It is of considerable regret on my part that I only met John Kelly for the first time a short number of years ago. It was at a wake of a friend’s father in Tyrone. John was a Sinn Fein MLA at the time and I had established a public reputation as a critic of the party. It caused no sparks between us as he remained unfazed and engaged in political conversation with myself and others of like mind attending the wake. Unlike many of his colleagues who endorsed the 'control dictatorship' he shunned its odious practice of ostracism and was more than capable of embracing a different idea.
At the time I was already aware that if he did not harbour actual reservations about the likely outworking of the peace process he was under no illusions as to what path the Provisional movement was following. When fielding a question at an event in England he famously quipped that ‘we are all Sticks now.’ Ironically, on the weekend of John’s burial, John A Murphy told Martin McGuinness at another event in England that the now British minister was firmly in the ‘Sticky’ mould.
Some time after that first meeting I attended a protest outside Maghaberry Prison with John Kelly. Sinn Fein was enraged that John would, without seeking party approval, lend his support to a campaign for better conditions for republican prisoners. That event was probably the catalyst that saw John part ways with his former colleagues. He appreciated that they were on the power circuit and would abandon all and sundry to stay there.
When a body of opinion, which became known as the No More Lies group, held a number of meetings to discuss ways of combating the increasing degeneracy of the Provisional movement and how best to protect people from its bullying and intimidation, John Kelly was its driving force. If there was no opportunity for republicans to advance they were obligated in his view to prevent repression of the opposition by the Sinn Fein leadership. During the outcry over the murder of Robert McCartney he lent his voice to the McCartney family campaign for justice, asking if the only thing achieved by republican struggle was the exchange of an orange jackboot for a green one.
John was also in the engine room driving opposition to the Sinn Fein stance on policing which he felt could only lead to the party openly advocating the sordid practice of informing on republicans as a means to assist the British police. A frequent contributor to discussions as part of the Concerned Republicans group a crowning moment for him was when he chaired a thunderous packed meeting in Derry city where his passion for the issue led to him abandoning the neutrality of the chair. His oratory animated the audience. With Sinn Fein trying to atomise oppositional voices the fusion of so many strands of republican thought was an uplifting moment for a man so used to addressing ‘the few and the spat upon’ as Dolours Price poignantly describes those who are not fair-weather republicans.
An endearing characteristic of John was his ability to cut through the party guff. When Sinn Fein latched onto Denis Donaldson’s admission that he had been a British agent of twenty years as a pretext for alleging that securocrats had manufactured an artificial crisis in 2002 as a means to bring down the executive John scoffed at the party. On the evening of Donaldson’s exposure, when I was hurriedly writing an opinion piece for the Irish News, John explained to me that far from the spy ring being the odious work of some spooky ne’er do well, a Sinn Fein MLA had in fact organised it. He did not see it as a serious threat to the British, being in his view a balm with which some uneasy staffers at Stormont could assuage their conscience as they went about implementing British rule.
John Kelly very much believed in the concept of Tone which stressed Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. He made many friends within the unionist community and resented the sectarianism of some of his fellow party MLA’s who chided him for suggesting that unionism should be offered a poison free chalice and then had the chutzpah to masquerade in public office as the champions of bridge building between the nationalist and unionist communities.
A diverse range of republican opinion attended the funeral of John Kelly. Some of his old colleagues from Sinn Fein were in attendance but they cut lonely figures, seemingly sensing that they rather than their critics feel isolated at republican funerals these days. That however did not stop conversation and banter between the different shades. One of the last people our travelling party spoke to as we set about getting ready for the journey back to Belfast was Sinn Fein’s Martin Meehan. Like John Kelly, the Ardoyne man has accompanied many republican dead on the last mile of their final journey for more years than most remember.
One of the day’s lighter moments came when my daughter’s curiosity prompted her to ask me to take her inside the church where a funeral mass was being conducted. That she is not brought up in a religious environment or subjected to any religious sentiment was evident in her response to Tommy Gorman asking her what it was like inside the chapel. 'A man in a purple coat was talking,' she said in a manner, suggesting she found it anything but interesting. ‘That’s a priest’ Tommy declared, humorously rebuking me for keeping the child in the dark. Clerics and their doctrines are something she might wish to delve into further as she moves through her own life. For now she is too young, her mind too innocent, to allow her psychological character to be skewed by religion.
It would have brought a smile to the face of John Kelly, to whose home my daughter had been a visitor. A man who believed in God he had not the slightest inclination to shove his beliefs down the throats of others resistant to them.
John Kelly is not someone who was laid to rest with the sense that his time had come. He exuded vitality rarely seen in people half his age. Even when he was ill he never relented, always ready to travel or lobby at a moment’s notice. The wise owl of dissenting republicanism, there will be many occasions in the future when his colleagues will rue his vacant perch.
Read more of Anthony McIntyre at his new blog.
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews +
Letters + Archives