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December 14, 2007

Troubles Past, Irish Republicans Move On

Troubles Past, Irish Republicans Move On

By Bill McClellan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Johnny McGibbon is a member of Sinn Fein and serves on the
Craigavon Borough Council in County Armagh. He flew to St. Louis
on Wednesday morning. He is the future of Northern Ireland. He is
21 and does not remember the Troubles.

"My earliest memory of all of that is the cease-fire of '94," he
told me. By then, the real fury had wound down, but the official
end to the fighting came with the Good Friday Accords of 1998.

To understand the significance of somebody from Northern Ireland
not remembering the Troubles, you have to understand that the
conflict has been going on for almost 500 years, ever since King
Henry VIII of England embraced the Protestant reformation and
tried to pacify his Roman Catholic subjects in Ireland by
planting 150,000 Protestant Scots in the northern province of

When the Irish achieved independence in 1921, Ulster was split
off from the rest of the country. The Republican movement sought
to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. The heart
of the movement was its military wing, the Irish Republican Army.
Its political wing was Sinn Fein.

The most recent fighting began in the late '60s when the
Catholics of Northern Ireland began demonstrating for civil
rights and their demonstrations were met with counter-
demonstrations. There were riots. In January 1972, British
soldiers shot 26 people during a march in Derry. Thirteen died on
what was called Bloody Sunday.

Irish-Americans funneled a lot of money to the Republican
movement. Much of the money was gathered by the Irish Northern
Aid Society. With the conflict over and a unity government in
place, the society has turned to education. It sponsored
McGibbon's trip to the states. He's been talking to groups about
the state of affairs in Northern Ireland today. I had lunch with
him at Seamus McDaniel's in Dogtown.

And what is the state of affairs? Very good, very positive, he
said. The Republican movement still favors eventual unification
and things are moving in that direction, McGibbon said. When do
you think it might happen? I wouldn't put a timetable on it, he
said, but it is happening.

I thought about another lunch at Seamus McDaniel's in 1999. Gerry
Kelly was in town. He was more IRA than Sinn Fein. He had been
arrested in London in 1973 for trying to bomb Scotland Yard. He
was given two life sentences but escaped from the prison after
serving 10 years and wound up in Holland. The Dutch agreed he was
a soldier rather than a criminal and agreed to extradite him only
when the British agreed to forget his original sentence and
charge him only with escape. So he did another five years.

When we had lunch eight years ago, Kelly had just been to South
Africa. He said that Nelson Mandela and the African National
Congress were the role models for the Republican movement. They
negotiated a transfer of power and they didn't seek vengeance on
their one-time oppressors, he explained.

I was in Northern Ireland a couple of months ago. I met with
Raymond McCartney in Derry. He is a Sinn Fein member of the new
national assembly. He is a former IRA man who did 15 years in
prison for two murders. His convictions were eventually
overturned. He was a hunger striker in prison, and there is a
large mural of him in Derry. He was just back from a conference
in South Africa when I saw him. The South African government is
up and running. Still a role model.

I saw Kelly at a party in Belfast. He is now second in command on
the Republican side in the new government.

Perhaps the most interesting man I met was a man in Derry who had
been high up in the IRA command structure. He was never arrested,
and he has remained largely anonymous. He could have come from
Central Casting.

"A lot of people died, and I'm sorry about that, but change comes
from a gun," he said. He talked about people he knew who were
"too decent." Yet Matt Morrison, a former IRA man who now lives
in St. Louis and who gave me introductions to his old colleagues,
told me that the man was one of the early proponents of a
political solution. When most IRA men were skeptical about Sinn
Fein, he promoted it. It's the future, he had said.

Now the future is here. The Republicans and Sinn Fein seem to
have history on their side. I asked McGibbon if he had heard of
the man from Derry. He looked blank for a minute, and then he
said, "It sort of rings a bell," but I had the idea he was just
being polite.

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