In 1973, sixteen-year-old IRA Volunteer Seanna Walsh and his comrades were surrounded while robbing a bank. Seanna was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment. In Long Kesh, where he had political status, he met and became friends with Bobby Sands.
Seanna was born in Short Strand in East Belfast but for a time lived in Ravenhill Avenue until loyalists shot dead his friend, Patrick McCrory, and intimidated the Walsh family out of their home. Seanna's great grandfather had been shot dead in the same area by B-Specials when the state of Northern Ireland was founded. State violence has been an integral part of the nationalist experience throughout the history of the North.
Seanna was released from prison in May 1976 but was free for only three months. He was arrested and charged with possession of a rifle. He was sentenced to ten years. Political status had been withdrawn and the blanket protest was five months old by the time he arrived in the H-Blocks.
"Six screws came into my cell, asked me what I was in for. They stripped me naked, punched me and kicked me under the bed. They dragged me out and kicked me again. As a result of the beating I lost my memory for several days and was totally disoriented."
They were trying to force him to wear a prison uniform but he refused and went on to become one of the leaders of the blanket protest. It was during these years that he met Bobby Sands once again. When the hunger strike ended in late 1981 Seanna became the OC of the IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks. He was released after seven years and seven months, came out, married Sinead Moore, herself a former political prisoner, and had two daughters, the youngest of whom was only two weeks old when he was arrested yet again.
He was caught making explosives and mortar bombs and was sentenced to twenty-two years. While on remand in Crumlin Road jail he again became the leader of the IRA prisoners.
At the age of forty-two he had spent over half his life, a total of twenty-one years, in jail. That was the year of the Belfast Agreement and it was under its provisions that he was released. He is an undaunted, formidable republican who has sacrificed and fought hard for freedom and justice, and now works for Sinn Féin.
Jeffrey Donaldson is a few years younger than Seanna Walsh. He is personable and mild mannered. His cousin was one of the first RUC men to be killed by the IRA at the outset of the conflict. Jeffrey himself was in the UDR for several years, a regiment that was so sectarian, corrupt and tainted with loyalist paramilitarism that the British government was forced into disbanding it. At the time of the negotiations which led to the Belfast Agreement Jeffrey walked out on Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and pursued a relentless and successful campaign to undermine him, but which also undermined the party, damaged the peace process, fuelled dissident republicanism and contributed to the rise of the DUP.
At the UUP's annual conference in 1990, at the time Seanna Walsh was beginning his third prison term in the H-Blocks, Jeffrey said: "No further concessions to the nationalists! We have gone as far as we can no further must we go!" He was referring to the ultimately fruitless series of talks with the SDLP and the Dublin government, a full eight years before anything was negotiated or conceded, before the Belfast Agreement which promised some reversal of nationalist inequality. Jeffrey ditched the UUP, joined the DUP last January and is now part of the DUP's negotiating team.
He might be soft-spoken but he is certainly hardline. Like many others he completely denies that fifty years of unionist misrule, state violence and discrimination had any bearing on the outbreak of the conflict, or that unionist politicians were and regularly are ambivalent on the issue of loyalist violence. Everything is the fault of the IRA and unless the IRA verifiably decommissions its entire arsenals of weapons and explosives unionists will not share power with Sinn Féin.
Seanna Walsh welcomed Jeffrey Donaldson into West Belfast last Wednesday night to participate in a Feile debate before pointing out the absurdity of the unionist demand.
"Jeffrey, when you talk about the IRA's capacity to make war, I can go out of here tonight with a couple of hundred pounds in my pocket and purchase the equipment to make Baltic Exchange/Canary Wharf type bombs. How are you going to remove that capacity?"
Jeffrey didn't and couldn't answer the question and merely repeated the mantra.
Later, Seanna said, "The demand for decommissioning doesn't make sense. Unionists say they don't trust republicans so how would they know if the IRA really did decommission all of its weapons? They base their analysis and numbers on what weapons it is estimated the IRA had brought into the country until 1987. But they have no idea what the IRA might have brought into the country up until it decided to no longer import weapons.
"The point I was making was that I can produce homemade explosives and mortars. You cannot decommission that knowledge. What is more important is our commitment to peace and to politics. But all of the initiatives taken by the IRA to date have had absolutely no effect on the unionist community. Trust is a two-way street. We suspect that at the root of it unionists cannot deal with equality and sharing power and that the idea of republicans being in government was a bridge too far for them. Everything else is an excuse not to go there."
Shortly, both unionist parties will be taking part with the British government and the other parties, including Sinn Féin, in a review of the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. Unionist leaders are taking their people nowhere unless they begin to face up to reality and to the truth.
If they don't, how can we trust them?