‘I thank God for my time in prison’

Speaking to the press in January 1992 following the Teebane Massacre.
Speaking to the press in January 1992 following the Teebane Massacre.

WHEN DUP politician William McCrea looks back at the three-and-a-half months he spent in prison, he thanks God for the experience.

“I must be honest,” reflects the former Mid-Ulster MP, “the Lord used that time because there was a person in the cell I was in who came to the knowledge of Jesus Christ his Lord and Saviour.

“So to me that was well worth the three-and-a-half-months in prison, therefore I look back on it as a wonderful experience, an experience which I will never forget.”

But in reality it was a blow that the then 24 year-old up-and-coming Minister could have done without.

Married less than two months, and just hours out of hospital, Robert Thomas William McCrea stood in the dock at Limavady Magistrates Court and was convicted of riotous behaviour.

He was set up, he says, by the authorities, after rushing to the top of an Orange Order parade in Dungiven to quell tensions

“And of course I exceeded to the requests and the crowd pushed forward and to be honest, and I am happy for the footage to be seen, I wasn’t rioting at all,” he said.

Back then the Stormont government didn’t recognise William McCrea as the now respected politician that he is. Particularly because of his connections to Ian Paisley.

“I went into prison on 23rd of August 1971, and internment had just started when I was there. At that time they started to send people out of prison, and I was still kept in, whilst petrol bombers and others were getting out.

“I will never forget that day in my life that I was called back to my cell and the Deputy Governor said to me, ‘we went to Stormont today and asked them to let you out, and the answer was, he will do his time’.”

Despite facing both animosity and hostility from the government at that time, Rev McCrea walked into his first political role in his adopted home of Magherafelt just two years after his spell in prison.

“As a young minister coming from Stewartstown to Magherafelt, there were a lot of people in need. A lot of people would say to me ‘I wonder how I could get help for this, or how I could get help for that’, and you know I’d be out around the area to visit people.

“I was a civil servant for a short period of time, when I just left school, in the Department of Health and Social Services, and I believe the Lord in many ways was preparing me for my life’s journey thereafter, because when I went into the civil service I had to be two things; I had to be civil and I had to realise I was a servant.

“And I have never forgotten that in all my years of public life, and in church life.

“There was great material need where people were in need of help, in need of advice, and they felt that there was nobody. Yes there were councillors, MPs, Stormont was going at the time as well as Westminster, but they felt that nobody, but nobody cared. And nobody would give them advice.”

“And then I held a little surgery where I’d let people come, maybe on a certain night, anyone in the district, to come and see me. And people did start to come to me.

The reorganisation of local government gave Rev McCrea ample opportunity to really help those that came to him for help.

“Finally I got the acceptance of the very small congregation that we had here in Magherafelt, which was 12 of a congregation, and they agreed that I should go to the council and do that and help people.”

Standing as a United Loyalist candidate Rev McCrea took double that of the 800 first preference votes he needed to be elected onto Magherafelt council, 1639 to be exact. And from 1973 to 2005, he topped the poll in every local government election he contested.

Ten years on from being elected as a local councillor, and a year into his time on the Northern Ireland Assembly, Dr McCrea ran for the Mid-Ulster Westminster seat beating Sinn Fein’s Danny Morrison by 78 votes in the 1983 general election.

He went onto serve the constituency area in the Houses of Parliament until 1997, when controversial boundary changes forced him from the seat, and allowed Martin McGuinness to take the reigns.

“It was gerrymandered. There was no question whatsoever the gerrymandering of it because it was Mid-Ulster that was divided in two, into two constituencies and I believe it was done deliberately in this respect,” said Dr McCrea.

“They tried to make one seat, the top end into an Ulster Unionist seat, and the Mid-Ulster, this end, into a Republican seat, and therefore Sinn Fein would be happy, the Ulster Unionists would be happy and I would be out and that would make them all happy.”

Despite knowing he would lose the seat to Martin McGuinness, the DUP politician still contested the election.

“I felt I owed it to the people to stand, even though I knew I was going to be defeated. Now I did stand, the interesting thing was this, Martin McGuinness when he stood against me at that election only beat me by 1000 votes and yet it was a vastly, vastly Republican area.

“Some had voted yes to SDLP, some people abstained from voting in the nationalist community because I was regarded as a good, hardworking MP, also if you look at the votes, when I had over 18,000 you will find if you added unionist votes thereafter together it became between 16 and 16,500 votes, I had 18,500, so it showed again that there were quite a number of Catholics voting for me because of my work.

“However I knew I was defeated and I knew that seat was a very largely Republican seat thereafter. But there was gerrymandering, there’s no question.”

Despite being a firebrand, who at times courted controversy with his politics, Mr McCrea still maintains he helped, and does still help, anyone, regardless of religion, or title.

“That’s one thing, from the day and hour that I went into public life, there’s no person that couldn’t say, for the ordinary man, it didn’t matter who you were, Protestant, Roman Catholic or no title at all, as far as I was concerned if you had a legitimate problem you has a right to be represented, and that was shown to the people who came through the doors of my offices.”

“But I was, and still am, a strong unionist and those years were the years of trouble, the murders, the IRA were murdering and yet, remember there we a lot of Roman Catholics murdered by the IRA, they died and a lot of innocent people suffered because the government did not take terrorism on. You can’t appease terrorism, you have got to deal with terrorism, but the government, the UK government did not deal with it effectively and we have now been left with the legacy to this day.

“That being so I still believe, during all that time, whilst the IRA were murdering others, if you had a legitimate argument and case to put forward, then you had a right to be heard.”

NEXT WEEK: ‘My personal torment of going into government with Sinn Fein, why I shared a platform with Billy Wright and how I fought off Mid-Ulster Hospital closure since 1973.’