Last Wednesday, I travelled with some trepidation to take part in a panel discussion "West Belfast Talks Back" as part of Feile an Phobail, the biggest cultural festival in Europe. Not that I was worried about the Provos. As a guest of Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, I was safer in West Belfast than in Dun Laoghaire.
The real risk was being charmed stupid by the committee. No, my real worry was wondering how a West Belfast audience would react to someone who described the community as delinquent for failing to show decent public respect when the remains of Jean McConville were brought home. And if you want an accurate account of what happened at the meeting you should check out Gerry Moriarty's concise report for Thursday's Irish Times.
But in this column I want to confine myself to what happened at the start of the meeting, when chairperson Martina Purdie innocently introduced me with a supplied potted biography which seemed to have been Googled from Phoenix. The bio made a big deal about my alleged lack of political consistency. For the benefit of a generation of green journalists who believe everything they Google, let me take a 40-year trip down memory lane as I did in West Belfast to see whether the lack of consistency charge stands up.
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.
The first side of that coin, as I saw it, was to face down Provo fascism. The second side was to unveil the United Irishmen's vision of a benign union of minds and hearts. And, as I told the West Belfast meeting, the first step is to act with good authority by telling the truth to your own tribe, as the SDLP's Declan O'Loan, MLA, did when he pointed out last Wednesday that the Provisional IRA caused almost 50 per cent of civilian deaths, with the RUC and British Army lagging far behind. And it seems to me that West Belfast's support for Sinn Fein-IRA weakens its claim to special victim status.
Like Declan O'Loan, I try to tell the truth to my own tribe. And in this I cannot be charged with any lack of consistency. For 30 years I have consistently sought out political leaders prepared to take on the Provos -- and when I found them, I was loyal to them.
And it has not bothered me one bit whether the bleak logic of my position brought me under the banner of a leader of the left or of right. As long as a particular leader was marching at point, and was crucial to that particular phase of the struggle against the Provos and for the Republic, I was prepared to put aside petty differences -- such as socialist shibboleths -- and march under that banner.
That was why I supported the Workers' Party through the crucial Seventies and Eighties. Conor Cruise O'Brien and the Labour Party were prepared to stand up to the Provos in the Dail -- but it was just as important that Tomas MacGiolla and the Workers Party stood up to them on the streets. And the alternative would have looked like a larger and longer version of the lumpen proletarian attack on the Love Ulster march.
The search for a leader who could stand up to the Provos brought me from Tomas MacGiolla and Proinsias De Rossa to Mary Robinson, to John Bruton, to David Trimble, and finally, to Bertie Ahern, the most successful leader of all, both in freeing us from the shadow of Sinn Fein, and in showing us -- through the Westminster speech and his personal relationship with Ian Paisley -- the wider horizons of the Irish Republic.
Furthermore, and contrary to the lying libels circulated by some cretins, far from turning against such leaders, I have never written a bad word about Tomas MacGiolla, leader of the Workers Party, about John Bruton, leader of Fine Gael, or about David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. And as long as Bertie Ahern continues his pluralist course he can count on me a damn sight more than he can count on some of the windier members of the Fianna Fail party.
As I told the West Belfast audience, I am not a nationalist, I am a Wolfe Tone Republican. In pursuit of that ideal I have been forced to continually shift positions, much like a man in a cinema who keeps changing his seat, but only so he can get a clean view of the same film. And the title of the film, of which I never tire, is The Future Irish Republic.
The West Belfast audience listened without apparent affection. But at least they listened with tolerance. And tolerance, which means permitting while disapproving, is the foundation of civil society.
So I was filled with hope for the future of the North. Finally, 41 years after Maghera, Dr Roy Johnston (now a member of the Green Party) and myself are meeting again. We are trying to figure out how his Green policies and my Senate platform can be combined to help break down barriers between the two traditions in the North.
That's what I call consistency.