The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Sinn Fein & Democracy Be Damned: Martin Cunningham Interviewed

Truth has a way of asserting itself despite all attempts to obscure it. Distortion only serves to derail it for a time. No matter to what lengths we humans may go to obfuscate facts or delude our fellows, truth has a way of squeezing out through the cracks, eventually. But the danger is that at some point it may no longer matter. The danger is that damage is done before the truth is widely realized. The reality is that, sometimes, it is easier to ignore uncomfortable facts and go along with whatever distortion is currently in vogue.... Because eventually, like it always does, the truth will emerge. And when it does, this house of cards, built of deceit, will fall - Senator Robert C. Byrd

Anthony McIntyre • 12 March 2004

Sitting talking in my living room with people who have been brutalised or intimidated by Sinn Fein is hardly a new experience. Since the party decided to follow the trail blazed by Cathal Goulding and Tomas McGiolla in the 1960s and 70s - ditching the armed struggle and embracing parliamentarianism - the need to administer 'peace therapy' to those who fell for the earlier lies and are reluctant to embrace the new ones has become more pronounced. Consequently, increasing numbers of people have turned up at my door determined that their story will be told and that the Sinn Fein imposed Section 31 censorship diktat on the republican constituency will be resisted.

With the latest casualty of the Sinn Fein leadership's 'go-Stick' strategy sitting across the room from me, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I had heard it all before and the turn that events were taking was hardly unexpected. The one difference on this occasion was that the person at the centre of the latest routinised act of internal Sinn Fein aggression, Martin Cunningham, was a party member who was possessed of the temerity to stand up to the party's power-crazed leadership and speak publicly about his experiences.

Sinn Fein must have felt justified in waxing cynical about the truth status of the popular view that lightening never strikes twice in the same spot, when back-to-back a brace of people who have been prominent within the party for years, repudiated the vow of silence demanded by the leadership of those who might otherwise flag up its abuses. John Kelly had punctured a hermetic seal and Martin Cunningham quickly rushed the breach.

It would be surprising if the natural instinct of the leadership were anything other than that of despatching an 'active service unit' to beat the vociferous critics up. And there would have been no shortage of bull-believers to support the action, failing to note the irony of Freddie Scappaticci going unharmed for rupturing the silence code in circumstances qualitatively different from, and immeasurably more serious than anything Cunningham or Kelly gave vent to. But Sinn Fein is aware that its latitude - courtesy of the Nelsonian vision of the British and Irish governments - to employ violence against those within its constituency who disagree with it, has been curbed, if albeit temporarily. Even if the four men arrested after the Kelly's Cellars incident in February were not part of anything other than a 'barroom brawl', the embarrassing fall-out which has left the entire leadership looking like finalists in the Pinocchio Cup, will inject some brake fluid into the forward momentum of the party's repressive apparatuses.

About six hours before I first set eyes on Councillor Martin Cunningham, a mutual friend who seemed very concerned for his safety had contacted me. He explained that the knives were out for the elected representative and asked would the Blanket be prepared to speak with him. Given that Adam O'Toole was probably too busy defending Freddie Scappaticci and would not therefore have the time to publicise Cunningham in An Phoblacht/Republican News, I decided that whatever else I had planned would have to go to the wall. If the Blanket were not to raise the concerns of a victimised republican where else would? We met at Belfast's Hilton Hotel, where I was honouring an earlier arrangement to be interviewed by a journalist working for one of the British dailies. It was easier to meet at a landmark than have someone totally unfamiliar with Belfast topography weave his way through Ballymurphy's narrow streets. From the plush luxury of the hotel we made the four-mile journey to my home in the austere Springhill.

Martin Cunningham first joined Sinn Fein in the early 1970s. Being a member of the party then in Kilkeel must have seemed like being a black civil rights activist at the local Ku Klux Klan convention. It is a well-known loyalist town and prior to Cunningham standing for the council, the Sinn Fein vote was generally low. Prison is usually a good barometer of the republican content of any geographical area, except when it comes to South Armagh where activists were always too shrewd to be found with something incriminating in their possession or to leave a forensic trail. Strabane was another, only for opposite reasons. Many of us felt that the RUC set up shop in the town's social security office and when the masses of unemployed youth came to sign on the dole the cops posing as 'broo' clerks threw down pre-prepared statements in front of them. Their unfortunate signatures helped clear the RUC unsolved cases files, and for those that signed, being cared for by the state acquired a new meaning. Few Kilkeel man passed through the jail. One that did, we renamed 'Skipper' because in our city ignorance we believed that only fishermen lived there.

Martin Cunningham dropped out of the party for a while in the early 1990s due to personal factors and work commitments. Being a strong supporter of the peace process and committed to profiling Sinn Fein he came back in just prior to the council elections in May 2001, which the party wanted him to contest. His bid was successful. 'From a base vote of 450, myself and my colleagues pushed the vote up to nearly 1300 and the party topped the poll in the area.' Prior to his standing the party had asked a number of other people to do so but they refused for various reasons, mostly related to their personal safety.

Now the same people with the help of Mitchel McLaughlin have set up a new cumann. And it is simply a case that they see it as an easy ticket into the council and have jumped on the gravy train.

I sensed that perhaps affable Mitchel, the friendly face of Sinn Fein, was not everything he portrayed himself to be. I had long suspected it, having been told in 2000 by one of his colleagues that he was one of the party's strongest advocates of policing the dissidents. I decided to press Martin on this and put it to him that perhaps McLaughlin wanted a party in his own image - made up of people who over the years were prepared to take few risks for republicanism and had made a comfortable career out of it.

He told me he did not want to take things out of context and would need to explain the backdrop. Having been a tardy but successful learner over the years when it comes to acquiring patience on these matters, I waited while he set the scene.

Martin Cunningham first noticed tension within the party last year when he was democratically elected by a convention of local constituency party members to stand as an MLA. In the process Mick Murphy, the sitting MLA, was deselected. 'I took no pleasure in replacing Mick. I said that he had served the constituency to the best of his ability, and that I felt humbled that the party had chosen me.' He later found out that after the election some people unhappy with the democratic decision had been 'rushing to Belfast' in a bid to have it overturned. However, senior party officials in Belfast assured him that the democratic mandate stood. 'But there were obviously forces at work - the same forces that had got rid of Garret Faulkner and Aiden Carlin.'

A week before the assembly elections were announced Cunningham was informed by the party hierarchy that he would have to stand down. First of all he was told that his replacement would be a female candidate - Bairbre de Brun. It was explained to him that the party wanted to use the Assembly election as a launching pad from which to win the South Down Westminster seat from its incumbent Eddie McGrady.

I have a lot of respect and time for Bairbre de Brun who I have found to be a very intelligent and sincere woman. I said that while I was disappointed I would walk the streets with Bairbre de Brun and try to get her elected. Bairbre de Brun is a very credible candidate.

Matters then changed when party officials in the Newry Sinn Fein office told him that it might not in fact be de Brun who would be running. But when pressed they claimed that they did not know who it might be. Cunningham raised an objection on the grounds that he was asked to stand down after having being democratically selected to make way for someone whose identity was not yet known but who most certainly had not been selected by the local constituency. The response of the officials was blunt. While suggesting to him that he had a choice to remain as the democratically selected candidate, they made it clear that the leadership was not going to stand for three male candidates running in the constituency. When it appeared to them that they had yet to convince him, the time for niceties had passed. It was made clear to him that the decision was a done and dusted deal and that he was not to say anything to anyone, that they would handle the press. Menacingly, they indicated to him that his life would be made difficult if he protested.

A short time later in Newcastle he met a senior Sinn Fein figure from Belfast who told him quite bluntly that regardless of who the grassroots of the party wanted, the leadership was determined to force him to stand aside. The Belfast figure explained that the leadership had its own candidate picked but were not prepared to disclose the identity to Cunningham.

On discovering his replacement was to be Catriona Ruane - who claimed to have joined the party because of its human rights record yet remains deafeningly silent when Sinn Fein members are maiming those who oppose their writ - he met McLaughlin, the party chair in Newry, but says he was treated with disdain. Cunningham pointed out to the Derry politician how he had taken considerable risks to build the party in Kilkeel, had been democratically selected by the local constituency and was now being asked to stand down by a leadership who sought to overrule the local democratic decision and impose a candidate who had never been in the party, nor taken any risks for it.

He remained indifferent. He doesn't even listen and has his diatribe planned in advance and it is the same no matter what issue you go to him with. It may as well have been a cardboard cut out I was addressing. I found him patronising and obnoxious. I felt that when he dismissed me with an arrogant shrug of the shoulders I was expected to raise my hand in some sort of Nazi salute and then walk away.

Martin Cunningham claims that this points to the corrosion of democracy within the party in South Down:

An unknown person who does not even live in the constituency was imposed on the people despite the misgivings of the local cumann and many in the constituency. Consequent to her imposition, the party has saw fit to ignore, marginalise and, without any consultation, decommission the local party structures, which have worked hard for years to build the profile and status of the party in this area. It is a violation of democracy and I cannot sit lightly with a party that allows a few individuals to violate party principles and procedures. These particular individuals seem to be well versed in the British methods of divide and conquer.

I felt that this was confirmation of what people such as myself, Tommy Gorman and Brendan Hughes had been saying for almost a decade and which the leadership and its apologists had sought to gainsay. The pretence that Sinn Fein was somehow a democratic party was being hollowed out from within. It was as if I had lived with a hump on my back and now it had disappeared, vaporised by the simple act of fellow republicans speaking truth to power. John Kelly and Martin Cunningham will most certainly be bad mouthed in the time honoured Stalinistic fashion. But their dissent cannot be easily dismissed. And in my home that Thursday evening Martin Cunningham had only just begun.


Next issue: Part 2 of the interview with Martin Cunningham.







Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

12 March 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Try Not to Forget It
Brian Mór


Time to End the Silence on Stakeknife
Martin Ingram


Confident No More
Mick Hall


Sinn Fein & Democracy Be Damned: Interview with Martin Cunningham

Anthony McIntyre


Bobby Tohill: Pub Brawls and Death Threats
Liam O Ruairc


Ardoyne Suicides
Eamonn McCann

Independence Day
David Vance


The Half Loaf of Good Friday Will Never Satisfy
Liam O Comain


Special Exclusive on Special Relationship
Matthew Kavanah


The Proposed UK-US Extradition Treaty: Concerns
Francis Boyle


The Decolonization of Northern Ireland
Francis Boyle


1 March 2004


The Enforcers

Anthony McIntyre


Reference Guide to Provisional IRA Attacks on Republicans, 1998-2004


Stand Down, Mr Hyde
Liam O Comain


Civilian Adminstration?
George Young


Adams Nearly Quit Sinn Fein - Peace Process Hero Angered by IRA's Violence
Barney de Breadbin and Eamonn Codswallop


Double Standards - Questions Need Answering
Raymond Blaney


Brilliant, Bloody Brilliant
Brian Mór


POWs and the Challenge of Partnership
Aoife Rivera Serrano




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