23 November 2020

The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than Gerry Kelly

By

Northern Ireland punches above its weight in many areas but it bows to no country in the manufacture of victimhood. In both the real and imaginary classes, it is truly a world beater. 

It would take a heart of stone not to feel for Naomi Long, the latest holder of the Northern Ireland Executive’s premier ministerial poisoned chalice, Justice. Long, the leader of Northern Ireland’s burgeoning centrist party, Alliance, holds the law enforcement brief and therefore the lion’s share of every unresolved legacy issue in the bricked-up mine of the Province’s recent past. From Troubles trauma pensions to the past atrocities that created them, the Department of Justice is the repository of so much unresolved hurt that it’s little wonder its civil servants are off work with anxiety in record numbers. 

Her brief is unique in Northern Ireland’s version of devolved Government. After the creation of the devolved administration in 1999 and the migration of political power from the centre to the ideological polarities of Sinn Fein and the DUP, Justice has remained the only ministerial post not in the gift of those parties. With the fiercely contested and sensitive legacy issues of policing, prisons and the rest of the criminal justice system in the remit, her cross-community party was in some ways an obvious placeholder for the role. 

The rumour is that Long is planning to resign and in doing so possibly bring down the whole Executive hall of mirrors that has perverted the idea of power sharing. In a place where people politicise the very kerbstones and progress is too often reduced to a dangerous zero-sum thought experiment, ministerial resignations aren’t anything new. Performative oppression is exhausting 

Her current reasons for considering jumping ship appear to stem from the abuse of protection measures built into the Stormont governance arrangements which prevent one sectarian camp taking advantage of the other. That these also have the effect of permanently miring the NI Executive in deadlock during a pandemic is something voters may wish to have a say on at the next elections. The headlines about her possible departure conceal a dismally played out sub-plot that tells you all you need to know about the utter dysfunction of normal democratic politics in Northern Ireland. Step forward former terrorist and sometime terror entrepreneur, Mr Gerry Kelly.

Mr Kelly, is a North Belfast MLA for Sinn Fein with a pedigree that would be unusual in any other western European democracy. In 1973, as a member of an IRA bombing team, he was convicted of blowing up the Old Bailey in London, an attack in a series that killed one man and injured 215. He went on hunger strike following conviction for 205 days enduring force feeding until the British government acceded to his demand to be repatriated to Northern Ireland. In 1983 he was a ringleader of one of the most audacious prison breakouts in recent history when 38 IRA terrorists escaped from the high security HMP Maze on the outskirts of Belfast. Following the escape, one prison officer died of his injuries, many unarmed colleagues were stabbed with improvised weapons and one officer was shot in the head. Many of the staff on duty that day have been traumatised for life by the experience. Kelly is named in witness statements and in the official report into the escape as the man who fired the gun. He was later acquitted of wounding the officer. Go figure.

In the meantime, Kelly had escaped to the Netherlands where he was recaptured and extradited back to the UK. He was released from prison in 1989 with his reputation as one of the Provos’ hardest of hard men intact. He was heavily involved in Sinn Fein’s negotiating team in the talks that led to the Belfast Agreement which restored devolution. A career in politics beckoned and he later joined Northern Ireland’s new power-sharing assembly as an elected member, later becoming a junior minister in its Executive government. He is currently Sinn Fein’s policing and justice spokesperson.

Many people will see this as an exemplary tale of a former violent extremist renouncing the Armalite and taking up the ballot box full time. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s much vaunted peace process is built on the hopeful belief that compliance with democratic norms and a commitment to exclusively peaceful means can be bought with political power. The more cynical will question whether unrepentant former terrorists like Kelly, whose violent opposition to Britain’s still standing territorial claim over Northern Ireland is literally bred in the bone can ever fundamentally change.

Those in the latter camp will not have been surprised by events over the last few months that have cast Mr Kelly into Naomi Long’s miserable in-tray. Kelly is a political member of Northern Ireland’s statutory Police oversight board and specifically, the chair of its Resource Committee, which has within its remit ‘injury on duty’ awards for police officers. Given that Northern Ireland’s post Good Friday Agreement police service incorporates the Royal Ulster Constabulary, whose members were routinely targeted by the IRA for murder when Kelly was an active member, this might reasonably raise a few eyebrows. But again, the NI ‘peace process’, widely trailed as a world-beating exemplar by those who live through its theology – and often live off it – is supposedly designed to accommodate such exotic contradictions. 

But even peace processors have their limits, and recently the gears were stripped by a tweet Mr Kelly put out to coincide with the anniversary of his Maze escape.

Such gloating whimsy about an escape attempt that killed and maimed the sort of public servants Kelly is now accountable for monitoring stretched even the most generous tolerance of bad taste beyond breaking point. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland condemned it as a “disgraceful” example of “shameful and gratuitous incitement”. Ms Long, who we can’t forget is in charge of Northern Ireland’s outraged prison service personnel stated, with what must have been a feeling of impending doom, that it was “not acceptable” to glorify acts of terrorism and called on Kelly to confirm his commitment to the rule of law, which he did in a rather sullen, self-referential tweet nearly two weeks later.

Predictably, Unionists on the policing board demanded Kelly’s removal from post. Under the legislation that set up the policing board, Ms Long has the power to remove Kelly if she considers that either he ‘he is not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means’ or ‘he is otherwise unable or unfit to discharge his functions as a member of the Board’.

Ms Long is a canny operator – you have to be to appeal to Northern Ireland’s growing middle ground, where her party has gained huge traction in recent elections. She will understand that at the heart of this decision, which could have momentous consequences, is the balance between doing the right thing and keeping the peace processor turning with all the sectarian ingredients still inside the mix.

These two imperatives are not always or even often in alignment. The right thing in any other normally functioning democratic state would be to evict Mr Kelly on the surely exceeded balance of probabilities that his position as a member, let alone chair, of the statutory body for police oversight is completely incompatible with his previous conduct. But, of course, this is ‘Nornia’, the piece of Ireland that passeth all understanding where, for moral clarity, it is always winter and never Christmas.

The Alliance party may quit the Executive because, prima face, it believes that the circular firing squad of mandatory coalition that keeps the two tribes running the Province locked in power is a busted flush. Underneath that lies another truth that Bomber Kelly represents. Twisting the architecture of a peace process to include in it people like him may have been necessary and people are surely alive today as a result. But Sinn Fein’s continuing presence in power as the sole party in Ireland – and most of the civilised world – who still venerate violent extremism and celebrate the killers of Irish men, women and children has been rewarded and indulged too far in too many ways for too long.

So was this chance for a minister to demonstrate to the people of Northern Ireland that the politics of ‘special measures’ allowing public representatives to (figuratively) get away with murder was ending? Fat chance. Long by name, long silence by nature. And then at the back end of last week, a decision that seems to have been dictated by the Province’s more cock-eyed human rights lawyers rather than decency or common sense.

To the surprise of no-one familiar with Northern Ireland’s infantilised moral standards, Kelly’s public veneration of a terrorist incident was apparently not even worth investigating, let alone a pretext for his removal from office as unfit. The legal advice that backed this decision can’t apparently be disclosed. Kelly’s behaviour, vigorously defended by his party colleagues, was merely ‘offensive.’ That’s a byword for business as usual for a political party that plays by its own rules because there’s always that lurking fear that the ballot box might give way again to the Armalite if their needs are thwarted.

Sinn Fein is the only party that sees normality in Northern Ireland as a policy failure. This includes normal standards of behaviour in public life for convicted terrorists on official bodies. Long may yet find that the path of least resistance is in fact the road to perdition.  The original tweet? It’s still up there of course. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.