29 June 2021
Gerard McGuigan – A Republican Life
"Ardoyne has lost a faithful son who did all in his power to make our district and our country a better place"
In these crazy days of Covid we live in I can’t get along to see the family of my good friend and comrade Gerard McGuigan who passed away last Friday or attend his funeral as I’m in isolation.
I saw Gerard last week for the last time surrounded by the people who loved him most, his wife Rosemary, his children and his family. I had hoped to see him again and say our goodbyes but that wasn’t to be.
It struck me after I left his home, only 20 years from the family home he grew up in before the redevelopment that the McGuigans always seemed to be in the life of my family. My granny Alice Maguire lived in 21 Jamaica St, next door to Mary and John McGuigan and their family of eight children and they attended Mam and dad’s wedding in 1956.
After granny died just after Christmas in 1965 my Uncle Tommy and Aunt Nora moved in to Number 21 and my aunt Alice Dickson and her family lived directly across the street.
As regular visitors to granny’s and to my aunt and uncle I got to know the McGuigans, in particular Celine and Fergal who were the same age as my brother Harry and I.
We knew from a young age that the McGuigans were Republicans, when it wasn’t exactly popular to be a Republican in the northern state but Mary and John were clearly respected by Dad and Uncle Tommy.
John and Mary were Tyrone people who had made Ardoyne their home but their connection with the Republican Movement spanned decades back to their youth.
Mary McGuigan, a member of Cumann na mBan, was a leader in the community. She was active in Sinn Féin, in the PDF and later Green Cross, in the local Relief Committee. And it was her work with refugees, fleeing their homes right across north Belfast which earned her the respect of hundreds of people who poured back into Ardoyne after being intimidated from their homes after the pogroms of 1969.
She and John advocated for a United Ireland, backed the campaigns for civil rights and equality and stood up strong for the right to live free from the discrimination, harassment, intimidation and oppression dished out by the northern state and its state murder gangs.
It was no surprise that their children joined them in the ranks of the Republican Movement.
And the McGuigans paid a big price for their commitment to a United Ireland, free from British rule and unionist domination and discrimination.
I recall visiting the family home with my Dad around the time of Bloody Sunday. John was interned, Mary was in Armagh Gaol, Sean was on remand and Francie one of the hooded men was interned, before his dramatic escape the following week from Long Kesh, the first Republican POW to break out of that jail. Michael was home but he was already staying out of the house at night to avoid arrest and only Celine and Fergal were living at home full time.
They too were to suffer imprisonment in British jails, Celine twice in Armagh Gaol and Fergal endured years in the H-Blocks during the Blanket Protest and Hunger Strike.
Gerard was only a couple of years older than me but he too was out of the family home in 1972. He spoke fondly to me of time he spent in Lenadoon during 1972 when he was ‘on the run’ and avoiding arrest.
Gerard was eventually arrested and he too was interned, Michael joined him in the internees’ cages of Long Kesh.
Gerard was released for a short period in 1974. He returned immediately to Republican activity and quietly got on with his work. Within a couple of short months however, he was interned again until the releases in 1975 when the British were moving to replace internment with a new criminalisation policy launched from March 1 1976 with the withdrawal of political status.
He was an intelligent and articulate and thoughtful Republican. Some of us young people dubbed him ‘Brains’ because he was smart but also because with his fair hair and glasses he reminded us a little of the TV character Joe 90!
I didn’t see Gerard again until 1984 until my release from the Cages of Long Kesh. He was married to Rosemary and they had started a family.
The Republican Movement in Ardoyne was at a low ebb. Thirty eight local people had been convicted in the Diplock Courts on the word of a paid perjurer.
Several others were in political exile in Dundalk and it had fallen to Gerard, his mother Mary, Tom Fleming, Janis and Ronnie Quinn, Tommy McLarnon, Colette Breslin and a couple of other party stalwarts to keep the Republican flame burning while the movement regrouped. This group had also been boosted by the return of Rab McCollum to the party following his release from the H-Blocks.
Gerard the Beard (pronounced Baird) as we knew him then was the obvious leader of this group. He was thoughtful, had solid Republican politics and understood the need for the movement to be relevant in the day-to-day struggles of the people of Ardoyne, in building homes, creating jobs and he was passionate about the need for education.
He had been active in the H-Block/Armagh campaigns and the efforts to Stop the Show Trials.
Gerard loved Irish language and games.
He was a strong supporter in the local Sinn Féin cumann of the efforts of local community activists to promote the Irish language, in street name campaigns, in founding the naíscoil and he took part in Irish language classes, back then and again later on in his life .
He was also a local shop keeper for a while, next door to the old Sinn Féin centre at the bottom of Brompton Park and he was accessible to the people of the community who needed his help and assistance.
When we met in the old centre, ‘centrally’ heated by a Super Ser on a winter’s night in 1984 to discuss the upcoming 1985 local elections which Sinn Féin were going to contest as a block for the first time since the 1920s, Gerard was our choice to contest the election.
Ratified in 1985 Gerard McGuigan stood in the Oldpark Ward. We were all very excited at the prospect of contesting this election. In 1981 two H-Block/Armagh candidates the PD’s Fergus O’Hare and Larry Kennedy, assassinated later that year by a British death squad, had won two seats in North Belfast and this gave us great hope that we could win seats.
We fought an energetic campaign, we were exuberant, enthusiastic and to be honest more than a little naive. We mounted a huge day of poll of operation, with scores of activists on the streets. On reflection we realised that our transport operation had been so good that we probably ferried half the SDLP vote to the polls as well and possibly cost ourselves the third seat which Paddy McManus narrowly missed out on.
But it was a huge boost to our struggle when Gerard got 1570 votes and he and Bobby Lavery won seats in north Belfast.
We did a huge cavalcade around the north of the city with Gerard and Bobby and a couple of days later we celebrated well into the night in the old New Lodge Felons Club. Mary Doyle, later a North Belfast Councillor herself will remember that night too as her husband Terry Clarke was arrested in the early hours the next morning on trumped-up charges, which cost him another six months of freedom.
We understood that Gerard’s election was a real boost for the movement in north Belfast and for our strategy of contesting elections across the island but it wasn’t until much later that I realized that Gerard was the first Republican elected in Ardoyne since Michael Carolan had been on the old Belfast City Corporation in the 1920s. It was truly a turning point in the history of the city and in electoral politics in the north.
All of us who knew him loved going out with Gerard for a night out. He went out regularly with his old friends, Alan Lundy, Charlie McAuley and Rab McCollum. He was full of fun and craic, loved a laugh and a bit of slagging and with his own sharp with, gave as good as he got.
But he was also intelligent, discerning and also honest and true to his own Republican politics. He was never afraid to be critical of direction or decisions by leadership. He would talk about his concerns and if he wasn’t comfortable with a decision he said so.
I worked very closely with him in his first term as a councillor and following his re-election in 1989.
We made a point at least once a week to sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss the national and local political issues, recruitment, party building and organisation, we discussed the needs of constituents and the progress of local housing campaigns or benefits take up campaigns and about the complaints the Sinn Féin centre was dealing with.
Gerard was determined to deliver the best housing possible as Ardoyne and the Bone were being rebuilt following the clearances of old Ardoyne and the Bone.
The quality of social housing which replaced the old mill houses with their outside toilets are testimony to the commitment of Gerard and local community activists who worked tirelessly with the Housing Executive to ensure that people had good homes following the redevelopment.
With Ardoyne and the Bone bursting at the seams, and a huge need for housing Gerard argued that new Housing Executive developments should be allocated on need rather than on sectarian boundaries.
He advocated for access to the new Lower Oldpark housing development from Rosapena St and had 50 families from the housing waiting list signed up to accept homes in the new development.
Gerard argued that the new development would not be sustainable given the changing demographics in north Belfast and that at least the top end of the development should be allocated on the basis of need rather than creed.
The Housing Executive, under pressure from local unionists, chose not to create any access point from a nationalist community. Within 20 years there were 105 empty homes in the newly built estate as a result of an unwritten policy that the Lower Oldpark was ‘unionist’ ground and that nationalists would not be allowed to live there.
He was delighted in 1986 when the system of paid perjurers collapsed after a series of appeals overturned convictions. Many of those jailed between 1981 and 1983 returned to their families and their district and thanks to the efforts of Gerard and others helped re-energise the Republican Movement.
Gerard McGuigan was a courageous man. He fearlessly represented his constituents at a time when Belfast City Council was a bear pit. Insults and physical attacks on councillors were the order of the day, as well as petty and vindictive harassment from the RUC and raids on his home.
None of this deterred him from doing what he was elected to do. He also was courageous in facing his friends, neighbours and the community when the Republican Movement got it wrong whether that was in public meetings, or if he visited homes where people had been affected by IRA actions offering help and assistance without fear or favour.
He campaigned tirelessly on behalf of prisoners.
When he was elected for the second time in 1989 the threat to Sinn Féin councillors has escalated dramatically. A British government strategy of collusion with loyalist death squads was in full swing.
The loyalist death squads, rearmed with a consignment of weapons brought in from South Africa at the end of 1987 with the assistance of British state services, were supplied with intelligence and being run by British state agents, who were actively targeting Sinn Féin representatives, their homes and their offices as well as human rights activists and even solicitors.
Sinn Féin Councillor John Davey had been killed in February 1989 just two days after the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane in his north Belfast home.
The Ardoyne Sinn Féin centre was targeted in a gun and rocket attack two days before the 1989 election. Tom Fleming who was in the building at the time continued to work as if it was just another day at the office.
Fourteen members of Sinn Féin, including councillors were murdered by state forces between then and the IRA ceasefire of 1994.
North Belfast councillors Bobby Lavery and Gerard McGuigan were to pay a heavy price. Bobby’s son Sean was killed in a loyalist gun attack on their family home on August 8th 1993 only months after the murder of his brother Martin in his home on Crumlin Road in December 1992.
Gerard’s McGuigan’s family home in Elmfield St was targeted in 1992 and 1993. Loyalists fired automatic weapons and threw a grenade into the house.
Thankfully Gerard, Rosemary and his children survived these attacks and Gerard refused to be intimidated.
After stepping down from the Oldpark Ward Gerard’s last outing in elected politics was to stand in the Castle Ward to test the waters in a constituency that many north Belfast Republicans regarded as fertile ground.
His 575 votes was credible enough to make it a target seat in future elections, with Danny Lavery taking a seat next time around.
Gerard then worked from the party headquarters in Belfast with the party’s Foreign Affairs department. Here he worked closely with Ted Howell and Sile Darragh.
He famously accompanied Uachtarán Shinn Féin Gerry Adams on his first trip to the US in the run-up to the IRA ceasefire.
The trip was a huge success, the first time the Sinn Féin leader had been able to connect in person with the Irish American diaspora and engaging the US administration at a critical time in the developing peace process.
Gerard was very proud to have played his part in that history making tour of the US and although we Ardoyne people would not have told him so we were very proud of him too, as he was one of our own.
Gerard McGuigan believed that education was an agent of change. He was passionate about the role of education in improving the quality of life in his community and opening up opportunities to our young people which his parents couldn’t have dreamed of.
He was honoured to become chair of the board of governors of Holy Cross Boys School and absolutely delighted when he took his place on the board of he Girls School as well.
He was outraged but also heart broken by the events of 2001 when the children of Holy Cross Girls School were subjected to a barrage of sectarian hatred and insults, when they were targeted in a loyalist bomb attack and when adult men and women threw urine at them in what was a new low.
He was also deeply concerned when Ardoyne was tearing itself apart over the response to the parades issue, which divided opinion in the district and among Republicans, until it was resolved several years ago. He urged us to be a little less harsh in our judgements of each other and respect each other’s opinions.
Gerard knew the difficulties the split of ’69/’70 had on the community but also in his own family and the time that it took for some of those differences to heal.
He remained a committed and loyal Republican to his death and despite ill health made a point of helping out in every election.
Gerard aired his views honestly in internal meetings, he said his piece, he made his argument and was often very straight to the point.
But Gerard McGuigan was never nasty, never engaged in personal abuse. If he lost an argument in a meeting he faithfully went out and represented the agreed position in public.
That did not prevent him from returning to his position, if he believed he was right, at the next available opportunity, but he respected the collective decisions made with his comrades.
On a personal level I’m deeply saddened by the loss of Gerard McGuigan.
He was a friend and most importantly a throughly decent human being, he had integrity and he often urged Republicans to be a little harsh in their judgements of each other. He
He had a tough time with his health in his later years and the stroke he suffered had a lasting and debilitating impact on him.
It was at this time that the love of Rosemary and his family absolutely shone through for him. They were his rock and it was fitting that he passed away peacefully surrounded by them in his home in Jamaica St.
To Rosemary, Garret, Cormac and Bronagh and their children and grandchildren, to Francie, Sean, Peter, Michael, Fergal, Celine and all your children comhbhrón ó chroí from me and all the Maguire family.
Ardoyne has lost a faithful son who did all in his power to make our district and our country a better place.
We will remember him and we will continue his work to achieve a united Ireland where all the children of the nation are cherished equally.