Leonard calls for a united Ireland

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BILLY Leonard is calling for a money-rich, non-party-political organisation to drive forward a campaign for a united Ireland.

His extrordinay political journey, which took him from RUC reservist to Sinn Fein MLA for East Londonderry, is captured in his new book, Towards a United Ireland - an uncompleted journey, which will be published in Dublin and Belfast this week.

The Portstewart-based author quit active politics before last year’s Stormont election to concentrate on writing the book.

He said he is “delighted” to be publishing the work in the early part of the ‘Decade of Commemorations’.

This period, he said, marks many of the important dates in Irish history such as the Ulster Covenant, Home Rule Bill, Easter Rising and partition.

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

Mr Leonard said: “I think it is vital that we lift general calls for a united Ireland to outlining potential ways to achieve that aim and what a united nation would look like.

“People who presently regard themselves as Unionists constantly challenge those of us who want unity on some of the practicalities.

“In the book I rise to that challenge and make many proposals on constitutional and cultural rights, local council and central parliament structures and the economy.

“One of my central proposals is establishing a high-powered and well-resourced non-party-political organisation to co-ordinate the campaign for unity. This group would have the capacity and standing to work with political parties and all sectors in a professional manner.”

The book is also a personal memoir of his own political journey, the son of an RUC officer with a typically unionist upbringing and his courtship then marriage to his wife who hailed from Lurgan’s nationalist Kilwilkie estate.

He recalls waving a Union flag as a boy during a visit by Prince Philip to Northern Ireland and also reveals his interests in global politics such as the US Civil Rights movement.

Mr Leonard also talks about his critics within the SDLP whom he abandoned to join Sinn Fein as well as his new party colleagues who viewed his erstwhile security forces links with suspicion.

He admits weaving “many of my personal experiences from my days in the part-time RUC Reserve through to my involvement in nationalist and republican politics.

“It is definitely not an autobiography but I use those experiences and the linking knowledge to illustrate many of the political points that I felt were essential to make.”

The book - which he describes as a polemic - is revealing on the discussions within Sinn Fein at the time of the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney and the party’s existing links with the IRA and Army Council.

He says: “It was a lovely challenge to write the book and I try in turn to challenge all the main political groups to seriously enter the debate particularly in the early part of the Decade of Commemorations.

“These are difficult times but I still feel there is a debate to take place. No part of Ireland will be the same after the recession and with changes ahead in the United Kingdom now is the time to start the political conversation.”