So Gerry Kelly MLA is the proud owner of a “Royal Pardon”. Who knew? Who guessed? If he is “proud” of his pardon, he has been remarkably modest about it. In fact he never mentioned it. It just turned up in the News today…in the context of those OTR (On The Run) Letters undermining Justice. Lets not forget that the British Government and Judiciary have been undermining Justice for decades….Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven, Bloody Sunday….and the treatment of Victims post-Good Friday Agreement is a further example of Justice denied.
As a republican…Irish and global…I struggle with the concept of Royalty. For me the People are sovreign and on the small piece of the planet on which I live…the Irish People are sovreign.
There has always been ambiguity. I was born in a (British) National Health Service hospital in Belfast. My father, a chronically ill man from his early forties was a recipient of British Welfare. I suppose I should be grateful and yet I am not. As the unionist jibe of the 1960s would have it…we wer loyal to the “Half Crown” but not loyal to “The Crown”.
But in September 1969, I had to make my first compromise. I got a job aged 17 with Belfast Corporation as it was then called. Monday 29th September to be precise. The dozen or so new recruits were sat in the City Hall Council Chamber and we all had an Oath of Allegiance to sign. It seems extraordinary to think that this was a requirement of employment in Norn Iron Councils at the time. It was NOT a requirement in London or Manchester or Livverpool.
Why did our local Stormont unionist Government insist on it? Did they really think that Catholic (nationalist) employees in local councils would be more loyal as a result? I doubt it. Clearly there has always been an element of “absolutism” among nationalists. Some would never sign such an oath and effectively disbar themselves from public sector employment, settling for working in the private sector. But I never knew a republican-nationalist so uncompromising that he would never accept unemployment or sickness benefit.
Let me emphasise that I am not ridiculing republicans-nationalists who accepted their entitlement from the British State. Rather, I want to make a point that we all had to compromise to some extent.
Let me also emphasise that many of those new Belfast Corporation recruits on 29th September 1969 made a compromise. Some, including myself turned the “Oath” over so that I simply affirmed my allegiance to Mrs Windsor. I did not involve GOD. No doubt the folks in the Personnel Department marked our cards as Catholics who did not compromise…enough.
But an Oath taken under Coercion or indeed Incentive such as employment has no meaning. And yet, I occasionally did get hassle from republicans in West Belfast about “taking the Queens shilling” as they put it. More so after I became (briefly) a Norn Iron civil servant (oath required). Indeed I recall being cross-examined in 1971 when I had my first real girlfriend. Her father …a republican…did the “Queens Shilling” thing. What does a 19 year old guy do? I decided not to mention the faded photograph of a male relative in British Army uniform on his wall. Queens Shilling…my arse!
Occasionally a later career would take me into Court…a British Court…and I was always prepared as a witness to affirm as a non-Christian, rather than involve my GOD in a solemn oath in a British Court. It was my own little compromise.
Of course, Republicans charged with serious offences in the 1970s routinely refused to recognise the (British) Court. Routine pro-forma speeches from the Dock “as an Irish Republican, I do not recognise the jurisdiction of…..” Yes….but that is kinda absolutist and defeatist. If the Republican thought that there was a reasonable case of getting off or if instructed by a superior to declare “Not Guilty”, he/she would have done so. Not absolute.
And I daresay that a Republican who was harmlessly riding a bicycle and hit by a reckless car driver might happily go to court to rightfully claim his/her compensation.
It is all a matter of making compromises with principles.
Benefits. Employment. Criminal Court. Civil Court.
So ….Sinn Féin ridicule SDLP because SDLP MPs take an oath of allegiance at Westminster. SDLP claim it is merely a routine to allow the to better represent those who elect them. Sinn Féin take the view that the “oath” is a step too far and that constituents can be just as easily represented by MPs (currently five) who dont take their seats at Westminster.
Taking an oath of allegiance to Mrs Windsor is of course a compromise but is it a big deal. The Scottish Nationalist Party have no difficulty. Nor do committed English republicans like Dennis Skinner MP (Labour). Increasingly the parade of MPs taking the oath on the first day of a new Parliament is amusing as many republicans go thru the motions and some like Skinner (The Beast of Bolsover) have a little prologue or gesture which indicates a lack of obvious sincerity. Compromise.
Sinn Féin present it as a great issue of Principle. Not least Gerry Kelly MLA, who is standing as a candidate in North Belfast. If elected, he wont take the oath or sit in Westminster.
Does Gerry undermine his own position by accepting a “Royal Pardon”. I doubt that Mrs Windsor woke up in Buckingham Palace and wondered if she should give Gerry Kelly her forgiveness. It is a Government thing. It was in the interests of the British Government to give Gerry a pardon. And in the interests of Sinn Féin to accept it. And in the interests of both to accept it.
The problem with Principle is that it can all look just a bit silly at times. Although they never took their seats in the British House of Commons, Gerry Adams (West Belfast) and Martin McGuinness (Mid Ulster) had to resign to stand for election to the Irish Parliament or to concentrate on the Assembly.
But “resignation” is not that simple. It involves a traditional and bizarre nonsense of applying for a “Crown” office and self-disqualification from Parliament. Thus Gerry resigned and the authorities in Parliament went thru the ritual of appointing him as Steward of the Barony of Northstead…or some such nonsense.
Oh the Joy on Slugger O’Toole….Gerry Adams takes a Crown Office. Just how many threads there were on Slugger (especially initiated by the absurd Baker Boy) I have no idea but they did enjoy it.
Of course Gerry DID get his “Royal Pardon”. How exactly does a “Royal Pardon” work. Does a supplicant write to the Norn Iron Office? I have no idea. Back in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor and brought before James II in London….and threw himself at the royal feet, sobbing and begging for mercy. Thats how it was back then. Anyway it didnt work. He was executed in a very clumsy and brutal way.
Yet it is Election Season. And surely SDLP need to use the “Royal Pardon” issue to embarras Sinn Féin. I dont begrudge them the compromise. But I think a Republican accepting a “royal pardon” IS a compromise. But I do begrudge them standing on the high moral ground of Principle. You cant have it both ways.
And yet for some years now, that is exactly what Sinn Féin have been doing. Having it both ways. I do not think that a SDLP Leader would have escaped ridicule from the uber-republicans if he/she had been as fawning to Mrs Windsor as Martin McGuinness.
So at the very least, I hope SDLP candidates use this issue. It should be something that new candidates like John Coyle, Daniel Wray McCrossan, Malachy Quinn, Gerry Mullan, Justin McNulty and Margaret Anne McKillop should be bringing up.
And in TV Debates or in the Assembly, the message should be hammered home. Just throw it in there. Cough and say “Pardon me….to quote Gerry Kelly”. Or “I beg your pardon….no offence Gerry”.
Sinn Féin are certainly not as absolutist as they like to pretend.