Unsung hero helped paramilitaries go from bullet to ballot box

Unsung hero helped paramilitaries go from bullet to ballot box
Noel Whelan.

Noel Whelan was much, much more than a lawyer and columnist.He was a powerful force for good on many fronts. And a vital part of the peace process in the North, writes Terry Prone.

Where it suited the cause and where it suited himself, Noel Whelan would make public his involvement in it. Why not? Where the cause would not be helped by making his involvement public, he would be silent. Utterlysilent.

And he would stay silent.

One of the many areas where his involvement was crucial and his silence equally so was in his work with Unionist paramilitaries in the North.

This came about because Mary McAleese, having campaigned for election first time around as a bridge builder, set about delivering on the claim by actively building bridges north of the border.

She contacted Noel Whelan and Tom Savage and asked the two of them if they would have any problems working together on a project.

Each laughed — working together when Noel was on the staff of Fianna Fáil and Tom wasAlbert Reynolds’ communications advisor, they had developed a warm and strong relationship. No problem working together. The President said this was good news and would each turn up at the Áras for a quiet dinner on a set date. Without partners. They agreed, asked no questions, and pitched upformally dressed on the night.

Mary McAleese.
Mary McAleese.

They found themselves, two tall, dark, slim men meeting each other’s eyes in puzzlement in the elegant reception rooms of Áras an Úachtarain. Whatever this was about related to the North, to judge by the accents of the other men — and only men — present.

Sitting down to dinner, Tom found himself beside a man in a pink frilled shirt he knew to be a multiple killer. It was clear Noel found himself in a similar position. They did a mutual non-shrug: we’ll hear in her own good time.

In due course, President McAleese stood to address the assembled paramilitaries. Or perhaps recovering paramilitaries might be a more accurate description, since they had, not long before, signed up to relinquish violence as a modus operandi.

She told them the reason she had invited them was that abandoning violence wasn’t enough. They needed to know, now, how to work democracy. To move from the bullet to the ballot box in an informed way.

Noel and Tom were asked to stand up, and were introduced by the President who explained that Noel Whelan was a legal expert deeply rooted in party politics who knew every aspect of planning for and managing elections, while Tom Savage knew all about political communications.

The two men, she said, had agreed to provide whatever help those present needed, as soon as they needed it.

Which slightly exceeded what they had agreed to, but spoke to her understanding of the two of them. They’d be up for it and she knew itwithout going into the details.

A few weeks later, they were told to be in the car park of a hotel north of the border at a particular time on a particular day, and to expect to be away from home for several days.

Seated, talking, in a southern registered car, they watched the arrival of a van with blacked-out windows. Signals were exchanged and the two of them, with small suitcases, climbed into the back of the van to go they knew not where.

Tom Savage.
Tom Savage.

For three days they worked in a secret location with about 20 men on the democratic process, and tough work it was, particularly for Noel Whelan, who was introducing them to a system of which they had no experience. Noel’s expertise of the system south of the border was relevant but also irrelevant.

He had to constantly adjust to deal with the realities of electoral processes north of the border. By day two, they had decided not to deal with separate groups but to amalgamate them and deal jointly with them, because Tom had been educated north of the border and, having worked in social care in Armagh, was able to produce specific examples of Noel’s concepts which locked them into the mindset of the course participants.

At the end of it, they were returned to the hotel car park and that was the end of it. No reports went to the President. Or to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

No subsequent meetings ever happened. Neither of them ever talked about it, although that must have been harder for Noel, as a committed life-long member of Fianna Fáil and a huge admirer of McAleese. But he undertook an important task and then shut up about it.

Noel Whelan was much, much more than a lawyer and columnist. He wasa powerful force for good on many fronts. And a vital part of the peace process in the North.

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