More than 1,000 people attended the funeral in Maghera, County Derry, on Saturday of founder Provisional IRA member and former Sinn Féin Assemblyman, John Kelly.
Former Mid-Ulster MP Bernadette McAliskey, Sinn Féin Assembly member Francie Brolly and Francie Mackey of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement were among a diverse group of prominent republicans and political figures at St Mary’s Church.
His death marked the end of a life steeped in republicanism, and one which had taken many guises, from IRA leader to Good Friday Agreement politician and back to dissident and critic of the state and the party of which he had once been a member.
In 1970, he stood trial with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey charged with sourcing weapons for the defence of northern nationalists.
During that trial, Kelly, who was accused of being the IRA’s link man with the government in the 26 Counties, made an impassioned speech from the dock, castigating those who opposed the IRA in the North.
Many in the gallery stood to applaud the speech. Kelly remained life-long friends with Haughey, even throughout the worst of the conflict.
When the split within republicanism came in 1969, Kelly sided with the Provisionals and went on to serve on the IRA’s GHQ staff, becoming one of the key driving forces in the newly-formed IRA. In his early 30s at the time, Kelly was regarded as one of the ‘old hands’ in the IRA and was extremely active within the organisation.
He first became involved in republicanism during the border campaign in the 1950s. He was arrested in 1956 and spent seven years in the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast.
His older brother had served time in the same jail in the 1940s, a time when the IRA, and republicanism in general, was almost defunct in Belfast. Living less than 100 yards from the Crumlin Road jail, the Kelly family made a living by selling fruit. Kelly had a ringside seat during some of the North’s most defining moments.
As a child, he was among the crowds who prayed for Tom Williams, the young IRA man hanged in Crumlin Road jail in 1942.When the Troubles broke out, Kelly was a key figure in defending the isolated nationalist enclave of the Short Strand in east Belfast.
It was in the Short Strand that the IRA cemented its image as defenders of the nationalists in the North.
In the decades after the Arms Trial, Kelly remained active and he supported the Sinn Féin leadership when it embarked on its peace strategy.
Elected as a member of the Northern Assembly in 1998, Kelly was one of Sinn Féin’s most enthusiastic speakers inside the chamber. By 2003, however, he had become disillusioned with the party, particularly the Sinn Féin leadership, and he resigned over what he called ‘‘party censorship’’.
Kelly said that no space existed within the party for those who had differing views from the official party line. After that, he became increasingly sceptical of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy and was dismayed at the party’s decision to endorse the PSNI.
‘‘Even the free staters didn’t wear the British uniform,” he said. Over the past year, Kelly had spent time addressing rallies of disaffected republicans and chairing debates on the future of republicanism in Ireland.
Regarded as a ‘wise old man of republicanism’, he cautioned against a return to armed conflict, but argued for a new alternative to Sinn Féin.
His funeral took place in his hometown of Maghera, County Derry, on Saturday morning.
Fr Seamus O’Connell told mourners: “Opposition to oppression was the guiding principle of John’s life. He was fair, he was frank, he was open and honest. He was much admired by all who met him. He was a principled man, even in uncomfortable times.
“He opposed the abuse of power. He saw it in politics and in the church. He upheld the right of every man and woman to be free of duress. He opposed oppression in political and social happenings. He was a man of honour.”
Fr O’Connell said Kelly had “characteristically never complained” during his long battle with cancer. “He was extremely reconciled with himself and his world, his God and his people.
“John loved people and loved hearing what they had to say. He faced sickness and death with the same courage he faced life.” Kelly is survived by his wife Philomena and daughter Bronagh.