03 September 2005

Fitt cried libel to distort the truth and shake down those who told it


By Ryle Dwyer

WHEN Gerry Fitt died last week, he was celebrated as a democrat who eschewed the gun in politics.

But many people knew of a different story that he managed to distort over the years by exploiting our crazy libel laws.

On February 25, 1967, Fitt warned a London conference that northern nationalists had had enough: “If reforms are not forthcoming, who could blame them for taking whatever action they see fit in the circumstances. I, for one,” he said, “would certainly not blame them.”

The then prime minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill wasn’t impressed.

“Mr Fitt is like that remarkable animal, the chameleon, which changes its colours to suit its background,” he told a meeting in Strabane in May 1968.

Fitt addressed a gathering in Derry in July of the same year. “The day for action has arrived,” he said.

“If constitutional methods do not bring social justice, if they do not bring democracy to Northern Ireland, then I am quite prepared to go outside constitutional methods.”

He blamed the Dublin government for their inaction. “I wonder sometimes if the Southern government is prepared to accept the responsibility for the reunification of Ireland,” he told the United Ireland Association in Manchester later that week.

“They could be much more forceful in demanding their right to the six county territory.”

In January 1969, Fitt reportedly told the Labour Party conference in Dublin: “The young people who had thrown stones and burned police tenders in Newry were justified in doing so because they had been walked on and oppressed for many years of frustration.”

On September 13, 1969 he met with Captain James J Kelly, an Irish intelligence officer who was in Belfast to assess the situation for Military Intelligence.

John Kelly, a Belfast republican, and his brother, Billy, also attended the meeting, which took place in Fitt’s home.

Fitt pleaded with Captain Kelly to persuade the Dublin government to provide Northern nationalists with weapons for defensive purposes.

“Fitt made clear the urgency of the situation and that it was of paramount importance to get in arms immediately,” Captain Kelly reported next day. “I suggest that there might now be a short period of calm in which to organise.”

“No, you have it all wrong,” Fitt replied. “It could happen any time. It could happen this minute.”

A number of deputations went to Dublin pleading for weapons.

“The deputations consisted of people who would be looked upon as responsible members of the community - members of parliament, surely all opposition members must have come at some time and to my own knowledge each of the SDLP members came.”

In his 1974 book We Won’t Stand (Idly) By, Kevin Boland wrote: “They asked for the means to protect themselves, their families and their homes. They wanted respirators to protect themselves from CS gas and guns to repel their enemies - these and the money to buy them.”

Although Boland did not name the members of the deputations in his 1974 book, he did name them three years later in a further book, Up Dev!

“Even people like Gerry Fitt,” Boland wrote, “went along with the tide and came to Dublin lobbying the minister for arms and respirators for the Citizen Defence Committees.”

According to Eamonn McCann in his book, War and an Irish Town, Fitt told a crowd at the corner of Victoria Street in Derry on the morning of January 5, 1970, that “it’s time to get the guns out.”

FITT never tried to take any legal action over any of those reports. But in January 1993 the northern edition of the Sunday Press accused him of being “involved in the creation of the Provisional IRA,” because his request for arms had “set the scenario from which the Provisional IRA emerged”.

The authors of the article suggested that Fitt had asked Captain Kelly for guns for the IRA, but the captain’s report only stated “Fitt asked me to convey a request to the Dublin government for guns for the defence of nationalists”.

The Sunday Press might have been able to defend those assertions but the article had some glaring errors.

The authors said that Fitt’s party colleague, Paddy Kennedy, was at the meeting between Fitt and Captain Kelly and would support the captain’s version of events. But Kennedy was not there.

The authors also mistakenly stated that a BBC programme on the troubles a few days earlier had raised the issue of Fitt’s efforts to procure arms.

Fitt initiated legal action against the Sunday Press and it promptly capitulated.

Two weeks to the day after the offending article appeared, the newspaper published an apology and agreed to pay Fitt a reported £50,000 in damages.

Both the article and the subsequent apology were published only in northern editions of the Sunday Press.

In May of that year, 1993, on RTÉ’s Sunday Show, Conor Cruise O’Brien challenged me to explain how Charles Haughey could justify providing money for arms. “What about the money voted for relief of distress and applied to other purposes?” he asked. “That’s where the smoking gun is!”

I replied: “You had people like Gerry Fitt coming down here looking for arms to protect themselves against armed unionist thugs.

“Gerry Fitt demonstrated the benefit of having a legally held weapon by facing down a republican rabble who broke into his home.”

I added the whole thing had nothing to do with the Provisional IRA, because it had not yet been set up.

“You have to look at it without the Provos in the background,” I emphasised.

Fitt had apparently got a taste for easy money as a result of what happened with the Sunday Press. He threatened to sue RTÉ over my remarks.

RTÉ asked for my sources and I outlined the foregoing information. If I could get a copy of Captain Kelly’s report, that would nail the case, I was told. Captain Kelly produced the report and was prepared to testify to its veracity, as were John Kelly and his brother Billy. Eamonn McCann was also prepared to testify about what Fitt said in Derry.

RTÉ, which was known as a soft touch at the time, agreed to pay Fitt some £20,000.

I had already written on similar lines for the Sunday Tribune and that article had been repeated in Scotland on Sunday. The latter paid Fitt around £15,000, but he tried to screw £50,000 out of the Sunday Tribune. He settled virtually on the steps of the courthouse for £4,000. In each case, the papers believed that even if they won the case, they would lose money, because Fitt would be unable to pay their costs. By settling they actually cut their inevitable losses.

In 1999 Captain Kelly published the details in his book Thimble Riggers, and Gill & Macmillan decided to fight Fitt, if necessary when they published similar details in Justin O’Brien’s book, The Arms Crisis.

Fitt’s past has caught up with him, but not before he had successfully used our crazy libel laws not only to distort the details of a crucial part of our history but also as a personal means of legalised extortion.

Ryle Dwyer will be talking and answering questions on his book, The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins at Cork City Library, Grand Parade on Monday (September 5) at 7.30pm.

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