Belfast Telegraph

John McCain a hero and man of principle who bravely put boot into the cowardly IRA

By Lindy McDowell

The great John McCain, US senator and arguably the most outstanding president America never had, died at the weekend - a few days short of what would have been his 82nd birthday today.

The international response to the news of his death, from prime ministers, presidents and leaders right across the globe, has been unprecedented, especially for a man who was ultimately frustrated in his own political ambitions.

McCain twice ran for president. He was defeated in the battle for the Republican nomination by George W Bush in 2000 and in the presidential campaign of 2008 by Barack Obama.

But it says everything about him that both men who beat him retained the very highest respect for him.

McCain was, and will remain, a colossus of modern American history. A statesman who rose above pettiness and politics to put principle before party allegiance and self-interest.

He was a man who chose to do the right thing, even when that brought the opprobrium of his own party colleagues.

Along with 'hero' the word that's been most used this week to describe McCain is 'maverick'.

There are few mavericks like him anymore. Maybe there never were.

The story of McCain's heroism in the Vietnam conflict is widely known - the horror of his capture and long years of imprisonment; his refusal to accept release until all his men had been freed.

In his politics he was similarly upstanding. In the Senate he voted with his conscience. He was not afraid to speak out, even when it risked alienating a chunk of the electorate.

A prime example of that was in 2005, when he famously laid into the IRA at a St Patrick's Day dinner while that one-time darling of Irish America, Gerry Adams, sat stoney-faced, staring into his napkin.

Also there were the sisters and partner of Robert McCartney, who'd been savagely butchered by the IRA after a fracas in a Belfast bar. The man who'd ordered Mr McCartney's gruesome daylight murder and those who'd carried it out were Provos.

In an excoriating address, McCain denounced the IRA as cowards - "an organised crime syndicate that steals and murders to serve its members' personal interests".

It was a fierce and courageous condemnation of a terror group whose political representatives had many Irish American allies - and had hitherto been accustomed to being feted and fawned over during the annual St Patrick's Day White House gig.

More recently McCain had not been behind the door either in voicing disdain for current White House incumbent Donald Trump. That Trump failed to rise above his pique to pay fitting tribute this week comes as no surprise. Whatever you expect from Donald Trump, it isn't graciousness and civility.

John McCain on the other hand, was a man who frequently rose above bipartisan rancour. Which only makes Trump's boorishness even more pointed - and poignant.

To understand the late senator, commentators maintain, you have to look to his heritage. McCain was intensely proud of his Ulster Scots (or Scots-Irish) roots and relatives. Among his forebears was a man called Young who'd come from Coleraine.

The Ulster Scots gave America many of its presidents, its warriors and its leaders - and much of that maverick spirit.

And there's evidence there's still a bit of maverick in the local DNA. That we're not entirely beyond hope in terms of rising above our own tribal divisions.

I was so impressed by a couple of recent gestures. By SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill's visit to a Royal Black Institution parade, and by UUP MLA Robbie Butler's decision to go to Dublin to see the Pope. Both stepped out beyond the usual bounds of tribal solidarity and comfort. And both have rightly won respect.

Senator McCain spent a lifetime of stepping well beyond the safe zone - in every sense.

He epitomised decency and honour in a world where those concepts have been tarnished by the rush to attain and retain power.

One dodgy president may be too petty to hail him. But the entire world salutes John McCain.

Belfast Telegraph

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