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By Jason Michael
DURING AN EASTER HOLIDAY break in the late 1990s, as a young spotty student, along with a small number of other backpackers, I found myself running for dear life from a Moroccan border police officer, across some class of international no-man’s-land to the Spanish border at Ceuta in North Africa. Never in my life, before or since, was I as happy and relieved to shake the hand of a Guardia Civil officer as I was that afternoon. Morocco, being what it was back then – and possibly still is, the policeman decided to chance his arm on a group of youngsters and demand an extortionate bribe. Someone in the group may or may not have had in their possession a bag of weed – I don’t know, but that was what the guard was saying.
Having seen Midnight Express, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to spend an extended holiday in a Moroccan gaol on a trumped-up drugs trafficking charge – certainly, not if I could help it. It’s not entirely clear to me now how it came about, but there was a moment when we were all lined up against the wall of the dilapidated and sun-baked guardhouse and the policeman was distracted. Almost telepathically, we all knew this may just be our last moments of freedom unless we did something drastic. Someone broke off running. Then all of us were off, running as hard as we could right over the border and towards the Spanish line. We had no idea what to expect from the Guardia Civil. Maybe they’d frogmarch us by the ears back over to our doom, but, and without uttering a single word, we all agreed we had to take the chance.
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) January 29, 2019
On the Spanish side, we raced past two laughing Spanish guards. Drenched in sweat and exploding with adrenaline and relief, I stopped and shook one of the officers’ hand: “Gracias! Gracias!” We were bricking it, but we had quite actually made a successful homerun. Over the past two decades this story has been one of my favourites, a go-to unbelievable story to entertain people at parties: “Well,” I’ll say, “you’ll never believe what happened when I was in Morocco…”
Coming back to Dublin from Scotland – via Belfast – on Thursday brought that memory racing back to me. Bursting for the toilet, I leapt on the Dublin bus – not wanting to hang about in the occupied six counties for a minute more than I needed to, and the relief I felt when my phone informed me, an hour later, that I was in the Republic almost caused my bladder to empty. You see, my trip to Scotland was a little bit crazy; more crazy than normal. And in Belfast I sort of had to dodge the border police again. This time it was the PSNI and two chaps with quickly flashed ID badges who I assumed were from the security forces. As is always the case, the best thing I got out of Belfast was the Dublin road. So, maybe I should tell you this unbelievable story.
With Brexit beginning to look like an endgame for the British economy and Scottish independence both, I made the decision to escape the digital reality of my Jeggit alter ego and tour the grassroots organisations of the independence movement as myself – Jason Michael McCann. The message for the tour is quite simple: A no-deal Brexit changes everything, and unless we can win our independence before 29 March or have the process well underway by that date the probability of us not gaining independence in our lifetimes greatly increases. More people – some of the better writers in the movement – are saying precisely this online, but little, if anything at all, is being said by the political leadership. No one was out beating the streets, sounding the alarm that time is indeed running out. Not being one to dally, I asked the movement for some money, people very generously donated, groups all over Scotland kindly offered to host me, and I was off.
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) January 29, 2019
The first venue on this great missionary journey – #JeggitOnTour – was to be the Yes Shop in Kilmarnock, run by Yes East Ayrshire. Now, Kilmarnock is not only the home of William Wallace; where his family pile once stood at Riccarton and where he bested some mounted English soldiers who tried to pinch his fish at Irvine Water, it’s also my hometown. Naturally, this was an ideal to start to raising a modern-day rebellion. On the night of the talk, it was standing room only in the Yes Shop. Everyone who was anyone in the town was there – Mrs Wells and Mr Wylie (old Kilmarnock Academy teachers of mine), the sister-in-law and her pal, and Ms Wilson, an auld friend. No doubt they had all come to watch me make a right clown of myself. But just before kick-off, as I was having a puff out front, this scruffy wee character rocks on up to me and introduces himself as a reporter – “freelance, just like yourself.” Whatever.
He wants to know about the cancellation of a talk up in the Highlands. Apparently, Maree Todd – the local MSP – thought my opinions were “abhorrent.” He starts telling me about my thoughts on British soldiers in Ireland, about how I believe they are “legitimate targets.” But, except, this is not my opinion and I have never said or written such a thing. What he was referring to, of course, was a comment I had made on Twitter days before about how soldiers will be treated by, at the very least, dissident armed Republican volunteers if and when Mrs May trashes the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, the term “legitimate targets” is taken from the Green Book – the operational manual of the Provisional Irish Republican Army:
In September 1969 the existing conditions dictated that the Brits [British soldiers] were not to be shot, but after the Falls curfew all Brits were to the people legitimate targets.
It was quite clear this guy was at it. Good sense dictated that, at this point in the interview, it was best to say nothing more, but I thought better of that. He had not come looking for a story. The story was already written. He had been sent to get a few, hopefully incriminating, comments from a Braveheart dunderheid. I decided to give him my thoughts. Whether or not his paper – the Daily Mail – printed them was a matter for its British nationalist editor’s conscience. Mine would be clear. “I stand by my comments,” I said. “I am a pacifist and a devout Christian and I do not want Ireland to return to violence.” At least, I thought, this would set me apart from Maree Todd, who sees the Bible and the Koran – and pretty much all sacred religious texts – as ancient versions of the Daily Mail.
The very next day the story, under the headline “The SNP minister and the hate-filled blogger,” took up a full page in the Daily Mail – a paper, according to its Wikipedia page, that is “widely criticised for its unreliability.” Surprisingly enough, it quoted me saying I was a pacifist and a Christian; contradicting everything else it had said about me sympathising with the IRA, hating women, Jews, and whatever else. The problem was that this quote was tacked on at the very end of this mendacious character assassination – well beyond the attention span of your average Daily Mail reader.
In itself, this was not a serious issue. No one with a brain reads this paper. But some brainless people do. It is the paper of record for bigots and racists all over the United Kingdom, and that posed a serious problem – it had just made me and the groups I was visiting legitimate targets. That night I would be speaking in Airdrie, a town sadly blighted with a long history of sectarianism. This was a public event, the organisers were already being abused online, and considerable thought had to be put into security and the possibility of “having the police on speed-dial.” Early in the day I contacted the organisers. It was only fair, considering, to give them the option to cancel the event. But that, as the locals said, was what the article was all about – shutting me up. While Ms Todd’s failure to do due diligence had resulted in people being intimidated and in the possibility of violence, I was touched by the remarkable fortitude and bravery of the Airdrie For Indy group.
It would appear the unionist press has decided I shouldn't be agitating for independence. Apparently I'm a vile Chr… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) January 30, 2019
Had I thought this was the end of the insanity, I was wrong. The next morning, before heading east to Kirkcaldy, I was greeted by an email from Dale Miller at The Scotsman. Having failed to take me down with a rag, the union was upping its game. Miller’s task was to finish the job – I realised that much. On the train to Kirkcaldy I knew a juggernaut was headed my way, but I had no idea quite how vindictive this hack was going to be. He wanted a response by close of business. I told him he’d have it, and, so, after everything was wrapped up at the Kirkcaldy Yes Hub I sat and wrote out a somewhat detailed response, signing off: “Just hoping we’re playing fair. I have responded in good faith.”
There was to be no good faith, no quarter given. Before arriving back in Queen Street station in Glasgow – where I was meeting a colleague journalist for dinner – The Scotsman had opened fire. Saying that it had opened fire is an understatement to say the least. Dale and/or the by-line author Catherine Salmond had gone nuclear:
Mr McCann has come under particular fire for describing the Holocaust as “fiction” and calling British soldiers in Ireland “legitimate targets.”
No longer was I just an IRA man. Now I was the beast of beasts in the British political arsenal – a Nazi sympathising Holocaust denier. Now, to your average joe this is fatal, but not to me. Thanks to The Scotsman’s lie, I now have the honour of being the only person I know in UK history to have survived a direct newspaper hit with the antisemitism bomb. You see, unbeknownst to Miller and Salmond, I am something of an expert on the Holocaust. They actually are this lazy. It so happens that I have studied the Holocaust at the twenty-seventh most prestigious university in the world – Trinity College, Dublin. I have lectured on the Holocaust and I have published on the Holocaust, specialising in the systematic extermination of the Jews of Hungary. When it comes to the Holocaust – or the Shoah, I know my onions, and my academic career – which luckily was not known to Dale and Catherine – depends on me not being a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite.
What they did was to go raking through my blog. They thought they hit the jackpot when they happened upon an article discussing the state of Israel’s cynical use of a skewed narrative of the Holocaust to legitimise its illegal occupation of Palestine. “This holocaust” – the one that blames the people of Palestine – is a “fiction.” And that’s where they thought they had me. But this may prove to be a £££ mistake for their struggling “newspaper” – because that’s what I am looking for when this goes to court. So, it wasn’t long before The Scotsman – sneakily – edited its text. Now it’s just my “comments about Israel.” These people aren’t journalists. They are too stupid to be journalists. They are instruments of the British state.
But even this wasn’t the end of the adventure. On the way through Cairnryan ferry terminal on the way to Kilmarnock, after disembarking the ferry from Belfast, I was singled out by the customs police – who have only recently appeared, thanks to Brexit, at this port of entry between the UK and the UK. What stood out was that I was the only person stopped. Paranoia? Maybe. But I was travelling alone and wearing a beanie bunnet. They wanted to know the purpose of my visit to my own country. Two of them closely inspected my identification and made a point of noticing my Sinn Féin membership card. But, thinking it only a hard Brexit sea border dry-run, I thought no more of it.
It was different, however, on the way back. Again, I was stopped. This time it was Belfast police, the PSNI, but with the added present of two fellas in plain clothes who flashed their IDs at me – too fast for me to make out anything, of course. “Can we have a word with you, Sir?” I was having nothing to do with this. So, I asked if they had an arrest warrant or reasonable grounds on which to detain me. “Oh no, Sir.” Grand then, I said. There’s a bus to Dublin waiting for me. I boarded that bus at the Europa bus station and finally relaxed when we crossed into the free Republic.
My friends in Dublin were kept fully informed of events in Scotland as they were unfolding, and a few of them gathered in a cosy wee boozer not too far from Busáras. The minute I sauntered through the door, much to my delight, they started cheering. “Fáilte,” they shouted. “Scotland’s most wanted man.” Mission complete – though, I hadn’t quite copped it was that sort of mission. Never mind, the pints were free for the rest of the night. And there you have it: Another unbelievable story. It was like going back to that mental dash across the border to Ceuta. Cheers!
The Dubliners – Off to Dublin in the Green 1973