Martin Meehan

IRA fighter turned peace supporter

Martin Meehan, republican activist: born Belfast 1945; twice married; died Belfast 3 November 2007.

Martin Meehan was a prominent member of the IRA who in his latter years embraced the Irish peace process after decades as a symbol of unflinching republican militancy. As a north Belfast street-fighter in the early 1970s he was highly active during gunbattles and sniping incidents in which many British soldiers, Protestant extremists and IRA members met their deaths.

His home district of Ardoyne, on one of the city's most dangerous sectarian fault-lines, was the scene of many killings and much disorder right through the troubles. Local republicans revered him as a defender of their embattled area.

A docker and a member of a strong republican family, Martin Meehan joined the IRA in the mid-1960s, choosing a life which placed him in the front line of conflict. Repeated spells in prison meant he was behind bars for nearly two decades in total. A measure of the security forces' view of his practical and symbolic importance to the IRA was seen when, in 1975, he was the last republican released from the Maze when internment without trial ended.

As he was freed he held aloft a large key in an ironic gesture of farewell. Years earlier he had made a less formal departure from custody, hiding in a sewer for six hours, smeared with butter to stave off the cold before making an escape. More spells in jail followed in the 1980s, during which time he staged a lengthy hunger strike.

After all the years of implacable militancy he became an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process. He explained: "I personally had believed that we would achieve the objective of a united Ireland militarily, by driving the British army into the sea. But in the latter years I realised that this could not happen by military means alone, but by a combination of tactics, manoeuvres and political direction. It was difficult for people like myself. It was a mental thing for me to overcome."

The change of approach widened his horizons remarkably and he became involved in a range of ventures including visits to Poland, drama performances and working with children in Ardoyne. In recent years he stood for election for Sinn Fein, both for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for Westminster. Most strikingly of all, Meehan became involved in history projects with former loyalist paramilitants – men with whom, on the edges of Ardoyne at the height of the troubles, he had regularly traded gunfire.

In June of this year he said that his aim was "to show young people the futility of war but also to show them why people fought". He added: "What is important is that this generation learns from the past and the mistakes that were made."

David McKittrick

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