Getting Irate So That You Don't Have To

Getting Irate So That You Don't Have To

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Why Can't We Take "I Was Wrong" For An Answer ?

There’s been lively debate this week about a Conservative councillor in Croydon.

Maria Gatland has been suspended from the Conservative group and has resigned as a Cabinet member after it emerged that she worked for the IRA in the early 1970s.

Garland (then Maria McGuire, before she married) originally had her cover blown whilst gun-running in Amsterdam in 1971. Nine months later she became disillusioned with the IRA after a bombing campaign in Belfast that left 11 dead in one day. She wrote a book about her time with the movement, from whom she consequently faced a death sentence. She gave a number of interviews to the British press, lifting the lid on IRA brutality. She then appears to have gone to ground, her past forgotten, before she joined the Conservatives in Croydon and began forging a legitimate political career. Her paramilitary activities were brought to light earlier this week by a trade union official at a council meeting.

This story caught my interest because it raises questions about how long a person has to pay penance for their past. Does working for the IRA 35 years ago really make someone unfit for public office, even if they have clearly concluded for themselves that what they did was wrong ? I’d argue that it doesn’t.

I lived in London as a child. I well remember the hatred I had for the IRA, and the revulsion I felt over atrocities such as Chelsea Barracks, Hyde Park, Harrods and many others. I also recall finding a British Rail guard at Waterloo station and telling him, my voice shaking, that I had seen an unattended suitcase. As things turned out the explanation was innocent, but the fear I’d felt was real enough. I think I was about 12 at the time. But doesn’t there come a point when we have to move on ?

There is no suggestion that Maria Gatland faces any criminal investigation, so in the eyes of the law she is innocent. This therefore is essentially a question about politics.

To me, politics is a battle of ideas. Those involved seek to win hearts and minds through debate and argument. And I’d argue that just because someone once shunned political debate three decades previously (albeit in favour of violence) doesn’t mean they should forever be denied access to it now.

As a Tory Party activist in Halifax in the early 90s (now there’s a confession !) I became embroiled in a fracas of the same ilk (though certainly not on the same scale). A friend of mine left the local Conservatives in the run-up to the 1992 General Election and joined an anti-Europe party, for whom another former Tory was standing as a candidate. His party got something like 650 votes, and the Conservatives went down to “Red Alice” Mahon by fewer than 500, cutting her majority but failing to overturn it. Feelings ran high amongst local Conservatives that my friend’s party had cost them victory. When, a few months later, my friend, cajoled by me and suitably repentant, tried to rejoin the Conservative Association, he was rebuffed amidst bitter recrimination. Thinking it daft that we had turned away someone whom we had managed to win round by sound argument, I walked out, and never went back.

Changing one’s mind is often seen as a weakness in politics, but it shouldn’t be, Often it is just the opposite. It takes courage to admit that one was wrong. It takes courage and a fair bit more besides to turn one’s back on the IRA. Maria Gatland should not have to pay for what she did for the rest of her life. I hope she fights on in Croydon, and I hope it’s a fight she wins.

See the story here.


PJ said...

I agree with every word of this.

Mrs Smallprint said...

Hi Womble

Compared to forgiving Gerry Adams this is not such a leap. Very few of us can say that the deep felt convictions we had at age 20 are as set in concrete as we pass 40.

Mrs S.

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