There are many stories of bravery from the North during the reign of the Troubles, and there are many unsung heroes; but I do not know of a deed as brave, nor of heroics as unsung, as that and those of a young Catholic lad whose name has vanished from public memory.
Cyril Smith from Carrickfergus was 21 years of age when he heard the cries for help from a John McEvoy, who had been chained to a lorry-bomb by terrorists. Cyril Smith, although fully aware that the bomb was about to explode, dragged John clear of the cab - so violently that John's leg was broken in the process. Cyril then returned to clear a neighbouring building of unsuspecting people.
They would certainly have died but for Cyril, and all survived the bomb-explosion - but Cyril Smith did not. Now I know individual cases are bad bases for general rules, but at least they can be used to elucidate situations. For what is interesting about Cyril Smith, an Irish Catholic, is that he could not have played GAA, then or now; but his killers, Irishmen also, would be allowed to play GAA; and might even be celebrated in the clubhouse afterwards as freedom fighters.
Barred from GAA
Cyril Smith was barred from playing GAA because he was a British soldier serving in what was then the Royal Irish Rangers - a regiment he probably specifically joined because it could not serve in Northern Ireland. But the rules were changed, and the RIR were deployed in the North and Cyril was murdered, just weeks before he was to end his army service in October 1990.
It is no credit to the British army that the only award it gave that young man was a posthumous mention in despatches. Had he served in a regiment with better connections - the Paras, say - his deed would most probably have received serious posthumous honours.
The man's dead: does it matter whether or not it was? Obviously, not to him: but such recognitions make statements about value-systems, about respect, about, well, shall we say, parity of esteem?
Henry Patterson, in his otherwise fine analysis of the culture of the IRA, The Politics of Illusion, suggested that to focus on the deeds of terrorists is to limit oneself to a moral outrage which was now paper-thin, and more palpably, was a diversion from serious thought. To which I can only reply: No. I can do no other than focus on the deeds of anybody who wishes to bring about changes in Ireland. Their words are chaff: their deeds are the grain by which you may judge the harvest.
And how are we to judge an organisation which, that same day on which Cyril Smith died near Newry, in Derry made Patsy Gillespie drive another lorry-bomb to another military target and to his own certain death, whilst his wife and family were held hostage? This was pure barbarity and Naziesque bestiality. And to follow Henry Patterson's advice and place that deed "in context" is to ask me to intellectualise and mitigate moral foulness. I do not need to do that: IRA apologists will do that for me.
For I cannot analyse such deeds or the motivation for them: they are as beyond rationalisation as the activities of the einsatsgruppen, with which they compare in terms of depravity, if not scale; certainly a conspiracy which can manage to think up such a wheeze has the moral capacity, if not the wherewithal, to behave like servants of the Third Reich.
Now, in a way, I can understand why the GAA places a ban on members of crown forces joining its ranks. The GAA, after all, is not just a sporting organisation. It is a cultural entity as well. It has visions of itself and of Ireland, and those visions are generally speaking ones which many people would share, of a united Ireland at peace, playing Irish sports, indulging in Irish pastimes, and daily celebrating Irish culture free of foreign influence. In many senses, they are what are known in the US as family values.
Only the darkest-dyed anti-Irish bigot would argue that such aspirations are wrong or frivolous or banal. They are not. They are profoundly worthy: and more to the point, they are morally and intellectually completely opposed to the standards and the behaviour of the men and women who kidnapped John McEvoy and Patsy Gillespie at gunpoint and who, on peril of their families' lives, compelled them to drive to what was meant to be their certain deaths.
In a moral quagmire
So what is the GAA saying when it declares: The men who planned and executed such an atrocity can be members of our organisation, but those who were the victims may not? What moral quagmire of selective moral relativity is the GAA in when it is capable of making that judgment?
I do not want to hear the tragic and appalling case of Aidan McAnespie in mitigation of the GAA's attitude. We all of us can enlist one kind of atrocity or another from the cornucopia of homicide of the past 30 years to prove this case or that.
Because, in our hearts, we know the ban would be there regardless of Aidan's killing, for those who voted for it would most probably not answer the following question as I would - who was the finer Irishman: Cyril Smith, RIP, or his killers?