Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
Martin Galvin speaks to Doire-based journalist Eamon Sweeney about current issues in Ireland: the protests over a British soldier being charged in a legacy case, the charges against Ivor Bell and Fianna Fáil standing candidates in the Six Counties. (begins time stamp ~ 36:37)
Martin: With us on the line we have the noted Doire-based journalist, Eamon Sweeney, who’s written for the Derry Journal, more recently with the Belfast Telegraph among other newspapers. Eamon, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
Eamon: Hi, how are you, Martin?
Martin: Okay. Eamon, I was looking at UTV News, on their website, today and there’s a story about a demonstration in London. And it supporters of a British soldier charged over the 1974 shooting of a man in The North. They are all demonstrating and gathering together in London. And they say that Dennis Hutchings is seventy-five and a long time has passed and there’s outrage and a number of people coming forward to say that these prosecutions against British troopers from so long ago should end. That he shot and killed, or is alleged to have shot and killed somebody, John-Pat Cunningham, in 1974. Alright, now yesterday – the reason we had booked you first – yesterday there was a court case involving a very prominent, well-known, very influential Republican from Belfast named Ivor Bell and he’s somebody now who, unfortunately, has some severe medical issues. Is somebody now over eighty years of age. This happened in a Belfast court and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Prosecution Service was asked their position on this and it seemed to be very different from the way they feel about Mr. Hutchings. Could you tell us who Ivor Bell is and what happened yesterday in court regarding Mr. Bell?
Eamon: Well as you pointed out, Ivor Bell is a very well-known Republican from Belfast. He is alleged to be in a high-ranking member of the IRA back in the ’70’s. And the case that he’s involved in directly relates to one of ‘the disappeared’, Jean McConville, back in 1972 and this is over his alleged or accused involvement in that awful killing back forty-five years ago. In all that time has elapsed, however, no other member of the Republican Movement has ever been brought to book for this apart from Ivor Bell who’s undergoing these accusations. As you’ve also said, he has been diagnosed with dementia, he’s eighty-one years old and it seems very much at odds with the position on the opposite side of the coin with regard to potential prosecutions of British soldiers who killed people in The North as well. It’s a strange case in the round. The whole situation is a very strange situation because it goes to the nub of the political hiatus ongoing currently in Northern Ireland with regard to the reconvening of Stomont.
Whilst talks are going on the only outstanding issue during all these talks and the consequent breakdowns has been the failure on all political sides to deal with the legacy of the past. And there are counter-demonstrations, mainly in Doire today, against the attempt to not prosecute the British soldier involved in the killing in South Armagh in 1974. And John-Pat Cunningham was twenty-seven years old at the time. He had special needs or special educational needs and that goes also to the heart of the killing of that young man all those years ago. But as you say there’s very different attitudes on both sides of the coin towards the prosecution of people both from the paramilitary side of things and from the British state side of things. If you tie that in I mean the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in Northern Ireland has had the findings related to the re-investigation of Bloody Sunday in their hands now for around six months after the Police Service here carried out a re-investigation with a view to, potentially, prosecuting British soldiers who were present at Bloody Sunday for murder. Now we all know what happened on Bloody Sunday – there’s no need to regurgitate the details of that – the consequent twelve year inquiry – but those findings have not been given an opinion on either way by the Prosecution Service so this issue again is raising its head. It’s raising its head with regard to the prosecution, or not, of British soldiers. Now you see Ivor Bell is going to be prosecuted despite his medical condition. And that’s the standing at the minute and sure there’ll be a legal challenge from his legal team on that. But that’s the way it stands this afternoon in Northern Ireland. There have been various counter-demonstrations to the one by the British forces in London this afternoon. It seemed to be pretty well attended so yet again there’s no resolution forthcoming in any sense or any reconciliation in any sense with regards to dealing with the past either in terms of the community coming together or a legal sort of streamlining of this at all. There seems to be no real sort of leveling of the playing field for anybody concerned. And it’s a shocking situation. I can’t see how political progress can be made in Northern Ireland unless this issue is satisfactorily dealt with for everyone on all sides soon.
Martin: And we should have mentioned: Ivor Bell is just charged with encouraging persons not before the court to commit certain actions or endeavouring to persuade persons not before the court meanwhile Mr. Hutchings is charged with actually firing the shots which killed Mr. Cunningham so many years ago. But…
Martin: …we want to go on to a couple of other topics: Number One, during the week there was a group called the Red Hand Commandos who have applied to be legalised and it’s said they want to get involved with community work and maybe grants – could you tell us who the Red Hand Commandos are that are now seeking to be legalised and seeking to get some kind of legal status and perhaps some community work?
Well as the name probably indicates to your listeners the Red Hand Commando (RHC) were a Loyalist, or are, a Loyalist organisation that sprang up around 1972-1973. They were heavily recruited from the young tartan gangs which were again young Loyalists operating in Northern Ireland at the time right at the outset of The Troubles when the times were particularly bad on the ground. They were then basically subsumed into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a much better as you well know, widespread organisation across The North and operated on their behalf on many occasions and they allowed the Ulster Volunteer Force to basically claim killings in their name whilst they were carried out, in fact, by the Red Hand Commando. They were a particularly secretive type of organisation within Loyalism. They were sort of hand-picked, cherry-picked if you will, from Loyalist organisations and taken into the wings of the Red Hand Commando. Now they are officially credited with killing twelve civilians during The Troubles and one of their own members so they’re officially credited with thirteen murders but it’s more widespread in that because the Ulster Volunteer Force are credited, for want of a better word, with five hundred murders during the gamut of The Troubles. So they were involved heavily in sectarian assassinations and like all the other paramilitary groups in some particularly heinous killings – you know, that paramilitary groups on both sides carried out. But what happened then recently is that because they are a proscribed organisation, ie banned and it’s illegal and punishable by jail to be a member of such an organisation, they’ve applied to the British government to become a legal organisation still carrying the same name, the Red Hand Commando. And what they want to do, they say, is channel themselves into community work and community development within the Loyalist community. Now, as you would imagine, there’s been a quite a hefty outcry from all quarters of the community.
The Unionist community have been just as scathing of this attempted move as the Republicans or Nationalists have. They don’t want basically to see anybody claiming in the name of Unionism or Protestantism funding for community development when they basically outcried what happened supposedly in their name for all those years. So that decision is still ongoing. It’s attracted a great deal of attention. So what you basically have here are guys who are allegedly still involved in criminality, drug dealing and so on, who are posing, or attempting to pose themselves, as community development workers within their own community. So it’s a very strange one and particularly in Europe, at this stage, it’s probably a unique facet of Northern Irish society as we stand at the moment but it remains to be seen whether that the British government will actually give them that. That means if they are accorded the status of a community development group they will be liable and completely open to funding from the British government or any other form of funding around – probably Europe as well. It’s been said that despite Brexit, for example, in the next eighteen months, that streams of European funding will still be made available to groups in Northern Ireland probably through the government in Dublin and that’s how they will be funded. So it’s a strange, strange situation that twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement that was supposed to do away with all this stuff that guys are still trying to channel money into organisations like that – it’s frankly offensive to the vast, vast majority of people on all sides in Northern Ireland that a group who carried out sectarian murders is now going to set itself up as a community development organisation. It’s anathema to any right-thinking mind in society I would say.
Martin: Okay. Now the next thing we wanted to speak to you about: You wrote a story this week for the Belfast Telegraph about Fianna Fáil. Now Fianna Fáil is one of the main parties. In fact it’s been in government in The South more so than any other political party in the south of Ireland since the inception of the Twenty-Six County’s state of independence. They are making moves to come north into the Six Counties which is something that hasn’t happened for a number of years. Could you tell us first what’s going on and why this is really significant?
Eamon: Well I think the significance of it has been sort of missed in general by everybody in The North at the moment. As you say we got our hands on the story and printed as did the Irish News, in fact. But what happened is that next month during their Ard Fheis, their annual conference, there will be an election to what Fianna Fáil now term the Committee of Fifteen, which is their national executive. On their national executive there’s a seat for one person from the North of Ireland. There are two names that have gone forward to claim that seat. One is that of a former SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) Lord Mayor of Belfast, a man named Pat McCarthy and the other is Sorcha McAnespy, who’s a former Sinn Féin Councillor on Omaga and Fermanagh District Council and they have admitted that their names have gone forward for that. But what makes it more significant is that for the first time in many, many decades Fianna Fáil seem serious this time about placing candidates up for election at the next council election which are scheduled to take place in The North in 2019. Now that immediately brings pressure to bear on the other Nationalist parties operating in The North, ie Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Now the SDLP in particular may find themselves under even more electoral pressure as Fianna Fáil manage to place candidates successfully for election inside Northern Ireland. It’s quite a significant move. As Pat McCarthy told me when I interviewed him for the Belfast Telegraph it’s about offering Nationalist another alternative to an all-Ireland dimension, ie an alternative to Sinn Féin. They operate of course as you know as an all-Ireland party inside the Thirty-Two Counties of Ireland. The SDLP have always been a party which operated solely inside Northern Ireland so they’ve been quite damaged recently in terms of elections so even at the local level if Fianna Fáil manage to place candidates – and I know, in the background, that they have approached quite a number of people for standing at the next council elections – and it immediately places them on the back foot.
What’s in it for Fianna Fáil? Potentially they know that they may be the major partner in government next time around in Dublin – there’s a general election due there within the next two years – it may be to offset the advances, electorally, that Sinn Féin have made down South. They may actually need, despite all the noises about not doing this for many years, Sinn Féin to operate a government next time in Dublin. So it may be quite a pragmatic move in terms of politics for Fianna Fáil but nevertheless it’s highly significant that after all the years of making noises about representing Nationalists in The North it seems, at this stage at least, this time, that they are prepared to do it. They have contested elections in the past inside Northern Ireland. One of the founders of the party, an incredibly well-known figure in Irish history of course, Éamon de Valera, stood in 1933 for Fianna Fáil in the South Down constituency for Stormont. Now, whilst …
Martin: …Eamon, Eamon – I’m sorry – we’re going to have to leave it there. He was, I know, banned from The North because when I was banned they wrote a story about the same thing happened to Éamon de Valera. I don’t have anything else in common with him. But he actually tried to visit his constituency and was shipped back. But we’re going to be watching this. This has the potential for some really important impact. Eamon, I want to thank you for being with us, talking to us about Ivor Bell’s case, about the Red Hand Commandos and certainly for writing and for talking to us about Fianna Fáil and what this may mean in terms of Republican politics from the South of Ireland reaching over into The North. Alright. We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much, Eamon.
Eamon: Not a problem, Martin. Bye-bye. (ends time stamp ~ 52:01)