Saturday 17 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Philly McMahon's message can protect our young from the toxic drug of dissident republicanism

Philly McMahon
Philly McMahon
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Philly McMahon has become one of the most inspirational figures in Irish sport. I've lost count of the number of times some Dubbosceptic rural GAA fan has professed their surprise at how impressed they've been by him.

My eldest daughter and her transition year classmates went to hear him talk at a conference in Cork. She thought he was the best speaker she'd ever seen and that the story he told, which among other things stressed the essential humanity of the prisoners he worked with in Mountjoy, was one they needed to hear.

So it was good to see McMahon respond to the murder of Lyra McKee by tweeting, "Republicans? No. You have stepped on the grave of any republican that fought for peace throughout the troubles, you've pushed Unionists even further away from a United Ireland. Lyra's death must not be in vain. Instead of rioting, march together against these barbaric animals."

His intervention is important because extremist organisations like Saoradh have always exploited disenfranchised and disillusioned young men from marginalised communities like the one McMahon grew up in and advocates for. Dissident republicanism is just another drug being pushed to such young men.

McMahon has a personal interest in the North, his father came from West Belfast. And he is no establishment stooge, his message about the waste of human potential resulting from the lack of help for areas like his native Ballymun is a radical one. He is a welcome voice at a time like this.

Someone with McMahon's profile can touch hearts and minds in a way that politicians and pundits cannot manage. It's not incumbent on sportsmen to speak out about political issues, but when they do it can make a huge difference. Look at the impact of Raheem Sterling's thoughtful contributions on the problem of racism in English football.

That's why it would be great if other sports stars followed McMahon's lead in speaking out on the McKee murder and the current dangerous situation in the North. The big names in Irish sport carry a certain amount of clout with youngsters in danger of being sucked into this kind of trouble. With great power comes great responsibility.

Lyra McKee was not just a talented young woman, but a good one. Looking at her work, I'm struck by an emphasis on tolerance, conciliation and persuasion rather than confrontation which is unusual in these fractious times. The death of someone so obviously on the side of decency has made an enormous impression. That awful thing which obtained for so long during The Troubles, where people checked what religion the latest victim was and who'd killed them before deciding how sorry they felt, was conspicuous by its absence.

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Sometimes I feel that people on this side of the border, who are too young to remember the war in the North, regard it as a bit of a lark, Michael Collins, Derry Girls and Game of Thrones mixed together with Come Out Ye Black And Tans playing merrily away in the background.

But pick up a copy of the great Lost Lives book on the conflict or look at the CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths online and the sheer scale of the horror hits home. Those thousands of lives snuffed out and all the heartbreak involved for those left behind. Who in their right mind would want to go back there?

An uncle of mine covered Northern Ireland for RTÉ in the period when the civil rights movement began and its peaceful demands were met by violence which in turn sparked further civil unrest. “It's very bad, Joe,” he told my father, “It'll be going on until someone gets killed.” Things escalated more quickly than anyone could have imagined. It is foolishly complacent to think that the same thing cannot happen again. That's why everyone, in whatever walk of life, has a responsibility to do whatever they can to prevent the nightmare beginning again.

Eight years ago, PSNI constable Ronan Kerr, a member of the Beragh Red Knights GAA club in Tyrone, was murdered by dissident republicans. At his funeral, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, county captain Brian Dooher and GAA president Christy Cooney were among those who carried the coffin. It was a hugely important act of leadership which helped repudiate the killers' claim to represent the nationalist population.

We need more of that kind of leadership now. Who'll step up?

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