Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Dissidents simply following in Provos' bloody footsteps

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

Dissident' republicans took a hammering in the local media for kidnapping a Derry taxi-driver at gunpoint on August 3 and forcing him to carry a primed 200lb bomb to the PSNI station at Strand Road where it exploded causing widespread damage, but no casualties.

The breadth and depth of reaction was such that a spokesman for the 32 County Sovereignty Movement readily conceded on a BBC programme last week that "that shouldn't have happened".

On the same programme, the driver, Gerry McConnell, described his terror when a man describing himself as a member of Oglaigh na hEireann pointed a gun through the window of his vehicle and threatened to kill him.

Gerry McConnell's name came up more than once in conversation on Saturday evening after a performance at the Playhouse Theatre of Witness's, I Once Knew A Girl. This is a production not to be missed.

There's room for debate about its politics, but none at all about its powerful presentation of the human cost of the conflict, including the cost to people no more than marginally, if at all, involved in the violence which surged into their lives.

At the heart of the piece is the testimony of Kathleen Gillespie. Like all the other 'characters', she speaks her own words on stage. She tells how her husband, Patsy, was kidnapped at gunpoint by the Provisional IRA on October 24, 20 years ago.

Patsy was a civilian worker at the Fort George Army base and therefore deemed a legitimate target. He was taken from his home by armed, masked men in the early hours.

In 1991, Kathleen told the Telegraph: "Me and [the couple's daughter] Jennifer were here together on the chair and he just sat on the arm of it and put his arms around us and said, 'Everything will be all right, don't worry'. I think I knew then that he wasn't coming back."

The family was held hostage while the kidnappers chained and locked Patsy into a van, packed it with 1,000 pounds of explosives and ordered him to drive to the Army checkpoint at Coshquin on the Buncrana Road. There, the bomb was detonated by remote control. Patsy and five soldiers from the King's Regiment were blown to bits.

On the day of Patsy Gillespie's funeral, I crossed Rossville Street to confront a person I assumed to be a senior member of the Provisional IRA, and told him, "That was a f*****g lousy action." He didn't snarl, or show any personal hostility, but merely responded, "I'm sorry, but that was a perfect military action."

Indeed, if you saw Patsy Gillespie as a collaborator and the soldiers as part of an army of occupation, he was right.

I recall, too, speaking in Guildhall Square at a trades union protest against the killing and suddenly remembering something that I somehow hadn't focused on in the previous days, that for the last 15 years or so of his working life my father had been employed at what was now Fort George.

Like Patsy, he was an unskilled labourer. He was working at the base for the same reason - to put food on his family's table. I remember almost breaking down as I spoke as the realisation hit me that the difference between Ned McCann and Patsy Gillespie was nothing except 25 years.

Just as the difference between Patsy and Gerry McConnell was 20 years. Oglaigh na hEireann hadn't sucked the idea from their thumbs.

This consideration, the fact that precedent is provided by the actions of some who have since become the epitome of political respectability, provides the 'dissidents' with their most plausible defence: that they are doing nothing which the Provisionals didn't do before them and with the same political rationale - that a 'war of liberation' will always be legitimate while Northern Ireland remains part of the UK.

To the extent that the tradition of armed struggle and the precedents it has set are not faced up to, for as long as a pretence is maintained that the aim of the Provisional campaign had been to win equality within the North rather than to achieve a Britless Ireland, the 'dissidents' will have a right to claim that they stand in direct succession to now-accepted and widely-approved republican struggles of the past.

For so long will we face the possibility of another Gerry McConnell, or another Patsy Gillespie.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk