There’s a point in some political arguments where opposition turns into personal antagonism, which itself is liable to turn into smouldering, resentful bitterness – normally I wouldn’t think anything of it, but seeing that he’s one of those people…. We’re lucky in this country – as compared with, say, the USA – that it’s very rare for people to view other people’s political allegiances as this kind of personal threat or affront. I’ve had Tory friends, and while I’m quite sure they thought I had idiotic and dangerous ideas, I never had any sense that they thought I was a dangerous idiot. (Is there an inverse correlation between levels of political activism and the tendency to take politics personally?)
There are exceptions, of course. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was one; Ireland has often been another. I remember one day in 1988 when the office where I worked ground to a halt for a morning while we debated the ‘Death on the Rock’ shootings in Gibraltar – and Michael Stone’s attack on the victims’ funeral in Milltown cemetery. Everyone had an opinion – and a strong one, which coloured their view of anyone who disagreed. Not that many people did. The view with regard to Gibraltar was that the SAS commando were reacting on the spur of the moment to an imminent threat, and had no choice but to act as they did; I was in a minority of two in dissenting from this. The view with regard to Milltown, on the other hand, was that there were all kinds of murderous headcases on both sides, and Michael Stone might well have been working for the IRA to gain them public sympathy by making them look like victims. I was in a minority of two on this one as well, although I had a different fellow-dissenter this time. Things were a bit tense in that office for the next few days.
But not as tense as they must have been in a lot of other workplaces, a short hop from Holyhead. My other memory of 1988 is the New Statesman column which reprinted a poem in praise of Stone that was circulating in Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland – a broadsheet, really. It consisted mainly of a list of the various Sinn Fein worthies who were at the cemetery, each of them described as panicking, running away, soiling his pants and so forth as the noble Stone took them on. (A completely fanciful description, incidentally – Martin McGuinness for one reacted by heading towards Stone, showing what can only be called courage under fire.) The poem ended by apostrophising Stone:
Your brave deed today
Against Sinn Fein/IRA
Put you top of the heap – BOY YOU’RE GREAT!
Michael Stone was a folk hero in certain circles – a symbol of intransigent opposition to the ‘Shinners’. And this despite the fact that this symbol had not only attempted to murder McGuinness and Gerry Adams while they attended a funeral, but succeeded in killing three other mourners.
Eighteen years on, Stone is clearly a troubled man:
“Michael had become obsessed with the idea that the IRA were going to shoot him with the gun they captured from him [at Milltown] before any peace deal was finally concluded. That is why he turned against the Good Friday agreement after initially supporting it. He was totally paranoid and receiving treatment.”
“He saw a deal between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein coming, and he believes there will not be a deal until he is dead. He has been trying to get put in jail for about the past nine months.”
There are two bitter ironies here. On one hand, Stone’s current state of mind isn’t a million miles from a rational response to his particular situation; if he is paranoid, he’s got more than most to be paranoid about. On the other, his current condition isn’t so far removed from a state of mind which – as that poem suggests – many people over many years have been quite happy to condone, even celebrate. Quoting from the same piece in the Times:
He wrote a book and launched a career as an artist, mainly based on his notoriety. The signature on the back of paintings was the print of his right index finger, which he told buyers was “Michael Stone’s trigger finger”.