Belfast boys break ice of cross-Border suspicion
Martin McAleese, husband of President McAleese, who struck up unlikely but rewarding and important friendships with UDA leader Jackie McDonald (left ) and other top loyalists. "Martin extended the hand of friendship. He said 'a hand up is not a hand out', McDonald recalled. Photographs: Bryan OBrien, David Sleator
ANALYSIS:Martin McAleese has played an extraordinary – and largely unknown – role in winning trust and friendship of hardline loyalists in Belfast
NOTHING PREPARES you for the sight at the top of the stairs as you enter the McMichael Centre on Sandy Row in the heart of loyalist Belfast. There on a wall you will see a collage of photographs of President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin with residents of the area on one of their visits to Áras an Uachtaráin.
Meeting that time in 2008, Jackie McDonald was friendliness itself. It seemed abrupt to start with the obvious question: “Are you brigadier general of the UDA?”
He replied “allegedly”.
He was candid. “I got 10 years for blackmail, extortion and threats to kill, providing money for the UDA war chest. I went in in 1989 and was out in 1994.”
His first contact with the President and Martin McAleese was through his solicitor of 30 years Denis Moloney, a long-time friend of the McAleeses. It was December 2002.
“Denis asked me whether I would like to have a chat with Martin . . . He called Martin and passed the phone to me and we started talking as if we’d known each other forever.”
They agreed to keep in contact.
There was a major internal loyalist feud going on involving the Johnny Adair faction at the time. In June 2003 the body of close Johnny Adair associate Alan McCullough (21) was found in a shallow grave on the outskirts of north Belfast. He had been missing since the previous week when he came back from England, believing the UDA had given him a reprieve for siding with Adair.
The UDA had not. He was killed because he was with the Adair gang that murdered UDA man John Gregg in February 2003.
McCullough’s father, UDA man William “Bucky” McCullough, had also been murdered, in 1981. He was shot dead by the INLA. It was a set up by another UDA leader, Jim Craig, who, in turn, was murdered by the UDA in 1988. He was blamed for setting up UDA leader John McMichael for murder by car bomb in 1987. The centre where Jackie McDonald works is named after John McMichael.
That is the world into which Martin McAleese made an entrance early in 2003. On a personal level it was quite a journey. He had grown up on the Albertbridge Road in loyalist East Belfast, where his family suffered years of intimidation because they were Catholics. Eventually they had to leave.
He met Jackie McDonald at the Taughmonagh social club in south Belfast, believed to be headquarters of the UDA.
“It was very brave of him in the circumstances. We were all under threat,” commented Jackie McDonald. Martin McAleese was accompanied by his driver, “and the PSNI were hanging about the place because of the threats”. At Martin McAleese’s request there would be no PSNI presence at any future meetings.
He and Jackie McDonald talked about a new future for the island of Ireland in which every part of every single community must be involved. They agreed they must take risks on each other.
When McDonald commented on the risk he was taking, Martin McAleese responded that McDonald and his associates were taking an even bigger one.
They might be accused of betrayal in a paramilitary environment where the consequences could be brutal.
“And I talked to him about facilities which were needed at the local Dunmurray Young Men’s Football Club. He agreed to talk to his friends and see what he could do,” McDonald recalled. Then there was a visa problem when Jackie McDonald wanted to travel abroad. It was arranged that he got an Irish passport, as he was entitled to.
That first time, Jackie McDonald came to Áras an Uachtaráin with 60 people from loyalist Belfast.
“I brought Mary a bunch of flowers, champagne, a box of chocolates, an Ulster flag and a Rangers scarf. It was for her father. It was a wind up because her father is a Celtic man.”
They were treated to lunch. “We were a bit apprehensive going down but on the way back it was ‘when are we going down again?’,” he said. It was the first of many visits by members of loyalist communities in Belfast to Áras an Uachtaráin.
On that first visit it was agreed Martin McAleese would meet Jackie McDonald’s associates. The meeting took place in July 2003 at the Stormont hotel in Belfast. Present were Jackie McDonald, his associates, Martin McAleese and Denis Moloney. It was tense and McDonald’s associates were not friendly. Martin McAleese spoke about his own and the President’s background in the city. He was open and frank.
He emphasised there was no pressure on anyone, that his and the President’s only interest was in the place where they had been born and came from. They wanted to do something to help change things for the future. McDonald and his men talked about lack of education in Loyalist communities. The meeting went on for over 2½ hours.
Soon afterwards a golf outing was arranged at the K Club in Kildare with Martin McAleese, some of his business friends, and Jackie McDonald. McDonald was presented with a cheque for £19,641 for the Dunmurray Football Club. It was used to update its training facilities. Martin McAleese’s friends also raised money for other clubs in Belfast, including some in republican areas, McDonald said.
“Martin extended the hand of friendship. He said ‘a hand up is not a hand out’. He stayed with us when things were bad and so did the President. They were very, very helpful,” McDonald recalled.
They “reached out to an isolated people when others were afraid to do so”, he said.
Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent