Gerry McGeough is a nasty piece of work. If you haven't come across him before the chances are you will in the run up to this March's Assembly election. An IRA member since his teens, his activities as a volunteer stretched from active service in the ditches of his native Tyrone to a ambitious but failed attempt to smuggle surface-to-air missiles out of the United States in the eighties. He was arrested by the SAS while training in south Armagh in 1977 and was captured again in West Germany while on a mission to bomb British military targets in mainland Europe.
Since his release from prison ten years ago he has established himself as something of a regular on documentaries and current affairs shows about the peace process and the state of Irish republicanism. McGeough has, however, in the past few months risen to become one of the most vocal critics of the political path taken by Sinn Fein. It now appears that he will be one of a number of independent republican candidates standing in the March 7 Stormont elections.
If he does go ahead with his threat to go up against the mainstream runners he will contest the seat in the mainly nationalist constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The constituency (today represented in Westminster by one of the new breed of Shinners, Michelle Gildernew: young, female and no previous convictions) is probably best known as that which elected that great icon of modern day republicanism, Bobby Sands, in the groundbreaking hunger strike election of 1981. Most Sinn Fein activists trace their contemporary success back to that year's Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. Prior to this republicans had been trapped in a militarist cul-de-sac and, apart from a brief period in the mid-fifties, had largely saw no electoral success in over half a century. It is clear to see what Gerry McGeough's intention is on March 7th: trigger a new political renaissance in the constituency which Sands relaunched republican politics from.
But why, you may ask, do I call McGeough a 'nasty piece of work'? What sets him apart from all the other individuals and organisations that lie in the alphabet soup of dissident republicanism? On the face of it you could say he isn't really all that bad. Although fervently opposed to the current SF policy of power-sharing with unionists he is not in favour of a return to the 'war', believing not that the Provisional's campaign was morally wrong but simply that armed struggle has now run its course. There is something else making him unique.
Gerry McGeough isn't your ordinary dissident. He was a loyal follower of the men at the helm of the IRA and Sinn Fein since he joined the movement as a teenager in the seventies. He remained with the Adams and McGuinness leadership during his time in various jails around the world. He stood by them during the hunger strike period. He stayed put following the split which created Republican Sinn Fein and the Continuity IRA in 1986 when the movement voted to recognise Dail Eireann and the institutions of the southern state. He remained with them following the 1994 ceasefire. He stuck with the leadership during the 1997 split that saw the formation of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. He remained with them in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, when Sinn Fein entered the Stormont assembly and Articles 2 and 3 were dropped from the Republic's constitution. All things considered, it's amazing the Provisionals ever managed to get rid of McGeough but get rid of him they did. And how? Here's a clue - it had nothing to do with partition.
The Tyrone man was a senior member of Sinn Fein until 2001. He was a member of the party's Ard Comhairle and resigned from the organisation just weeks after he had oversaw the successful campaign against the Nice Treaty in the Republic. What drove him away in the end was Sinn Fein's supposedly left-wing politics. In the past year McGeough and his newfound sidekick Charles Byrne have launched The Hibernian, a monthly magazine which puts forward a strange mix of old fashioned Irish nationalism and Catholic fundamentalism all in the name of faith, family and country. It is vehemently anti-abortion, anti-divorce and anti-homosexual, plus there is a little bit of anti-British sentiment thrown in for good measure. An insight into the man's obnoxious views was found in an interview he done with the 'Observer' prior to his new found electoral ambitions:
"You would never get a leader of Sinn Fein condemning abortion, homosexual 'marriage' or anything of that nature. I, as an Irish nationalist and Catholic, never want to see the day when there are abortion clinics in every market town in Ireland. But looking around there is no political grouping willing to take a stance against that."In another section of the interview his mix of anti-European Union sentiment and Christian conviction would seem to make him an ideal candidate for the DUP, were it not of course for the likely theological differences:
"Many people, I believe, wish for a society where faith, decency, pro-life convictions and national self-determination within Europe can flourish; and not be swallowed up in a dictatorial EU bureaucracy. What we need is a strong Church, led by strong church figures willing to stand up and say what the Church stands for…I believe that we have a God-given duty to ensure that the faith is kept alive and passed on to future generations."God-given duty? Strong church figures? Forget the DUP comparison - this man is creeping into Taleban territory.
An article which appeared in the UK-based anti-fascist journal Searchlight noted that many of the contributors to The Hibernian were members of shadowy extreme Catholic groups such as Youth Defence, the Society of Pope Pius X and the Ancient of Order of Hibernians (AOH). The latter is perhaps the best known. Up until the early part of the 20th century the AOH was nationalist Ireland's answer to the Orange Order, however the organisation failed to have any impact on events during the tumultuous period between 1916 and 1923 and it slowly faded into obscurity. Unlike the Orange Order which has had solid roots in the Protestant community for centuries, very few Catholics could probably name one single person who they know to be a member of the AOH and most treat any mention of the group with derision (James Connolly famously called the Hibernians "the Pope's brass band").
Unlike some observers, I do not expect McGeough or any of the dissident candidates to make much of an impression. In most cases they will probably poll a few hundred protest votes, but it is difficult to see anything beyond that. Brought together only by a common view on the border question, they remain something of a mixed up bunch who are disunited on everything from the issue of armed struggle to recognition of Dail Eireann to their policy on abortion. They cover the entire political spectrum - from the ultra left warped Marxism of the IRSP to the right-wing clerical fascism of Gerry McGeough and The Hibernian readership. Nor do the dissidents have the political potential to make much of a long term impact on northern politics. The likelihood is that the dissidents will continue to follow a very well beaten path. They will meet up at Easter time in the graveyards to honour their dead. They will discuss the treachery of their erstwhile comrades and what might have been. Now and again, the most militant of them will mount the odd attack against the 'crown forces'. They will stay meaningless, the insignificant rump of an old conflict. But we should learn from the past and remember that once upon a time a little rump of hardcore individuals in the late 1960s met in Dublin to form the Provisional republican movement. They latched onto and thrived on subsequent crises. You all know the story from that point.
Winston Churchill's famous 'dreary steeples' speech of 1922 appears at the beginning of this article. Churchill was a cabinet minister during some of the worst years of violence here in the period after the Great War. He despaired at the longevity of the Irish question and wondered how not even the earth-changing events of World War One managed to change in any meaningful way whatsoever the centuries old conflict. It could be said that very little has changed. Another world war and a Cold War have taken place since that speech, as have other civil wars and various conflicts too numerous to mention.
With men like Gerry McGeough still living among those 'dreary steeples' it would take a brave man to predict that the Irish question will finally be answered when the deluge from Baghdad and Kabul finally subsides.