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7 June 2010

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Where are the Luddites when you need them?

'AN PHOBLACHT' began publishing as a monthly, I think, in 1970, around the same time that the Belfast-based 'Republican News' came on the streets.

My mate Peter and I in our teens, and just after the Falls Curfew, used to sell Rep News from under our coats as people came out of St Paul’s Mass. It’s hard to believe, given the public display of support for Sinn Féin today, that back then most people were still afraid to express or declare their republicanism.

I first wrote for ‘Republican News’ in 1971 and 1972, the year I was interned, and after my release became editor in July 1975, during a disastrous ceasefire, when, in my opinion, the IRA temporarily lost its way. My predecessor, who was a fairly right-wing Catholic, had an editorial disagreement with ‘the owners’ of the paper, to put it mildly, was sacked, and I was asked if I would step in.

I was 22, a cheeky brat, and I jumped at the opportunity. One of our first stories - an exclusive - was to publish the captured ID of an undercover soldier who had been rumbled on the Falls Road, made a lucky escape, but dropped his machine gun and wallet.

We also published comms from the prisons, including the early writings of Bobby Sands, and breached the security around the British Queen’s visit to the North by publishing her itinerary in advance.

In 1977 and 1978 the British secretary of state, a pompous little toad by the name of Roy Mason, tried to close the paper down. Our offices, at 170a Falls Road, had already been bombed, one of our drivers, Billy Kennedy, had been shot and wounded at the front door, and the British army raided us regularly, seized documents and photographs and tried to disrupt the paper. In Dublin successive editors of ‘An Phoblacht’, including Eamon Mac Thomais, were being arrested and charged with IRA membership in an attempt to break the continuity of that paper.

In 1978 almost the entire staff of ‘Republican News’, including our printer, Gary Kennedy, a member of the SDLP, was behind bars charged with IRA membership and conspiracy to pervert the course of public justice. But the paper continued to be compiled by comrades who moved from sympathetic house to sympathetic house though we had to move the printing of the paper to the south. (Years later loyalist gunmen burst into Gary Kennedy’s Ronan Press in Lurgan and shot dead Martin L’Estrange from the Falls.)

By February 1979 the case against us collapsed.

Long prior to this, the Dublin-produced ‘An Phoblacht’, based at 44 Parnell Square, suffered a lot of disadvantages and we, based in Belfast, tended to get all the coups, access to exclusive IRA interviews and IRA photographs and ‘war news’ briefings. The competition between the two papers had led to a situation where, with our natural expansion beyond the nine counties of Ulster, our sales were clipping at the heels of ‘An Phoblacht’, and, up until the raids, we were turning a profit.

Discussions at national leadership level agreed that a merger would be the answer - although we were all thinking in terms of about a year down the line.

However, an incident arose where the ‘An Phoblacht’ editor, the late Deasún Breathnach, felt that he was been placed under undue pressure by two veteran republicans (who were later to form Republican Sinn Féin) to promote their point of view. To be fair, the two newspapers were caught up in the dying kicks of an ideological competition then being played out at certain, mostly personality levels within the Movement. It was the time of the so-called “northern takeover”, which made sense at a time of armed struggle but which politically, inevitably, needed to be loosened if republican activists in the 26 Counties were to come into their own and assertively stamp their authority on the culture of the Movement.

Deasún’s resignation dramatically brought forward the impetus for a merger and so, in one fell swoop, in late February 1979, ‘An Phoblacht’ and ‘Republican News’ combined, with me as editor and Mick Timothy as my left-hand man in the Dublin offices. Of course, it was seen and depicted as a takeover (which it actually wasn’t). We were anxious to cover all the struggles taking place in the South, supporting the trade union movement, giving a voice to women, to gays, to the demands for the right to divorce for example (incredible though that backwardness of Irish society seems now to a modern audience).

The new paper, the late Maire Moore declared, could not lose the name of ‘Republican News’, which is why we ended up with the combination, AP/RN.

Mick Timothy’s ‘Burke at the Back’, along with War News and reports of the escalating prison crises in Armagh and the H-Blocks were avidly read each week. We published letters critical of the movement and certain of its policies, we covered a wide variety of debates.

I was also the national director of publicity so a lot of the work was delegated to Mick, to Phil Shemeld (an English comrade who emerged from the Troops Out Movement), to Danny Devenney, to John Hedges (congratulations!) and the typesetters who worked to dawn each Thursday morning: people like Cathleen Knowles, Mary Hickey, Jackie Burt and Mick’s wife, Alice. Hot off the press our drivers were ready to distribute the paper to all corners of Ireland within hours.

The hardest year of all was 1981.

What a time of struggle, sacrifice, tears, broken-hearts, anger, defiance, renewal and inspiration.

The paper had gone from something like eight pages to eighty-eight pages for certain editions - such was the volume of news generated by the hunger strike. The toll on the staff was incredible and yet no one batted an eyelid if something had to be rewritten and re-typeset and re-designed at five o’clock in the morning after a twenty-hour stint at 44.

I was editor up until October 1982 when I stood for the Assembly elections and was elected to Mid-Ulster. It was quite a wrench leaving AP/RN, friends and comrades behind, first in the able hands of Mick Timothy, whose death in 1985 was nothing short of tragic and shocking, then his successor Rita, and others, and now, after many years of service, into the hands of ‘Erskine’ (Childers, my tribute to and moniker for the loyal John Hedges, who takes over in this bloody awful cyber age. Where are the Luddites when you need them?!).

Finally, finally, here is one thing about the journey which immortalises all we might do. It is never-ending! Which is why, when today, 27 May, 2010, Erskine texts me for 200 words, I send him six times what he asked for!

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