--Steven McCaffery
Irish News

Throughout the peace process, Sinn Féin's tightly controlled party
machinery has dulled any dissenting voices.

In an unprecedented insight into the party, former Sinn Féin
assembly member John Kelly, a founding member of the Provisional
IRA, tells Steven McCaffery that this central control has reached
intolerable levels...

John Kelly hit the earth with a thump. His rough landing inside the
walls of Crumlin Road prison brought his escape plan to a crashing

Today he recalls the episode almost 50 years ago and holds up his
left hand to show the crooked finger broken in the fall.

"I didn't get any hospital treatment. I damaged two discs in my back
and lay in a cell for something like 10 days.

"I was never taken outside to the hospital. My back still suffers
from it," he said.

In 1956, while still a teenager, he had been sentenced to seven
years in prison for the possession of arms.

His fall cost him an extra six months, which he spent in solitary

The Belfast-born republican has been jailed three times for IRA
activities, serving a total of 15 years in prisons north and south
of the border.

Involved in the border campaign of the 1950s to early 1960s, his
republican credentials stretch back to the early 20th century. His
uncle Billy was one of James Connolly's election agents.

Kelly himself was among a clutch of northern republicans who in
1969/70 wrestled control from the IRA leadership of the time. The
move came in the face of spiralling sectarian violence, and led a
radical hard core to form the Provisional IRA.

It is this republican clout which added punch to his criticisms of
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams in yesterday's (Monday) Irish News.

The 68-year-old, now based in Maghera, Co Derry, highlighted his own
IRA convictions and said he was "disappointed and flabbergasted"
with the vehemence with which Gerry Adams has rejected persistent
allegations that he was once an IRA member.

It was a rare event for the peace process – open questioning of the
Sinn Féin leadership by a high-profile member of the republican

John Kelly first came to prominence in the landmark 1970 arms trial,
when he stood in the dock alongside the then Irish government
minister and future taoiseach Charles Haughey.

Violence in the north had peaked with vicious sectarian pogroms in
Belfast. It is estimated that around 1,600 Catholic and 300
Protestant families were forced to flee their homes.

The situation saw the Irish army establish field hospitals on the
border to act as refugee camps for fleeing nationalists.

In this atmosphere, claims emerged of an Irish government-sponsored
plot to smuggle arms to northern nationalists, effectively
delivering the weapons into the hands of the then regrouping IRA.

Many still see the 'arms trials' that followed as the greatest
single crisis to hit the southern state.

The case against John Kelly and his co-accused collapsed, but in
1974 Kelly was again arrested in the Republic for IRA membership.

He says that after that point he drifted to the "fringes" of the
republican movement, until Sinn Féin asked him to stand for the
local government elections in 1996, when he won a seat on
Magherafelt District Council.

After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement he also won a place
in the new power sharing assembly representing the Mid-Ulster

Last year, after undergoing heart surgery, he announced he would not
be defending the seat for Sinn Féin at the next election – but there
was surprise that he also withdrew from the party at that time.

In the face of continuing speculation that he privately felt he was
mistreated by Sinn Féin, he declined to make any public comment on
the matter.

Now he feels the reasons for his departure should be made public, in
the hope of spurring greater levels of debate about the republican
movement's future.

"The beginning of it was when I went in to see dissident republican
prisoners in Maghaberry (prison). Two of them were constituents of
mine," he said.

"I went in to see them on humanitarian grounds, not because I
thought they were correct in what they had been doing. I wouldn't
have been advising them to do that.

"Nevertheless, they were prisoners, as I was a prisoner, and I went
to see them.

"Following that I was pulled to one side and told that 'people
weren't happy' with my going to see the prisoners."

He later agreed to attend two rallies in Armagh organised by Marion
Price, of the dissident-aligned 32 County Sovereignty Movement, to
call for the segregation of republican and loyalist prisoners in
Maghaberry jail.

Mr Kelly said he viewed this as a "civil rights issue".

"That led to further tensions. When the segregation issue was
settled, the Irish News rang me about it and I congratulated Marion
Price for the lonely and difficult stand she took on it.

"And again I was censured immediately for that – for that two-line

"So I began to feel that within Sinn Féin republicanism there was no
room or no space for people to have an opinion that was different
from the leadership's opinion, and I felt that was contrary to the
whole spirit of republicanism. It was contrary, not only to
republicanism, but to the whole concept of the civil rights movement
where people living in a police state had been denied the right to
have a political opinion that was contrary to unionism.

"I felt that we couldn't go down the same road in terms of our own
constituency. I thought it was dangerous as well and unhealthy."

In a separate development, nationalist representatives on
Magherafelt council agreed to introduce the d'Hondt system of power-
sharing employed at Stormont.

The outworking of this was that DUP councillor Willie McCrea was
entitled to hold chairmanship of the council, supported by Sinn Féin
representatives. But Mr McCrea was a hate figure among a large
section of the local nationalist population.

His condemnations of violence were perceived as compromised by his
decision to once share a public platform with the loyalist
paramilitary Billy Wright. Mr Kelly said he felt the force of a
grassroots backlash.

"When this thing came in to the public domain I was left to carry
the can," he said.

"For me the argument wasn't about Willie McCrea, it was about how we
as a republican and nationalist community dealt with our political

"And it seemed logical to me that we should be demonstrating in a
very clear way that we would not do unto them that which they had
done unto us. I got no support from the leadership in terms of all
of that.

"They should have been standing up and saying: 'Yes, this was the
correct thing to do'.

"It wasn't about Willie McCrea, but you couldn't pick a better
subject to demonstrate your sincerity. He was a demon within

"The other side of that coin is that for unionists there must be
many demons within Sinn Féin.

"They must find some of us as abhorrent as we perhaps find Willie

But the veteran republican was also angered by the degree to which
he claims debate was stifled within Sinn Féin, and he speaks of
attempts to rigidly control contact between elected representatives
and the media.

"Sinn Féin are a very controlled organisation," he said.

"Some of my republican colleagues referred to them as a benign
dictatorship. That's their cynical view of it.

"It is a 'control dictatorship' with all the elite at the top.
Everything has to be filtered through that and no-one else is to be
given space to express an opinion.

"For example, at a party meeting some three years ago up at Stormont
I suggested that we should have more dialogue with unionists.

"I was told that 'having a dialogue with unionists requires a health

"That again was the kind of control – to say that people, apart from
leadership figures, couldn't talk to unionists without a health
warning being attached to it."

"I can understand from the transition from the conflict into
politics that they wanted to maintain tight control, an almost
obsessive control, of the way things are going.

"I find it difficult because that was never the way within

He referred to the observation of writer Brendan Behan, himself an
IRA member, that the first item on the agenda of each republican
discussion was "the split". But Mr Kelly claimed the control
necessary to ensure cohesion within a political party was exceeded.

"You weren't allowed to speak to the press without speaking to the
[Sinn Féin] press office.

"And if you were speaking to the press they wanted to know how
reporters got your number, and 'why were we not told about it'.

"I put all that down to the fear of someone saying the wrong thing.

"But there was no respect for the individual or the intelligence of
the individual.

"I think also, overarching all that, there was this type of control
at the top – this elite group as it were – who were to be the voice
of Sinn Féin, to be the voice of the republican community."

His observations are similar to some older members of the British
Labour Party, uncomfortable with the compromises which helped take
Tony Blair's 'New Labour' to power. But Mr Kelly denied that he was
the only voice within Sinn Féin who was concerned at the levels of
central control.

"I think there are people who would be echoing what I am saying, but
who at the end of the day would do what they were told," he said.

"So there was a distinction between whether you wanted to go along
with that, or whether you wanted to – not be your own man – but to
at least be allowed the dignity to express your own opinion.

"And not to be treated as someone who is incapable of having a
political opinion, or doesn't have the intelligence to have a
political opinion."

Mr Kelly said he did feel he could speak out, but others were unable
to do so.

"I think I was in a stronger position to speak out.

"But I think as well, because you have that length of service, you
felt that people should respect that, and that they should trust
your ability to speak on things and that you shouldn't have to be
subservient to this kind of elitism."

He cited further concerns over policy shifts delivered from the top

These included the acceptance of Private Finance Initiative (PFI)
schemes, which controversially brought private sector finance into
the public sector.

While this seemed at odds with other left-wing party policies, he
claims the principle was sacrificed for the need to support Martin
McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun, who as education and health
ministers oversaw building projects based on PFI cash.

Mr Kelly also expressed concerns at continuing drift and uncertainty
over the role of the IRA.

"In the whole history of physical force republicanism, going back to
the United Irishmen, to Pearse and the War of Independence and
beyond that, republicans never bartered arms for political
progress," he said.

"It was always said that they (the IRA) were dumping arms and

"Physical force republicanism always prided itself in maintaining
its honour in terms of its word – that they said what they meant and
they meant what they said and there was no equivocation.

"There was none of this business of creative ambiguity, or
incremental compromise.

"I think it devalued the very political process that we entered in
to – the Good Friday Agreement. It devalued it and created distrust
around it.

"People have said to me that there was this notion of 'ad hocery'.

"There was no long-term planned strategy, it was just moving from
day to day. And sometimes things fell in to your political lap and
sometimes they didn't."

Mr Kelly claimed that the republican leadership failed to be frank
with grassroots members about the direction in which Sinn Féin was

In a reference to earlier phases in republican history, when
physical force movements transferred on to a purely political path,
he added: "And Sinn Féin are now in the position pro-treaty
republicans were in 1921, as Fianna Fail was, as Clann na Poblachta

"They are a constitutional nationalist party, if you like, they are –
if there is such a political animal as constitution republicanism –
a constitutional republican party.

"So in that context there is no role for physical force
republicanism. There is no function for physical force

"And if you try to pretend there is, you devalue physical force
republicanism and you turn it into a kind of militia that does not
have the raison d'etre of physical force republicanism."

"That causes tensions as well. Had the leadership been more open
with the rank and file, with the republican families, with the
grassroots, then we would not have the difficulties that we find
ourselves in today in terms of the Good Friday Agreement."

Mr Kelly ruled out any return to violence by mainstream republicans.

"There can be no return to war," he said. "The people do not want
it. And the success of Sinn Féin after the agreement was predicated
on the belief that the agreement would deliver peace. People were
supporting that notion."

A supporter of the agreement, he also spoke out against dissident
republican violence.

"It is always going to be there (violent republicanism). But it is
now foolish, I think it is counterproductive," he said.

"I think it is sad that young people should again be finding
themselves behind prison walls.

"I would rather see them galvanised towards working – even
separately from Sinn Féin republicanism – but working towards the
constitutional political settlement I think is there to be gained."

He then moved to highlight what he said are the achievements of the
current crop of Sinn Féin leaders.

"In the round I think that in terms of the politics of where they
wanted to go, they have been by and large successful as is
demonstrated by their electoral success," he said.

"I think that in the overall all-island context, they are doing very
well in terms of their political project.

"Certainly they have brought an awareness, and indeed Bertie Ahern
has brought an awareness, of the need to resolve the northern
situation once and for all in terms of our historical struggle – the
whole sacrifice, the whole death and destruction suffered by both

"In that sense it has been brought forward," he said.

"Certainly things for Sinn Féin republicans are better.

"I think things are better for nationalists and republicans
generally within the six counties.

"There is no sense that nationalism and republicanism can ever
accept anything less than equality and the right to advance their
own identity, whatever form that takes.

"The agreement gives republicans a political architecture to pursue
their objectives in a democratic way, free from harassment and free
from intimidation of a kind we had in the past."

He said the criticisms he has levelled against the party were aimed
at "encouraging a debate".

"And that said, I have no desire to be a thorn in the flesh of Sinn
Féin republicanism for the sake of being a thorn in the flesh."

He added: "I think that opening up the debate is healthy. The civil
rights movement was a struggle against a police state that policed
the words and thoughts of the people – and we cannot exchange one
such system of political gagging for another.

"You cannot be a 'subject' of a political party, you have to be
a 'citizen' of it."

March 3, 2004

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