A “historic” debate took place at Laganview Enterprise Centre in Lisburn last Thursday in memory of former UDA leader John McMichael, who was killed in an IRA bomb attack 25 years ago (1987).
The event was organised by the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group and the debate was opened by loyalist leader Jackie McDonald
What distinguished this event was the composition of the panel contributing to the evening’s discussions. This included the following:
Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist Party leader.
Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP for Lagan Valley.
Danny Morrison, former IRA prisoner, writer and currently chairperson of Féile an Phobail.
Sean ‘Spike’ Murray, former senior IRA figure.
Paul Clissold, chairman of the South Belfast UPRG.
Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for South Belfast
Prominent Republicans Seanna Walsh, Harry Maguire, Jim Gibney and Loyalist leaders including – John Bunting, Jimmy Birch and Winston Irvine, were amongst others, who joined members of the McMichael family.
Also present were members of the Victims Forum and members of the clergy including Rev. Lesley Caroll and Rev. Harold Good.
Present too in the audience was Oscar–winning Belfast film director Terry George who spoke from the floor and who was clearly impressed by the quality of the evening’s debate.
Listen to the debate below or download the MP3:
Notable points for discussion are documented below:
(Times are indicated should you wish to listen to any specific point raised):
Introduction – (00.00): Jackie McDonald and Eamonn Mallie
The Panel – (05.51): Panel self introduction.
Question 1 – (17.40): Was john McMichael ‘Common Sense’ document a missed opportunity?
Question 2 – (27.33): The future of the Maze-Long Kesh site – will it become a shrine to Republicanism?
Question 3 – (41.55): Education attainment levels for working class Protestant children have been allowed to deteriorate – what is this devolved Government going to do about it?
Question 4 – (1.08.30): Has The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) helped to address the concerns and needs of the victims sector and do you accept that many people within the Loyalist community believe that the HET has in fact been a barrier to progress?
Question 5 – (1.39.33): What are the politicians putting in place for young people with limited qualification from working class areas where there are no jobs? What does the future hold for ‘us’?
Question 6 – (1.46.12): Why has the Orange Order remained outside the process of change and why does it not re-route its marches away form areas where it is not welcome?
Question 7 – (1.49.20): What are the politicians doing for people aged 30 plus?
Question 8 – (1.50.56): What are we doing to help the young people
(1.56.16): Terry George
One of those moments in the developing peace process when the pictures speak a thousand words and more.
Some might take these events for granted – but we shouldn’t.
How do we work to ensure that such moments in the evolving political process and incubating reconciliation debate are not squandered?
How do we build on on the maturity evidenced in the blunt but disciplined atmosphere of that moment?
In another part of this website leading Republican Sean ‘Spike’ Murray mentions a forum potential: How do those of us that seek to bring about reconciled peace that will evolve to the social reform our working class communities crave start that forum? A forum that is free of Political Party dictat, free of individual ego or games of one up man ship – a forum that answers and works in the spirit of truth to deliver results?
Time to step outside the box … again. Time to truly think wide screen?
Last Thursday I was invited by Vince Curry of the UDA-linked Ulster Political
Research Group to participate in a panel discussion in a loyalist area of
Lisburn as part of the John McMichael Memorial Debate. John McMichael was
probably the most military-minded (yet also politically-minded) loyalist paramilitary
leader of the 1980s and was killed by the IRA in an explosion in December 1987,
twenty-five years ago. He was thirty nine years-of-age.
I had reservations about going and was a bit nervous about what to expect, yet myself
and another former IRA prisoner Sean ‘Spike’ Murray were welcomed and given
freedom of speech at the discussion which also included: Jeffrey Donaldson MP,
Mike Nesbitt MLA, Conal McDevitt MLA and Paul Clissold of the Ulster Political
The clear force behind the initiative and in memorialising John McMichael is Jackie
McDonald, a friend and comrade of McMichael. In the audience were John
McMichael’s widow Shirley and his son Gary.
Eamonn Mallie chaired in the absence of Peter Shirlow and through his jokes and quips
certainly relaxed me and, I presume, others. The panel was probably too big to
allow a fluid debate and it was also all-male.
I made the point that regardless of the merits of McMichael’s document, ‘Common Sense’, which advocated power-sharing and a Bill of Rights, it also sought to
copper-fasten the union with Britain by seeking to raise the bar by a proposal
that any change in the status of the North would require a two-thirds majority,
instead of the current simple majority. I also said that because of the
conflict and the campaign by the UFF, few would take any loyalist paramilitary
proposals seriously and scrutinise them, just as the IRA’s armed campaign
inhibited anyone taking seriously the Sinn Féin documents, ‘A Scenario for Peace’ and ‘Towards a Lasting Peace’.
This was the first time I had ever been invited by a loyalist group to address a loyalist
meeting in a loyalist area and I am sure it was not an easy decision for them.
The audience showed a lot of respect, there was little rancour but there are
huge disparities between the political development of nationalists and
republicans and the loyalists and their base. It may well be, I said, that if the
loyalists have ‘missed the boat’ in terms of having their own individual
political party (and a credible party) then the only way they might get their
grievances resolved (including grievances regarding education standards in
working-class areas) was by simply joining the mainstream DUP or UUP.
It is also clear that loyalists perceive that the Historical Enquiries Team’s work is
disproportionately directed at them. I said that republicans were also being
arrested on an on-going basis regarding past actions and one only had to look
at the case of Marion Price, who had been bailed by the courts only to be
interned-without-trial by the British Secretary of State.
How to deal with the past featured prominently in the discussion. Again, loyalists and
mainstream unionists are generally suspicious about the Sinn Féin campaign on Truth and Reconciliation etc and believe it to be subterfuge for re-writing the past in
the IRA’s image and for republicans to put Britain in the dock (over the dirty
war and collusion etc.). I cannot see how these positions can be squared: no
one is going to tell the whole truth and no protagonist can afford to, and
victims, who do not represent a monolith, also have disparate demands in
regards to the past and the truth. The victims, it seems, will remain stranded
and disappointed. Given the impasse, the least the state can do is to ensure
that their medical needs and essential comforts are met – and yet they often
For me the most important aspect of the meeting was the courage of the organisers in
inviting republicans like myself and Spike Murray into their area, given that
we and John McMichael were opposing protagonists in an armed conflict and that
republicans took this man’s life, widowed his wife and orphaned his children –
as has happened to many on all sides.
I was granted another glimpse into the loyalist mind-set and sensibilities which help inform one when thinking about a shared future, what is possible and what the limits are.
Was a very emotional night and don’t think it hit me to what we pulled together till the night was actually over. Still very disappointed that the BBC turned a blind eye to the event despite numerous communications from myself however does not deflect away from the occasion itself. Would hope that we can build on it someway how that looks I am not sure.