Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Mervyn Gibson has his questions to answer, but so do all of us when it comes to separating an artist's paramilitary past from their current work

By Malachi O'Doherty

Mervyn Gibson has questions to answer and he isn't making a good job of it. If he can go to an exhibition of paintings by Michael Stone, a serial killer, then can he reasonably argue that the Orange Order should not meet with Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald?

McDonald has not killed anyone, though she does celebrate the IRA, which did.

Mr Gibson is grand secretary of the Orange Order and he offers us a distinction.

He has defended the Orange Order decision not to meet with Sinn Fein but sees "no inconsistency in me, as an individual, going to such an exhibition".

That's okay, so he wears different hats, sometimes speaks for the Order and sometimes is out in public, at events, trusting people to recognise that he is not there as an Orangeman and is not implicating the Order in what he does or says or who he meets.

And he adds, speaking on Radio Ulster's Talkback show yesterday: "Over the years I have met many senior Sinn Fein officials who were terrorists, and I do so in the interests of progress and building peace."

Well, good for him. If he has met former IRA terrorists in the interests of peace making, it seems difficult to understand precisely why he couldn't recommend the same magnanimity to his Orange brethren.

What, after all, is the more meritorious gesture: meeting a party leader in the interests of advancing reconciliation or just going to an exhibition to admire a few paintings by a former killer?

Yet, this question is coming up more often now, of how we, or whether we, separate an artist's paramilitary past from his or her current work.

And now the council in Armagh is criticised for hosting a sporting event in honour of Mairead Farrell, one of the Gibraltar bomb team killed by the SAS in 1988.

Stone will remember that case with particular clarity because he ambushed the funeral in Milltown Cemetery, killing three more people.

And, about to hit the book market next month, is a novel written by a former IRA Press officer based on the 2004 Northern Bank robbery.

Some of us in the media have had an advance reading of Richard O'Rawe's Northern Heist, and it is unquestionably a serious and superior work of fiction. But it arguably draws on insights that O'Rawe gained as an IRA bank robber himself.

He has written in another book, Blanketmen, about how he found himself in the Maze Prison after a botched job.

I have to say, I think O'Rawe's book is a stunner.

I also have to conclude that his genius as a storyteller is inseparable from his life experience. Had he not been in the IRA he could not have written this book.

And Lawrence McKeown, a former IRA hunger striker, is also making a name for himself as a writer, as is Danny Morrison , whose novel The Wrong Man has just been republished. Gerry Adams is branching out into cookery.

So is there a moral dilemma here?

A republican who respects the right of IRA bombers to kill people will have no difficulty with a Mairead Farrell tribute game, but most of us don't think the IRA ever had a right to kill people or that there are any grounds for honouring someone who did.

The passage of time may have softened concern, though.

But artists must be judged on their work. Some of Adams' short stories are good; some are transparent propaganda.

And readers must be allowed to judge for themselves.

But that doesn't fully answer the question of how to respond to Stone.

He claimed that his attempt to enter Stormont and kill Adams and McGuinness was a piece of performance art, a recognised genre.

This is, actually, a more plausible account of his antic than the charge that he was engaged in a genuine murder attempt, given that he had already advertised his presence with graffiti on the outside wall.

There was no realistic prospect of any other outcome than that he would be intercepted and arrested.

And that's what is worrying about Stone. He has himself confused his artwork with his violence.

Still, the Reach project which exhibited paintings by Stone and his wife Karen, says it is committed to helping people find a place in a better society and Michael Stone has as much right to rehabilitate as any other criminal.

But I would want to know that if his paintings are exhibited it is because of their quality, the artistic merit in the work. Confident of that, I would wish him every success.

My fear is that their only selling point is that they were made with a killer's hand.

As for the merit in the distinction Mervyn Gibson makes, that he is content to meet former terrorists personally to advance peace making, but also to endorse the Orange Order's decision to do no such thing.

That's a trickier distinction to defend.

Belfast Telegraph

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