Pat Sheehan: I’m humbled to be following Gerry Adams
New Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan has rebuffed accusations that his presence in the Assembly is an “affront to democracy”.
Convicted bomber and IRA hunger striker Mr Sheehan (52) was in Stormont yesterday only hours after being announced as the successor to Gerry Adams.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister launched a strongly worded attack on the decision to co-opt the republican on to the Sinn Fein MLA team, claiming it showed the “utter depravity” that prevails at Stormont.
The twice-jailed former IRA man said: “That's to be expected from Jim Allister, I'm not really surprised. But, at the end of the day, it's up to the electorate to decide who represents them.
“I have been co-opted on to the Sinn Fein team, we have a very strong team, we have every right to be here because the electorate has decided.”
The new Member for West Belfast also spoke of the “sense of injustice” which led him to join the IRA as a teenager. Mr Sheehan said he was a pupil at St Paul’s Primary School at the end of Bombay Street in Belfast “when it was burnt out at the start of the Troubles”.
“After that we had the British Army, internment, Bloody Sunday and all of that,” he said. “I was also aware of my Irish history and all of this combined to give me a sense of injustice.”
Just 16 when he joined the youth wing of the IRA, Sheehan was first jailed at the age of 19, and, three years after being released in 1987, imprisoned again for 24 years for bombing offences.
He also recalled how loyalists came to his house in the mid-1970s and attempted to assassinate him.
While he has still officially to be sworn in, the man who took part in the 1981 hunger strike signalled his intention to hit the ground running.
“I feel very humbled by the fact the party has chosen me. I am well aware of the challenges that face us all in the future and I am up for the challenge and ready for it. I look forward to my next few months in the Assembly, and then standing for election next May,” he said.
Mr Sheehan was selected to replace Mr Adams, who is resigning to fight a seat in the Dáil by standing for election in Co Louth.
Now he heads up Sinn Fein’s Middle East desk, having travelled to the region a number of times to “outline the lessons of the Irish peace process and engage in discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, the party said.
‘Injustice’ led Sheehan to join IRA aged 16
Sinn Fein’s newest Assembly Member is used to replacing republican icons.
Pat Sheehan was just 23 when he took the place of Kieran Doherty on hunger strike. During the protest, Doherty was elected TD for Cavan-Monaghan.
Now, almost 30 years later, Sheehan is also taking up public office, filling the shoes of party president Gerry Adams as MLA for West Belfast, following a party co-option.
He ticks most of the republican boxes.
He went for 55 days without food and was approaching death when the protest ended.
Incensed by what he viewed as the “injustice” of the Northern Ireland state, he joined the youth wing of the IRA at the age of 16.
Loyalists fired shots into his home in a bid to kill him.
Three years later he was jailed for trying to bomb a cash and carry and sent to the Maze prison.
Though released in 1987, he was back in jail two years later after being sentenced to 24 years for leaving a bomb at a Belfast security checkpoint.
Sheehan was also married to the well-known republican Siobhan O'Hanlon, a senior aide to Mr Adams, who died in 2006 after a battle with cancer.
But in other ways he does not fit the traditional republican mould, admitting a liking for cricket and having a mother who was once a member of the SDLP — but resigned during the hunger strike.
During his second spell in prison the republican inmate did a degree in philosophy and politics, being awarded first-class honours, and was then released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.