Even at 71, John Kelly was a real livewire. He looked a decade younger and had more energy and enthusiasm for life and politics than men half his age. Republicanism was at the core of his being but there was so much more to John. What made him a great man, and not just a great republican, was his humanity and his burning sense of right and wrong. John wouldn’t have known how not to be decent and that’s what got him into trouble with the Sinn Fein leadership.
When Marian Price of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Welfare Association asked him to support a picket for the prisoners in Maghaberry, John didn’t hesitate. He could easily have thought, “Is this worth it? I’ve a handy wee number as an Assembly member, this will only bring grief to my door, and one picket will hardly improve the lot of republican prisoners anyway.” John didn’t think like that. All he saw was republicans getting a raw deal in Maghaberry, few people giving a damn, and somebody asking him to help.
Although it led to his deselection, John never regretted taking part in that picket. He was always his own man and that had caused earlier clashes with the leadership and their apparatchiks. He’d speak to the press, articulating what he saw as solid republican or socialist principles, without running it through several layers of bureaucrats first. He took people as he found them and didn’t just talk to those on the leadership approved list. He didn’t set out to be a rebel. He just felt Sinn Fein was lobotomising its representatives, insisting that even the most innocuous statements and actions had to be okayed by an increasingly controlling ruling clique. He refused to bow to the machine. It’s to the discredit of the rest of Sinn Fein’s MLAs that John was the only one who resisted.
After politics, horse-racing was his great passion, though he’d openly admit that his wife Philomena was a far more successful punter than him. Galway, Down Royal, Leopardstown – he’d go to as many meetings as he could, savouring the craic. He was bitterly disappointed when treatment for his first battle with cancer meant he missed Cheltenham. John was happiest when out and about – in Donegal where he increasingly spent time – or in Belfast, dandering about town, bumping into old friends, having a drink, a flutter, and a bite to eat with Philomena.
He was an incredibly generous man, always the first in company to put his hand in his pocket. But he was never that enamoured of the North, often finding it socially and culturally dour. Unlike many republicans who have an innate hostility to Dublin, he loved the city – the bars, the buzz, the joie de vivre. He’d spent three months in the 1980s in New York which he cherished. He often advised young people that if they’d any sense they’d get the hell out of the six counties and explore the world.
Growing up in the 50s in north Belfast, John became a republican when it wasn’t popular to be one. Unlike so many others who later came to prominence, he was someone who always thought about what he could do for the movement, not what it could do for him. Compared to the evasions of the current Sinn Fein leadership, John was proud of his IRA background.
During the 1970s arms’ trial, when he was charged with Charlie Haughey and Niall Blaney, John told the court: "We didn’t ask for blankets or feeding bottles, we asked for guns - and no-one from Taoiseach Lynch down denied our request or told us this was contrary to government policy. My Lord, I find it a very sad occasion indeed that these institutions for which so much was sacrificed, which had been gained by such nobility, should be abused in this manner. There is no victory for anyone in these proceedings. There is only an echo of sadness from the graves of the dead generations." His uncompromising words were appreciated - he left the dock to loud applause.
The years after the 1994 ceasefire brought John to a position that some never thought he would occupy. He had decided, after reflection, that the Belfast Agreement represented the best way forward. He believed, in 1998, that Sinn Fein leaders remained committed to republican goals. As an Assembly member, he later became hugely disappointed that his party wasn’t seriously interested in tackling ongoing religious and social and economic discrimination and that ‘equality’ and ‘parity of esteem’ were nothing but soundbites for press releases and the cameras.
Despite his original support for the Agreement, John opposed decommissioning and was never one for creative ambiguity. Physical force republicans always prided themselves on their word. They meant what they said and they said what they meant, he insisted. He loathed Sinn Fein’s duplicity and double-speak, believing it demeaned republicanism. It was written in the Irish Times that John continued to support the Belfast Agreement. That is not true. In recent times, John said he had been wrong to do so. But he was never hung up on issues like abstentionism and had no problem when some republican candidates in the March Assembly elections said they’d take their seat if elected. John was a pragmatist, but one who kept to his principles.
In the true spirit of republicanism, he was wholly non-sectarian. John became friendly with Ulster Unionist Assembly member, Alan McFarland, in Stormont. He later told friends that he was appalled when a Sinn Fein figure asked him to pass on whatever personal information he could garner from Alan. “As though I was going to chat to a man in the corridor or sit and have coffee with him and pretend to be his friend and win his confidence, and then go off and betray him the minute we parted company,” he said.
John never watered down his republicanism for anyone but he saw the person first, not the ideological tag. He admired those who had principles and stuck to them, even if he disagreed with their principles. He always shirked petty point-scoring. He thought Martin McGuinness stooped low when he declared in the Assembly that it was the first time he’d seen Sammy Wilson with his clothes on. John reckoned he’d get on great with Wilson though he knew Wilson mightn’t be to keen on them hanging out together.
John was on good terms with many unionists. Yet not one had the magnaminity to cross the sectarian divide and issue a statement expressing their sympathy at his death. It shows the narrow little world they continue to inhabit, peace process or not. Mark Durkan paid a fitting tribute to John, citing his “courtesy, charm and conviction”. John made his mark wherever he went and politics was poorer for losing his “colour and candour”, the SDLP leader said.
By contrast, Martin McGuinness’s statement was purely perfunctory. He managed to utter not one positive phrase about his deceased former colleague. “John Kelly was originally from Belfast and had an involvement with the republican struggle,” the statement began. “He first came to prominence during the arms trial in Dublin in the early 1970s”, and so it continued in a coldly factual fashion. John wouldn’t have cared. “McGuinness, the begrudging bastard - I expected no better!” he would have said, laughing. But he’d have been touched at the huge turn-out for his funeral and the beautiful words of Father Seamus O’Connell.
John loved characters. He retained a deep fondness for Charlie Haughey, visiting him at Abbylara, even though he knew Haughey was “a rogue”. Of the Fianna Fail Donegal North-East TD, Jim McDaid, John said: “He loves the horses, the drink, and the women – a man after my own heart!”
John was a hugely philosophical man, and thought deeply about other people’s lives. In March, he attended the funeral of old Jack, a Donegal bachelor who gave up on life and drank himself to death. It touched John deeply. He wondered about the thoughts that had gone through Jack’s head in those final sessions.
John’s humanity shone through when a South Derry man approached him in the summer with a problem. His son was joining the PSNI. The man had disowned the boy and told him not to visit the house again. The boy’s mother was upset. “Your son is your son,” John told him. “He has made his decision. You think it’s wrong but don’t disown him and never be embarrassed or ashamed. There are people who have done an awful lot more against the Republic.”
The electoral battle by anti-PSNI candidates at the start of the year rejuvenated John. He gave whatever assistance he could, speaking at the launch of the campaigns of Gerry McGeough and Davy Hyland. McGeough’s arrival back on the scene particularly excited him. “That boy can talk. He puts the wind up the Shinners!” John said.
He was asked to contest the Mid-Ulster constituency himself. “I said no, not because my ego would be hurt if I didn’t do well but because it’s time for another generation to take over,” he reflected. He had hoped one young man he thought very highly of would stand. When he didn’t, John voted SDLP. He knew the party’s two local candidates to be decent people and believed they were more worthy of a republican’s vote than the Sinn Fein runners.
Not that John was ever a constitutional nationalist himself. He opposed armed struggle by the Real and Continuity IRAs not because he thought it immoral, but because he knew it was going nowhere and young men and women were destroying their futures for nothing. But he believed that Irish people had the moral right to take arms while the British remained in Ireland, and he would never have condemned any republicans who did so. He just thought it a waste at this point in history.
Chairing the anti-PSNI meeting in Derry, John’s insight and intellect shone though. He made many impassioned interventions from the platform, at one stage lambasting Adams and McGuinness for never once having objected to the Iraq War or Guantanamo Bay in their trips to the White House to meet George Bush. John chaired other meetings too. He was never impartial in that role. “I was determined that X (a speaker) wasn’t going to get hogging the mic for too long because he’d bore the audience to death,” he said proudly after one event. John wasn’t one of those false people who loved everybody. He was always a shrewd judge of character.
He was surprised, and deeply disappointed, by the poor election performance of anti-PSNI candidates. He didn’t attempt to dress it up. He believed the immediate future was bleak for republicans. “But what we will do is hold our heads high, stick to our principles, and know that many people have buried republicanism before, and time and time again, even if it takes decades, republicanism has bounced back,” he said. John’s spirits were raised by Sinn Fein’s abysmal performance in May’s Southern election. He made many phone calls to friends on the day of the count, exchanging news from around the country, happy that finally the leadership no longer appeared invulnerable.
Yet John was never a bitter man. If he was angry it wasn’t because of his own experience. It was because men and women who had given the movement their all were now suffering from alcoholism or depression, and struggling to find work or deal with broken marriages. These people were being cast aside like dirty rags while others, who had done little or nothing in the struggle, were rewarded with money, position and power.
John often wrote letters to the Irish News. Sometimes they were controlled and moderate; on other occasions John’s rage thundered through. “I don’t know if they’ll print this one,” he’d say.
A highly social man, John’s departure from Sinn Fein meant a loss of contact with people he’d known sometimes for decades. He never complained about the ostracisation that occurred in certain quarters but it must have hurt him. None of those he sat with in the Assembly picked up the phone to ring after he left the party. Yet he never held a grudge and when some later experienced their own problems with Sinn Fein, he was there for them.
Leaving a meeting of anti-PSNI republicans in Toome one Saturday, he ran into many old colleagues who were arriving for a Sinn Fein rally. He greeted them warmly and it was reciprocated. He was most amused that Ballymena councillor, Monica Digney, whom he liked, threw her arms round him and the next minute was running across the car-park to do the same to Gerry Adams. “Sure that’s just Monica!” he said.
Down through the years, John’s door was always open to republicans in trouble. He helped numerous volunteers on the run when he lived in the South. When Gerry McGeough was arrested in March, John drove to Dungannon and Belfast for every court appearance to support McGeough and his family.
John looked so well, it was hard for friends to believe his cancer had returned when he broke the news in early June. It seemed hugely unfair because he wasn’t long recovered from his last battle and the gruelling chemotherapy. If he cursed his luck, he never said it. There was no self-pity. “God proposes, man disposes”, was all he said. Yet again, John’s class came shining through.
He realised he didn’t have long left but in those remaining three months, John never again mentioned what he knew was awaiting him. He was dignified to the end. He had the mental strength to remain interested in other people’s lives and all that was going on around him. I never had a dull conversation with John. His mischief, wit, and wisdom were unique. Already, he is missed so much. He died hours apart from Pavarotti. He’d have appreciated that and it was entirely appropriate – two great men passing away in harmony.
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