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Trade unionist challenged on air over dissident past

By Cate McCurry

Published 01/12/2015

Ciaran Cunningham at an anti-austerity protest
Ciaran Cunningham at an anti-austerity protest

A spokesman for the Unite trade union was revealed live on air to be a former member of the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) who has previously refused to condemn those who support armed violence.

Ciaran Cunningham was speaking on the BBC Nolan Show yesterday as a member of Unite, the largest trade union representing workers in Northern Ireland, about cuts protests which were staged over the weekend.

Protests were held outside offices of Sinn Fein and the DUP over their decision to implement welfare reforms imposed by the British Government.

The protests were organised by community branches of Unite and took place in Belfast, Newry and Ballymoney.

Around 50 union activists, including Cunningham, protested outside Sinn Fein's office on the Falls Road while around another 50 demonstrated outside the DUP's Shankill Road office.

Cunningham has served time in prison for Real IRA intelligence-gathering while he was working at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

The RNU is regarded by many as the political wing of Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH), although this was denied by Cunningham in a 2014 interview with the Belfast Telegraph. Then, he said he neither endorsed nor condemned ONH, a real IRA splinter group.

He also stated that he would not condemn those who advocate armed actions.

He said: "We understand the logic. Armed actions are a legacy of British occupation in Ireland.

"There will always be a group of people, no matter how small, who will remember that and say that, rightly or wrongly, the logic of the gun is fair enough. That's the legacy issue. It would be inaccurate for me to say that mindset is wrong. It would be equally wrong for me to say it's right."

A spokesman for Unite denied he was employed by the union but confirmed he was a member.

He said: "Ciaran Cunningham was speaking as a member of the West Belfast Unite in the Community branch who joined with other community branches protesting against the impact of welfare reform in their local communities. He is not employed by Unite.

"It is not our policy to discuss any personal individual questions in relation to our members."

Yesterday Mr Cunningham talked on the Nolan Show about Unite's opposition to the Fresh Start deal and how he thought it would impact on "the poor, the sick and the vulnerable".

When Stephen Nolan asked if he was still a member of the RNU, he said he no longer was, but that it was irrelevant.

Nolan challenged him: "Unite have put you up as their spokesperson, correct? You're the same Ciaran Cunningham who spent time in prison a decade ago for intelligence-gathering while working at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Do you regret what you did? Would you do it again?"

Mr Cunningham said: "I came here to talk about the impact of benefit cuts on the vulnerable.

"I'm a grassroots working class activist and a trade unionist."

Nolan asked: "Are you against the peace process?"

Mr Cunningham replied: "I will not let the debate here be deflected into my personal and political past."

Nolan responded: "Critics might suggest that what you're actually trying to do is damage Sinn Fein as a political motive, which is why the question is relevant. Are you against the peace process?"

He replied: "That isn't the case. My priority is the building of a non-sectarian, working class alternative to Tory austerity."

Sinn Fein declined to comment on Mr Cunningham's role within Unite.

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