“the first step is to act with good authority by telling the truth to your own tribe”

Interesting piece in the Sunday Independent from newly appointed senator Eoghan Harris on his appearance at West Belfast Talks Back. He takes issue with his introduction by the BBC’s Martina Purdy but the point to note, I’d suggest, whilst others march for half-truth, is something picked up briefly in Malachi O’Doherty’s audio diary on Sunday Sequence. Namely his challenge to his own tribe for some self-examination.

Forty-one years ago, this weekend, I travelled to Maghera, Co Derry, with Dr Roy Johnston of the Republican movement’s think tank, the Wolfe Tone Society, and Cathal Goulding, chief of staff of the IRA, to attend a secret meeting of assorted academics, communists and IRA leaders, which was held at the fine farm of Kevin Agnew over the weekend of August 14-15 in the golden autumn of 1966.

Although I was not a member of the IRA, Eamon Maille’s book The Provisional IRA correctly records that at the Maghera meeting, I read out the comprehensive plan, drawn up by the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society, for setting up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which Goulding hoped would both achieve civil rights and lead the Republican movement away from a narrow nationalist agenda.

While that peaceful project was thwarted by Unionist politicians like William Craig, and later by the equally bigoted nationalists like British-born Provo IRA intransigent Sean Mac Stiophain, there is no truth in the People’s Democracy claim that sectarian violence was inevitable. The Provisional IRA willed that worst scenario.

Back in August 1966, however, neither Roy Johnston nor myself dreamed that the noble dream of NICRA was doomed to be diverted into the sterile struggle of the Provisional IRA. Above all, as I told my audience, if I myself could have seen 12 years ahead, I doubt whether I would have continued to support even the civil rights struggle.

Because 12 years later, in Maghera, on February 28 1978, William Gordon, a part-time member of the UDR, together with his 10-year-old daughter Lesley, were blown to bits by a car bomb planted by Francis Hughes, who later died on hunger strike. And while Hughes, as I told the West Belfast meeting, might be one of their local heroes, to me, as a Wolfe Tone republican, he seemed a sectarian murderer.

In spite of this, and in spite of the sectarian mind-set of many Northern nationalists, the dream of Wolfe Tone’s benign Republic of minds and hearts never died in my heart of hearts. And, as I told the audience, far from changing my mind on this core issue, for the past 41 years I have consistently tried to show my tribe the two sides of that Wolfe Tone coin.