by Paul O'Connor
GUARDSMEN MARK Wright and James Fisher remain serving members of the British armed forces. As they have done each and every day since they opened fire on the fleeing figure of Peter McBride that fateful morning in September 1992. As they have done even while imprisoned for the murder of Peter.
So was the intervention by Peter's sister in the Brent East by-election worth it? Has anything changed? The answer must be a resounding yes.
Before explaining why it may be useful to restate the obvious. The strategy of the Ministry of Defence in the McBride case (and Bloody Sunday, Pat Finucane, Roseanne Mallon etc) is to create a wall of silence wherever possible; expressed succinctly on Pat Finucane centre t-shirts bearing the slogan 'hear no evil, see no evil, admit no evil'. So long as the controversy surrounding this case is limited to public opinion in Ireland, the MoD can happily live with that.
Before the Brent East by-election the controversy surrounding the decision to retain Wright and Fisher was largely limited to the North. A majority within the Assembly, the Presbyterian Moderator, former soldiers and the Independent Assessor on military complaints had all condemned the decision. The appointment of former Armed Forces Minister John Spellar to the NIO was announced the same day as the Court of Appeal slammed the MoD. Not exactly the welcome Spellar would have hoped for when his appointment was announced. A disastrous press conference and mayoral boycott followed. All well and good but the McBride controversy still didn't register on the political radar in Britain.
Against this backdrop the intervention in the Brent East by-election had limited objectives. These were to break through the wall of silence in terms of public opinion, to raise the issue among the Irish community in London and to influence activists within the party political structures. No one would be foolish enough to claim, post Brent, that the employment of convicted murderers is the most burning issue facing Tony Blair. It may, however, yet lead to the resignation of one of his NIO ministers, the aforementioned Mr Spellar, but even that would hardly raise an eye in Whitehall.
In terms of public opinion in Britain there were small but significant achievements. An invitation to Kelly to be interviewed on Radio 4's Woman's Hour on the morning after the election was, from this writer's perspective, the equivalent of a serious Irish issue being introduced to The Archers! Millions of British people were listening.
Radio 5 live is currently finishing a half hour documentary on the McBride case, probably to be broadcast in late October. Again audiences will be reached who would normally never get to hear any side of the story, never mind the experiences of an ordinary family from North Belfast. It is striking that the MoD has declined to participate in both programmes, as has John Spellar.
In terms of raising the issue among the Irish community in London few could doubt that Kelly's intervention raised the profile of the case, (with no small thanks to the Irish press in Britain) to a level that years of pickets in central London did not achieve. Many within the community responded to the call to get involved in the campaign and the commitment shown by individuals who travelled from throughout London to offer support was much appreciated by the McBride family.
In the long term, the most important achievement was the ability to influence party activists who poured into the constituency in the days and hours before the voting began. On election day a number of us took up position outside Willesden underground station. Hundreds of Labour and Lib Dem activists, MPs and even junior ministers had been ordered in to get the vote out. Few left Brent East that day without some understanding of the McBride case. So was it all worth it? EP Thompson, the historian and socialist once said 'never underestimate the consequences of consequences'.
BBC interest was first aroused by an excellent article in The Guardian from Roy Greenslade. (An interview with Pat Kenny on RTE radio followed a Sunday Tribune piece by Susan McKay.) It was striking that the Labour, Lib Dem, Green and Socialist Alliance candidates agreed on one issue only; they all supported the campaign of the McBride family. Sarah Teather, the victorious Lib Dem, told the Irish World "I think [Kelly] is tremendously courageous. And I feel very strongly about the issues she raises. I agree with the McBrides entirely. I will raise the matter in Westminster, and will be keeping in close touch with Kelly."
Brent Labour councillor Colum Moloney admitted that the Peter McBride case had been a factor in the campaign. "The McBride issue is one that the government of the day and MPs from all parties have got to look at," he said. "There is a genuine grievance there. Her brother was murdered in cold blood and the people who committed the murder were tried by the judicial system and sent to prison, then released and taken back into the army, which I certainly believe shouldn't have happened, as do many people in Brent an in the Irish community in general."
The job for all of us now, in Ireland and Britain, is to ensure that 'consequences have consequences'. It was well worth the effort.
For up-to-date information about developments in the campaign for justice for Peter McBride visit the website of the Pat Finucane Centre at www.serve.com/pfc
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Copyright © 2003 Paul O'Connor