IRA apologists can't preach morality to us
We should not forget the tainted pasts of some of those who now pontificate on corruption, writes Michael McDowell
A few weeks past, a newspaper story caught my eye. A stamp collection was to be sold by Sotheby's in London and it was anticipated that it would realise £4m (€4.6m).
My immediate reflection, like that of most people, was that we live in a very strange world where insignificant pieces of paper designed and used for the most mundane purpose, could, by reason of their rarity, achieve a colossal value in the highly rarefied philatelic market place. All the more so when we consider that stamps are a relatively modern invention, with a history of less than 200 years. While diamonds, gold and fine art also command great prices in rarefied market places, stamps are unusual because they had such a negligible value when first printed and sold.
I then set to wondering what kind of person could amass a stamp collection of such value and noted that the particular stamp collection being sold at Sotheby's was part of the estate of a life peer, Lord Steinberg of Belfast. His family had decided to donate proceeds from the sale to a number of causes and charities with which he had been associated during his lifetime including a fund that he had started with the aim of helping to rebuild Old Trafford, the celebrated Lancashire County Cricket Club grounds.
The very name, Lord Steinberg of Belfast, surprised me. As somebody with a reasonable grasp of current affairs, I have to confess that I knew little of him.
It turns out that Leonard Steinberg was born in Belfast in August, 1936. His grandfather had fled the anti-Jewish tsarist pogroms in Riga for the safety of Belfast. By doing so he saved his children from the Holocaust. As a member of the small Belfast Jewish community, Leonard was brought up by his father, who ran several small businesses including a dairy shop and an opticians. Before his father died in 1954, young Leonard, aged 18, was running a small unlicensed betting business at the back of the dairy shop in Belfast.
By 1977, this business had grown to 16 licensed betting shops in Belfast. In that year, a member of the Provisional IRA shot Steinberg five times on the doorstep of his house on the Antrim Road.
His "crime" in the eyes of the IRA was that he was a businessman, he was a unionist, and, most heinous of all, he would not pay protection money to the IRA, which, in those days and right up until very recently, quietly extorted vast sums from business people under threat of violence.
Having survived the murder attempt in 1977, Leonard Steinberg understandably left Belfast to live in northern England. He remained at heart and in accent a Belfastman.
His betting business went on to become one of Britain's largest: Stanley Leisure. Following his move to Manchester, Steinberg bought 100 betting shops from Ladbrokes and he founded a gambling business which came to include 45 casinos employing about 7,000 people. His wealth financed his passion for philately.
Predictably, Leonard Steinberg in England gravitated towards the Conservative Party and eventually became a party deputy treasurer as well as president of Lancashire County Cricket Club. When the Tories made him a life peer in 2004, Leonard Steinberg adopted the title Lord Steinberg of Belfast.
Leonard Steinberg was not the only Belfast Jewish businessman targeted by the IRA. Three years after Steinberg's attempted assassination, his
friend, fellow Jew and Belfast antiques dealer, Leonard Kaitcer, was abducted from his home. The IRA demanded £1m ransom for his return. An American cousin flew to Ireland to conduct negotiations for his release but the IRA panicked, shot Leonard Kaitcer in the head and dumped his body in West Belfast.
Of course, neither Leonard Steinberg nor Leonard Kaitcer was targeted because they were Jewish. They were targeted by the IRA for murderous extortion because they were both wealthy and socially vulnerable.
Many others were targeted in a similar fashion. Don Tidey, Galen Weston and Ben Dunne are some of the better remembered southern lucky victims of the cruel policy of kidnapping and murder of businessmen by the IRA. Garda Gary Sheehan and Pte Patrick Kelly were murdered while trying to rescue Don Tidey.
Extortion by the IRA became so commonplace (and the Loyalist thugs were at it too) that the payment of protection money came to be regarded as a legitimate business expense even for tax purposes in Belfast. Apart from those businessmen, many more modest targets for extortion paid the price in terms of losing their lives for their refusal to pay money to the Provisional IRA.
All of the foregoing reminds us that in the cracked mirror of its crazy, warped ideology, the Provisional IRA had convinced itself that its Army Council was somehow the legitimate government of Ireland and the sole repository of the powers of the Republic established in 1916.
That madcap theory, as set out in the Provos' volunteers' handbook, depends in turn on a meeting on December 8, 1938, between some former members of the Dail and some members of the IRA. The IRA claims that at this meeting an obscure minority of the many surviving former backbench members of the long-defunct Second Dail elected in 1921, who in 1938 now claimed to be the 'Government of the Republic', in some manner "delegated" their "sacred trust" to the Army Council of the IRA until a 32-county Republic was finally established, "confident ... that in their every action towards its consummation they will be inspired by the high ideals and chivalry of our martyred comrades".
Perhaps there is also, unbeknownst to us, a rival group of people who have in total secrecy inherited the powers and rights of Robert Emmet's republic of 1803 or the Fenian republic of 1867. Who knows?
On top of that nonsense, one has to add a layer of savage, revolutionary Marxism espoused by the core IRA leadership from the Seventies onwards. A Marxist world-view convinced those grim-faced, beret-wearing coffin-carriers that murdering businessmen who would not hand over their money to the IRA was not merely legitimate in terms of some so-called "republican" theory but also justified in terms of Marxist revolutionary theory. A potent cocktail of evil and madness, very far removed from "high ideals and chivalry".
Anyhow, on such a ludicrous, demented theory rested the ideological justification some 40 years later for killing Leonard Kaitcer and attempting to kill Leonard Steinberg. The Irish Republic was "entitled", the Provos believed, to exact taxes and revenues from the well-to-do -- by extortion under threat of murder and arson. Needs must! Or, as Lenin would have put it, it was part of "what must be done".
These actions, of course, were not "crimes" -- because they were economic actions authorised by the Army Council of the IRA who, of course, as custodians of the "sacred trust" embodied the legitimacy and exercised the authority and powers of the Irish Republic.
We are led to hope that the Mahon Tribunal will report in the coming months. There will be justified breast-beating and angry, if ritual, condemnation when that tribunal enunciates in its report that which we now know to be true, namely, that a small but sizeable minority of Irish public representatives behaved corruptly in relation to the planning process over many decades.
To the fore among the breast-beaters will be household names, now elected to the Dail and to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. They will hope that we will forget that they were financed by murder-based extortion of fellow Belfastmen like Steinberg and Kaitcer.
It would be a salutary thing if, while listening to post-Mahon "politics of condemnation" (something to which Gerry Adams, for instance, was at one time notoriously averse), we listen carefully for the voices of those who were personally actively engaged in directing the campaign of murder and extortion-based fundraising that killed Leonard Kaitcer and nearly killed Leonard Steinberg.
These paragons of virtue, remarkably, now have the neck to pontificate on corruption and misconduct in public life, confident that the media sheep will have long since forgotten that they, personally, directed the movement financed by the murder of innocent businessmen, threatening of their families, stealing or destruction of their property, and extortion of vast sums of money from a great number of people to further their illegal ends.
Above all, perhaps we should remember that some of those who wish to be respectable household names in our new political order still have blood on their hands and have never apologised for taking life -- while demanding and extracting apologies from all around them.
Perhaps some in the media will bring home to the public on both sides of the Border the immense moral gulf which separates the marxist thugs in the Provos who directed the murder for his money of Leonard Kaitcer from the patriotic founders of our State. Perhaps some brave, enterprising broadcaster or journalist will now make a "lift the lid" documentary on the Provos' fundraising campaign of extortion and murder.
Don't hold your breath.
Michael McDowell is a senior counsel and a former Minister for Justice and Attorney General. He was also leader of the Progressive Democrats.