Billy Leonard's journey from RUC reservist to Sinn Fein MLA

billy leonard The former RUC reservist later became a Sinn Fein MLA

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If you didn't catch Inside Politics last weekend, it's worth a listen on the BBC iPlayer as my guest Billy Leonard's story is intriguing on both a human and a political level.

The former East Londonderry MLA quit active politics before last year's Stormont election to concentrate on writing a book.

His memoir, "Towards a United Ireland - an uncompleted journey" is out at the end of the month.

It's the story of how a Lurgan Protestant and one time member of the RUC Reserve crossed the divide, becoming first an SDLP activist then a Sinn Fein MLA.

As the only former Sinn Fein MLA who can remember waving a Union flag as a child during a visit by Prince Philip to Northern Ireland, it was interesting to hear Billy Leonard's educated guess that Martin McGuinness will meet the Queen when she visits at the end of this month (although as an Irish republican he couldn't resist adding that he cared more about Enda Kenny's latest thoughts on an all-Ireland football team than the details of the Royal visit).

The former MLA was the son of an RUC officer - his upbringing was typically unionist.

But he always had an interest in wider developments, such as the US Civil Rights movement.

However it wasn't just politics but love which played a role in his unusual trajectory - his girlfriend, then wife, came from the other side of the tracks on Lurgan's nationalist Kilwilkie estate.

In his book, Mr Leonard talks about what he views as sectarian attitudes towards him, within both the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

He also acknowledges that within Sinn Fein he had to deal with an additional layer of mistrust because of his previous membership of the security forces.


The memoir is revealing on the discussions within Sinn Fein at the time of the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney and, as he told me on Inside Politics, Mr Leonard believes the IRA's tentacles still run through the party.

He writes that "when the IRA was finally disbanded in September 2008, the one remaining link that kept many in the party only relatively happy was the fact that the army council stayed in place".

He continues that one MLA "expressed to me in very open terms that he knew who really held the power in the party, and accepted that this was the best way to get on with the work".

In essence he knew that "the elected representatives didn't hold the real power, rather it was held by a blend of ard chomhairle and army council members: everyone was meant to be equal but in classical terms some were more equal than others."

Mr Leonard describes his book as a "polemic" - he isn't daunted by the recent opinion poll findings suggesting a united Ireland is still a minority aspiration, nor that a considerable number of Catholics appear to feel comfortable with the current constitutional compromise, nor the prevailing wisdom that the end of the Celtic Tiger has set back the likelihood of any change.

The former MLA is calling for the creation of a non-party political organisation, which he calls "Vision Ireland" to sketch out a more detailed plan for Irish unification.

Whether you agree with him or not, there's plenty of interest in a life which has spanned the Orange Order, the RUC Reserve, the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #11 Maxmerit,

    If the latest reports from the Smithwick Tribunal are to be believed, half of the IRA were working for the police !

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    There are a few Sinn Fein MLA's who have actually worked for the police.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The gulf between RUC reservist to "Sinn Féin" MLA really isn't that large.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I per se do not have an issue with the book or even it being the topic on the blog. What I do have an issue with is the fact that we do cover the issues that are perhaps more telling on our lives and futures. Surly politics are about more than just this topic or "Donegal TD takes the strain for Gerry Adams" and yes I intentionally used topics that were of this web site to make my point

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    You've quoted from the NI politics section. That's quite unambiguous surely?

    Anyway, If Leonard's book is a genuinely honest and uncensored account of his time in politics, it should prove somewhat cutting. Sadly, I doubt the full story is likely to come out but I'll give it a read anyway and make up my own mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Nama role 'very important' in Northern Ireland, Nama has a property portfolio of over £3bn in Northern Ireland. And Sammy is pleased that there hasn't been a fire sale yet. But "yet" is the critical term. NAMA held over £3.5 billion worth of assets and to date have sold £30 million worth. However they have to sell the remainder by 2020 just over eight years. Political?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Chris, you're quoting directly a story on this site and in so doing, rubbishing your own argument. Likely most people reading this story will also have read the others on the site.

    While you may not rate the story about Billy Leonard, I find it interesting on a political and personal basis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Arlene Foster said: "our current unemployment rate of 7.1% still compares favourably" Things is bad but just look at the rest of them! And we should bear in mind that we have yet to feel the pain in a reduction in our public sector.

    But this may not be political enough!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Other stories that run behind the headlines

    "Unemployment in Northern Ireland has risen again, on both official measures."

    What cost to families and our economies future, but no political points to score here....

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    For anyone with a genuine interest in politics in general, this story is certainly significant. This is the type of thing that runs behind the headlines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Perhaps instead of carrying out a book review / promotion we could look at issues that are impacting us here in NI. EG "The Northern Ireland Executive is making another attempt to sell a tract of land in Ballymena which was once valued at £75m. The latest advertisement for the 97 acres at Ballee is for just £4m." That's a drop of around 1700% So why sell now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "that a considerable number of Catholics appear to feel comfortable with the current constitutional compromise"

    You appear happy to accept that a Protestant can be a republican, however generalise that all Catholics want a united Ireland and or republicans. This is why we will never move forward as we have the media stereotyping us along with our tribal politics.

    We should just wake up!



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