Kelly has been a junior minister at the office of the first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland since May 2007.
“When it’s working, it works well,” he said of the power-sharing arrangement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. He left for the United States, though, against the backdrop of the growing crisis over the devolvement of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. The DUP is saying that the time isn’t right. Kelly and his party colleagues in Sinn Fein have argued that such foot-dragging feeds the vacuum of uncertainty in which dissidents can operate.
Kelly believes that he’s been a particular target because of his high profile in criticizing those who violently reject the Good Friday agreement.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been threatened, but it’s the first time they’ve threatened my home,” he said.
“You get a very different perspective on it when the children know about it, when you see it worry them, and they start asking questions,” Kelly added.
On that morning friends made sure that his children, who range in age from 19 down to 11, were safe. Kelly spoke with the PSNI later in the day and he declared himself happy with the way the incident was handled.
The junior minister also referred to the 400lb bomb that failed to detonate in Belfast recently, saying that it put nationalist civilians at risk of death and injury.
He said that a range of dissident groups continue to exist but have “very minimal support.” He added: “It’s derisory. It doesn’t even come into percentages. But they’re dangerous if they have guns and bombs.”
He has offered to talk to the groups and to young people who might be drawn into violence: “Let’s hear what you have to say,” he said.
Kelly’s own history of militancy is one of the best known of the Troubles, certainly of those who’ve fully embraced politics. He went on the Provisional IRA’s first bombing mission to England at age 19 in 1973. He was arrested with nine others trying to flee the country after a number of bombs went off in London. One man died of a heart attack and 200 were injured. After receiving two life sentences plus 20 years (seen as particularly harsh in Kelly’s case as the bomb traced to him had been defused), he and other members of the group went on a hunger strike seeking repatriation. It was prolonged for months by the prison staff’s force-feeding of them, a practice that was eventually abandoned and described as “barbaric” by the British home secretary. The prisoners were transferred in time back to jails in Northern Ireland.
(Marian Price, who was part of the group, is today a spokesperson for the dissident 32-County Sovereignty Movement and was questioned last month by detectives investigating the killing of two soldiers earlier this year.)
In 1983, Kelly escaped with 37 others from Long Kesh, but was captured in the Netherlands three years later. He was released in 1989, as part of the extradition agreement with the Dutch, and began his political career with Sinn Fein soon afterwards.
Now as a government junior minister, he can point to some progress: the first budget passed in 40 years, for instance, a program for government and a good deal of valuable legislation that has been passed.
Despite the contested areas, with the parties condemning each other’s positions, the junior ministers’ office issue joint policy statements in which each of them is quoted – for instant recently in the announcement of a