On the 6th of November 1975, a Thursday, the New Lodge Road Truce Incident Centre was abuzz with people talking and gesticulating, coming and going, whispering in corners. A vicious and lethal feud had gripped working class nationalist communities as a result of the Provisional IRA embarking on a killing and maiming spree against the Official IRA and Republican Clubs. The Sinn Fein member Seamus McCusker had been killed on the New Lodge six days before. A young member of the Officials would later be sent down for life upon conviction in a Diplock Court for carrying out the killing. Feelings were running high.
I arrived in the centre, having been released from prison the day before. It was a brief sojourn before I was taken up to Ardoyne and out of harm’s way. Getting out of prison is never a bad idea, but to do so in the midst of a feud is not perhaps the most propitious of timing. In the midst of the Centre buzz was Kevin Mulgrew, like a points peeler, directing and diverting the traffic of excitable faces that constantly flowed into the building. I didn’t know him, wasn’t introduced to him, so said nothing to him. Somebody else mentioned who he was.
Over a year later I was to see him again in the Crum where he had spent a short spell on remand and I was down for trial during a lock up. Again, we didn’t speak: had no reason to. But on each of the two occasions our paths had crossed he struck me as what later came to be called a Duracell bunny, endlessly animated and energetic.
It would be many years before we would eventually get to speak, on the wings of the H Blocks. I never buddied up to him in terms of small talk, walking the yard, playing snooker, watching soccer next to him – something he loved. Our conversation was about politics. I felt he was a firm’s man and he felt I was a cynic. It struck me that no matter where the leadership decided to go, he would go with it. He felt that no matter where the leadership decided to go, I would go against it. It didn’t really make for a meeting of minds although there were no sparks: we didn’t clash, there were no angry exchanges or bust ups, just differences of opinion. The thing about conversation with Kevin Mulgrew was that he was very intelligent and was not the impressionable sort, going to be easily persuaded by the criticism of somewhere he felt might have been in jail too long for their own good. One area we did cover was the Questions Of History project I had been working on. That was not how it was known then. That rubric would come a few years later when Sinn Fein published a book by that name. The work was heavily reductionist in a Marxist sense: too wooden, too formulaic, too doctrinaire. While he didn’t say it outright, he seemed to be of the view that Marxism was the opium of the Marxists.
He spent a total of four and half years imprisoned on that occasion. Hated by the British security services, he and others were on the receiving end of the opening salvo fired from a new British weapon – the supergrass, labelled by republicans as paid perjurers. They told a lot of lies but also a lot of truths. We in the jail were in no need of a British court verdict to have it established in our minds that Kevin Mulgrew was a senior IRA leader in North Belfast. His stature as an IRA operative was one of the reasons he was held in such high esteem. He faced more charges than any of his co-accused and reportedly received a greater aggregate jail time than anyone before him. It was clear that Judge Basil Kelly seethed at the sight of him and eagerly swallowed the word of Christopher Black, his chief accuser,
The "Black Men" as they came to be known in republican parlance, successfully appealed their convictions, being released in the summer of 1986. Theirs was the case that heralded the emergence of the supergrass strategy and also sounded the death knell for it. The British judiciary was hurled into a tailspin with judges, who themselves had convicted defendants on the basis of supergrass evidence alone, overruling other judges for having used the same criteria to convict. The law was truly an ass. Soon there was nobody in the prison on the word of a supergrass alone, other than perhaps Jim Gibney. Kevin Mulgrew tersely got to the heart of the matter when asked for his view of Black:
He was a puppet. It was not him who decided to go to court. It was a whole conspiracy between the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the courts.
He could also have added the government to that particular Rogues Gallery.
Upon his release Kevin Mulgrew returned to the fray. That he managed to last until 1990 before heading across the border where he remained until he died was an achievement in itself. The British certainly did their utmost to curb and frustrate him. Unbeknown to him, he was surrounded by agents, one of whom was regarded by RUC Special Branch in Belfast as its most important operative in the city.
He ended up where I always felt he would – rowing in behind the leadership project. He probably felt I ended up where he always felt I would – rowing in the opposite direction. The one time I saw him since prison was like the first time I saw him – we didn’t speak. The first time was because we did not know each other and the second was because we did know each other. I was in the count centre at Oriel Park Dundalk for the Blasphemy referendum on behalf of Atheist Ireland. He was there with Sinn Fein for the Presidential referendum. Both were running in tandem. I was long off the party Christmas card list by that point although one of its elected reps shook hands and chatted about the danger posed by the far right.
In Dundalk and more widely in Louth he won a lot of admiration for the work he carried out in the Muirhevnamor community. On top of working with the ex-prisoner support group, Fáilte Abhaile, he was also immersed in Muirhevnamor Community Council and Louth Leader Partnership. Party colleagues of his that I would be friendly with felt his loss acutely. A drone named after him is to be donated to a mountain rescue team in Medjugorje, the local paper quipping Fly High Mr Mulgrew.
He might not have been my type of person. But then he didn't have to be.
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