Living in Belfast in the 1970s was not a lot of fun. Death was everywhere. I was reminded of this just lately, when I was preparing a list of people who I knew…who ended up as statistics. Names in the book “Lost Lives” by David McKitterick and Others. Really it is the only book needed on The Troubles. The deaths themselves are the history of the Troubles.
Living as I did in West Belfast, there was always a possibility of being killed by any one of the three participants in the Conflict. The IRA were extremely active in the area. Their guns pointed out of the area. I was not on their radar and unless I walked over a booby trap bomb, or became an active informer for the British or RUC (extremely unlikely as I chose a life of ignorant bliss) then I was very unlikely to end up a victim of the IRA. Besides they had no hatred towards me.
Stopped by British Army at checkpoints, searched and deliberately provoked, I DID see hatred in their eyes. And frankly I hated them back. In fairness to them, they generally did not want to be on the Falls Road…they themselves lived in much greater danger than I did. They were active targets. And each face they saw on the Falls Road was at best apathetic to the fate of a young Green Howard from Middlesbrough and a young Black Watch from Musselburgh. Getting a late night kicking from a British soldier was always a possibility ( it never happened to me) or subject to verbal abuse (that did happen to me). And there was always the possibility that the Brits would actually shoot me. Too many innocent victims were shot and routinely slandered in death.
But there was a third fear…realistic and more scary. The Sectarian Assassination. We all carried our “Prayers to St Joseph” laminated cards which was hoped would prevent us falling into the hands of our enemies. In 2013, it is almost impossible to understand the fear of the UDA and their Romper Rooms and the UVF and the Shankill Butchers. “Sectarian Assassination” does an injustice to those victims, whose deaths were lonely, prolonged, agonising and humiliating.
I am not holding any brief for the IRA and their actions such as the mass bombing of Belfast in July 1972…Bloody Friday or any other attack by bomb or bullet. Nor am I going to play the loyalist politician game of talking about a hierarchy of victim.
What I am going to do is say that there was a hierarchy of “combatant”. The IRA and the Brits were opposite sides of the same coin. Of course unionists would not like me saying that. They have issued their respective apologies for Bloody Friday and Bloody Sunday….but should they? Even in a pro-forma way? They fought their wars and for the most part played within their rules.
Unionists would see the IRA and UVF-UDA as two sides of the same coin. They are wrong…deliberately so. It elevates loyalists to a status that they dont deserve. If loyalist thugs wanted to serve their community…the option to join the legal RUC and legal UDR was open to them. Nationalists had no such legal option.
I am not saying that IRA were rebels with a cause. But I am clearly stating that loyalist paramilitaries were a rabble without a cause…except sectarian murder. The British Bullet is one thing. The IRA Bomb is one thing. The Loyalist Meat Cleaver which EVENTUALLY ended your life is very different.
Republicans have apologised for their excesses. The British have apologised for their excesses. The Loyalists….their entire campaign was about Excess. Republicans do themselves no favours by seeing the loyalists as people somehow caught up in something beyond their control.
So why does Miriam O’ Callaghan tackle Gerry Adams on his alleged involvement with the IRA? Why does Gerrys insistence that he was never involved with the IRA irritate so many journalists?
Well…lets start with the premise that journalists are hypocrites. Twenty years ago as the Peace Process was gaining momentum, journalists played the Northern Iron Office game of differentiating between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Fair enough. I went along with it as well. All for the Common Good. Lets be adult about this…the whole point of thea Peace Process was to grt the IRA to stop shooting and bombing and get them into Government. Creative Ambiguity dictated the distinction was made. And it worked well….too well…Sinn Fein was only supposed to be the minority nationalist party but…oops Sinn Fein ended up the majority nationalist party.
So what do journalists do? Having helped in making a distinction twenty years ago..they now seek to blur it.
Questions are asked of Gerry Adams. He denies his own involvement and apologises for the IRA excesses. But nobody asks these questions of loyalist paramilitaries. And they have much more to answer for. They are still involved in criminal activity. And nobody can quite get their heads around the sheer sectarian nastiness of the 1970s.
So why arent questions asked? Well…loyalists were always a marginalised part of the Troubles. A sideshow? Except of course for the people bereaved thru their butchery. They were never meant to be part of the solution.
Was that butchery part of the Conflict? Or was it something different? Just serial killing using the Conflict as a cover?
And yet for me that butchery defines the Troubles. The wife who was phoned by her husbands killers so she could hear the torture….or Rosemary McCartney who was abducted with Patrick O’ Neill….and taken to a UDA Romper Room …where Rosie was forced to SING for her killers….while watching Patrick being tortured by Davy Payne.