The Felon’s Club.

In my younger days I often frequented a rather exclusive gentleman’s club in North Belfast.

I wasn’t a full member, but I did enjoy the rather distinctive ambience. The Felon’s club in New Lodge was, like its name same on Andy Town road, a social club run by chaps who had served time for political offences connected to the Irish Republican cause. For them the term “felon” was a badge of honour. I get that. It’s in my blood.

My grandmother’s two brothers were interned in Britain in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. When they were returned to Mayo Mick Collins knew he had two men in the Wesht that he could rely on. The War of Independence IRA was gathered together and trained by the British.

Gaol time has often acted as a university course of Irish revolutionaries. When I would return to York University where I was reading for a degree in Politics and sociology I had to get used to a much lower level of debate and erudition than I had enjoyed when exploring the Northern situation with graduates of Long Kesh in the Felon’s Club. I have one cherished memory when once refereed a heated debate between two fellas who couldn’t agree on the literary significance of Maxim Gorky!

I rather suspect such disputes were not taking place in Loyalist establishments…

There is a long and distinguished list of heads of state who, in their younger days, were political prisoners. As the British Empire dismembered in the mid-20th century many of those countries’ future leaders would study and prepare for the coming burden of high office in a prison cell.

Martin McGuiness was certainly a political prisoner in 1973.

He was sentenced to six months in the “Special Criminal Court” in Dublin.

Refusing to recognise the non-jury court he said:

“We have fought against the killing of our people… I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it!”

It was a fiction that this court was anything other than the type of judicial process that General Frank Kitson wanted.

“…a rubber stamp for disposing of unwanted members of the public.”

In the south as in the North the criminal justice system was bent out of shape to deal with people who were not criminals.

The only reason that martin McGuinness wasn’t so disposed of by the British in those days was that they couldn’t catch him.

The Peace Process that made Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister of the Northern assembly came out of an attempt by successive British governments to style Irish republican POWs as common criminals.

Over 31,000 people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone disagreed that Bobby Sands was a criminal.

They gave a similar mandate to Owen Carron later the same year.

Perhaps that was the start of the Peace Process?

Was it the start of a re-think within the entirely Fenian provisional movement?

Maybe then people started to say that there was, after all, an alternative to the gun?

Last week, on live radio, Martin McGuiness refused to insult anyone’s intelligence by refusing to deny that he had “fired a gun.”

When he was imprisoned by the Irish state they were clear and he was clear that he was in the IRA.

Now he has unfettered access to the corridors of power at Leinster House and the Palace of Westminster.

There isn’t, of course, anything new in any of this on the island of Ireland.

Eamonn De Valera knew what it was to be a prisoner of the British and the Irish Free State. He was the last prisoner to be held in Kilmainham

Sean T O’Kelly, the second President of Ireland, was also a felon in his youth. In Easter week 1916 he was staff captain to Patrick Pearse and although he avoided court-martial by the British he was arrested and interned in England.

Both these fenian felons would later become Uachtarán na hÉireann.

The attraction of Martin McGuiness to many ordinary people in the 26 county area wasn’t that he was once in the IRA or, by his own admission, “fired a gun”, but he isn’t seen as part of the political establishment that has beggared this society and indebted our grandchildren.

The Northern Bank robbery of 2004 now looks like a tuck shop heist next to what was perpetrated against the Irish tax payer in the late months of 2008. The bank bailout and the “Anglo job” would have old lag Ronnie Biggs green with envy.

I would expect British journalists and commentators to recoil in horror at the thought of a onetime street revolutionary becoming head of state in Ireland.

However I did expect more historical awareness of Irish history from the Dublin media.

Ok, my bad.

In this topsy turvy world we could even be getting opinion formers within political unionism and, indeed, loyalism saying to the southern comentariat:

“Why can’t McGuinness be your president? He could be our First Minister?”

Northern Ireland statelet heads for its centenary.  Partition is a reality on this island.

It created two societies.

As well as the criminal justice being deformed to cope with the war situation journalism and the free press was also a casualty.

It is always the first casualty and Orwellian lies had to be told about the Republican Movement if they were to be defeated.

For a while, as Prime Ministers Thatcher’s reign of error descended into insanity, British TV viewers could see Martin McGuinness’ face and could see his lips move, but an actor had to say the words.

In the 26 counties the censorship of Republicans was longer and much more damaging.

During the Northern War Section 31 of the broadcasting act banned Sinn Fein representatives from the national media. There are many senior media people now, at the top of their organisations that came into the media trade after Section 31 was in force.

Brought in in 1971 it led to the entire Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) authority being sacked that year and the imprisonment of RTÉ’s Kevin O Kelly.

His crime was that he had interviewed IRA chief of staff Sean Mac Stiofain.

Section 31 was it was   heavily strengthened in 1977 by Labour’s Conor Cruise O’Brien.

There probably wasn’t another democracy in Western Europe with such state censorship at the time.

Despite it being repealed in 1993 many of them still don’t get it.

They never left the easy world of Section 31.

They still don’t see Sinn Fein representatives with a democratic mandate as bona fide.

In many ways President McGuinness is the sum of all of their fears.

Since McGuinness announced his candidacy the Dublin media have worked themselves up into a frenzy.

I spoke with a good friend, a Dublin based Sinn féin activist, and I said to him that his party should not attempt to interrupt the anti McGuinness elements in the media while they were self-harming.  The ordinary people of the 26 counties would keep their own counsel on the matter. These are the same folk that waited for Fianna Fail in the long grass and culled 48 of their TDs at the last election.

Forty eight

I think the Derry man in Áras an Uachtaráin, copper fastens the Belfast Agreement, it further reconnects North and South and it will finally, I hope, kill a nasty censorial strain within Dublin based journalism.

Martin McGuinness is also, by a country mile, the most able of all of the candidates to an extent that it is almost unfair to make a comparison.

It is for these reasons that he will receive my “Number One”.

I hope that once more Uachtarán na hÉireann will be the office of First Felon.

Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion