understand here is that this man is akin to a pit bull. He has an owner and a handler. His handler let him off the leash and used him as a weapon. This happens all the time, so the media can just say “Oh, just another unstable psycho who lived in his mom’s basement and got this wild idea to kill a bunch of people” NO, it doesn’t happen like that. These types are programmed and engineered from a very young age by extremely elite and wealthy people to do their bidding. They do this with hollywood and the music industry as well, except they use celebrities to shape social structure and conformity, whereas they use people like Jared as a weapon. There’s WAY more to this story than most people can even possibly begin to comprehend.

android__ said in reply to Blakrat…
Are you kidding me? You need to be read about mind control. Anytime the government wants to pass a new law they create a scenario in which something tragic happens, and going forward they try to convince Americans to give up their liberties for protection. Now they’re trying to say any type of political rhetoric is responsible for actions like this when truly they’re the ones creating the event. Don’t you see they’re trying to take the First and Second Amendment away by using these scenarios? It’s disgusting. Please, get informed. This is why they’re able to pull the wool over a majority of American citizens.

True Patriot said…
I would like to jump in and say the liberal lying news media is covering up that this nutjob was one of their own. He is a Democrat. He is not an Independent. The Communist thugs in the media have been on overtime 24/7 to coverup this nutjobs background. The real story that is.

He was always a Democrat. Also turns out this loon went to Mountain View High School which embraced teaching curriculum offered up by none other than good old Bill Ayers of Weather Underground.

World Net Daily’s reported – Aaron Klein broke this story yesterday after uncovering this school taught the violence and killing of thugs like Bill Ayers, and guess what else? This curriculum was funded by Obama, during the time Obama was Chairman of Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

So Loughner gobbled up this curriculum, embraced it and did what he was taught. He is one of their own and the radical media is having a stroke to try and stop this news from getting out.

Go to World Net Daily’s site and read the entire article. Obama should be in jail, along with Ayers, and all of these thugs. Loughner is just a casualty of this dangerous propaganda Obama embraces.