You have to turn back time to understand the significance of a John McMichael Memorial debate which took place in Lisburn tonight.
And it is not just about the panel that has been assembled — but the audience also.
Several years ago, this could not have happened — would not have happened.
John McMichael was a UDA leader killed by an IRA bomb on 22nd December, 1987, just weeks after the Poppy Day massacre in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. I knew him well.
And this evening one of the most senior figures in the IRA war Sean ‘Spike’ Murray of the Posse Comitatus sat on a panel in this, the first in a series of memorial events.
McMichael and Murray were part of the different wars and the loyalist leader never got to see the peace.
“John McMichael knew — we all knew — that he was likely to be killed because he was a high profile figure,” Posse member Jackie McDonald explained.
McDonald succeeded McMichael on the Inner Council leadership of the UDA — replacing his friend at that paramilitary top table after the under-car bomb attack .
On tonight’s debate, he added: “It allows us to demonstrate to the whole province that we can share space, respect each other, exchange views and debate them,”
He opened a debate which put Sean Murray and another republican, Danny Morrison, who defined the ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy, on a panel with senior unionists and others.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson also took part, as did UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, the SDLP MLA and Policing Board member Conall McDevitt and Paul Clissold of the organising Ulster Political Research Group.
“It’s a unique occasion,” McDonald said, “And it’s going to take a lot of courage from everyone in the room to be there.“It’s showing leadership,”
McDonald was talking about the audience as much as the panel — invited guests that include members of the Victims Forum, police, clergy, and other prominent republicans and loyalists.
Andy Tyrie who was Supreme Commander of the UDA at the time of the McMichael killing was unable to attend but John Laverty and I represented the Ullans Academy. Also attending was Seanna Walsh, one of the longest serving republican prisoners, who read the words of the IRA ‘endgame’ statement in 2005, John’s wife Shirley and his son by his former wife Phyllis, Gary McMichael, and my old MLA colleague Ivan Davis.
The event was staged within a ‘Question Time’ format, wih chairman Eamonn Mallie — the issues for the panel covering education, the Maze peace centre project, victims, the Historical Enquiries Team and the political document Common Sense with which John was identified. John was actually chairman of the group which produced the document. The secretary was John Robinson, working with Andy Tyrie, Tommy Little, Billy Elliott, Eddie Sayers and “C Graham”..
A young person will also ask the question: “What does the future hold for me?”
This event is an indication of a changing landscape — a different mindset.
It was making the once unthinkable happen.