Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Tina McKenzie's openness about her dad's IRA past shows she is a classy act

Tina McKenzie shares a stage with John McCallister at the launch of NI21 in June.
Tina McKenzie's dad, Harry Fitzsimons

Tina McKenzie showed political nous as well as courage in talking openly to me about her father, the convicted IRA bomber Harry Fitzsimons, who is currently held in Italy on money-laundering charges.

In one sense, her family background is nobody's business but her own and anything her father did – or is accused of doing – does not reflect on her.

She is a person in her own right and her father had been largely absent, either in jail or with his second family, during her formative years.

She could have pleaded privacy, rather than bring the issue into the open, but it had been kicking around the political undergrowth ever since she agreed to chair NI21 earlier this year.

Returning to visit her mother in Lenadoon, she found that most people were friendly, even supportive, about her new political role. However, one person called her "unionist scum".

On the other side, some unionists launched a campaign of texts and cryptic tweets to try to smear her.

Keeping her family background private would make it seem like a guilty secret and make her more vulnerable to whispering campaigns.

By speaking openly about it, she has lanced the boil and should be allowed to move on. She has also provided a role model for others, particularly the young, who want to make up their own mind about politics.

In Northern Ireland, religion is still the strongest determinant of voting intention and that is closely tied to family background.

This tribal division is sanctified by a slick, new quangospeak, which divides the population into neat PUL (Protestant/unionist/loyalist) and CRN (Catholic/republican/ nationalist) camps.

Politicians and civil servants feel comfortable using such terms, but they might as well call people "left-footers" and "right-footers".

Ms McKenzie has shown that there are other possibilities. She has demonstrated that people can make up their minds on the strength of the arguments presented by parties, not on gut feeling or communal loyalty.

Other people have switched allegiance in the past, but they have often been isolated, or exceptional, figures.

Ivan Cooper switched from the Unionist Party to the SDLP, Billy Leonard switched from the Orange Order to Sinn Fein, Ronnie Bunting came from a strongly loyalist family and joined a republican paramilitary group and Sir John Gorman, a Catholic, was a senior figure in the Ulster Unionist Party.

Ms McKenzie is a different kettle of fish in a different era and she may set a different precedent.

She hasn't so much switched tribes from CRN to PUL as stepped outside the whole tribal system, without forgetting where she comes from.

She said: "I am not a unionist – that is the thing about labels. I am also not a nationalist. I am a mix of different things, different experiences... I wouldn't call myself a unionist, but I am quite comfortable for Northern Ireland to remain within the UK, absolutely no problem." She added: "I am for a united Northern Ireland, rather than a United Kingdom, or a united Ireland."

The willingness of people to break the chains of history and make up their own minds can be an opportunity for all parties and good news for democratic politics.

If we reach a stage where political arguments can be won or lost on their merits, then that will greatly reduce the prospect of renewed political violence.

Providing a shared future, not to mention reducing the number of non-voters and avoiding future conflict, needs more than words.

Politicians on all sides need to reach beyond their traditional support bases and pitch their appeal to the whole community.

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