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Sinn Féin MLA Fra McCann reveals Covid trauma

Veteran republican Fra McCann is stepping down as a Sinn Féin MLA after almost 20 years. Diagnosed with cancer shortly before the pandemic, he has revealed how Covid left his wife fighting for her life in a Spanish hospital. He also reflects on an extraordinary era in politics, from the 1980s when he wore bullet proof vests at Belfast City Council meetings to receiving well wishes in Stormont corridors from DUP powerdharing colleagues. Health Correspondent Seanín Graham reports

Sinn Fein�s Fra McCann steps back from politics.Picture by Hugh Russell.
Seanin Graham

LEANING against a lamp post with his head thrown back laughing, Fra McCann looks as if he hasn't a care in the world as he gets his picture taken.

Ushering us into the party's Sevastopol Street office on a sunny October day, the 68-year-old remarks on its 'clamminess' while casually mounting three flights of stairs with a St Padre Pio keyring jangling from his trouser pocket all the way.

The life-long Republican - it is exactly 50 years since he joined up - was diagnosed with prostate cancer three months before the outbreak of the pandemic and has lived in fear of contracting Covid, assuming if he caught the virus "that would be it".

His cancer is incurable but treatable and his bloods are currently "good", a "sign the tumour hasn't grown".

After shielding and conducting constituency work via Zoom over lockdown - which he "hated" - he and his partner Janette went to Majorca in late July to celebrate their April wedding after almost 40 years together.

Despite being fully vaccinated and getting negative PCR results before their flight, the couple fell ill a week into their holiday with Mrs McCann becoming seriously unwell - that led to her being hospitalised for eight weeks.

"Janette was really ill during the self-isolation and couldn’t get a breath. I phoned a friend in Santa Ponza and said she was in a bad way. He and another friend, who was Spanish, took her to a clinic which made all the difference," Mr McCann said.

Fra McCann, pictured in November 1979 with his late mother Ruby, following his release from jail

"The clinic said she had to go to a big hospital just outside Palma. We had no real communication as her phone went so we didn't know what was happening at first.

"I went to the hospital every day and the staff were excellent. I got geared up with PPE and was allowed half-hour visits initially. By the third or fourth week she came out of Covid. But she then developed a bacterial infection.

"Some of the phone calls were terrible. They told her she had taken a slight stroke. She then took up to three brain bleeds and they thought she had a tumour.

"Throughout it all she was strong but the hospital was extremely worried about her condition. My daughter had also travelled out with us but I was the only one allowed in to see her.

"I tested positive at the same time but I was okay. Janette had never been in hospital in her life, she has some underlying respiratory conditions but she’s only 60.

"We are both vaccinated and doctors told us that’s what held us. If we hadn’t been vaccinated, that would have been it, especially with my underlying difficulties."

While abroad, Mr McCann also received the devastating news that his younger sister Kate (60) had died suddenly at home.

"She had been complaining of chest pains and my brother was bringing her medication when he found her. I couldn't travel home to the funeral, it was a terrible time," he added.

"The priest from St Paul's put the funeral service online. A friend opened his bar and myself, daughter and grand-daughter watched it on a big screen on our own."

Just over a fortnight ago, Mrs McCann was transferred by air ambulance from Spain - with her husband by her side - to the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in Belfast, where she is being treated for an abscess on the brain.

Doctors have indicated that she does not have a tumour and can be treated with strong antibiotics which will require her to remain in hospital for another month, a development that has given the family hope.

Fra McCann, pictured in November 1979 with his late mother Ruby, following his release from jail

"She is a wonderful woman who has been a rock for me in really difficult times. The two of us are great friends as well as husband and wife," he adds.

The traumatic events as well as Mr McCann's illness led to his decision to step down as MLA by the end of this month.

But the former 'blanket man' who was part of the 1974 prisoner escape from Long Kesh - when he and 32 other inmates dug a 190 ft long tunnel - said the Assembly will be the "only aspect" of his political life that's ending.

"There's the old saying, 'Republicans never retire'. I’ll continue to work within the local office in the advice centre and I'm involved in quite a number of community structures. There is also whatever the party has in line for me," he said.

"But it's time for me to step aside for someone else. First of all, I’m 68. I’m also in ill health. I’ve cancer, COPD, diabetes and kidney problems. I really want to spend time with Janette.

"I'm actually a member of the Republican movement 50 years this month. I joined the Fianna (na Fianna Éireann, the Irish nationalist youth organisation) just after internment and everything started from there."

Growing up in the Divis area of the city, where he still lives and "will never leave", Mr McCann's first foray into politics began in 1987 when he was elected councillor.

Winning the Lower Falls seat along with the day he "got off the blanket" and was reunited with his mother following his release from jail in 1979 remain the two defining moments of his political life.

"Council is grassroots stuff. You’re constantly involved," he explains.

Entering local office during the late 1980s came at a time of extreme unionist opposition to Sinn Féin and he vividly remembers an incident as he headed into one of his first meetings in Belfast City Hall:

"A woman came over and stuck a tin in my face for collections. I told her I was sorry, I didn’t have any money, and she called me a Fenian bastard.

"And that was the first real bile I’d heard inside City Hall. But that was quite typical of attitudes. It was a cold house for nationalists and that included many of the nationalists who worked in the place.

"Everything now is recorded but back then it was different. The DUP tried to block us from attending different meetings by changing rooms and locking doors. There would have been screaming and shouting in committee meetings.

"The council meetings were bad and they would have sprayed air freshener round you.

"I always remember that one of the main things they screamed was: ‘away back to your hovels in west Belfast’ ."

In 1992 the UVF bombed the Sinn Féin members room in City Hall shortly before they were due to meet.

This followed an attack in the late 1980s on party colleague and close friend Alex Maskey - who he credits as a "tremendous support" throughout his illness - when he was shot by loyalists after answering a knock at his door.

Mr Maskey, who made history as Sinn's Féin's first Belfast Lord Mayor in 2002 and is the current Speaker for the Assembly, also announced he was stepping down from frontline politics last month.

"You had to watch your security because at different times the RUC would have went to your door and left word you were going to be shot," Mr McCann said.

"I had a bullet proof vest and always tried to wear that. If you were going down into the town or council you never knew. You fear for your family. I had two kids."

Different routes for journeys were also advised but the grandfather-of-two quipped: "I live close to the city hall and would have walked to it. People told me to take alternative routes - but there’s not many alternative routes from Divis to the city centre."

When asked how he lived with the constant threat being targeted, he replied:

"Many of us believed right through our Republican life that we never would have reached this age. If you let it get you down, it starts to impact on you mentally. Obviously you have to be concerned if there is an attack on the house, but once you start letting it get to you, then it would start to impact on the job. You lived for the day and every day was different."

In the midst of the turmoil - an infamous "free-for-all" in the early 1990s with punches exchanged on the chamber floor led to police being called - there were some cross-party successes including the securing of a £6.5 million grant to renovate Falls Leisure Centre.

"I did a deal with the unionists. I got Falls and they got funding for the Grove complex. The unionists tried to close the Falls Leisure centre and there was a court case taken by a resident. Pieces of the roof had fallen into the swimming pool and windows were broken.

"But I told them: 'you ain’t touching it'."

In 2003 Mr McCann was elected for the first time to the Stormont Assembly, taking the seat from the DUP's Diane Dodds.

"The party asked me a couple of times. I don’t know how many election campaigns I have fought but there’s a lot - and they are the most nerve wracking things.

"That stayed with me all of my life. Never take an electorate for granted."

Going to Stormont buildings, historically and symbolically a bastion of unionism, posed fresh challenges for the working-class republican.

But he says he was intent on forging relationships across the political spectrum.

"What you had to do was make Stormont your own. You were there representing not just your party but your community," he said.

"People ignored you, people turned away from you. I insisted on not being called ‘sir’ by security guards.

"You’re never in places like Stormont to make enemies, you’re there to make friends.

"Over a period of time, you do make friends even within unionism. I’d be close enough to Fred Cobain. When it was announced I was ill, I went back up to the Assembly and the likes of Diane and Nigel Dodds came over to me. Paula Bradley is also a very nice woman.

"There are quite a number of people among Ulster Unionists and the DUP who you speak to in the corridors. They know who you are, obviously, but it is trying to build those relationships up.

"We're a long, long way away from Belfast City Council in the 1980s. The political landscape is completely different. When I'm dealing with unionists I never waste an opportunity. I’m unashamedly a united Irelander and I let them know that."

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