The day of his burial last month I made my way up to Cullyhanna in South Armagh. It is not that often I am there. The last journey I made also took me to a cemetery, where I paused for a while to reflect at the grave of Raymond McCreesh, one of the ten republican hunger strikers to die on peaceful protest in 1981. Embodied in the graves of republican dead is an emotional centre of gravity which draws us to them. The people in them lost so much while some of their leaders gained quite a lot for themselves alone.
Before Jim died we had been in touch via e mail. I promised to call up and see him. He welcomed it but had sisters over visiting from London at the time so a week or two down the line would just fine. ‘I'm in good form and intend to stay that way, no point getting grumpy about it’, is what he told me. Despite the oncologist having explained to him there was nothing more to be done for his condition he was focussing on the imprisonment of his son Turloch and discussed a letter writing campaign he hoped to kick start shortly with a submission to the Irish News. He was furious at the games played by the British penal administration.
They refused Turloch parole saying that he needs to have served 6 years which will be the day he is released and that I am terminal, not critical. When I am critical I will be so doped up that I won't know what is going on.
Unfortunately within a week or two of our email exchange his situation worsened and death called on him before I did.
I had attended meetings with Jim in Belfast while we worked together for a while on one of Sinn Fein’s many barren committees that seemed to be sterilised against ideas. I think like myself he had a belief that nothing was impossible until given to a committee. His irreverent wit kept us going during some pretty boring sessions.
He was a regular speaker at events and often gave funeral orations. I have a memory of him delivering an oration at Milltown Cemetery. I believe it was for the IRA volunteer Thomas Begley who died during the Shankill bombing in October 1993. But memory not being what it once was I decline to commit myself to it with any degree of certainty.
I first met him at the end of 1992 while on 'work out' from Maghaberry Prison in the final weeks of a life sentence. While 'working out' one evening saw me off to assist a former prisoner work out the bars of Dublin. A driver from the AP/RN was giving me a lift back to Belfast early the following morning, and so we called in with a batch of papers to Jim’s council house. I was proud to meet him as I had often heard him on radio and watched him on television where he was an adept performer: taking no nonsense, infuriating the bigots and disturbing the political peace. It impressed me that as a politician he seemed to live like the social class he represented. A council house much like my mother’s in Twinbrook adorned with nothing but the essentials and books.
As well as serving on Newry and Mourne Council he had been elected to the Assembly of 1982 where with the others he abstained from taking his seat. Not one of those party colleagues elected at the same time turned up for his funeral. This is to be expected from people who traded in their republican ethos and who sought shelter from the elements of radical politics within the British administrative camp. One of them openly called people like Jim’s son traitors. Jim would hardly have wanted that type at his funeral. Not one of them would have had the moral strength to bear his remains.
His political work seemed to reflect his frugal lifestyle. As Pat McNamee said during his funeral oration:
I spoke to an Irish News journalist recently and he told me that they had a file on Jim containing press statements issued by him during his time as a councillor. One of those statements was a handwritten piece of paper that Jim had posted in. There was no fancy office, no typewriter and no fax machine. There was no secretary, no computers and there was no special advisor.
Having once claimed that anybody who said that the Good Friday Agreement would lead to a united Ireland was guilty of talking bollix he left Sinn Fein because of its abandonment of republicanism. Yet he continued to immerse himself in the defence of the people he had fought for as an elected representative. He had led the campaign for justice for the family of Paul Quinn, a young man ‘brutally beaten to death in a barn in Co Monaghan by the Provisional IRA in 2007.’ Setting fear of intimidation or worse to the side he also ‘spoke out against smugglers and fuel-launderers in South Armagh who had made millions of pounds for themselves personally in the name of the IRA.’
Pat McNamee delivered a fitting oration during which he told us that Jim could tell a great yarn. The thought crossed my mind that Jim, with his wit, might have claimed to have learned the trade from the leader of the party he had once belonged to. In truth Jim’s yarns were descriptive rather than deceitful.
The words I found most significant came when Pat referred to Jim’s independent mind:
and he didn’t just go with the flow. Jim issued his press statements from his heart based on his republican principles. The peace process was sprouting and some of Jim’s statements were too strong for the Sinn Féin agenda. Jim hadn’t changed his position but others had changed theirs. Jim was told not to issue any further statements unless they were approved by the six-county office. Jim wasn’t going to be gagged or have his comments sanitised. He was ostracised and isolated by some of those who had been his former comrades. He was forgotten by so many that he had helped over the years. Some people go with the flow. Jim stood to his republican principles.
Sinn Fein have written Jim McAllister out of history, refusing to even identify him by name when referring to him in a book about the late IRA volunteers Brendan Moley and Brendan Burns whose funeral oration Jim had delivered. But those of us who believe in People Before Peter will very much place him where he belongs – at the heart of the narrative of republicanism in South Armagh.