Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Mary Lou McDonald says Sean Kelly is committed to the peace process... but there are other ways of showing it than knocking doors for Sinn Fein in North Belfast

The DUP's ability to criticise is hampered by the party's welcoming of former paramilitaries and regular consultations with active ones, says Tom Kelly

People clear away rubble after the Shankill bomb in October 1993
People clear away rubble after the Shankill bomb in October 1993

By Tom Kelly

This was always going to be a tough election. A dirty election. The community as a whole is deeply divided and entrenched. The stakes have rarely been higher. Change is almost certain. It's whether that change takes us forward, or back.

The debate around Brexit has sharpened the lines between people which were once softened, or blurred, by the Good Friday Agreement. Language has become toxic and poisonous and some politicians are quite simply acting like orcs.

So, when a sane voice, like victims' campaigner Alan McBride, airs some concerns about the conduct of election campaigning, all the political parties should listen.

This writer, like many readers, only knows Alan McBride by his name, voice and his words. We know that he lost his wife, Sharon McBride (29), and father-in-law John Frizzell (63) in the senseless horror of the Shankill bombing, but we know that his loss is not the totality of his being.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald

He is a man who has had to focus on the future for the sake of his daughter.

Somehow, some way, Alan McBride found the strength not just to rise, but to soar above the quagmire and sewer which engulfs so much of what passes for political discourse in Northern Ireland.

Of course, Mr McBride isn't always right, but at the basis of whatever he says, there is thoughtfulness and humanity. On The Nolan Show this week, he showed enormous graciousness about one of the two bombers, Sean Kelly. A graciousness which seems to have fallen on stony ground.

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Kelly is no more notorious than any other bomber. Like others, his actions led to the murder of innocent people, or to use paramilitary-speak, 'non-combatants'.

There was nothing heroic about the actions of Kelly, or fellow bomber Thomas Begley, who was killed on that fateful day. The tragedy was for the families of the innocent dead, which included two children and two pensioners.

Hard to believe that, during the planning and execution of this attack, peace talks were ongoing.

Victims’ campaigner Alan McBride
Victims’ campaigner Alan McBride

Some now believe that these people may have died unnecessarily to save face for paramilitary godfathers - some of whom may have been British agents.

Following the Shankill bombing, the so-called 'retaliation' by loyalist paramilitaries was equally horrendous - spreading fear and terror among the wider Catholic community. That anyone seeks to memorialise, or commemorate, these acts of depravity on murals for visiting tourists is beyond sickening.

Kelly was convicted for his part in the bombing and released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. He appears to have been a slow convert, as he was rearrested and released again.

Like other former prisoners, in the now infamous words of Lord Trimble, "Just because you have a past doesn't mean you can't have a future", Kelly, like others in the IRA, or UVF and UDA, has a right to rebuild his life - something acknowledged by Alan McBride.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald tells us that Kelly is wholly committed to the peace process and works tirelessly for it. He certainly appears dedicated to Sinn Fein.

But the peace process is much wider than the self-interest of any one political party.

Yet, Sinn Fein representatives speak of the growth of the party and the peace process in the one breath as if they are the same thing.

That's the problem with Sinn Fein: its raison d'etre was - and is - about the primacy of themselves alone.

Ms McDonald says she won't take a homily from the DUP on the involvement of former paramilitaries in Sinn Fein campaigns and, in that, she is right.

Shankill bomber Sean Kelly
Shankill bomber Sean Kelly

But she should heed the humbling words of Alan McBride. There are bound to be other, less public ways of serving Sinn Fein. The Shankill bombing resonated with unionists, because it was one of the last big atrocities against their community. And it still hurts.

McDonald, who insists on an "Ireland of equals", should understand that equality is based on trust, empathy and sensitivity.

But Alan McBride wasn't just speaking to Sinn Fein; his words were also addressed to the DUP and what he called their almost "puritanical stance" towards Sinn Fein and paramilitaries. Alan McBride is again too gracious, indeed too generous, to the DUP.

There is nothing puritanical about the DUP these days. Long gone is any sense of censorious moral attitude towards self-indulgence. A quick read of Sam McBride's wonderful Burned, about the RHI scandal, would dispel any notions once held about that party.

The cries of over-exaggerated outrage by the DUP and other unionists over the insensitive involvement of Sean Kelly as part of the public-facing campaign of John Finucane in North Belfast were nothing short of pantomime.

First to the stage was the DUP's own Dandini - Sir Jeffrey Donaldson - with his almost comical quip (I say 'almost' as the DUP does neither humour nor irony) - that the SDLP should clarify if Kelly would be canvassing for them.

Clearly, since his elevation, Sir Jeffery does not paddle in the same pools as some of his Belfast colleagues.

That the DUP welcome openly "reformed" paramilitaries into their ranks and consult regularly with active ones is lost on nobody.

The whole concept of unionist unity is about not looking too closely at who is standing beside you on a platform.

Mainstream unionists appear to only get sniffy about their paramilitary dialogues after the Twelfth of July, or the day after elections.

'Hypocritical' is not a strong enough adjective to describe any faux moral indignation over Sean Kelly knocking a few doors in Ardoyne.

In this election, the DUP is likely to lose ground and, when they do, it will be down to pure hubris. Any other party beset with the number of scandals the DUP has endured over the past three years would be wiped out at a general election.

But Northern Ireland is like Jurassic Park.

And while Sinn Fein is throwing the kitchen sink at unseating Nigel Dodds, if they fail, that failure is theirs alone.

Ignoring voices like Alan McBride will come at a cost. And so it should.

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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