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Sunday 10 February 2008

My kind of guy when it comes to fighting terrorism

He has his faults but his courage makes John McCain stand out, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Now that Senator John McCain seems certain to become the Republican presidential candidate, it's time to brag that I once met him.

It was 1997 and I was in the US with Sean O'Callaghan, the IRA terrorist and murderer who turned unpaid garda informer; among his many good works was having his IRA colleague, Martin Ferris, sent to jail for 10 years for gun-running. Sean had later given himself up for his teenage crimes, was not long out of jail, and was on a speaking tour.

We were both fans of McCain, not least because of his extraordinary heroism when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but also because he is so much his own man he is prepared to stand up for what is right, rather than what is popular. At lunch one day in Washington we were introduced to one of McCain's staffers, who in that wonderfully accessible American way said, "Hey, come right up. If the senator's there, he'd be glad to meet you."

So we did, and he was. He and Sean formed an immediate bond as they talked about what it was like being in solitary confinement for long periods. McCain has always been my kind of guy when it comes to terrorism. He doesn't do mealy-mouthing or fret about hurting feelings. On St Patrick's Day, 2005, as a recipient of their Distinguished Leadership Award, he gave an address to the American Ireland Fund gala dinner. With Gerry Adams and his minions squirming, McCain spoke for the five sisters and the girl- friend of Robert McCartney, who were also present: "Stealing from banks and slaying men on the streets to settle personal grievances are not the acts of freedom fighters, they are the work of a small minority trying to hold back the forces of history and democracy and they hurt the very people for whom they claim to fight," he said.

"Nobody can honestly claim today that the IRA are any better than an organised crime syndicate that steals and murders for its own members' personal interests. There is nothing republican about the Irish Republican Army."

McCain described Martin McGuinness's warning to the McCartneys "not to step over the line into party politics" as a "veiled threat" and told Sinn Fein that it was not enough for the Sinn Fein leadership to cut its ties to the IRA: "The political leadership should call for the IRA to disarm, demobilise and disband once and for all." The applause was deafening, except from Sinn Fein.

Well, the Provos disarmed and sort of demobilised -- even if they can still get the lads out to smuggle and counterfeit and beat people to death -- but they haven't disbanded, and the Real IRA and other assorted psychopaths are on the offensive again, so that's a good reason for patriotic Irish people to vote McCain if they have the chance.

The fact that he understands the importance of standing up to Islamist lunatics is a reason for every other sane person to do so.

However, I try to be objective, and I know the guy has failings. He has a short temper (well, wouldn't you, if you'd been tortured for the best part of five years?) and at 71 he really needs to find a running-mate who would also be a credible president. But just for now, as he looks at a landscape littered with the bodies of his opponents, and a Democratic party split almost 50/50, he can afford to be jubilant.

Hillary is still likely to win her party's nomination. Her natural constituency is bigger than Obama's -- women, Hispanics, white working-class, the poorly educated and the old, rather than blacks, the well-educated, the affluent and the young. And while Obama's a fabulous orator, his rhetoric doesn't bear much scrutiny. For how long can you get away with vacuous lines like 'We are the people we have been waiting for'? He has much to do in adding substance to his style.

Still, he's young and a quick learner, especially with the mean Clinton machine ready to pounce on any weakness.

So even if McCain's let us voyeurs down by knocking Romney out of the ring there's plenty of fun left in the Democratic slugfest.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards