02 April 2005

Daily Ireland

**Billy Leonard on why he went from being RUC to SF

Long journey to republicanism

“People talk about me in headlines as ‘The policeman who joined Sinn Féin'. I am extremely comfortable with my Irish identity but people forget that it only came at the end of a very long process."
Speaking quickly and earnestly, Billy Leonard leans forward from an armchair in the rambling home he shares with his wife Valerie and six sons, overlooking the sea at Portstewart, Co Antrim.
Nothing about this man follows any pattern, yet he insists he is not unique — a Protestant British unionist who became an Irish republican and will be running in east Derry for Sinn Féin in the Westminster election expected in May.
“I’m not ‘anti’ anything. I have no harsh feelings about my past. I regret nothing about the process of change and am thoroughly at ease with the person I am now."
Despite his protestations, you would have to go back a long time to find someone who has made such a long journey, from attending Orange parades in his youth to his “contented and happy” Irishness now.
Orange history is part of Irish history, he says, but Dublin is his capital city and he has no stirrings when he hears the British national anthem.
“I gave myself time during the ’70s and ’80s to make the progress from one to the other. It didn’t happen overnight.”
He even speaks a little Irish, although he found evening classes studying verbs and declensions “a killer”.
Does this ex-cop now really feel at home in Sinn Féin? Perfectly, he says.
As he tells his story, it becomes clear that the study of international conflict has been a hugely influential guide.
Now a researcher with the Northern Ireland Centre for European Co-operation at Magee College in Derry, he works professionally on diversity in theatres of conflict such as the Basque Country and Serbia and Montenegro.
“You have to be careful. You can’t just draw simple parallels but you can find principles or pointers in different places from which we can learn, as long as we put them in context.
“I remember the ANC telling Sinn Féin that the Good Friday Agreement could turn them from being unionism’s enemies into its opponents without compromising on what they stood for. You can turn conflict from war into a new arena of articulation."
In 1954, Billy Leonard began life in the bitterly divided town of Lurgan in Co Armagh. His father was a police officer and war was the backdrop to his school days. He remembers picking his way to A levels through bomb sites.
He says that, even then, he was drawn towards history and politics. “I guess I was curious about why there was low-intensity warfare on our streets. I was suspicious of the simplicity of the arguments against Irish republicanism.”
Leaving school, he began work as a civil servant at the dole office on Corporation Street in Belfast. At an office party, he met Valerie, a Catholic from the staunchly republican Lurgan estate of Kilwilkie.
The couple dated from 1975 to 1979. When they married, both sets of relations came to the wedding, despite it being the height of the Troubles.
Leonard was a serving member of the RUC Reserve from 1976 to late 1980.
“I joined through a sense of making some contribution," he says. But his doubts grew for both ideological and practical reasons.
He was already questioning his British identity and began to see the police more as protectors of the state than the people. Several local members of the RUC and Ulster Defence Regiment were also convicted of loyalist activities.
“It wasn’t a case of rumour or innuendo. I actually saw state violence, institutional violence, and was aware of the dominant perspective of sectarianism."
By the time Bobby Sands was elected in 1981, he could understand why 30,000-plus people voted for him while many contemporaries felt only disgust that so many could support a man they considered a murderer, Leonard says.
Why did he take this path when so many others would never have given it a moment’s thought? He says he believes that others within the Protestant community have the same doubts he had but that the Troubles suppressed their questioning.
His own self-questioning led him, in the mid-1980s, to study in England with the Seventh-Day Adventists — a period of his life he briefly terms a “phase”. He now has “no religious labels".
Returning to the North in 1993, he began work at the University of Ulster for a doctorate on state and paramilitary violence. Having decided he could not sit on the sidelines forever, he joined the SDLP in 1994 — “a big decision”.
He stood for council election in 2001, topping the poll in Portrush, Co Antrim. As well as local activity (branch and constituency chairman), he became involved in party policy-making.
“The more I was involved centrally after the [Good Friday] Agreement, the more I believed the SDLP had to refocus itself as a party, to adjust our core message and think clearly where we were going. People were demanding change but it wasn’t happening at the top.”
He says there was considerable unease about joining the Policing Board. “Having seen policing from the inside, I didn’t believe it would change simply because of a Policing Board and district policing partnerships.
“You could argue we had to be on the inside to change it but political parameters had to be set first to guarantee change. I was not convinced that requirement had been met.
“I also thought the SDLP had not rethought its position on a united Ireland. Was it going to remain a Six-County party?"
When he began to consider joining Sinn Féin, he lifted the phone to an old friend, whom he doesn’t want to name, and talked it through.
Loyalists had already attacked his home with a paint bomb and left a hoax device after he had made an issue of the rampaging of Rangers supporters in Coleraine.
He then got the obligatory visit from the local constabulary warning he was on a loyalist death list and “the odd stone at the back of the house". As a “traitor" to his background, safety was clearly an issue but he took the leap in January last year.
So how does he square joining a movement that has killed members of the force to which he once belonged?
“In war, there will always be enemies. Normal benchmarks go. They have to. On all sides. There are serious moral questions about conflict but they can become reworked into peace-building. It’s very hard but we have to rise above the past without forgetting about it. I can live with that.
“It’s about moving forward. It’s happening the world over. There are former ANC people in South Africa becoming local police chiefs and there are plenty more examples.”
Didn’t his sons and wife think “Daddy has gone off his head and joined Sinn Féin”?
“No, there’s always been political discussion in this family. We sat down with them and explained it.”
What of Sinn Fein’s reputed hierarchical modus operandi? That the leadership hands down policies, which the rank and file endorse or else?
“The anti-Sinn Féin bandwagon puts that out but I have found plenty of bottom-up, open dialogue.”
And the last three months? The Northern Bank robbery and Robert McCartney’s murder? “Yes, it’s impacted on the public view of the party but there’s a lot more understanding out there than you’d realise from the media coverage.
“Look at Joe Reilly’s vote in Meath. Ordinary people are realists. They know Sinn Féin didn’t kill Robert McCartney.”
On his own candidature, he knows there’s a hard slog ahead but says: “If you have an all-Ireland vision and it’s not a romantic notion, there has to be hard graft.
“Republicans have a responsibility to open a debate with Protestants. A united Ireland will only come about through argument and persuasion. It’s all exciting and full of potential.
“The outreach to unionism is essential. Sinn Féin will be a major player in that growing political debate and I want to be part of it."

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