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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Force to be reckoned with

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)


Danny McBrearty is the sort of man that Sinn Féin would love to wheel out on the hustings to back its endorsement of policing and sign the nomination papers of its candidates.

Instead he is one of a growing band of veteran republicans and former IRA prisoners who are deeply disillusioned by the years of violence and what he sees as the shoddy political deal bought with so much blood and sacrifice.

He now heads a group of over 100 former IRA prisoners who are attempting to organise an alternative to the Sinn Féin approach. This month he is supporting Peggy O'Hara, the mother of the former republican hunger striker Patsy O'Hara as an independent republican candidate against Sinn Féin in the Foyle constituency, which includes Londonderry city.

One of the original "sixty niners", McBrearty became an active republican after Londonderry's battle of the Bogside and lost a brother, George, in a shootout with a British Army undercover unit in 1981. He has been in jail in Britain and Ireland, he has been deported from the US and he was offered $500,000 (about £254,000) and a new life by the FBI if he would work to undermine the Provisional IRA.

"I don't advocate a return to armed struggle, but I am opposed to the PSNI and MI5" McBrearty said. "The leadership are saying get your children and grandchildren to join the police and we will wreck the system from within, its pie in the sky" he says.

He believes the decision to end the campaign on the terms now available was taken in the mid-1980s. "There has been a systematic operation from about 1986 to remove any threat from within, any dissent" he said. "Anyone who opposed the Adams leadership was systematically pushed out, often character assassinated."

All across Northern Ireland there are figures like McBrearty hoping to rain on Sinn Féin's parade in next month's election. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone Gerry McGeough, a ferociously able and personable former gun runner who did time in Germany and America, is taking Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew. His platform combines opposition to the police with a fundamentalist Catholic anti-abortion line.

"We have a lot of support from former Sinn Féiners, some of them have left quite recently since the Special Ard Fheis [that approved policing]." said McGeough. The problem for Sinn Féin is that this sort of feeling is widespread among traditional supporters.

Looking back, McBrearty says the IRA campaign "was like a wild goose chase". He argues that everything that is now being touted as achievements by Sinn Féin leadership was rejected in the 1970s.

"We could have had it then and we wouldn't have had 3,000 people killed" he points out.

He recalls an incident in 1986 when he was one of the most influential republicans in the northwest. Adams told him to tell Eddie Fullerton, a Sinn Féin councillor from Donegal, to withdraw his name from the list of candidates for election to the party's ard comhairle. He was to be ordered "in no uncertain terms."

Fullerton, regarded as an impediment to changes Adams was pushing through at the time, stood down with some reluctance. Later he was shot dead by loyalists. Now he is regularly quoted by the leadership in support of their policy. To McBrearty it all seems very seedy.


Independent republicans are able to tap into a vein of disillusionment but lack Sinn Féin's co-coordinated approach or a coherent policy. Some like McGeough are quite right wing on moral issues and will take their seat in Stormont if elected. Other, such as O'Hara, are radicals and will abstain.

Then there are the likes of Davy Hyland, who was a sitting Sinn Féin Assembly member in Newry and Armagh until he was "deselected by text" while on holiday. He won't decide whether to take a seat until he is elected. He is backed by a number of very well republicans, including the Crossmaglen Veteran Jim McAlister and the former MLA and IRA prisoner Pat McNamee. But he is now coming face to face with the reality of flying solo on the campaign trail ."You don't realise until you are independent how much work is put in by the party machine" he says.

In the immediate run up to the election an effort is being made by US funders to inject professionalism into the dissidents' efforts. Last week Martin Galvin, the American lawyer and former organiser Noraid, the IRA's funding group, was over with money for McGeough, O'Hara and a number of other contacts including Paul McGlinchey in North Antrim.

Then it was the turn of John McDonagh, another Noraid veteran who runs an Irish Republican Radio station in New York. He once appealed for funds for the IRA but now intends paying for publicity for O'Hara and other candidates. "We have to get prices for ads on the TV and radio and in the papers" he said. "I have guys in New York who want to help out financially."

While it may be a bit too late to really effect the assembly election, the growing popularity of independent republican candidates could cost seats at Westminster elections, a first past the post system.

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, defending his Mid Ulster seat, takes a fairly phlegmatic view about the dissidents' likely impact in the coming poll. In an interview with An Phoblacht he predicted that most of the protest votes going to the like of O'Hara, McGeough and Hyland would end up with Sinn Féin in later counts. He said "It is a PR election and I think that if there is confusion, then to some degree that will be resolved by people giving their preferences to Sinn Féin candidates."

These candidates are better known and will have more pulling power, he says. Party colleague Francie Brolly, who is standing in East Londonderry, puts it still more bluntly. "The dissidents are short of resources. They won't have the kind of money that Sinn Féin would have."

The trouble with the dissidents, however, is more fundamental. They lack a single big idea with which to take on the Sinn Féin leadership. Instead they are counting on the shock value surrounding Sinn Féin's newly declared policy of supporting the PSNI.

Sinn Féin canvassers say that, despite the internal angst it caused, the issue is not playing much on the doorsteps.  They report a pragmatic acceptance that, with the IRA campaign over, the PSNI is really the only body capable of carrying out policing functions. Even some of the independents, like McGeough, say it is all right to contact the police about ordinary "non political" crime, a view that is almost identical to that of Gildrenew, his Sinn Féin opponent. Speaking on the BBC she said the she would report a burglary or a rape - but not an arms dump.

A Sinn Féin Party worker in North Antrim said canvassers are finding a "fairly positive" response on the policing issue. "It isn't mentioned that much. Very few say 'don't touch the PSNI at any price'. They are more focusing on the details of how policing can be regulated".

Brolly comes from the town of Dungiven, where some shop keepers still won't serve policemen, but even there he senses change. He was himself arrested and released without charge last year and caused controversy by telling a German magazine that Sinn Féin might have to long finger the policing issue till after the election. Now he feels the issue is largely played out.

He recalls that before the Special Sinn Féin Ard Fheis on policing "we called a public meeting in the GAA Hall to take sounding and half a dozen people turned up. One of the people who came said "that just shows you that people are not that concerned about policing" and they are not, you know."


Despite the presence of independent republican candidates, pundits expect Sinn Féin to hold its own in the election. There is no question of meltdown, but the Sinn Féin assault on the Social Democratic and Labour party vote also seems to be halted.

The high point of the republican advance may have been reached in the 2005 Westminster election. Next month's assembly joust should see a much more even encounter between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, but there could possibly be a slight advance for Mark Durkan's party. Sinn Féin is seriously targeting just one SDLP seat in Lagan Valley and an Alliance one in South Antrim.

Last week Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader, was out canvassing with Durkan and the local SDLP candidates in Newry and Armagh. One of Sinn Féin's main selling points is that the party has an all Ireland presence and can push a cross border agenda. Billy Leonard, a former RUC officer and SDLP member, now standing for Sinn Féin in the Coleraine area, gives that as one of his main reasons for joining the party in 2004.

"Sinn Féin tapped into the mood and momentum of Irish politics following the Good Friday Agreement" he said. "The combination of hard work on the ground, the all Ireland institutions and the all-Ireland party offered a distinctly different political path."

This makes it imperative for the SDLP to convince voters that, even if it isn't directly a player in the republic, it has close enough links to all the main parties to allow it to drive its own all-Ireland agenda as effectively s Sinn Féin.

Last week, Dominic Bradley, an SDLP candidate in Newry and Armagh, chaired a cross border economic conference which was addressed by Kenny. He promised co-operation with the SDLP in government and funding for a range of cross border initiatives if a Fine Gael/Labour coalition is returned in the summer.

Bradley believes that the disillusionment amongst republican veterans "cannot hurt us" and has left Sinn Féin in no position to accuse the SDLP of sell out, a standard tactic in hard line areas in previous elections.

In the past the trend has been for more moderate voters to drift to Sinn Féin, but now the traffic may not be one way. In Crossmaglen, an area where SDLP activists have been assaulted in the past, Bradley found a welcome.

"I was speaking to an ex IRA man in the Crossmaglen area who was injured in a shootout with the British army. He told me that he had urged Sinn Féin to participate in the policing arrangements four years ago and he would be voting for us."

With the old certainties gone, nationalist voters can no longer be taken for granted.

February 27, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on February 25, 2007.