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A View North Bombmaking 101: Lessons from the school of hard knocks

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

At times like this I always reach for my Tacitus.

The greatest historian of Imperial Rome noted that the more we know about human history, the more ironic things seem.

Needless to say, these words once more flashed through my mind on Monday when the news from Northern Ireland came in, reporting that Martin McGuinness, who, according to one account of his life, left school at the age of 15, had been nominated as minister of education in the new power-sharing government. A sense of irony is definitely needed to digest that piece of information.

A sense of humor also comes in handy, especially if you happen to be a Unionist. Just think. The education of all those well-scrubbed little Protestant boys and girls is now in the hands of a former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA — the man credited with utilizing the car bomb to flatten most of the downtown area of his native Derry, where the first one exploded in March 1972. Think of what career choices he might suggest to the schoolgirls and schoolboys of Northern Ireland.

Journalist Kevin Toolis in his book "Rebel Hearts" (Picador, New York 1995) quotes the former Derry civil rights activist Eamon McCann on McGuinness.

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McCann said: "Martin personifies the armed struggle. Martin is the armed struggle. There are other people who have been around as long, but Martin is a man who has come to epitomize the indomitable spirit of armed-struggle republicanism and does so with great charm and amicability."

Toolis also quotes a "former IRA Volunteer" as saying that "Martin is a too-good-to-be-true IRA man."

Actually, Martin stands out among most of the republicans who

are now prominent in the peace process for the lack of time he spent in jail. That is why some have questioned his credentials as a credible minister of education. After all, he spent no more than two relatively short spells behind bars south of the border on membership charges.

Said one Irish official: "You can always tell a 14-year man by the level of his Irish." Meaning, it needed that length of time in the Maze or Portlaoise to master the language to become fluent in it. The point being that many republicans have only got serious about education once they were faced with a long prison spell. The Maze was once jokingly referred to as "Long Kesh University." But the joke had a serious message. It probably contained the best-educated prison population in the world. One old friend of mine who did 11 years there came out with a degree in mathematics. Another, prominent, IRA man, convicted of one of the most spectacular attacks in the history of the conflict, passed the time away by doing a degree and then a post-graduate degree, writing a thesis on the fiction of the Troubles.

Others wiled away the long years studying Irish, law, and history.

Martin McGuinness never had that opportunity, and though at the time he might have been just as happy to avoid it, he might now regret it.

However, the new minister of education did get around and met a wide cross-section of people. He was a house guest of George Harrison, the man who ran guns to the Provisional IRA for almost 20 years. He stayed with George in Brooklyn in the late 1970s.

George remembers the minister: "I had the privilege of feeding him and looking after him when he was here. I have no regrets about that. I got along well with him. He was a nice young fellow. My sister liked him too. He was very sober."

The future minister of education visited twice, as far as George can recall.

"We talked about weaponry," said George. "He didn’t seem to be too well up on weaponry."

At the time, there was a stack of armalites downstairs, getting ready to be moved to Ireland and George gave his guest a few demonstrations on their finer points.

According to the old gun-runner and revolutionary: "He loved Achill Island. He had traveled quite a bit on the continent. He was well used to getting around in disguise."

I asked George if he there was any lesson he thought he could teach the new minister of education. He replied: "The kind of lessons I’d give from Tone on down they might not appreciate. There’s only one thing to learn and that’s Brits out."

It remains to be seen if the new minister of education will put that on the curriculum. As he well knows, history is a very contentious subject in Northern Ireland, and is constantly being rewritten.

Publisher Niall O’Dowd has once more attacked this newspaper and myself for publishing a story about the IRA making what amounted to an admission that its "war" was over. He also reiterates claims about my friendship with an RUC officer, Ian Phoenix, who he describes yet again as the "head" of the Special Branch.

The story nowhere claimed that what the IRA said during the closing days of the Mitchell review would the basis for its public statement, which came a few days later.

As far as Ian Phoenix is concerned, once more Mr. O’Dowd has got it wrong. He was not the head of the Special Branch but , rather, was in charge of a small department. He never rose above the rank of superintendent. The head of the Branch is an assistant chief constable.

I never shared a house with him in Italy.

I returned from Italy in 1991 after five years to live in Belfast. In 1992, I rented my home in Italy to several people, including Ian and his wife, who took it for several weeks in September, after they had answered an advertisement for it in The Belfast Telegraph. I had no idea who they were or what they did. But they seemed to me to be wonderful people. And in that I was proven right.

As to having sources in the Special Branch — surely it is the job of any reporter to avail himself of as many sources as he can if he wants to get at the facts? The only sources he should exclude are those which prove to be unreliable.

I suggest to Mr. O’Dowd that he pick up and read a copy of "Phoenix: Policing the Shadows. The Secret War Against Terrorism In Northern Ireland" before he makes any more pronouncements on it. Happy to say it’s still selling well in Britain and Ireland.

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