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Sunday 12 February 2017


Brendan McGahon refused to stop shaming sneaky regarders

The modest but intrepid ex-TD was a courageous and lifelong opponent of violent republicanism, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

ADMIRED: Brendan McGahon ‘spoke out at a difficult time’
ADMIRED: Brendan McGahon ‘spoke out at a difficult time’

The Fine Gael TD, the late Brendan McGahon, once said: "I am a very humble backbencher. I do not have the qualities to be a minister...but I do have the ability, the courage to speak out against the underlying problem which is the root cause of the economic troubles of this country and that is the IRA, the terror involved and the ambivalence that permeates Irish life with regard to the IRA."

And, God bless him, this modest, decent man did speak out bravely and eloquently again and again during his 20 years in the Dail, despite numerous threats to his life and his business.

In 1981, a year before being elected for Louth, he refused to yield to the threats of local paramilitaries who were demanding he shut his Dundalk newsagents during the funerals of hunger strikers. In towns around Ireland, shopkeepers were shutting their doors - many of them terrorised by men in balaclavas.
But not Brendan McGahon.

His courage was remarkable. The period between May 5, after the death of Bobby Sands - the first of 10 young men (seven Provisional IRA; three from the socialist Irish National Liberation Army) that year to commit suicide for the republican cause - and the calling off of the hunger strikes on October 3, was marked by high emotions, vicious riots, killings and widespread paramilitary thuggery.

In May alone, in Northern Ireland, as well as four hunger strikers, politically related deaths included five soldiers, four members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, one member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, one INLA member blown up by his own bomb, two IRA men in a shoot-out with the army, five civilians killed in riots, and one Catholic civilian murdered by loyalists.

McGahon lived two miles from the Border, in what he called "the front theatre", and knew many victims of terrorism. When South Armagh supremo, the widely feared Thomas 'Slab' Murphy (now in jail for tax dodging), and his brother sued The Sunday Times for libel over allegations of IRA involvement, gardai were told not to take the risk of getting involved.

But McGahon stood up in the High Court and said he believed the brothers were active in the IRA. Eamon Collins, one of the other brave people whose testimony sank the Murphys' case in 1998, was murdered the following year.

In a culture of, "whatever you say, say nothing", McGahon's bluntness delighted or shocked, depending on the audience. After the IRA killed Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996, he told the Dail that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were guilty by association, as they had been "of the murder of hundreds of people".

Not for the first time, he called Adams "the Irish Dr Mengele" - after the Auschwitz physician who chose victims for extermination and was never brought to justice. As the Supreme Court had pointed out, said McGahon, "there is absolutely no difference between Sinn Fein and the IRA", so after the McCabe murder any known supporters of "the greatest terrorist gang the world has known since Adolf Hitler" should be rounded up and interned in the Curragh Camp.

Two years later, after the 1998 Omagh bomb murdered 29 people and sparked international outrage, in a debate on new anti-terrorist legislation, McGahon asked why these measures had not been introduced long before.

"I indict all governments over the past 30 years, including my own, for being soft on terrorism," he said.

The country had been out of control when "death stalked the land - death promoted by Adams and McGuinness…Now they are being hailed as international statesman. They are the bastards who have brought Ireland to its knees".

From a Redmondite family, McGahon believed that War of Independence made partition inevitable and spoke sombrely about the cult of political murder.

While he predicted after Omagh that killers would initially retreat "into their bolt holes… I do not believe violent republicanism is dead. Like Dracula, it would be necessary to drive a stake through its breast to achieve that".

He added: "We should seek to inculcate in our people a spirit of nationalism as opposed to republicanism. Part of the problem is the generations of Irish people have been brought up listening to mythical teachings in the schools. We need to foster the kind of nationalism demonstrated by John Redmond, a man who sought united Ireland through peaceful means."

Although controversial, and given to expressing increasingly unfashionable opinions about such issues as homosexuality and the death penalty, McGahon was much liked and greatly respected by his colleagues.

Fine Gael TD Michael Finucane spoke from the heart during the post-Omagh debate: "It is an honour to speak after Deputy McGahon. I admire him because he was not afraid to speak out at a difficult time when the country was full of those with a sneaking regard for the IRA cause."

It still is, unfortunately, which is why we are confronted with the nauseating spectacle of Adams topping the poll in McGahon's old constituency.

"Brendan was an exceptionally courageous politician who stood up for the democratic institutions of the State," said ex-Taoiseach John Bruton - one of three men (the others being 1970s ministers for justice Des O'Malley and Paddy Cooney) whom McGahon in 1998 said had "the political balls to address this problem".

"The only thing I have is my courage," said McGahon. "Nothing else. A lot of people worry for me. But you have got to take a stand against the IRA. You've got to."

In a country still replete with sneaking regarders, we could do with many more patriots like Brendan McGahon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards