I only learned a few months ago that Phil McDonnell had died. By that time he had been deceased a year and it was a reference to his anniversary somewhere on the internet that caught my attention. Sometimes, Belfast seems a distant planet to Drogheda.
It was not one of those philosophical shrug the shoulders moments but a sense of a drawn out melancholy that someone I had known and liked for a long time was no longer with us. Although we had our differences of political opinion, which grew more pronounced in later years - and I will probably never fully understand why he shifted ground - I always held him in the highest regard, recognising in him an authenticity even where I did not agree with his outlook.
From his teenage years Phil was involved in political and social activism. His political odyssey began with the Official IRA in the Markets which led to him being interned. Later he was with the INLA and after that the IPLO plus a lot of jail time interspersed with it. Unquestionably a man of the Left, his personal integrity managed to survive the fratricidal conflicts that did incalculable harm to the Republican Socialist Movement throughout much of its existence.
Captured by the British shortly after the formation of the IRSP, in possession of an explosive device in the Markets, he would escape from Townhall Street in 1975 along with four other comrades from the INLA, one of whom would repeat the feat less than a year later when he escaped from the Cages of Long Kesh. In the book INLA: Deadly Divisions, Phil was described as a key player in the INLA in its formative years. That was hardly a surprise. He was always going to lead from the front.
In the H Blocks he had little time for the identity politics that culturally separated the IRA and INLA prisoners who otherwise shared the same wings and in some cases the same cells. He was particularly friendly with Brendan Hughes, and Brendan in turn held him in high esteem. Although in adjoining but physically separate wings, I would on occasion cross the sterile to chew the fat with him.
With his jail time finally at the back of him, he visited me in the H Blocks on a number of occasions, once with Rook O'Prey, an IPLO member who would be killed by the UVF in circumstances suggesting collusion with the RUC, and on another occasion accompanied by Tom Breen, later stabbed to death in London.
I called in on him in his Markets home on one of the paroles, and after that we would meet about the Lower Ormeau road or sporadically at functions. We spent an evening drinking at a do in the Trocadero although I can no longer remember what it was in aid of. What I do remember is that most of the activists in attendance were from the Provisional Movement. Phil seemed as comfortable in their presence in the function room of a bar as he had been in a jail canteen.
When we met by chance on the street anything could be up for discussion, even the role of the Soviets during Operation Barbarossa. That resulted in him making off with my copy of Stalingrad by Antony Beevor, after I told him it was perhaps the best book about the savage Nazi war of annihilation in the East. He returned it. It made the journey south with me and is still on the bookshelves here.
I could sense from about 2000 that Phil was searching if not for a political home, then a political or strategic perspective that he could work within and not feel compromised by. The branches of republican socialism he had cut his teeth in were no longer options. I think he had come to view them as strategic cul de sacs, where good people got lost, unable to find their way back out. He was no career opportunist so was not looking to go anywhere for the sake of personal advancement. There was a restlessness about him, a need to be engaged. When we met up for drinks in the Rose & Crown he was curious as to where I felt things were going. His admiration for the Dark led him to engage with the Dark's critical views but in a probing fashion, retaining an open mind about the extent to which the Dark or I had it right about the Provo roll-over.
Three years later I met him at a funeral and as we walked behind the cortege along Alfred Street he said to me I had been too quick out of the traps to accept the Stakeknife story. He told me he felt it was the work of securocrats. That persuaded me that Phil was identifying more with the Sinn Fein analysis than was intellectually healthy. It disappointed me because he knew as well as the next person that Sinn Fein churned out garbage by the skip load. A sceptical mind was needed to filter anything from that quarter. Scappaticci was an agent, the party knew it but covered for him and labelled anyone with the temerity to challenge its narrative a ne'er-do-well or worse. My disappointment was compounded the following year when at a memorial mass for Bernadette McAllister, we discussed political matters and Phil expressed displeasure that I was criticising "the leadership of the Republican Movement," taking particular exception to a televised comment I had made about Freddie Scappaticci. I had expressed the view that he not be punished but should instead be placed on the Sinn Fein negotiating team, given that the gap between what Sinn Fein had negotiated and Scappaticci had striven for amounted to zilch.
Unfortunately, the funeral mass was the last time we got to talk or see each other. I didn't fall out with him or bear him any ill will. I am too fond of quoting Alex McCrory who once told me that friendship is too sterling and politics too sordid to allow the latter to poison the former. I rarely visited his part of the world and in my whole time out had only ever seen him in the West once or twice. Others that we were in prison with had turned up to Greystones to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the IRSP but Phil didn't although I had hoped I might bump into him.
I took the view that Phil came under the influence of Jock Davison, who was very much pro both the Sinn Fein leadership and its strategy despite having raised grave reservations about it in the early years. Not that Phil was starry eyed about Jock or anyone else. Jock was said to be equally impressed by Phil. Both were highly intelligent people and worked closely in the Markets Development Association before Jock was gunned down in a most gratuitous act of violence in 2015. Phil became chair of the MDA, a community leadership role some years previously held by Jim Hargey, another former member of the Official Republican Movement. On release from prison what I noticed about many people who had a background in the Officials, was a social conscience much more pronounced than what was the norm in the Provisional Movement. Maybe that drove Phil along the path that he took. The former republican prisoner, Pádraic Mac Coitir, made a useful observation shortly after Phil had died:
Big Jock introduced me to Phil a number of years ago. I didn't know him well but whenever we met he was always full of beans and deeply committed to his community. I'm sure he'll be a big loss to his family and friends and the people of The Market.In any event, the road travelled is rarely straight and frequently bumpy. No matter how genuinely we might feel about having remained consistent, there is always that pearl of wisdom expressed by Mohammed Ali: “the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Whatever twists and turns the political thinking of Phil McDonnell may have taken, he remained a Markets man, as committed in his 60s as he was in his 20s to improving the quality of life for the people who lived there. A big loss indeed.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.