As a Protestant, Billy Leonard was a rare breed within Sinn Fein’s Stormont team. SAM McBRIDE meets the former MLA
AS someone who was born a Presbyterian, joined the Orange Order and the RUC and was a Seventh Day Adventist lay preacher, Billy Leonard was a long way from the typical Sinn Fein MLA.
After leaving his Loyal Order, police and church positions he then joined, and left, the SDLP before joining – and last year leaving – Sinn Fein, for which he had been a Coleraine councillor and an East Londonderry MLA.
It’s a baffling CV, when you consider that the IRA killed policemen and Protestants, and when you consider that he also worked as a building society manager, has a politics and philosophy PhD from the University of Ulster and is now a writer.
His unusual route through politics has garnered media interest. As a student reporter covering Coleraine Borough Council, I once wrote about how the only councillor to oppose Orange Order funding was the ex-Orangeman Billy Leonard.
We meet in the Linenhall Library in Belfast where he is launching a book setting out the case for a united Ireland, something which he believes Sinn Fein and the SDLP are largely failing to do.
Politically, he is now a republican, but religiously he has also shifted dramatically.
“I don’t have any religious labels,” the bearded academic says. When asked if he would describe himself as agnostic or an atheist, he replies: “Sort of agnostic.”
When in November 2010 it was announced by Sinn Fein that Dr Leonard would retire from the Assembly in May 2011 to write a book, there were rumours that it was not entirely his own decision.
Although at that time he said that he intended to “remain active in the party”, several months later it emerged that he had been suspended by Sinn Fein – for reasons that are unclear – and eventually left the party.
He dismisses the “conspiracy theories” about how he left the party but says: “It’s public knowledge that the dispute I had with a couple of the leadership of Sinn Fein was over the support mechanisms to do the job of an MLA.”
Was that a dispute about money?
“Well it’s not about my money, it’s about how the money is spent and are you getting bang for your buck.”
Dr Leonard says that he also wanted to focus on the “bigger picture”.
That bigger picture for him is the vision of a united Ireland.
Is that closer now than at the time of the Belfast Agreement 14 years ago?
He claims that it is “in a state of flux” and that with the economic crisis in the headlines, “a lot of opinion is shaped by the recession”, but that changes away from the main headlines giving Irish republicans hope.
“You’ve got a changing Union, a Scottish question – I’m not putting everything on the Scottish question, but it is a major change – the south will not always be in recession so you’re going to have a southern economy on the move again and you’re going to have a changing Union.
“Now what does that mean for the traditional person who would describe themselves as unionist – will the Union vision change amongst northern unionists here?
“It’s very hard to say at a popular level that a united Ireland is closer but I do believe that there are issues coming down the road which will affect the debate and therefore could bring it closer.”
He acknowledges that while republicans have to persuade unionists if they are to achieve a united Ireland – and recent polls suggest that even many SDLP and Sinn Fein voters want to retain the border – they also have to reach “apathetic southern opinion”.
He suggests that if the case for removing the border was put to unionists “in a professional and respectful way” and they began to warm to the republican goal, that may “stir the apathy” of mainstream opinion in the Republic which now seems to care little about the border.
The 57-year-old’s book, Towards a United Ireland, is borne in part out of a frustration on his part at what he sees as the failure of the SDLP and Sinn Fein to plan for a united Ireland.
“We have parties, individuals and groups who have an aspiration for a united Ireland but no one has seriously put forward the detailed case for a united Ireland.”
Why is that debate not happening?
“That is one of my worries, actually. Being involved in party politics for 15, close to 16 years, one of the things that I felt down about in a way was that the detailed case was not being put forward.”
Dr Leonard has a chapter in his book entitled ‘The curse of the nearest opponent’, in which he argues that the SDLP and Sinn Fein have become so fixated on defeating each other electorally that they have little time left to push for a united Ireland and the DUP and UUP are more concerned with attacking each other than focussing on the Union.
He argues for a new non-party political lobby group called ‘Vision Ireland’ to make the case for removing the border.
When asked what would stop that body from joining the political fray, Dr Leonard insists that he does not want to create a rival republican party to Sinn Fein: “Why would you propose that that body which is free from the competition enter the competition? I think its strength is being apart from the various battles.”
There has been significant focus in recent years on calls – particularly from the DUP and the Orange Order – for ‘unionist unity’. However, Dr Leonard says that he sees no evidence that there will be nationalist unity between the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
Asked how Sinn Fein views unionists, he says that there is a spectrum of opinion, from those who are suspicious to those looking for ‘unionist outreach’, which he describes as “an awkward term, I must admit”, but adds that they are “100 per cent committed to that”.
He says that while Sinn Fein’s short-term goal in recent years has been growing their seats and getting into government on both sides of the border, that leads to difficult compromises for a party with a radical constitutional agenda.
As someone from a unionist background, does he believe that a united Ireland can ever come about while former IRA commanders run Sinn Fein?
“Within the party system, I do admit that there are even many in the south who would like fewer Gerry Adamses and more Pearse Dohertys,” he says.
He admits that the IRA past is “a bit of a barrier to some” but says that the Republic’s main parties had a similar background in the old IRA but are now accepted by unionists, albeit many decades after those involved in violence have died.
When asked how he feels about the IRA murder of former police colleagues, he says that he “wishes there had never been the Troubles” and added that he had “mixed feelings about it”.
Did it cause him unease to sit alongside, in the same party, people who targeted members of the organisation of which he was once a member?
He says that someone convicted of murdering a police officer in Lurgan is now a staffer in Sinn Fein, which caused him to have “feelings about the circle of life” but adds that “those things have happened in all conflicts”.
Two of his mother’s relatives were murdered by the IRA in Tullyvallen Orange Hall.
When asked whether people in Sinn Fein regret such sectarian atrocities, he says: “I would guess that there’s a lot of regrets. People do things when they’re 17, 18, 22, 23 and then they maybe survive the Troubles and they become 50-year-olds who’ve got their own children and grandchildren.”
He says that he was disappointed with the Assembly, where there is “a shortage when it comes to quality of debate and quality of actions”.
He adds: “I don’t want to be unkind, but many people have said that it is a glorified county council.”