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John McMichael Memorial debate: Sometimes you have to remember how far we have really come

By Brian Rowan

You have to turn back time to understand the significance of a John McMichael Memorial debate taking place in Lisburn tonight.

And it is not just about the panel that has been assembled — but the audience also.

Several years ago, this could not have happened — would not have happened.

Just think about it.

John McMichael was a UDA leader killed by an IRA bomb weeks after the slaughter in Enniskillen in 1987.

And this evening one of the most senior figures in the IRA ‘war’ Sean ‘Spike’ Murray will sit on a panel in this, the first in a series of memorial events.

McMichael and Murray were part of the different ‘wars’ and the loyalist leader never got to see the peace.

“John McMichael knew — we all knew — that he was likely to be killed because he was a high profile figure,” Jackie McDonald told the Belfast Telegraph.

McDonald succeeded McMichael on the ‘inner council’ leadership of the UDA — replacing his friend at that paramilitary top table after the under-car bomb attack that dates back to December 1987.

I put it to McDonald, that McMichael was part of a ‘war’.

“Yes, exactly,” was his response — “and he wanted to find a way out of it,” he said.

On tonight’s debate, he added: “John McMichael is bringing this together 25 years after his death.

“It allows us to demonstrate to the whole province that we can share space, respect each other, exchange views and debate them,” McDonald said.

He will open and close a debate that has put Murray and another republican, Danny Morrison, who defined the ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy, on a panel with senior unionists and others.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson is taking part, as is UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, the SDLP MLA and Policing Board member Conall McDevitt and Paul Clissold of the organising UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group.

“It’s a unique occasion,” McDonald told this newspaper.

“And it’s going to take a lot of courage from everyone in the room to be there.

“It’s showing leadership,” he said.

McDonald is talking about the audience as much as the panel — invited guests that include members of the Victims Forum, police, clergy, and other prominent republicans and loyalists.

Andy Tyrie who was “supreme commander” of the UDA at the time of the McMichael killing is attending as is Seanna Walsh, one of the longest serving republican prisoners, who read the words of the IRA ‘endgame’ statement in 2005.

The event is being staged within a ‘Question Time’ format — the issues for the panel covering education, the Maze peace centre project, victims, the Historical Enquiries Team and the political document Common Sense with which McMichael was identified.

A young person will also ask the question: “What does the future hold for me?”

This event is an indication of a changing landscape — a different mindset.

It is making the once unthinkable happen.

But a read of Declan Kearney’s speech at Westminster last night points up the reality of unfinished business — the work still to be done on reconciliation and addressing the past.

“Inevitably we need to deal with the past and all the unanswered questions; and that should be done by agreeing to the establishment of an independent, international truth commission,” Kearney said.

“Some say that republicans are not serious when we advocate that option,” he continued.

“But what we say means everyone — governments, political parties, and British, unionist and republican combatants, and others — going into that arena together and at the same time; and to deal there with all the causes and consequences of the conflict.”

“That is Sinn Fein’s unambiguous policy position,” he added.

What he is stressing is that the past is not just about the IRA — that republicans will not allow the debate to happen in that narrow frame.

“Significantly others have gone or remained silent on this issue, most notably the British Government,” the Sinn Fein national chair said. “Owen Paterson’s precondition of gaining a consensus on the way forward is aimed at pursuing gridlock, by making a demand which cannot be delivered on,” he continued.

“If the British state is not prepared to contribute to truth recovery by owning up to all aspects and consequences of its military, intelligence, and black operations campaign in Ireland, then it must spell out their alternative to an independent, international process.

“But let’s be clear, that will have to mean everyone’s role in the past being placed on an even playing field,” Kearney said.

The McMichael debate is an indication of the road travelled on a long journey out of conflict and into a developing peace.

But there is a wake-up call in this Kearney speech — a reminder of a distance still to go on a route along which many will be asked questions;

Not just the IRA and not just loyalists, but governments, unionists, security and intelligence figures and many others.

His speech at times was about political retaliation — part of a tit-for-tat spat with Peter Robinson and the DUP.

And Westminster last evening and Lisburn tonight tell us two things — that huge progress has been made, but that there are still bends on the road and a distance still to be travelled.

It’s a debate in memory of a murdered UDA leader, but tonight loyalists, republicans and a woman who lost both her legs in a bomb blast will share a room as they discuss how we deal with our troubled past...

Jennifer McNern

At the age of 21 Jennifer McNern lost both her legs in a bomb explosion in the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast in 1972. Her sister Rosaleen — then aged 22 — also lost both her legs and an arm and sustained a serious eye injury in the same attack. She now sits on the Commission for Victims and Survivors.

Alex Bunting

A former taxi driver, Alex Bunting (55) had his leg blown off in October 1991 when a booby-trap bomb under his car exploded. He lost a finger, is deaf in one ear and his other leg was damaged. The IRA said it was mistaken identity. Alex, who now lives in Bangor, is married with two sons and three grandchildren.

Peter Heathwood

Peter Heathwood was shot and paralysed in a gun attack on his home in north Belfast in 1979. His father, Herbert, died of a heart attack at the scene. He now sits on the Commission for Victims and Survivors.

Gary McMichael

Head of the now defunct loyalist Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and the son of murdered former UDA leader John McMichael, who was killed by an IRA bomb attached to his car a few days before Christmas in 1987.

Sean Murray

A prominent republican and former IRA chief, Sean Murray served 12 years in prison after being convicted for explosives offences, rising through the terrorist group following his release from jail.

Winston Irvine

A leading loyalist from the Shankill Road area of Belfast, Winston Irvine is a community worker in north Belfast and is a member of the North and West Belfast Parades Forum.

Andy Tyrie

A prominent loyalist, Andy Tyrie was the one time ‘supreme’ UDA commander during much of the organisation’s early history. After serving as leader of the organisation since 1973, the Belfast man was removed from his position in 1988, shortly after surviving an assassination attempt.

Jackie McDonald

One of the UDA’s most senior leaders, Belfast man Jackie McDonald remains a member of the the group’s Inner Council and is the spokesman for its political advisory body, the Ulster Political Research Group.

Seanna Walsh

A former IRA volunteer, Seanna Walsh spent 21 years in prison and was one of the IRA ‘blanket men’ during the hunger strikes and dirty protests staged in the Maze prison during the 1970s and ‘80s

Danny Morrison

Sinn Fein’s former publicity director, Danny Morrison was given an eight-year prison sentence after being charged with false imprisonment and conspiracy to murder an IRA man. The case against him was overturned on appeal in 2008. He is also secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust and has written several books.

John Bunting

A senior Belfast UDA leader alongside fellow loyalists such as Jackie McDonald.

Belfast Telegraph


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