Gunman, IRA boss - and the new face of Ulster?

Northern Ireland: the old hatreds may never die, but an icon of republican violence is out on the election trail
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IF YOU met old Joe, genial, twinkling old Joe in a pub, you might think he was making it all up to get you to buy him a pint. He talks quietly about how they sentenced him to death for killing a policeman, and about the month he spent awaiting execution.

He tells you how in the end they reprieved him but hanged his friend, Tom Williams; and how he's still trying to get his friend's bones out of the jail where they buried him.

Yes, he says, he was later arrested on the high seas on a boat with a cargo of guns destined for the IRA. And yes, here he is standing as a candidate in the election designed to re-shape Northern Ireland's future and give it a brand new start.

This is not a local character spinning a yarn; it is Joe Cahill, legendary IRA gunman, still an important figure in Sinn Fein, standing for his first- ever election at the age of 78. And the key question is how this survivor of the age of the Thompson gun feels about Sinn Fein going into an assembly where it will help govern Northern Ireland.

It was in 1942 that he was one of six IRA men sentenced to death. Half a century later he says: "If Tom Williams were alive today he would be very much in favour of the course we're taking now. I have no doubts that anybody I know who has made the supreme sacrifice would have the same thinking.

"I was four and a half weeks in the condemned cell with Tom. I expected to be hanged then, you know, and we talked about life after our death, what we would like to see for the future. To me it's like yesterday we were in the condemned cell, and I can vividly remember the conversations we had.

"We didn't think we were going to drive the British into the sea, we didn't see that happening. We knew that at some time along the road there would have to be negotiations, that we would have to sit down and talk to the Brits about getting out of the country and all that sort of thing."

He is canvassing Dunloy, a little nationalist village in the Rev Ian Paisley's political heartland. The scene of recurring loyalist marching confrontations it is, in between the fights, as relaxed as can be: many residents leave their front-door keys in the lock. "There's no crime rate as such," a Sinn Fein councillor remarks.

As an IRA icon, Joe Cahill has given the approval of the old brigade for Sinn Fein's move into politics. He stresses continuity: "This is another phase of the struggle. I believe in a united Ireland. I personally think this is the best opportunity we've had for a long, long time, and I believe in this new phase of struggle we can succeed this time."

Half an hour later and 10 miles away in Protestant Ballymena, being drenched by the same rain, Patricia Campbell outlines a totally different vision. "Unionism can be a fully inclusive movement," she argues with some passion. "We have to go forward, build on our diversity, respect all our differences and learn from them. It's about building a pluralist future where our diversity can flourish."

As any student of Northern Ireland politics can attest, this sounds much closer to Hume-speak than Trimble-speak. Ms Campbell has a mission: a Catholic, she argues intensely that Unionism is changing and should no longer be seen as an Orange institution. "Democracy, tolerance, pluralism," she says. "To me that's what Unionism is all about."

Joe Cahill killed an RUC man; Patricia Campbell comes from an RUC family. She says: "Joe Cahill is entitled to his aspiration but the Good Friday agreement proves that there isn't going to be a united Ireland in Joe Cahill's lifetime or my lifetime.

"By coming into the assembly Sinn Fein have actually bought into this, into the legitimisation of the state of Northern Ireland. And the onus is on them, if they're going to come into the assembly, to make it work - declare the war is over and come in and sit down and make this place work."

These two people come from different worlds, with different life experiences and very different visions of the future. Between them there is absolutely no sense of shared purpose or fellow-feeling, yet they do have something in common.

Both in their different ways are talking of change and modernisation. As a republican ancient, Joe Cahill is giving the blessing of generations of IRA tradition to the radical new departures mapped out by Gerry Adams. As a Catholic Unionist, Patricia Campbell is saying that Unionism can be more than just Orangeism. The two are standing for election in the territory of Ian Paisley, the great symbol of opposition to modernity.

Most Unionists have deep doubts about Sinn Fein's commitment to exclusively peaceful means and have yet to accept that the republicans have truly bidden a farewell to arms. Most nationalists in turn doubt Unionism's democratic credentials, accusing it of ingrained sectarianism and discrimination.

The two candidates clearly differ profoundly on the ultimate destination of the peace process. They can't both be right: the assembly can't in logic both advance the cause of Irish unity and cement the union.

Yet in a deeper sense both have agreed to engage in their political contests within the terms of the Good Friday accord, and both say they want to make it work. If a new start is successfully made then hopefully no more policemen will be killed, and no more republicans will languish in jail.