Loyalist leader salutes his old IRA enemy

Could Irish terrorists ever be reconciled? - An oration by a graveside gives hope
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Mourners in a quiet Irish country churchyard yesterday heard a moving tribute from across the religious and political divide when a loyalist leader gave the graveside oration at the funeral of a former IRA leader.

Gusty Spence, a former UVF leader who once served a prison sentence for the murder of a Catholic barman, came unannounced to the edge of the grave of the former IRA border brigade chief Jim Lynch and spoke with quiet dignity of the loss of an enemy who had become a close friend.

Many among the 150 mourners at St Michael's Church in Cootehill, Co Cavan, were unaware of who the elderly speaker was until the poignant story of the friendship between the two men and their families was revealed by Mr Lynch's relatives. Mr Lynch died on Wednesday after a brief illness, aged 72.

Mr Spence told the mourners: "Jim Lynch and I were friends. I am not here to deify the man. He was a simple man, but although not wealthy he was wealthy in his friends and in his love of his country.

"The two of us were from different traditions. I am here to represent the Unionist tradition, and to say that it meant a great deal to me to know him, and that I learnt a lot from his friendship." He described the former IRA commander as "a kindred spirit".

Mr Spence quoted from Laurence Binyon's lament "For the Fallen", more often recited in memory of British comrades at arms: "Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn./ At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them. They shall not wither that grow old with me."

A family friend said later: "People were very moved and asked `Who was that?'"

Mr Lynch was officer in command of the Cavan-Monaghan brigade of the IRA during the border campaign in the late Fifties. Dropping out of republican activity, he became a cake company salesman.

In the Seventies, he had become involved in cross-border initiatives that saw Protestant children from the most deprived parts of the Shankill Road area of Belfast spend summer holidays at camps in the Irish Republic in the company of Catholic children, at his home village of Cootehill.

The two men met through a mutual acquaintance, Ireland's late Catholic Primate, Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, who had met Mr Spence in prison at a time when the UVF man was losing faith in violence as a means of achieving political ends.

This unlikely dialogue led to a celebrated present from the loyalist of a prison delicacy, tobacco soaked in poteen, to the fellow pipe-smoking cleric. Mr Spence told the Cardinal gleefully it was made illicitly in a secret still by the loyalist inmates in the Maze Prison.

Mr Spence's ensuing dialogue with Cardinal O'Fiaich, a former university lecturer in history and a regular visitor to H-Block prisoners, led to the UVF man becoming aware of Mr Lynch and his parallel abandonment of violence in favour of efforts to bridge the community divide.

Mr Lynch's Yorkshire-born wife Norma told The Independent that her husband and Mr Spence wrote to each other some years ago, then spoke on the telephone. "Then we went to meet them. Both men shared a strong interest in Irish history. Everything was history, history, history.

"The fact of the matter was the Protestants in the Shankill were just as down-trodden in their own way as the Catholic people in the Falls," Mrs Lynch said.

Her husband "believed, as Wolfe Tone [the Protestant founder of Irish republicanism] argued, in replacing the name of Protestant, Catholic and dissenter with the common name of Irishmen. It was my husband's dream that people would get together".

n Security sources in Ireland last night dismissed claims that the IRA will hold a summit today on a future terror campaign.

Claims that a special army convention has been called for somewhere in the Irish Republic, to be attended by up to 100 representatives were said to be "speculation". There was no comment last night from Sinn Fein.

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