By Darach MacDonald
I suspect we all do it, whether from vanity or just curiosity to see what they're saying about us. We enter our own name in an Internet search engine and see what shows up.
I confess I did it again just now and, frankly, I don't know why I bother. For it's always the same story with Google, a headline screaming 'Irish Civil Rights Activist Targeted for Smear Campaign'. It sits there – front and centre – as it has for longer than I care to remember.
And much as I like to think of myself as an 'Irish Civil Rights Activist', the story in question actually identifies me as the ‘smearer’. It is hardly the best advertisement for an investigative journalist and objective commentator, much less the author of several books I hope to continue selling.
The story appears on the grandly titled 'World Socialist Web Site' under the byline of Chris Marsden. It was published on 20 October 1999 (yes, more than eleven years ago!), yet it somehow hogs the most prominent position as the very first among all of the 46,300 results thrown up by Google in a search for my name. Other Internet search engines are only slightly kinder in their placement further down the pecking order
Perhaps this is the price of vanity, a glaring reminder of a past transgression, just in case anyone might take me for a reputable journalist. This story stands as clear accusation that I 'smeared' a 'Civil Rights Activist'. It's like being accused of drowning kittens while simultaneously abusing orphan children. OK, it always makes me shiver, too!
Except that the so-called 'civil rights activist' in question is Vincent McKenna. At that time (1999), McKenna almost succeeded in sabotaging the entire peace process in Ireland and Britain through false claims, concocted ‘statistics’, spurious accounts of his own past and outrageous challenges to Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and others working diligently for lasting peace.
Presenting himself as a former IRA member who had seen the error of his ways, McKenna insinuated himself as the spokesman for a group called FAIT (Families Against Intimidation and Terror), which was funded by the UK Exchequer through the Northern Ireland Office. His bizarre claims, self-contrived 'attempts on his life’, outlandish press statements and other antics eventually caused FAIT to fold. McKenna then set up his one-man Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau and continued undermining the ceasefires and scuppering the peace.
Nothing succeeds like excess, of course, and this maverick mayhem-maker became the darling of those who also were not enamoured of peace involving Northern Ireland’s former combatants. With prominent politicians from the British Tory party and anti-Agreement Unionists, as well as enthusiastic media sponsors including Charles Moore of London's Daily Telegraph, he became a hero. In 1999, he was the star speaker on the stage of the Ulster Hall for a 'Save the RUC' rally where he stood alongside former Chief Constable Sir Jack Hermon and denounced any attempt to reform, replace or alter the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (Luckily the Patten Commission and the British government didn't heed him and the Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the RUC.)
Yet at that time, nothing could prevail over Vincent McKenna, incessant publicity seeker for his grossly contrived comments and observations on Northern Ireland. He was featured in glowing profiles in both 'quality broadsheet' and huge popular tabloid newspapers in London and Dublin. He was sought out by visiting journalists and TV crews. He even starred as a 'Human Rights Activist' in a lengthy segment of the hugely popular and influential '60 Minutes' TV show in America.
Quietly, I entered the performance, stage left, curious to discover the truth about this character who had appeared from nowhere with a past that seemed highly doubtful and a present that bore no relations to what informed observers knew was happening. As media colleagues continued to lap up McKenna's nonsense as if it was Holy Scripture, I asked those who actually knew him – his own family (sisters), his former in-laws, neighbours, acquaintances and those who had once welcomed him into FAIT. I also spoke to the police.
The story I uncovered was a remarkable series of disclosures, of a young man with a troubled past constantly seeking attention, forcing himself into associations where he was a lot more trouble than he was worth, building an alternative reality from his own disturbed mind.
He wasn't a former IRA member despite flaunting mementos such as a couple of postcards from prominent Republicans etc. He spent time in prison, but for a bizarre sectarian attack on Protestant neighbours when he was a troubled Catholic boy in a small border town infatuated by IRA heroes. He had also abandoned his family, undergone a ‘conversion’ to evangelical Protestantism, and completed a university course. He then pushed for prominence just as the peace was gaining true momentum in difficult talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Vincent McKenna began issuing his a torrent of lies, even abusing his former university's name and facilities with a fabricated opinion poll (this resulted in Queen's University Belfast publicly disassociating itself from him). He then sabotaged FAIT from the inside and even the RUC issued cautions and contradictions to his claims. Yet nothing seemed able to arrest Vincent McKenna’s meteoric rise as an authority for every journalist he lured into his web of wonder.
However, the most startling disclosure that I unearthed about Vincent McKenna was that he about to appear in court for a series of sexual assaults against a child. The senior investigating police officer told me that he was fully satisfied that a conviction would be secured.
I wrote the story carefully, but failed to find anyone in Ireland willing to publish it. I even withdrew it from a newspaper that wanted wrongly to attribute my entire story to ‘allegations from Sinn Féin’! I then contacted an old acquaintance, Niall O’Dowd, pioneering founder and editor of the Irish Voice newspaper in New York. Niall shared my astonishment at the publicity McKenna garnered in his constant efforts to wreck the peace that Niall himself had helped bring about. The Irish Voice fact-checked and then ran my story in full as its lead on 8 September 1999.
Then silence as the Irish Voice barely dented McKenna’s command of the media. No other working journalist contacted me until Bea Campbell, an investigative reporter from England, called me to follow up the story. I met Bea at Belfast City Airport, drove her around for the day and introduced her to my sources for the story. She spoke to them alone and she also contacted the Garda Press Office. Her story appeared as The Independent on Sunday front-page lead and credited me as a 'contributor'.
Then the s**t hit the fan back in Belfast where the Irish News published a front-page lead in a bid to pour cold water on the story. It gave free rein to McKenna in accusing Bea and me of endangering his life in a plot involving the IRA and the Garda Special Branch! Nobody from that newspaper, or any other, thought fit to contact me – a reporter of 24 years professional experience in 1999 and a member of the National Union of Journalists. So Vincent vanquished the truth once more.
The BBC then contacted me then and I worked with Kevin Magee and the Spotlight team in Belfast on a current affairs investigation. When aired, this again exposed McKenna as a charlatan and a suspected paedophile abuser. The programme halted his gallop and won several media awards for the BBC.
In the meantime, however, Chris Marsden wrote his 'investigative' piece for the World Socialist Web Site accusing me of being an agent of the IRA and Garda Special Branch who 'smeared' a brave and innocent man standing up against a flawed peace process. Once more, I was not contacted by Marsden or the WSWS.
Shortly thereafter, despite all his influential sponsors and his protests of victimhood, Vincent McKenna was found guilty of multiple counts of child sexual abuse. On his conviction, his victim freely identified herself as his own daughter, Sorcha McKenna. In remarkably articulate statements and TV appearances, Sorcha said she did so to ensure that nobody would believe her abusing and perverted father was a defender of human rights.
Vincent McKenna was sent to jail, with his imprisonment extended on subsequent appeal by his victim. He refused treatment or therapy during his incarceration.
Meanwhile, I have made repeated attempts to contact the World Socialist Web Site in a bid to remove or correct its story. I once succeeded in having a comment posted at the end stating the facts of McKenna’s conviction. It was removed and I recall a message saying the comment was excised because I was not a 'subscriber'.
I have tried, unsuccessfully also, to contact Chris Marsden who is still on the ‘editorial board’ of the World Socialist Website and writes for it regularly on a range of topics. I am still not a ‘subscriber’, of course, but I know Marsden lives in Sheffield, England, and has presented himself as an election candidate in Glasgow, Scotland, for the Socialist Equality Party, a Trotskyite faction.
So what is the end of the story? Well, Vincent McKenna is out now and still presenting himself as a victim of injustice on a bizarre website fixated with worrying views about child sex abuse and Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams. He doesn't get quite the same audience he once enjoyed and those who sponsored his meteoric rise in the media would sooner not be reminded of that, thank you all the same.
I suspect many of my journalist colleagues are still more than happy to believe the concocted claims and distorted picture presented by Vincent McKenna. They refuse to budge from his scenario because McKenna was only telling them what they yearned to be true. Even if he was a despicable child sex abuser, even paedophiles can be right about some things!
Yet those who have been genuine activists for human and civil rights are still smarting from the damage he caused at a crucial time. Even if the peace endured, his opposition facilitated by powerful people made it a more painful process than it had to be.
Oh, and although I am now in my late-50s, I am still being stalked by a convicted paedophile, thanks to Google's search engine!