Category Archives: Troubles

Why London must not be allowed to suppress the awful truth about Kincora

Suspicions that paedophile doctor Morris Fraser was an MI5 ‘protected species’ have again raised questions about the state’s role in the Kincora sex abuse scandal…

Kinkora: former boy's home, © The Belfast Telegraph

Kinkora: former boy’s home, © The Belfast Telegraph

As the alleged VIP paedophile ring story at Westminster crumbles, there is still one scandal involving powerful people, blackmail and the abuse of children that continues to churn out disturbing, but credible, material from the past: Kincora.

The so-called former ‘boys’ home’ – an inappropriate, cruel misnomer if ever there was one – in east Belfast has this enduring ability to cast up fresh demons which haunt the lives of the victims that were sent there and also raise serious questions for the British state in Northern Ireland.

Last week’s revelations about the paedophile doctor, Morris Fraser, contained this killer line: that a Freedom of Information request about the child psychiatrist’s work in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles was blocked on the grounds of “national security”.

Which raised the possibility that Fraser, who – incredibly – was allowed to keep practising in his field of child psychiatry right up until the mid-1990s, despite a number of convictions for sexually abusing boys, was a “protected species” by the security services.

Richard Kerr

Richard Kerr

In addition, one of the Kincora survivors, Richard Kerr, remembers that his torment began not at the home itself, but in Fraser’s clinic in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, when the paedophile took pictures with a Polaroid camera of Kerr with his trousers down.

It was on Fraser’s later recommendation that Richard Kerr was sent to Kincora – and into the lair of a ring of child abusers working there.

Fraser’s activities, his link to Kincora and his ability to continue to work – even though the RUC and others knew he had a conviction for child abuse as far back as 1971 in London – suggests the paedophile rings connected to the home did not just involve a few old perverts who happened to be members of the Orange Order.

It raises the possibility that the web of abusers reached deeper into the middle-class professions, such as medicine, and was seen by the security services at the highest level as being of use in terms of spying, so-called “black ops” and blackmail in relation to extreme unionism at the time.

Academic Niall Meehan’s disclosure about the Freedom of Information request – and the reason for it being turned down – also remind us of another similar decision taken at Cabinet level, now in the 21st century.

It is worth remembering that Home Secretary Theresa May was prepared to allow for full and frank disclosure of all police, security service and other classified files that related to claims of a VIP paedophile ring allegedly operating in London around Dolphin House as well as Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the Home Secretary has refused to include Kincora in that open investigative remit and, indeed, has even moved to block another inquiry based here in Northern Ireland gaining total, open access to all the sensitive case files and information relating to the east Belfast abuse centre network.

At the time of writing, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, based at Banbridge courthouse, is hearing evidence against allegations of abuse of children at Lissue Hospital in Lisburn, which will run for at least a week.

The HIAI inquiry has already heard heartbreaking and shocking evidence, including eyewitness accounts about the sexual and physical abuse of children at homes, orphanages and other institutions across Northern Ireland since the state’s inception.

The long-running tribunal will eventually get to Kincora and what could be one of the most sensational set-piece public hearings since the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Victims and eyewitnesses will be called to retell stories of rape and abuse by powerful and seemingly highly protected men; to amplify claims that the abusers were being spied on (and blackmailed to spy on others) and to charge that, all the time, the authorities knew, but did nothing to save boys from this gang of predatory child rapists.

In order for the full truth to come out about this festering and toxic scandal from the Troubles, the Home Secretary should be forced to reverse the decision not to hand over all of the files related to Kincora to Sir Anthony Hart, the retired judge heading up the HIAI inquiry, and his team.

Because, even if there are some grounds for not publishing these files in the full public glare of Banbridge courthouse, then surely Sir Anthony, Geraldine Doherty and David Lane could at least be trusted to protect “national security” while at the same time being able to read these documents in full and eventually factor the material contained within them into their final report.

Pressure on Theresa May and the Home Office should begin at Stormont and the next power-sharing administration following the Assembly elections on May 5.

Every political party seeking power in the new devolved government – and even those who will enter Opposition – should promise the electorate they will press London on this issue.

They should commit themselves to demanding a change in policy in London allowing for total transparency in connection to Kincora.

The demand that the Government in London hand over all the files to the Banbridge-based tribunal should be in every party’s manifesto in the run-up to the election next month.

Given this recent development regarding Fraser and his ability to have access to children in Northern Ireland and the referrals to Kincora in the 1970s, it is surely correct that the HIAI inquiry be allowed to quiz those health professionals, members of the General Medical Council, any RUC senior staff who knew about the 1971 conviction and, of course, former Secretary of State Lord Patrick Mayhew, whom as journalist Lyra McKee revealed in this newspaper on Monday, was a panel member at one session of a GMC disciplinary committee in the mid 1970s into Dr Fraser’s activities.

All these prominent people should also be summoned to Banbridge courthouse when the HIAI tribunal finally gets around to investigating Kincora to be questioned about the quality of the information in relation to Fraser in that period; to be asked if they think they were hoodwinked for reasons of state.

There are other cases, too, of “protected species” with links to extreme loyalism (their identities and activities revealed to this author by the late David Ervine in the early 1990s before he was a household name) that have connections to Kincora who continued to be used as assets by the security services right into the 1990s and who should now come under the spotlight of this inquiry.

*This column was published today in the Belfast Telegraph.

 

Liam Clarke: A fearless and formidable man

Journaist Liam Clarke, © The Belfast Telegraph

Journaist Liam Clarke, © The Belfast Telegraph

Liam faced his illness, a rare form of cancer, with the same bravery that marked his journalism. He died early yesterday morning, suddenly but ‘peacefully’ at his home. His ability to hold on for so long after the terminal diagnosis also demonstrated his formidable personal strength.

The great truth that life is sweeter, more vivid and more precious because it must end, washed over me like a wave as I looked into the anxious face of Anand Gidwani after he examined my stomach.

Even a week ago, just before his death at home at the weekend, Liam was still scooping the rest of us when it came to political stories. He got ahead of the pack for The Belfast Telegraph with the first interview with First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster, shortly after she was elected unopposed to lead the Democratic Unionists. This was yet another example (we didn’t know it would be his last) of Liam getting his story out first.

It is also supremely ironic that the man at the centre of one of Liam’s greatest ever scoops – Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy – is currently awaiting his fate after being found guilty just before Christmas of tax evasion in the Irish Republic.

Thomas "Slab" Murphy

Thomas “Slab” Murphy

In Dublin’s Central Criminal Court, Murphy was found guilty of failing to pay his taxes in the south. Back in 1988, no one could ever have imagined ‘Slab’ and his power being challenged through the courts of the land.

In that time, he held sway over the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade and helped through his organisational resources to smuggle tonnes of Colonel Gaddafi’s weapons into Ireland. And in the mini ‘Republic of Fear’ along the border, there was a vow of murderous silence that ensured the likes of Murphy would never be exposed… until Liam Clarke and The Sunday Times investigation team decided to probe the vast wealth of the south Armagh farmer and the allegations that he had been IRA chief of staff.

Murphy sued for libel in 1988, but the paper and Liam held firm, eventually winning the case after several years and exposing ‘Slab’s’ role in the Provisionals’ war. Liam became for a time a marked man and his journalist colleagues know of at least one IRA plot to kill him in the late ’80s.

Yet Liam’s compassion for people regardless of their politics stretched all the way from the fringes of Ulster loyalism to Sinn Fein and IRA members. I know for a fact that Liam found out about a plot to kill a senior Belfast Sinn Fein member by loyalists in the early 1990s. Liam immediately warned him, advising him to change his routine and beef up his security. The warning was heeded and mercifully the attack never took place.

His willingness to help a member of a movement that included others willing to kill Liam at one time was a measure of the man. It was also part of his political philosophy. He saw armed struggle and political violence as not only immoral but futile and counter productive.

This is probably why the young, radical, left-wing student from a Protestant background in the north west joined the post-ceasefire Official Sinn Fein/Republican Clubs, later to become The Workers Party (WP) in the 70s.

By 1980 Liam was co-editor of the WP paper The Northern People and worked alongside future Fortnight editor Robin Wilson. The formidable duo turned the paper from a dull, ideological leftist tract into an often interesting, left-leaning weekly tabloid that even broke some news stories, including, for instance, a scoop about a new plastic baton round the RUC was about to deploy.

However, Liam had ambitions to get into mainstream journalism. While he continued to sympathise with the WP line on Northern Ireland, Liam realised that journalism and political activism shouldn’t really mix. So he struck out in the local media first and quite successfully with The Sunday News, the local News Letter-owned paper that I also worked on as Dublin Correspondent in the early 1990s.

He joined The Sunday Times in 1984 and became a highly regarded member of staff. Its pioneering editor in the ’80s, Andrew Neil, in particular, was highly supportive and admiring of Liam’s work.

While arguably Liam’s greatest scoop was the exposure of Slab Murphy, there were other huge stories that he worked on. He was among the first journalists to suggest there was a super-spy at the heart of the IRA’s counter-intelligence/informer-hunter unit known as ‘Stakeknife‘.

He could be amusing too with his anecdotes, especially the one he told about being chased by Sean Mac Stiofain, the ex-Provo chief of staff, with a wheel brace after he turned up on his doorstep with a list of questions.

His prose was seamless, particularly in his columns and books. He penned one of the best books about the 1981 hunger strike and its role in the rise of Sinn Fein. His Broadening The Battlefield remains one of the most important works from the 80s for anyone studying the Provisional movement from armed struggle into democratic politics.

When I worked with him on The Sunday Times between 1996 and 1997, he broke a number of important stories about the Drumcree crisis and IRA ceasefires. He encouraged me to sniff out a few scoops of my own, including an LVF plan to foment sectarian strife in east Belfast by burning a Protestant church and then claiming Catholics from the Short Strand were behind it.

Liam was generous with his contacts and advice, often given out over a sensational bottle of red wine in Nick’s Warehouse or upstairs in the Morning Star. And when I had to have surgery to have a cancerous tumour excised from my inner thigh in that year, Liam was incredibly supportive.

As a fearless reporter, he saw no difference between standing up to tell the truth about Slab Murphy and challenging the power of the British state. He and his equally formidable wife Kathryn were arrested after they published MI5 and police covert transcripts of conversations between Dr Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness.

In 2003, police officers raided the Clarke family home and arrested both Liam and Kathryn over an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act. They were questioned at Castlereagh Holding Centre for almost a day.

John Witherow, The Sunday Times editor at the time, defended them, saying that “the account of phone taps in Northern Ireland poses no threat to national security. It merely embarrasses ministers”.

51-O8AxP1tL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The material Liam and Kathryn obtained (another classic Liam scoop) exposed a chumminess between Dr Mowlam and Martin McGuinness. The transcripts were later used in the second edition of the couple’s biography on Martin McGuinness, From Guns to Government.

And, typical of both formidable characters, Liam and Kathryn sued the PSNI for wrongful arrest and won, which was just as well as this writer was later arrested over material from the same source as the Clarkes for a ghosted autobiography of a former RUC Special Branch operative. By taking their action, Liam and Kathryn bolstered the cause of free journalism unfettered by political constraints or state control.

When he retired after his long stint as Ireland editor of The Sunday Times, Liam went back to local journalism and became the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor. He seemed to be enjoying a late boost of energy and refreshed interest in local politics. Liam was there for all the big set-piece events that have led to the current power sharing at Stormont. I recall walking with him along a beach at St Andrew’s in 2006 as our conversation oscillated between talk of our respective families and his predictions, ahead of the deal, that Ian Paisley would soon sit down in government with Martin McGuinness. Through his network of contacts, Liam was certain of this positive assessment of where the talks were going, even while the press and media were locked out of the negotiations.

Liam, enjoying Christmas Day this year, using a selfie stick as a Star Wars light sabre.

Liam, enjoying Christmas Day this year, using a selfie stick as a Star Wars light sabre.

He remained a man of the broad, sensible left and a trade unionist to the end. Our union, the National Union of Journalists, summed up his career in a brief but highly apposite statement about his death on Sunday.

That is how we should live our lives, anyway, remembering death and the fact that life will carry on without us. Human relationships then become more important and winning arguments less so.

Irish NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley put it thus: “On behalf of the NUJ, I would like to extend sympathy to the family, colleagues and friends of Liam Clarke, political editor of The Belfast Telegraph and a former officer of Belfast and District branch of the NUJ, who has died.

“Liam was a fearless journalist. He was never afraid to challenge authority and was always prepared to stand up for the principle of media freedom.

“In The Sunday Times and, more recently, in The Belfast Telegraph, he covered some of the most significant events in the history of Northern Ireland.

“As a columnist he was insightful, authoritative and, at times provocative. He commanded respect across the political divide and his death is a loss to journalism in Northern Ireland. ”

There is that word again – ‘fearless’ – which, combined with a formidable intelligence, knowledge and writing style, best sums up the life and career of Liam Clarke.

* *This obituary was published in The Belfast Telegraph today**

Ulster fundamentalists drive sex into the shadows

 

When she comes to Belfast on business sex worker Laura Lee brings a whole new meaning to that notorious locally minted phrase ‘punishment beating.’

Lee offers a range of sexual services to consenting adults including a menu of S&M options that make Fifty Shades of Grey seem as tame as a Sunday school picnic outing. Her list of domination and submission offerings include some eye-watering, butt-clenching, spine-chilling scenarios which I’ll avoid mentioning for the moment. Suffice to say some customers choose to be on the receiving end of bare hands, riding crops, whips and chains if they hire her as their Dominatrix-for-a-day.

However as the 37-year-old law graduate points out all of those consumers whom she works with are consenting adults and some of whom are unable hcuffsthrough physical disabilities for instance to have sex via the conventional, non-fiscal way. Some of them, Lee stresses, are in wheelchairs, or are elderly or terminally ill. Most probably simply ask for vanilla sex, one to one intercourse and a more intimate experience than being hog-tied, chained or hand-cuffed in preparation for some stinging corrective punishment.

Yet after 1st June those individuals who seek her out for sexual pleasure and satisfaction could find themselves facing prosecution under the new law outlawing payment for sex. Once Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking Bill goes live in less than two months time ‘punters’ as they are known in the sex industry could be arrested for seeking out prostitutes. This is the so-called Nordic model, which some anti-prostitution campaigners want introduced not only across the border in the Republic but also throughout the UK and the EU.

Supporters of the Nordic model and Lord Morrow’s legislation argue that the law represents a power shift in the sexual relations of the sex industry. By putting the focus on men who purchase sex it acts as a powerful deterrent lauralegreducing the dark market demand for vulnerable and trafficked women. The woman selling sex is therefore no longer the criminal but rather the male predator crawling the curbs and scouting the brothels in search of their prey.

The trouble behind this line of thinking is that it cannot explain the existence of Ms Lee and many others like her who insist they choose to do sex work for a variety of reasons, the majority economic ones. Ms Lee argues that she has a right to decide what to do with consenting adults in private. In a recent interview with me in The Guardian newspaper, Ms Lee revealed that she is building a legal case with her lawyers aimed at overturning the Morrow law. Her court battles ahead may even go as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as she and her team reference various aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights to challenge the legislation.

I am doing this because I believe that when two consenting adults have sex behind closed doors and if money changes hands then that is none of the state’s business. The law they have introduced has nothing to do with people being trafficked but simply on their, the DUP’s, moral abhorrence of paid sex.

Aside from the points of complex human rights law that will be examined in Ms Lee’s legal challenge there are other practical problems facing the authorities in Northern Ireland in enforcing the Morrow-Nordic law.

Justice Minister David Ford pointed out as far back as last year that there is a serious issue over evidence gathering when it comes to the sex-worker sex-consumer relationship. In Nordic countries police rely on the intercepts of mobile phone calls between prostitutes and their clients as evidence to arrest and convict. Whereas in Northern Ireland intercepted mobile phone call conversations are not permitted as evidence in courts, Ford noted. The only other way to gather evidence would be lightening raids on apartments and flats where sex workers ply their trade, and in a situation of ‘en flagrante’ between worker and consumer one presumes!

Ms Lee claims similar crackdowns on brothers and sex workers’ based in Scotland have resulted in working girls for instance being strip searched – a practice which she believes is a greater violation of an individual’s human rights than any perceived act of sexploitation.

I believe that after June 2015, sex workers’ lives in Northern Ireland will actually be harder and the industry will be pushed underground.

There are further practical barriers to enforcing the Morrow-Nordic law as evidenced by what happened in Limerick city almost four years ago. Gardaí arrested 21 men after raiding a number of premises in Limerick who were allegedly hanging out with sex workers. Critics of the raid cried illegal entrapment and the local, widely respected newspaper The Limerick Leader took a decision not to publish the names of the 21 due to the unusual nature of the arrest operation.

laurablog

So, on top of the forthcoming legal challenge by Laura Lee, you can imagine a raft of other potentially controversial court cases from customers and workers alike claiming police raids are an invasion of their privacy and a possible breach of European human rights law. After all former Formula 1 chief Max Mossley successfully sued the News of the World (RIP) not for saying he was cavorting with prostitutes in a London dungeon but that in doing so they had breached his human right to privacy!

It is understood that Ms Lee will continue to work in Northern Ireland even after the Morrow law kicks in after June. She will go on taking part in sensual one-to-one sessions as well as meting out punishment to naughty adult men caught sniggering at the back of the class. Meanwhile the majority of the populace of our wee province, according to supporters of the legislation, support outlawing such activities including hunting down the ‘punters’ themselves. Advocates of the Nordic mode in Northern Ireland point to opinion polls showing support for banning purchasing of sex. They also remind you that the Morrow legislation passed by 81-10 votes last year in the Stormont Assembly and that this outcome reflected popular will.

radar

Going back to ‘punishment beatings’ Below The Radar TV should be commended for their documentary last month broadcast on RTÉ. The Belfast production company returned to the subject of paramilitary beatings and shootings, the so-called instant ‘Nescafe justice’ still being carried out on our streets in loyalist and republican redoubts.

One of the telling elements to this excellent documentary was the consensus between some of the commentators on camera, from the columnist Brian Feeney to the human rights campaigner Dr Liam Kennedy about what wider Northern Irish society thought about these human rights violations.

Both admitted that there was either a considerable degree of support for such rough justice in working class communities, or at the very least a significant lack of moral outrage over the shooting, beating, torturing and humiliation of so called ‘anti social elements.’ Although popularity is never an excuse for barbarity after all Jew baiting if you recall used to be very popular in Germany from the mid 1930s onwards.

Nonetheless the support during and even after the Troubles for punishment attacks even when the innocent and those who had simply crossed paramilitary groups such as UVF-victim Andrew Peden and IRA victim-Andrew Kearney (the latter guilty simply of the ‘crime’ of knocking out a senior North Belfast Provo figure in a bar) are targeted, is a disturbing signal of moral doublethink. Because while a majority of our society can be incensed and outraged over an adult woman, a free agent, making money out of, among other things, doling out a mild correction with a cane to willing submissives, far fewer people are exercised about the involuntary punishments still being meted out mainly on men convicted by Kangaroo courts without access to legal defence or appeal.

Dark Threats from the Big Lad

funny

I remember exactly where I was when the death threat against me was issued. My sister and I were sipping coffee in a cafe inside Madrid’s Barajas airport waiting for a flight to London. The mobile rang and it was someone from the police press office back in Belfast who informed me that the Red Hand Defenders had released a statement to the BBC newsroom warning that both myself and my colleague Jim Cusack were in their crosshairs.

The police press officer on the other end of the line advised that I get back home as soon as possible and talk to someone in Castlereagh RUC station about my personal security. Hours later I returned to the house in East Belfast, my children dispatched to their grandparents’ home along with their mother while I waited for detectives to come around to my then home.

There had been threats and warnings before but according to the plain clothes officer assigned to my case this one was extremely serious. At the time the RHD (a cover name for the UDA’s C company in collusion with elements of the Loyalist Volunteer Force) were still very active in the business of murder and intimidation. And despite my many loyalist paramilitary contacts the specific individual(s) behind this threat were not to be moved to lift it.

cctvFor almost a decade later I lived in a house with protective steel barriers on reinforced doors, panic alarms, hidden CCTV cameras with constant checks underneath the car and nightly vigils in front of the TV screen to scan the footage from outside and in the garden.

Martin_O'Hagan

Journalist Martin O’Hagan

That particular death threat occurred in March 1999 and only two years later killers from the LVF murdered Martin O’Hagan, gunning down the fearless investigative reporter in a Lurgan street in front of his wife.

O’Hagan was an employee of IMN newspapers, the same media group recently targeted in a speech by Gerry Adams in a swanky New York hotel. To chortles and laughter from his well heeled audience (including representatives of a company that employs one of Ireland’s most wanted men: the disgraced former Anglo Irish Bank chief David Drumm!), Adams regaled them with a tale from Irish history. He recalled, inaccurately, that Michael Collins himself had held a gun to the head of an Irish Independent editor because the Big Fellow had objected to the paper’s opposition to violence. In fact the Independent actually backed Collins and his pro-treaty stance in 1921 which drew the wrath of the republican die-hards who later stopped the printing presses at gunpoint in the paper’s old Middle Abbey Street HQ.

However, Adams’ little reminder of what happens to those who cross Irish republican chieftains was a chilling vision of the near future. While quipping that he was only joking, the reference gives us an insight into how a party based around the cult of personality and rigid internal discipline would like to manage the media.

There is no real, state power at Stormont where our locally elected politicians ultimately have to defer to the UK Treasury in all major economic decisions and have delegated security policy to MI5. However those elected to power south of the border can wield real state power including in areas like policing and justice. There have been instances in the recent past in the Republic were politicians abused those powers. Think of Charles J Haughey for instance authorising the bugging of journalists’ phones in the 1980s.

Jean McConville who was abducted by the IRA in 1972: © NBC News.

Jean McConville pictured with three of her children, abducted by the IRA in 1972: © NBC News.

Earlier this year there was another phone tapping/email hacking scandal in the Republic, this one though not exercising state power…well at least not yet. At the height of the Boston College tapes scandal culminating the arrest of Gerry Adams in relation to the Jean McConville murder, a couple at the centre of the storm raised allegations that their phones and emails had been intercepted illegally.

Carrie McIntyre, the wife of ex IRA prisoner, author and key researcher on the Boston College-Belfast Project, found to her horror that private conversations between her and American Embassy officials had been reprinted almost verbatim in a Sunday tabloid. These were wholly private communications with US diplomats that she insisted were never disclosed to anyone else. Her conclusion was this – either someone was bugging the call and hacking the emails at the American Embassy in Dublin – or else her home phone and computer had been compromised. She and her husband Anthony are in no doubt that it was the latter and that a specialist unit set up by a senior ex IRA man was involved. The Garda Síochána are currently investigating their claims which are also to be raised in the Dáil by Fianna Fail.

If they are correct then the McIntyres have been subjected to a dirty tricks operation the likes of which Richard Nixon and his cronies would have been proud of. And if there is any proven link to a secret political unit set up to smear the opponents of Sinn Féin it might end up as an Irish form of ‘Watergate’. For once that over used and abused affix ‘gate’ would have some real meaning in reportage.

Maria Cahill, © The Guardian

Maria Cahill, © The Guardian

The latest hostile anti-INM remarks by the Sinn Féin President have to be seen in that context, one in which any criticism of what the dear leader say over his handling of the Maria Cahill controversy, is portrayed as being either “anti patriotic” or “anti peace process”. Because within the party itself there are no independent voices speaking out against the leadership, no one inside dares even to question it.

The Paisley’s I have known…

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

My family have had several set-piece encounters with Ian Paisley over the last five decades. The first occurred the year before I was born in 1964 when my late father joined a large group of demonstrators protesting against Paisley passing by their area of central Belfast.

On June 6th of that year riots returned to the streets of Belfast when Paisley led a band of hard-line Protestant fundamentalists on their way into the city centre. Their target was the headquarters of the mainstream Presbyterian Church to protest against growing links between the main Protestant churches and the reforming Vatican II Catholic Church.

cromacTheir route included marching past Cromac Square at the edge of the Catholic Market area. Young people from the Catholic district sought to block their route and violence flared up from the Albert Bridge to the Square. My dad remembered the clashes and a number of friends being arrested by police who were flanking the Paisleyite parade. This folk-memory of locals opposing Paisley and his band lasted long into the Troubles and was seen by many as a precursor for the far more ferocious sectarian battles ahead. It also became something of a badge of honour in the Market to say you were “out” against the Paisleyites back in ’64.

Growing up in the early 70s for young working class Catholics, the children of the men who tried to block Paisley’s path at Cromac Square in the previous decade, the bellowing, bible bashing unionist hardliner became the fountainhead of all that was wrong the state of Northern Ireland. His name often struck fear and loathing in nationalist-Catholic hearts especially when they saw him on local TV and newspapers wearing his clerical white collar while parading with the hard-men in paramilitary uniforms of the Ulster Defence Association.

Yet behind the blood curdling rhetoric and doomsday predictions of total war between his followers and the rest of us, there was another side to Paisley. And I saw it myself towards the end of the 1970s and early 80s thanks to his daughter, the youth missionary, future Belfast city councillor and fine art painter Rhonda Paisley.

She began a youth outreach mission project in Belfast city centre targeting the Punks, Goths, Skinheads and other youth cults that hung around the Cornmarket quarter in that period.

Ian Curtis - Joy Division

Ian Curtis – Joy Division

Exuding the same charm that her father deployed on the campaign trail, Rhonda spoke to, had tea with and sometimes counselled the kids that came together most Saturdays and sometimes after school at that fountain in the heart of central Belfast. Among the bored and often broke teenagers she befriended was myself and a couple of mates from the Ormeau Road, who moped around the fountain, trying to look pale and interesting in our long overcoats, spiked haircuts and glum post-Ian Curtis/post-Joy Division poses.

Before long, out of pure curiosity, we decided to take up Rhonda’s invite to come up to the Paisley homestead in East Belfast. There we were treated to games of snooker, vast pyramids of variously filled sandwiches and bible tracts designed to woo us away from the satanic temptations of early teen sex, drugs and rock n’roll. Although most of us succumbed to that trio of decadent delights, Rhonda did succeed at least in showing a side to the Paisley family that none of us (almost all from Catholic-nationalist-republican backgrounds) never saw in the media: a caring, loving family who actually and quite genuinely thought that all we needed was their help.

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

On a few occasions the Big Man himself would pop his head around the door in Chez Paisley to ask how we were keeping and wonder why we had styled our hair in such messed up and crazy contortions. What did we get out of it? Well apart from the free sandwiches and a few games of snooker, I think we were genuinely star struck. We were in the abode of one of the celebrities of the Troubles and would often boast about it to our mates, to state that we knew the Big Man personally! Even my father who could vividly remember that seminal day on Cromac Square back in the mid 60s seemed impressed by that.

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when...

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when…

In a Radio 4 documentary about two decades later on the unique, anti-sectarian Punk and post Punk scene in Belfast, Paisley himself was one of the interviewees. He recalled the likes of us traipsing through his front door in our home made-bondage trousers, torn T-shirts, DM boots, spiked up manes and chains. Asked why he didn’t give off to either us or Rhonda and her sister for bringing us home, Paisley said (am slightly paraphrasing here) : “They didn’t need any condemnation..all they needed was a bit of help!”

Many years later, on the campaign trail with Paisley in East Londonderry where he was canvassing with Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell, I happened to remind him about my connection with his family. All he did was curtly nod to recall it. He was in no mood it seemed for idle chit chat as there was an election on.

It was 3rd March 2007 and my sister had just turned 40 that day. Paisley, Campbell and I were sipping tea together in a Coleraine hotel just as I was about to go off and write a colour piece about them for The Observer. I excused myself for picking up my mobile phone so I could make a personal call that Saturday morning. Then Paisley overheard me wishing my sister Cathy many happy returns for her 40th. Almost instantly Paisley snatched the phone out of my hand, took a deep breath and then bellowed down the line: “Hello Cathy, this is Ian Paisley….” I could hear my sister telling me to wise up and stop being stupid, that she was not in the mood for a phone prank now that she had reached 40. But the Big Man insisted and then sent her a blessing down the phone as well as best birthday wishes. It was a birthday she would never forget.

*************************************************

*This article was published in The Guardian on Friday 12th September.

A riot of our own

riot

Someone somewhere in Siberia, on the other side of the Urals mountain range, probably still has my “Clash” T-shirt secreted in their home. In an act of Irish-Soviet friendship I swapped it for a Red Army tunic with a Siberian in the dormitory of a third level college in Weimar, East Germany in the summer of 1981.

Looking back the exchange was not just an instance of late Cold War détente east-west barter. It was also a means to ward off the sexual advances of an older USSR soldier in his mid 20s who was three sheets to the wind thanks to East German schnapps and Polish vodka; a noxious concoction that smelt and tasted like it should have been fuelling the engine of a MIG fighter jet.

tshirtAs the big Siberian waved my T-shirt triumphantly in front of his friends from Irkutsk I suddenly realised the reach and influence of a Punk rock band fronted by the son of a former British diplomat and whose bass player was a poor white kid who grew up among the South London black community of Brixton.

Four years earlier the group came to a European city which had its own mini set of Berlin Walls – Belfast. One of the locations they visited on their brief, controversial and now myth-laden tour of the war torn city was the “Henry Taggart” police and army base in West Belfast. It was a photograph taken outside the heavily fortified, rocket protected station on the Springfield Road that later found its way onto that T-shirt, the one that ended up stretched over a Siberian’s torso.

The Clash take a strole through the Belfast warzone - (Dont Care Collection)

The Clash take a strole through the Belfast warzone – (Dont Care Collection)

Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon also posed for photographs at the top of Royal Avenue, which at the time was secured at both ends by the so called “ring of steel” where civilian searchers flanked by armed troops and police checked the clothing and handbags of shoppers for firebombs. One image of the four of them in biker jackets and zipped bondage trousers, a British Army saracen just to their right, is still a powerful visual reminder of actually how grimly suffocating Belfast was in the mid to late 1970s.

It was out of this stifling atmosphere that a generation of the fed up and the angry emerged just as Punk Rock was exploding across the Irish Sea outraging a nation and prompting London dockers to threaten to put their boots through TV screens over the sight of these spiky haired, foul mouth alien creatures who saw no future in England’s dreaming.

goodvibrationsThis brief but creative flowering of protest, DIY musical innovation and emergence of some genuine talent is captured poignantly in the critically acclaimed Terri Hooley movie biopic “Good Vibrations.” One of the most important scenes in the film is at the end, which recreates Hooley’s Punk and New Wave music festival in the Ulster Hall in 1980. I can still remember the actual night he stormed up onto the stage to proclaim why the local Punk and New Wave scene had more substance to it than England or America. “New York has the bands, London has the clothes but Belfast has the reason,” Hooley proclaimed. Joe Strummer and The Clash at least always understood this, to them Ulster Punk was for real.

One band that failed to make it onto that stage during this period was The Clash themselves, at least in 1977 because they returned there a few years later. They were scheduled to play a concert at the Ulster Hall in October 1977 but never appeared.

Just like the old saloon bar republicans you used to meet on day trips with your parents to Dublin in the 1970s bragging that they had been ‘out in 1916’, a mythos grew up about the concert-that-never-was and the riot that broke out in Bedford Street as hundreds of young Punks and other Clash fans turned their anger on the police.

souizI was there partly because I only lived around the corner and also, even though I was just 13, I had a personal guarantee that I could sneak into any concert. My family knew several of the bouncers who worked the door and who later let me in for free to see the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees (backed up by The Cure) and The Stranglers.

Yet ‘that’ gig that still exercises more power over the memories of the early Ulster Punk generation. This was and is in part due to the myth that grew up that the ’77 riot was the only one during the Troubles that saw Protestant and Catholic kids unite against common enemies. In fact The Clash myth is so enduring that the University of Ulster at the Art College hosted an academic conference in the second last weekend of June 2014 discussing the band’s relationship with Northern Ireland and its youth.

To declare a dog in the fight, this writer was chairing one of the sessions at the symposium although his mind was at times far away, soaring back in space and sound towards the east, wondering where the hell is that T-shirt gathering dust, tucked away somewhere in a wardrobe or drawers in post-communist Irkutsk.

***************************************************

*This is based on an column I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph last month.

**A Riot of Our Own was a weekend of events devoted to one of the most influential and controversial bands ever to have graced a stage. Over two days, a range of academics, journalists and artists gathered in central Belfast to discuss what The Clash meant and continue to mean three decades after their acrimonious and much lamented demise. Keynote speakers at the conference included Caroline Coon (artist, writer and manager The Clash between 1978 and 1980), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds, author of Why Music Matters), Chris Salewicz (author of the acclaimed Joe Strummer biography Redemption Song), Jason Toynbee (Open University), Gavin Martin (Daily Mirror) and Adrian Boot (photographer who took the iconic shots of the band in Belfast).

 

Hooleyganism: the “Good Vibrations” revolution

Terri Hooley is the living contradiction of that old adage that in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king. For despite losing one eye in an childhood accident and being equally famous and notorious for so long in a myopic, sectarian dystopia he was, and never will be destined to lord over his land.  Because the majority of his fellow citizens preferred siding with the forces of darkness and all their comfortable certainties rather than to the enlightenment.

goodvibrationsIn one of the final freeze frames  at the end of Good Vibrations, which went on general release, of all days with apposite timing, on Good Friday,  the cinema goer is given a potted, graphic history of Hooley’s iconic record store. It closes finally in 1982, re-opens again several years later in the 80s, then shuts, opens once more and so it goes on to several deaths and resurrections. The fate of the shop brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s existential advice to fail and fail again:  Hooley and his anarchic enterprises are trapped in an endless cycle of mini boom and major bust.  He is someone definitely destined to fail, fail and fail again.

Yet this is nothing to despair about.  The best advice he receives in the movie comes in a brief, touching moment between himself and his upright, English socialist father who also knows the bitter-sweet taste of struggle and defeat. Victory is not always so obvious, his dad notes, having lost election after election offering the voters of Belfast a socialist alternative they continually spurn in favour of tribalism.  At least, his father tells his son, he had fought the good fight and still had “comrades and friends in every part of this city” even during the height of the senseless slaughter of the Troubles.  This conversation in the garden of the Hooley family home where young Terri lost an eye as a boy is a deeply moving sequence, and evoked memories of my own often tetchy and troublesome relationship with my own father; a bond between us snapped cruelly apart forever in the final months of his life.  Regardless of our difficulties, and even the painful endgame, we always shared, like Hooley and his father, a common detestation of sectarianism and tribal simplicities.

Reviewers and critics have lauded the new film as a “feel great” movie and it undoubtedly it. Good Vibrations is also at times deeply funny reflecting in so many scenes Hooley’s own unpredictable, chaotic character.  The movie’s credibility is bolstered by the fact that Hooley is portrayed warts and all, as loving and kind yet also reckless and irresponsible.

richard dormerThere are several medals to be handed out on several fronts to a film that is, in fact, anti-politician but also highly political. Richard Dormer is outstanding playing Hooley and has even captured the way Terri strolls about Belfast, that swaying gait, the hands shoved into the pockets of his now ubiquitous black crombie coat. The actor also conveys Hooley’s sense of boyish wonderment when going to see the latest band and especially when he is knocked off his feet by The Undertones’s Teenage Kicks.  The latter sequence is deftly recreated in the recording studio where only Dormer-as-Hooley can hear the song because he is the only one wearing cans plugged into the audio system.  Just as he brought the genius, the madness, the menace and the wasted years  of Alex Higgins live onto the stage, Dormer portrays the central character in the Good Vibrations story in all his many colours, with all his faults and flaws in three dimensional glory.

Every secondary school kid in Northern Ireland from 12 up should see see Good Vibrations this year.

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn create a moving and accurate time-machine experience transporting the viewer back to the mid to late 70s. The period detail in the film is precise and painstakingly researched. They also manage to import some magical realism into what is otherwise a grittily realistic film. The “trip” Terri enjoys over in London when he gets whacked out of his head on coke while trying to flog Teenage Kicks to a series music executives reminds you of the acid-tripping weirdness of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film.

Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson’s script even includes a scene first referenced in this writers’s memoir Colours-Ireland From Bombs to Boom. In the film a British Army patrol stops Hooley and his gang of Punk followers as they traverse rural Ulster in a van playing gigs around the country. btbThe troops led by a black NCO P-check the lads, lining them up against the side of the van in the dead of night, threatening them with their SLR rifles, asking where they come from. In the movie the Punks shout out the different parts of Belfast where they are from and it becomes apparent to the black soldier that they are all from religiously-mixed backgrounds. Hooley is asked about this and replies pithily that he never thought the need to ask his friends what religion they were…if any. The NCO then asks if they shouldn’t form their own political party. This scene was transposed from a real life incident, re-told in Colours, when a group of young Punks in 1979 were P-checked (stopped, searched, questioned) on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street in early 1979. The police and soldiers who lined the young Punks up against an advertising hoarding (including a dog belonging to a friend of mine from Divis Flats who dyed our canine’s head green for the day) and asked where they came from. When the replies came back – the Markets (nationalist/republican),  Woodvale (loyalist/Protestant), Divis (nationalist/republican),  Glencairn (loyalist/Protestant) – an older police officer looked bewildered. He shook his head in disbelief at this sight of cross-community street style spontaneity and waved us on up Great Victoria Street to our ultimate destination – the Good Vibrations record store!

So it was personally pleasing to see that scene recreated albeit reset in the Ulster countryside rather than one of Belfast’s main thoroughfares. It was one of those show-don’t-tell vignettes where a subtle political message or social statement is conveyed without battering the viewer over the head with a political placard.

A few days after Maggie Thatcher died (a lady Terri Hooley  had little time for when she was alive!) some republicans in Derry ‘celebrated’ her death by organising a five day riot. Inevitably the attacks on police patrols in the city were followed by a sectarian onslaught against the last Protestant enclave on Derry’s West Bank – The Fountain Estate. Among those arrested on the republican-nationalist side of the line over the weekend was a 13 year old boy  accused of possessing  a petrol bomb. It is worth remembering that the Good Friday Agreement – the peace deal that was meant to put an end to the Troubles and its backwash – was 15 years old this Easter. Two years older in fact than the young boy alleged to be involved with other youths in attacking the last loyalist redoubt on the west side of the River Foyle. Clearly some of the children of the cease-fires and the agreements have been fed the type of poison and bigotry that infected Northern Irish society down through previous decades.

The tribal based politicians at Stormont have been worried of late about the emergence of a new lost generation that has no collective memory of how bad life actually was during The Troubles, and how dark places like Belfast were back in the worst days of the conflict. Rather than ring their hands and mouth platitudes perhaps they could make this suggestion to Minister of Education, John O’Dowd: ensure every secondary school kid in Northern Ireland from 12 up gets to see Good Vibrations this year. It might make a few of them think that there is to life there than hurling petrol bombs at the peelers, the Orangies or the Fenians.  Some might even embrace the anti-politics of the politics of Alternative Ulster.

Writing the short novel

Eoin McNameeblogpic

Often criticised for stories that swerve uncomfortably close to truth, and yet hailed as a master of historical research, Eoin McNamee is one of those writers who never fails to cause a stir with his tales of dark, damp menace. The New York Times describes McNamee’s style as ‘refreshingly taut and spare, full of active verbs…He does not describe what his energetic characters are doing. He just lets them do it’. Eoin admits to having a strong interest in ‘people who have been corrupted,’ that this is what often drives his fiction. “My purpose as a writer is not to be controversial, it’s to explore themes and narratives…I draw things very close to me when I write and often emerge blinking into the sunlight”. For the next ten weeks he will be teaching a Writing The Novella course at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday evenings until 25th March. Here he answers a few strategic questions on the art of writing the short novel and why the term ‘novella’ is in need of overhaul:

the-blue-tangoSome of your novels, ranging from Resurrection Man to the The Blue Tango, are novelised versions of real life events, i.e. the Shankill Butchers and a pre-Troubles murder and fitting up of an innocent man. What are the pitfalls on basing fiction on factual events, and how close can you come to falling into what is known as ‘faction’? I’m still waiting for the ground to open under me, for someone to produce the definitive argument against the form, but it hasn’t happened yet. Defamation can be an issue. There is a moral dimension to entering other people’s lives and writing about them. I’ve always been wary about getting on an artistic high horse and claiming some kind of special pleading on the basis of art. I’d prefer to say that I’m drawn to these stories, that  I want to write about them and I’m a writer not a priest and am prepared for messy compromises and sins of intrusion into other people’s lives if it gets me a good book at the end of it. If there is a wrong involved, and there may well be, then that’s my business.

There are lots of novels that deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles such as your books (see above) and The Ultras. However, while many authors deal with individual incidents or ‘spots of time’ in the conflict, there are no contemporary authors that have done the ‘fictional grand sweep’ of 1969-1994. There’s no War and Peace, no Life and Fate, covering a range of characters and their stories over three decades of war. Is this overdue? Or is it even necessary? There’s no rule that says that events get the art they need or deserve. If someone wants to approach what happened in the North the manner of War and Peace, then you’d have to see how good the work is. Whether people would need it or not….I’m not sure that explaining things back to people is a function of fiction. I’m sure you could find the stories though – there was plenty of epic going on.

loveinhistoryWith the novella, can you define its difference from the short story and the full-blown novel? As far as I can make out the novella is simply a short novel. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t require the precision of the short story, the formal demands that put the story somewhere between a poem and a film script. In a short novel you can veer off course a little, digress, even slip up here and there. Let’s say it bears more resemblance to the novel than it does to anything else. Perhaps the problem of definition lies somewhere with the word novella itself. It sounds like something fragrant and a little racy that you’d find lying on the chaise longue in a Victorian lady’s parlour. Maybe we need a better name for the form.

Does the novella lend enough space and time for key characters to ‘fill out’ both psychologically and in terms of the narrative? Depends what you mean by filling out. You can define a character in a sentence or in a hundred pages. What more would you want to know about any character in The Dead for instance? (A short story) Or the old fisherman in the Old Man and the Sea? (A novella). What more story would be needed?

What is your opinion on experimentation with the prose form? Is it mere literary pretentiousness and showing off? Should writers stick with telling stories? The only criteria for judging technique is whether it works or not. As for defining what works, you pretty much know it when you see it. It would seem that there are limitations on what can be done in the prose form and that invention has run up against the buffers. But maybe asking questions about experimentation is missing the point. I admire people who can tell stories but what I’m drawn to are how wide open a writer’s eyes are, how they see the world and then tell it.

Your course Writing The Novella at the Irish Writers’ Centre kicks off on Monday 21st January, what will it entail, how will it be taught? It will involve I imagine a bit of discussion about what the novella is,  and then all the other things which go towards any piece of prose fiction. Story, prose technique, dialogue, character…It would be good if participants have a bit of work at the start to work on, and hopefully have added to it at the end of the course, but people shouldn’t feel under pressure. If participants come away feeling like better writers, and I have helped them towards that, then we’ll all have reason to be pleased.

Eoin’s ten-week workshop starts next week and is aimed at people who are working, or thinking about working towards completing a novella, those who have started a short story that looks as if it might outgrow the limits of the form, or a novel which may not fit the conventional length. It will be less concerned about the technicalities of what the form might be, and more concerned with getting words on paper, and hopefully having something to show at the end of the workshop. He is the author of fifteen novels including Resurrection Man (released as a film in 1998), Booker nominated The Blue Tango12:23 paris and Orchid Blue, and the novellas the Last of Deeds (shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize) and Love in History. He was awarded the Macauley Fellowship for Irish Literature in 1990 and is Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin for the Hilary term, 2013. He lives in Co Sligo.

W1973

In 1973:  The Yom Kippur War breaks out with Egyptian and Syrian forces attacking Israel. It ends after 20 days with Israel victorious after early losses to the Arab armies. In response the Arab oil states impose embargoes on countries that supported Israel, triggering a global energy crisis creating an economic shockwave around the planet.

In 1973: A sinister new murder machine emerges from the shadows carrying out a number of sectarian murders in Belfast including the killing of 14-year-old Phillip Rafferty. An organisation called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claims responsibility – it is in reality the Ulster Defence Association the legal and open loyalist street militia to emerge early in the Troubles.

In 1973: I finally make my Holy First Communion almost a year after most of my seven year old peers in St. Colman’s Primary School in The Market area of Belfast.  My mum buys me a dickie bow and accompanying frilly fronted shirt but changes her mind before we make our way to St. Malachy’s Church and lets me wear a plain white shirt and thick-knot dark blue tie instead.

In 1973: Richard Nixon tells reporters he is “not a crook” in relation to the Watergate spy scandal directed at the Democrats. Later his attorney general reveals the existence of the Watergate tapes including an 18 and a half-minute gap in the recording.

In 1973: The Republic of Ireland and the UK join the European Economic Community, and following elections in Northern Ireland that summer, a unionist bloc led by former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, along with the nationalist SDLP and Alliance, agree to a power sharing government  in Belfast after negotiations at Sunningdale. Hardline unionists including the Rev Ian Paisley vow to wreck the arrangement.

In 1973: After Holy Communion my mum takes me to the Royal Victoria Hospital to visit her mother Florrie McManus (nee Stewart) who is seriously ill. She only lasts a short time and dies.

In 1973: A military junta led by Pinochet and backed by the Nixon Administration and the CIA overthrow the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende.  The date of the coup is September 11th. An East German friend of mine recalls crying when he heard about Allende’s death on DDR television, and later remembers Chilean left-wing refugees arriving in his home town.

In 1973: The Provisional IRA bomb the Old Bailey in London marking the beginning of the Provos England campaign. The bombers are arrested on route back to Belfast and include Gerry Kelly, currently a junior minister in the power sharing government in Belfast. Among others captured at Heathrow Airport are Marion and Dolours Price who later go on a hunger strike in an English jail so they can be repatriated to an Irish jail. During their incarceration they are force-fed by prison authorities. One man dies of a heart attack during the chaos caused by the bomb blast. Marion Price is back in jail in 2011 charged with encouraging acts of terrorism.

In 1973: Sunderland stun the football world by beating the might Leeds United in the FA Cup final. It is the first live final I ever see in colour on my own television in my house at Number 1 Eliza Street.  The giant-killing feat was re-enacted by me using a rolled up pair of socks and the gaps between sofas in the front living room used as goals.

In 1973: The first American prisoners of war are freed from Vietnam and the Paris Peace Agreement effectively ends US involvement in Indochina. The NLF is only two years away from victory and the capture of Saigon while the Khmer Rouge gains ground in Cambodia before seizing power and establishing Year Zero.

In 1973: A UVF car bomb explodes in Dublin’s Sackville Street killing one and injuring 17 others. The car used to transport the explosive device had been hijacked in Agnes Street on Belfast’s Shankill Road. It marks the first major attack on southern Irish civilians by loyalists.

In 1973: I spend a week in Sligo on a cross community children’s summer holiday which degenerates into sectarian scrapping. We stay in a boarding school style place and witness fist fighting on the disco floor. Everyone over the age of 9 appears to smoke Goldflake and Major while the older lads wield chains and show off “hot shit” pen-knives. No one gets stabbed but we get chased from an orchard by an old priest wielding a blackthorn stick after we poke at a bees’ nest.

In 1973: The American Indian Movement take over Wounded Knee sparking a violent siege in South Dakota. AIM activists chose the site because it was where 300 men, women and children were killed by the US army in the 19th Century.  Two Native American activists are killed and an FBI agent is paralysed during the armed confrontation. Literature from the AIM is circulated during Official Sinn Fein’s anti-imperialist festival.

In 1973: The Heath government imposes a three day working week in response to the oil crisis and ads appear on television urging us all “To Save It”. More than one million workers march in Britain in protest at Conservative austerity cuts. Plus ca change.

In 1973: My family home is the election headquarters of the Republican Clubs in The Market and a Starry Plough flag flies from one of our attic windows. My sister and I cover the lamp posts outside with round election stickers. No one from the party gets elected to the new and later doomed Northern Ireland Assembly.

In 1973: Both German states, the Federal Republic and the DDR are accepted as members of the United Nations. Meanwhile Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhoff terrorism continues to plague West Germany. A friend of our family has served a brief but disastrous jail sentence for an arson attack in Belfast inspired by the RAF-BM a few years earlier.

In 1973: We dance in the Silvertops disco in Belfast’s Hamilton Street to Gary Glitter’s I”m the Leader of the Gang (I am) blissfully unaware that our glam-rock/pop hero is a paedophile.  The Silvertops becomes the battle ground between the Provie and Sticky Fiannas with studded belts and steel capped boots being deployed on the dance floor beneath the glitter ball.

In 1973: The world is still divided into the capitalist and communist blocs although the threat of nuclear holocaust is receding with détente all the rage. The New Cold War is still far off and the Islamist counter-revolution (the first thrust backwards into history and the past) is yet to break out in Iran. Europe is divided and the Berlin Wall looks permanent.

In 1973: The unions in Britain still retain the power to shake governments and within a year help bring down Ted Heath’s administration. The optimism of Sunningdale and the prospects of power sharing are short-lived – the approaching Ulster Workers Council strike will bring down the cross community government. It takes 33 years and thousands more deaths before unionists and nationalists share power again, this time it seems for good. Seamus Mallon’s description of the Good Friday Agreement (the template for the later St. Andrew’s Agreement) as “Sunningdale for slow learners” seems tragically apposite. Among the dead for the new dawn are at least one of our relatives, a dearly beloved uncle, several friends and a couple of neighbours. Our home is damaged and my father and I narrowly escaped death from a UVF bomb outside our home.

W1973: A group of UVF members bulging out of dark suits, wearing streaky black ties, gather around a grave to hear an oration in Roselawn Cemetery East Belfast. It is Remembrance Sunday 2011. My sister and I look on at this menacing crew amid howling wind and rain. We are standing at the edge of a mushy, freshly turned over, rain-sodden piece of earth. We begin the work of cleaning up the black-headstone caked in hardened mud and dirt. As we move over the to wipe it with hot water and cloths, one of my feet sinks into the mire up to my knee. My leg is descending towards where my mother was laid to rest the month before. She lies on top of my father, who died four months before her. I lift my leg out of the sticky, viscous muck but my foot has left an imprint on the strip above where my parents are buried. When we return a few weeks later the shape of my foot is still visible and is filled with rain water. W1973: The number of the grave where my mother followed my father into the ground.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Simultaneous Equation

Watching the movie version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a bit like doing a Simultaneous Equation. You may know the result in advance but the working out of the answer is as informative and beautiful as the end product. If you have read the novel or seen the original BBC television series starring Alec Guinness as the spymaster George Smiley you will already be well aware that the traitor at the heart of British intelligence is Bill Hayden. He is Moscow’s man at the heart of the ‘Circus’, the agent being run by the legendary KGB spy boss Karla. None the less the way Smiley (played now by a faultless Gary Oldman) unravels this labyrinthine conspiracy is still fascinating to observe in the cinema. The unmasking of the Soviet ‘mole’ lasts for more than two hours and involves Smiley and his allies poring over past operations in Budapest and Istanbul; rifling through secret classified files locked away in the security services headquarters in London; re-interviewing sacked members of the service who shared the mythical ‘Control’s’ suspicions about an enemy within and setting up an elaborate trap for the KGB agent at the end.

The tone and texture of the new movie captures perfectly the England of the early 1970s with its glam rock, grimy streets, strikes and national stagnation. There are Slade posters in a MI6 sub-station in Istanbul, Dana’s All Kinds of Everything blaring out on a radio inside a safe house used by Hayden, Wimpy bars, a Skol larger logo reflected in a window, serial chain-smoking, Morris Minors and unreconstructed sexism in the workplace even with people who talk in posh accents. Tomas Alfredson (the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In) has brilliantly captured this era. There are a few deviations from the novel and the TV epic from the 70s, the most questionable being the homoerotic static charge between Colin Firth as Hayden and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux which climaxes in the latter assassinating the former just before the traitor is to be deported to Moscow. The shooting doesn’t happen in the book and TV programme: Prideaux wreaks his revenge instead by breaking Hayden’s neck. Nor was there any insinuation of a possible gay relationship between the two agents.

Regardless the acting is flawless and Oldman, if there were any justice in Tinsel Town, should win the Oscar for Best Actor in his role as Smiley. He is measured, reserved yet also slightly menacing beneath the cool English gentleman exterior. John Hurt as ‘Control’ is a perfect choice to play the ravaged, haunted boss of the Circus with a fatal obsession with the mole.  The other key members of the Circus are portrayed as creepy, shifty, social climbers who are keen to suck up to the Americans and in doing so are putty in Karla’s hands.

The Cold War ended effectively on the day the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. To a new generation that conflict is as far away in history as the Second World War was for those of us who sat transfixed at the end of the 1970s to watch how Alec Guinness revealed the betrayer of the Circus and the man who set up Prideaux albeit in Czechoslovakia rather than in Hungary. That is why the new film is a reminder of that period when the world was cut into two rival ideological halves and the risk hung over the planet of nuclear annihilation. Although the divide between communism and capitalism was stark, there was by the 1970s great uncertainty within the west at least over the justness of the cause. This comes out in the film as it did in the book back in 1974 with the British spies (including Smiley) often questioning whether their system was superior to the one behind The Wall. Of course, once that barrier collapsed and the entire system failed, it was apparent that for all its faults the democratic West was still infinitely preferable to the dictatorships run in the name of the People by a small governing elite. Revisit The Lives of Others, the story/movie of how the Stasi ruined the lives of individual East Germans or read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, her epic history of the Soviet concentration camp system if you still doubt that political judgement.

One story absent even without any reference in ‘Tinker, Tailor….’ was a parallel war running alongside the Cold one during the 70s when Le Carre’s masterpiece was published the conflict in Northern Ireland. At the time Le Carre’s novel came out Provisional IRA bombs were exploding in English cities causing widespread carnage while British troops were on the streets of Belfast and Derry in a state teetering on the brink of civil war. As with the novel genre, there have been few film or television series documenting the role of spooks and spies in the Ulster Troubles. Apart from Fifty Dead Men Walking say or Peter Taylor’s non-fiction book Brits dealing with the UK security forces covert war in the north of Ireland there have been very few novels, plays, TV dramas or films that have detailed the stories of  Ulster’s secret war.

The potential for great drama borne out of the undercover war in Northern Ireland is massive. Take for instance the Stakeknife/Freddie Scappattici scandal. Here was the head of the Provos’ counterintelligence spy-cathing unit, the so-called ‘Headhunters’, whose job it was to unmask agents in the IRA’s ranks, who was in fact himself a British spy for two decades. The moral ambiguity, the sense of betrayal, the double-games being played, the danger, the deaths and the torture of the Stakeknife story would all make for a riveting tale either told in print or on film. In particular such an artistic enterprise would focus on the morally questionable policy conducted by intelligence service bosses – of allowing one of their agents to oversee the torture and murder of suspected traitors within the PIRA – in order to protect and promote the British state’s asset within the Provos.

There are multiple stories of morally dubious spy craft and agent manipulation involving both loyalists and republicans during The Troubles that would produce fantastic fictionalised stories. They would certainly prove the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. Whether it is  yet ‘politically correct’ or convenient for broadcasters in Britain or Ireland to commission stories of covert war is open to question, especially if the truth revealed in drama would happen to embarrass some of Freddie Scap’s former comrades, who these days are trying to be elected Ireland’s head of state.

The cops want my mobile phone

Perhaps someone should provide the Sat Nav and the grid co-ordinates of Holywood, Co. Down to the PSNI station in Lurgan. Why? Because the dormitory town to the east of Belfast is presently home to the largest MI5 base outside of London. MI5 AKA The Security Services now holds primacy in terms of counter-terrorism within Northern Ireland. At its Holywood base in the Palace Barracks complex it employs a large number of spies and technical eavesdroppers who keep a watch not only on the homegrown terrorism of the republican dissidents, but also those involved in the Islamist terror front both in the UK and abroad.

Agents working out of the Holywood HQ have been deployed not only inside Northern Ireland but also, for instance, at foreign holiday resorts favoured by local tourists to track down members of the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireaan and try to entice them with bundles of cash to become informers. In addition the MI5 regional base is equipped with the state of the art listening technology aimed at dipping in and out of the messages transmitted between dissident republicans. The press and the public of course are not given access for understandable reasons to the type of hi-tech resources currently available to the spooks, although we can imagine how advanced the devices they are using to spy on the enemies of the state are these days.

Back in the early 1990s RUC Special Branch had a bug at one very important location where the former SDLP leader John Hume was holding secret talks with the Provisional IRA. According to one former RUC source the listening device was so sophisticated that there was a “live feed” between the meeting place Hume and the Provos were sitting in and the secure room at Castlereagh RUC station in east Belfast to which senior police figures would listen into whenever the talks were going on. MI5 also had access to this “live feed” and it is understood that at one stage when something potentially controversial was uttered during a conversation between Hume and the IRA, the feed was mysteriously disconnected. Privately the RUC always suspected MI5 had severed the link fearing whatever was being beamed in and recorded
could have been leaked either to the media or worse still, the loyalists.

That was then and this is now. More than a decade and a half later one can only imagine the leap forward being made in surveillance technology that the Security Services have at their disposal in their counter-terrorist operations since the early 1990s. The question is however: are they sharing them with the PSNI? An incident a fortnight ago involving myself and my battered Nokia E51 mobile phone suggests in some instances that they are not!

A couple of Saturdays ago I was enjoying a day off with two of my children at the Odyssey entertainment centre on the banks of the Lagan. As my girl and boy bounced around like maniacs inside a bouncy castle with the face of Spiderman on the top of it, the mobile rang. My heart sank. I suspected it might be The Observer news desk informing of a major breaking news story and that as a result I would have to go back on duty. In fact it turned out that the call was a local voice, claiming to be from the “Continuity Army Council of the IRA”, i.e. the Continuity IRA. He claimed they had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police patrol between roundabouts 1 and 2 in Craigavon in the early hours of that morning. Having given the recognised code word and once he had conveyed the message the caller promptly disconnected the call. Naturally on the LCD screen it stated that number had been withheld.

As well as contacting the Guardian Unlimited and the PSNI Press Officer (the latter having no reports or knowledge of the alleged attack) I phoned the UTV newsroom to get this claim out in the public domain. Within the next 48 hours I received two phone calls from an officer in PSNI Lurgan about the claim of responsibility. In one call I was warned that the police might want to examine my mobile phone in a bid to trace the call and perhaps even identify the caller. Immediately I decided to contact the Guardian high command and received their backing and legal advice, the view from the paper being quite adamant – under no circumstances should I hand over my mobile phone to the police.

Of course journalists cannot and should not be above the law. Nor should we encourage others to break it. None the less the suggestion that I surrender the phone to help the police build a potential case against someone claiming to represent a republican terror group is a potential threat to two principles: the freedom of the press and my right to life. As regards the former there has been in recent times increasing pressures on reporters on both sides of the Irish Sea to provide material which would enable the police to do their job more effectively. The BBC and UTV locally along with RTE, Sky and other broadcasters are facing demands that they hand over footage to the PSNI of the rioting in Ardoyne in July and East Belfast in late June. In England all the major broadcasters are facing similar demands to surrender unedited film of the riots that rocked English cities in August. Meanwhile colleagues at The Guardian recently resisted Metropolitan Police attempts to force them to reveal who told them that the News of the World hacked into the mobile phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. The bid to get me to hand over my mobile is yet another development in this phenomenon.

Journalists are not detectives but witnesses to unfolding public events and news stories. To start to harvest our material, contacts, sources and even equipment is to put us in the firing line. Just imagine if I decided to co-operate and drove down to Lurgan and handed over the mobile for technical examination. Consider the possibility that arrests might follow and the story emerge that it was my mobile phone call that enabled the PSNI to pursue a potential subject. As the judgement in the Ed Moloney and later Suzanne Breen cases concluded such pressurised collaboration could easily put my life in danger. Which is something one can expect when you cross paramilitary organisations and highlight their criminality and their butchery. That is our job as well as holding the institutions of the state and politicians to account. But our job is not to become an auxiliary force for the police in terms of counter-terrorism or general crime.

Meantime if the detectives really are keen to try and trace who made that brief call on my Nokia a fortnight ago they only have to contact their colleagues over in Holywood (Co. Down) and ask for assistance in tracking a call. Although that begs the question as two whether the spooks and the cops are fully co-operating with one another.

(This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 28th September)

Alternative Alternative Ulsters

Shooting starts again in Northern Ireland this coming week but no one is going to get killed or injured – except for a few reputations. Someone who cares little about reputation or social standing is the subject of the latest film about Ulster’s recent past, the former Punk-music guru Terri Hooley. Filming starts on a bio-pic of Terri’s life focussing in particular on his founding of the Good Vibrations record label and music store, and his discovery of The Undertones.

I have known Terri since I first walked into his shop on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street back in 1978. For a generation of young Punks trying to escape the cloying boredom of life in Troubles-torn Belfast, Hooley’s place was a Mecca of freedom. There was something wildly exotic about passing the cut-out Elvis outside, climbing the stairs, inhaling strange aromas wafting from above and into a room surrounded by LPs and 45s. On the walls where strangely drawn and printed posters and my favourite single cover – a picture of The Slits, all of them topless, smeared with mud.

Before entering Good Vibes I had never contemplated shoplifting but I recall one rainy Monday afternoon in summer when I succumbed to temptation. I’d heard the most amazing and weirdly sung/constructed track on the John Peel Show on Radio 1. It was Howard Devoto menacingly warbling about being ‘Shot By Both Sides’. Given where I was living at the time – caught between the Brits and the equally hostile Provos – the sentiment struck an immediate chord. I had to have that record.

Alas on that soggy Monday I was virtually broke and had only one option: to swipe the Magazine EP which I did right under Terri’s eye….yes his other one is made of glass.

Many years later in a moment of drunken honesty at a party of a mutual friend’s I confessed to Hooley about my theft. He roared with laughter and congratulated me for liberating ‘Shot By Both Sides’ from his stock. As a lifelong anarchist he had no choice but to approve of my larcenry.

The beginning of filming prompted Jane Graham in The Guardian on Friday to write a wider feature on when is the best time for film makers reflecting on past youth cultures and their impact on society. The questions Graham raised were germane and especially how many years should elapse before you recreate the world of teenage sub-cults.

In a passage near the end of her article she quotes screenwriter Colin Carberry who looks back on the Troubles. He warns that “nostalgia works differently here” and notes that while virtually no one harks back to the dark, depressing 1970s, the new Hooley film will show “how youth transcends everything.” Then in the most dubious part of Carberry’s comments he points out that while there were plenty of agit-prop bands like The Clash around, The Undertones were in fact singing about fun and girls from their first breakthrough anthem “Teenage Kicks” (a song Hooley helped on its way and John Peel championed) to other famous tunes such as the maudlin “Wednesday Week” and “Here Comes The Summer.”

This assertion is firstly unfair to The Undertones. After all the band dared tackle the subject of the death fast in the Maze prison with ‘It’s Gonna Happen’ referencing Bobby Sands ‘…going to sleep without blinking a blue eye.’ Moreover, when the band broke up their next incarnation under the genius of John O’Neill became ultra-political. That Petrol Emotion was one of the most politically controversial and underestimated post Punk/New Wave bands of the 1980s.

Yet even during Ulster Punk’s heyday there were plenty of bands that recorded songs that were more about cars and girls. Stiff Little Fingers of course were the most famous of the agit-prop groups. Although ‘Alternative Ulster’ became their most famous anthem with its rage against ‘the bores and their laws’ and the sectarianism blighting so many young lives, I have always contended that the best song of their first album ‘Inflammable Material’ was ‘Wasted Life’ was the most politically charged they ever recorded. It is a howl of protest belted out in Jake Burns’ gravel voice against how an entire generation was being lured into paramilitary organisations that, in the end, only offered a squandered existence or a premature death. Even listening to it four decades later the lyrics and the thrash of the SLF guitars still sends shivers down my spine.

There were other groups too that took on political and social issues, the best of them being Ruefrex. The group from north Belfast, some of them from the loyalist heartland of the Shankill Road, wrote protest songs that still deserve to be listened to. Ruefrex’s targets included the loyalist paramilitaries on their doorstep; the Irish-Americans who funded the IRA from the comfort of their affluent suburbs in Boston and Wisconsin and the education system in Northern Ireland that kept and still keeps Catholic and Protestant school kids apart.

I wish the film about my old friend Terri the very best and I hope that it will do him justice. His contribution to Ulster cultural history has been neglected for far too long. There are though other stories to be told as well about the bands, the kids, the venues, the times that need to be aired. It is nearly 40 years on. Time to get writing about that unique period in Northern Ireland history when, for a short period of time, there was a flowering of youthful rebellion that was organic and spontaneous. There is work to be done here!

Lessons from Birmingham

Although three young Asian men are dead, several families are devastated, an entire community is fearful and angry, the city of Birmingham is still a relatively tolerant place. Having just spent three days in England’s second city, the overwhelming impression I got is that despite the triple deaths outside a petrol station in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there is still a deep degree of cross-community co-operation and toleration.

Witness an Islamic prayer service on the filing station forecourt on Wednesday night when local Muslims gathered to remember their three friends mowed down a fatal hit and run crash. While everyone around knew that it was members of the black community who had been responsible for the crash and indeed looting of Asian-owned businesses in the hours before the tragedy, there were people from all races standing side by side with the Muslims. Sikhs, whites and people from the Afro-Caribbean community paid their respects. A 17-year-old has [today] been charged for the triple murders and is remanded in custody, appearing at Birmingham Crown Court tomorrow.

On Thursday I strolled around the multi ethnic Dudley Road where the men were killed. Afro-Caribbean shops were open side by side with the Asian mini markets and grocery shops. Young black couples pushed prams past the make-shift flower adorned shrine to the victims, one girl in her teens blessing herself as a mark of respect as she passed by. There were, naturally, discordant voices among the younger Muslim males in the area and a frequent, disturbing use of the N-word when describing black people. But they were drowned out by the voices of decency within the Muslim community, the no longer silent majority epitomised by the grieving father who appealed for no retaliation and called for peace and calm to descend in Birmingham and beyond.

The local people I encountered were friendly, open and helpful. They wanted to tell their story and convey the message that a lawless violent minority of thugs would not plunge their city into inter-ethnic chaos. In many ways that narrative was the most hopeful in a week scarred by nihilistic violence across several English cities.

There are two broad observations I would like to make about the seven days of disorder in England. The first is to counter the nonsense spurted by some liberal media commentators that there was anything political or social motivating the rioters, the arsonists, the vandals and the murderers in Birmingham in particular. Their motives were anything but progressive and their victims in the main were people from the same social strata as themselves: the poor, the immigrant workers, fellow ethnic minorities, the dispossessed who maintain their dignity and their decency despite the odds stacked against them. To compare the violence that broke out in England to say the Arab Spring is a deep insult to the incredibly courageous fighters for democracy who are literally laying down their lives from Syria to Libya. The latter are putting themselves in front of bullets, artillery rounds, tanks and everything else that tyrants like Assad and Gaddafi are throwing at them. Their struggle is noble and heroic, the looters and the hooligans destroying their own communities in England are a national disgrace.

Many in Ireland but particularly in the north have noted the different approach of the police in England to their counterparts in Belfast or Derry. The PSNI dealt with rioters over here (many of whom, especially on the republican side, do actually have political motives) using plastic baton rounds and water cannon. Some have pointed out that the English police’s reluctance not to borrow from the PSNI and start firing baton rounds at their rioters proves there is one law for the Irish on this side of the sea and another for the English, even for its moronic apolitical underclass.

Yes I can see the irony and I hate the double standards but I am none the less glad police forces in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol didn’t fire a single baton round over the last seven. Because the last thing England needed was the potential of a street thug being martyred after his or her skull was crushed by a baton round. The loonies and the looters don’t deserve that epithet.

Memories of Captain America

CAPTAIN AMERICA’s coming into being is nothing more than the story of Jacob usurping Esau but set in the Second World War rather than in the time of the biblical patriarchs. Just as the weedy, smooth skinned weaker Jacob becomes the unlikely chosen one to succeed Abraham as the leader of the Children of Israel, so an asthmatic bag of skin and bones is singled out by a Jewish émigré scientist to become a superhero who can save the USofA. Like Jacob the character selected to pick up the Star-spangled shield was an unlikely choice. Their rivals, Esau the hairy bearded hunting man of action and the sock-‘em-in-the-jaw-everytime GI Joe, who bullies the future Captain America on the army base, seemed the more obvious candidates to become the champions of their people.

They say there are seven basic plots to a story regardless of whether it is located on a page, the silver screen or passed down in oral tradition. I do not know if the Old Testament tale of feuding brothers is part of those seven categories but watching the latest Marvel comics superhero movie in a cinema on Belfast’s Dublin Road last Monday that story of cunning and brain winning out over brawn in Catechism classes suddenly flowed back into my memory. All those ink drawings of the prophets and the martyrs with their over-exaggerated eyes, like Marine Boy’s in the cartoon, persuading their brothers to sell their birthright for a mesh of pottage; or taming wild beasts inside the lion’s den or bringing down the walls of a besieged city with a collective rebel yell.

He’s the equal of Thor and loads better than the Green Lantern: he’s the summer’s pre-eminent superhero – The Guardian

It goes to show that even for an atheist who has long since eschewed organised religion the Bible and the fantastical tales that are shot through it (more so in the Old Testament it has to be said) have left an indelible mark on the subconscious.  The near instant association with Captain America’s birth with the Jacob/Esau struggle is testament, excuse the pun, to the power of biblical story telling. You might blame all of this on religious education by robotic rote but this schooling wasn’t akin to the brain-washing of children in Islamic Madrassah schools. It is the drama, the beauty and the symbolism of the stories themselves that have so much universal appeal…even today for non-believers like myself.

As for the film, you have to keep reminding yourself this is a ‘Marvel’ comic where the laws of space, time, gravity let alone believable plot or accurate history, are suspended. What starts as a seemingly straightforward battle between an American good guy agent in a funny costume and a mad, demented Nazi scientist turns rapidly into the classic “Marvel” battle between Superhero and Supervillain in which Sci-Fi gadgets of the future play a critical part. You also have to suspend your critical faculties as well as the laws of the universe in order to enjoy this neatly crafted, exhilarating and character-complex film. Perhaps its greatest achievement though is not the special effects, the battle scenes or indeed the acting.  The epilogue contains a clever plot device that carries Captain America forward from the closing days of World War Two to the 21st century which borrows a little bit of the faked-up world of the “The Truman Show” and the story of Rip Van Winkle.

On a personal level the film also succeeded in taking me on a journey back into the past. Back specifically to a place called “The Blue Shop” on Eliza Street in The Market area of Belfast; back to some time in the early to mid 1970s before dreams of playing professional football, puberty and then Punk Rock.  In that hiatus behind the still tender edge of early childhood and the cusp of teenage years I became an obsessive reader of what we called “the American glossies”, the magazines that printed derring-do tales of magical powers possessed by Superheroes like Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor and of course, Captain America. I will never forget the excitement of leaving primary school every Thursday afternoon and walking towards that shop facing Inglis Bakery at the bottom of the longest street in the area or the thrill of seeing what tales from a multi-coloured, fantastical future were on sale and who your heroic characters were pitted against in the latest edition.

This was Life-as-Elsewhere in the guise of demonic plots by Dr Doom to destroy the earth in its entirety and Spidey’s desperate battle to save them. And yet beyond those graphics, over those pages there was a real war being waged all around you. On leaving the cinema with my two youngest children at the weekend, absorbing the impact of the first of what will be many Captain America movies ahead, I realised that by bringing this ‘Marvel’ character to life, the film makers had tapped into another potent subset of brain activity – the power of nostalgia.

Rioting as a form of sexual gratification

© Kelvin Boynes/Press Eye

Riot addiction is a tad controversial in the six counties ‘up der’ and the syndrome tends to be denied by social workers, priests, shrinks, do-gooders, politcal counsellors and grant-guzzling NGOs. Typically, it’s a term used to describe the feral behaviour of a person who has an obsession with rioting to the point where it becomes clinically and politically significant. Addicts will usually resort to risk-taking to get their fix; often progressing to illegal activities such as throwing bricks at police, burning cars, shooting at members of the media, flinging petrol bombs, general scuzzbucket shenanigans, filmed on YouTube for added bravado & ‘craic’. Despite this release they are rarely ever satisfied. Causes of riot addiction are difficult to pinpoint. Some moccassin-clad Buddhist psychology experts, on paid government boards, point toward biochemical causes, while others cite familial conditioning or social issues such as unemployment. Either way, it’s a symbolic enactment of deeply entrenched unconscious dysfunctional relationships with self and society. Eeny Meeny Miney Mo: what housing estate did you grow up in, combines with incendiary socio-political factors. Hyperhatred of those who pander to a different religion might also be linked to prologned use of Nike tracksuits, designer-label baseball caps, large bottles of Blue WKD and headshop drugs. Just before a riot kicks off, you’re likely to hear a lot of this kind of thing: “Waddafeck ya doin yacuntye? Gis a sup of yer bucky…got any fegs? I’m gonna smesssh up de peelers, me, hate dem fuckers”.

Every year, the same senseless street carnage ensues when one idiotic group beats drums and the other idiotic group hurls random objects and abuse. Like I said this time last year, children of the ceasefire are definitively learning the bad lessons of the past. Unless someone takes an axe to the root and tells a new generation all that violence, both terrorism and street disorder, is futile and wrong, others will keep emulating it. This year’s damage will cost millions all over again but to a generation brought up to expect that the state will pay for everything, financial considerations mean nothing. The rioters won’t have to foot the bill!

pic from The Independent

The Troubles, per se, are not over at all: a big dirty unsaid fact. Even after the ceasefire paramilitary organisations on both sides fought a culture war over the legitimacy of their murder campaigns. They sought to portray them as heroic and glorious, and tried to conceal the reality of sordid vicious struggle. So, a new generation of baby blockheads, reared on folk memory, who’ve no grasp of what it was really like, how awful it actually was, think it’s legitimate to keep conflict chugging. Add to that the propensity to solve disputes, any dispute, be it political or even domestic, by violent means which is imprinted in the N.I. DNA and you have a toxic mix that can explode at any time. “Idle hands, idle minds,” a local priest in Ardoyne described the summer-fruit lawlessness last night. But mindless violence is the only way the youth of Northern Ireland can get its rocks off. In consequence, there’s no known cure for this type of riot addiction, so expect the same next year and every single year after that.

Attempt at debate between rival factions of riot addicts and their supporters usually goes something like this (pinched from an online chatroom earlier today):

  • Fuck up! Im a Catholic, and I have no problem with the orange order or the psni. Its because of bitter bastards like you, this country is in tatters. Grow the fuck up, this has nothing to do with you, so don’t get involved you silly little prick.

  • Here we go again, catholics start a riot and then try to blame it on the orange lodge. At the end of the day doesnt matter if the band didnt walk past the Ardoyne shops (dont forget Ardyone is mixed mostly catholics but still mixed) those scumbags would still riot, it happens every year and they try to blame everyone else for the riot. They mess up their own area then yap about it WHY yas done it urselves dont start riots then moan about it.

  • Why should we let loyalists parade in our area’s? Youse wouldn’t like it if we marched up the shankill during the easter parades.

  • Get a big pipe climb to the top of the watercannon and bend the cannon upwards.

  • Fuck the orange order and fuck the psni, they shouldn’t be parading in catholic areas!!

  • It’s simple, no orange parades in nationalist areas and you won’t have riots like this. What do the they not get about that?

  • Gerry Kelly is a stinking tout!!!

  • Another plastic paddy openly supporting terrorism…

  • Up the Ra!

  • The resistance lives on……….

  • Let’s face it, this shit’s never going away. Never will, it’s been implanted in our heads. The scum can riot, because it happens all too often. Obviously it’s wrong, but it’s now way too much of a traditional, and it’ll continue even when the marches stop, even when no one knows why they are doing it.

  • Do you think they might have been better prepared BECAUSE of the rioting in east belfast? Plus the police were getting attacked by both loyalists and nationalists in east belfast. You are looking for something that isn’t there.

  • It took police two days to use a water cannon in East Belfast after some of the most violent rioting in belfast for years. Why two days?? Because it was the loyalists rioting. But water cannons had already been deployed in Ardoyne two hours before the parade even passed. One law for 1 fuckin orange bastards

  • Knock the chip off your shoulder. Six policemen got hurt by the hijacked bus alone.

  • This is just ceremonial at this point. They have no viable cause cause, their just going through the motions, it’s part of the culture now.

  • Get a life kids.

  • Let’s wait till ardoyne tonight! more rioting.

  • How else are they gona get the next day off?

  • Fuk the british konts maggy thatcher can stick a didldo up her fat hole and toy herself to death the dirty bitch. protesting tomoro 😛 up the ra we will never be defeated.

  • Why don’t they just shoot the Animals they are Pure Scumbags Destroying the Ardoyne Community?

  • What you lads need to do it get something that can go over the shields, buckets of frying oil would be a good idea, burn the basterds out, or water ballons filled with petrol and cover them, then use a lit petrol bomb to ignite it. Think smart. And fuck the police.

  • fuck the orange order people wouldn’t expect the kkk to walk through harlem unopposed. orange order,kkk,nazis,facists they’re all the same white-trash inbred rednecks.

  • if the orangies wud just fuck off back to scotland but then again scotland doesn’t want them either cuz they’re fukkin trailer trash and there’s to many neds there already.

  • I bet none of you assholes have worked a day in your lives. It’s a disgrace, you should be shot by the police.

A papier-mâché of condemnation always follows though nothing is ever really achieved in time for next year:

A SENIOR PSNI officer has defended the decision not to carry out large-scale arrests of rioters at Ardoyne after the father of a woman police officer who was hospitalised when a large stone slab was dropped on her head complained of police inaction. Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland said police had identified the man who attacked the officer and would be seeking to arrest him. Rioters would be pursued, arrested and charged, he added. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott briefed First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont yesterday on the trouble. (©Irish Times)

“It is hugely regrettable that we get to this situation each year. There are a large number of people across community groups, government and faith groups doing a huge amount to reduce the impact and change things for the better. We all need to redouble these efforts and sustain them to get a real and meaningful change for residents of these areas. That is the very least they need and deserve” – Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay (©Belfast Telegraph)

North Belfast Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds condemned the rioters. “These people have been intent on attacking the police and wreaking havoc in their own community. Such violence is senseless and has clearly nothing to do with protesting against a parade but is just futile rioting,” he said. (©Breakingnews.ie)

Alliance Party Belfast City Council member Billy Webb said the riots in Ardoyne had caused enormous damage to the local community. “Residents in the area are the ones who suffer the most with people feeling trapped in the own homes, scared to go out. Bus services are also affected in the area which the vulnerable rely upon,” he said. “This trouble is putting Northern Ireland in the headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.” (©Breakingnews.ie)

Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Féin assembly member for the area and former IRA Old Bailey bomber, said he was concerned at the rising tension in this corner of north Belfast. “We have a situation where we have two parades at one time,” he said. While Kelly and Sinn Féin oppose the loyalist march, they have appealed for peaceful protests against the parade. He condemned those nationalist youths behind the violence but also blamed the Orange Order for failing to reach a compromise with Catholic residents along contentious parade routes. (©The Guardian)

“A peaceful marching season would be a far better value than stunts like cutting corporation tax. As far as the outside world is concerned it does not matter which side is rioting. What counts is the perception that Northern Ireland is unsafe and unstable,” said Peter Bunting, the northern secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. (©The Guardian)

Faith and my Father

I am still terrified of death but I no longer fear the dead thanks to my father. He died on 7th May this year but I am indebted to him partly because of the mantra he kept hammering home to us in the first decade of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Back in the early 1970s Satan was making something of a comeback. The post-Street-Fighting-men-and-women of the late 60s radical protests no longer had sympathy for the devil. The Father of All Lies was back scaring everyone from Boston to Belfast, Detroit to Dublin thanks to an explosion of horror and supernatural films such as The Exorcist, The Devil Rides Out and The Omen. Demonic possessions, poltergeists, Satanic-ritual murder were all the rage again.

Even in war-torn Belfast with its pub bombs, nightly riots, drive-by shootings, tar and feathering, feuding, tear gas, rubber bullets and body counts, the ethereal threat from the forces of darknesses exercised our minds.  Hauntings, ghostly apparitions, people being possessed by evil spirits and so on were reported in a city where real people were slaughtering their fellow citizens in ever increasing and in some circumstances with inhumane, wanton brutality.

The parallel hysteria over the the menace from devils and demons was probably in large part due to the explosion of neo-horror on the silver screen in the seventies. My father always saw through this Satanic-panic dismissing nervous neighbours worried that a cloven hoofed stranger was about to enter their humble terraced dwelling in The Market area of Belfast with this advice: “The dead can do you no harm, it’s the living I’m worried about.”

Given that the “living” included people who were torturing their captives for hours on end before severing arteries in their necks with butchers’ knivers or cynical, cold blooded commanders (some of them now “respected” statesmen!) sending out teenagers to incinerate women in fashion boutiques with firebombs you could see my father’s point.

And yet…..

I recently faced a challenge to my existential fears and it concerned my father’s wake. It is traditional certainly in Catholic working class families for loved ones to remain beside the coffin containing their dead relative during the period before the funeral. That task was given to me and I accepted it gladly. After the throngs paying their respects had gone, once all the sandwiches had been covered in cling film, the trays of cups cleared away, the tea pots emptied and crockery put in the dishwasher: my mother, sister and myself were left alone. I had to stay on a makeshift sofa bed in the front livng room where the coffin was laid out, the mini altar adorned with candles and the sympathy cards piled up. It was a bizarre experience to sleep at a right angle to my father’s coffin, his fine sculpted facial outline still visible every time I propped myself up on my pillows, the tenebrous light from the candles illuminating his form.

And  yet I never felt a second of fear or apprehension bedding down for the night beside my dad’s corpse. The sensation I experienced those three draining nights I stayed by his side was strangely comforting. Perhaps this was in large part due to the fact that we had a brief but sadly bitter exchange just five days before he died in Belfast City Hospital. Despite some harsh words I genuinely felt being alone with him in the days leading up to his burial brought forward some form of atonement.

In these last few weeks I have, on occasion, sensed his presence again or at least imagined him around me. The most pronounced instance of this happened on the final Saturday of May just three weeks after his death. I was now asleep on a brown leather sofa in the exact area where his coffin had stood. Across the living room lay my six year old son on the other sofa who was snoring contentedly in a deep and peaceful slumber. In contrast to him, my sleep was disturbed by a menacing nightmare. I was in north Belfast, near a sectarian interface possibly near the Crumlin Road along with a former photographer colleague from the Irish News. We’d strayed into a mass Ulster loyalist protest that turned threatening and malevolent. It was probably a dream-like copy of some real scenarios I found myself in while reporting in Belfast throughout the Troubles. As we walked down that road I spotted a knot of men gathered at a corner who were clearly looking at us, whispering games of malice, moving towards us with ever increasing menance. Suddenly I was startled out of my reverie. A jolt of electricity surged through me and I jolted back into consciousness. In the first few seconds of coming back to the surface as my eyes got used to the darkeness around me I thought I could make out a shape in the gloom. A human form. It was probably just as ‘The Triffids’ song went A Trick of the Light. At least I hope it was or so says my rationalist side.

As a philosophy graduate, atheist and materialist I am innately sceptical about the supernatural, the afterlife, ghosts, etc. But then I turn to modern physics and recall the view that all matter is energy and that energy is never ultimately destroyed in the universe but rather transforms into another form even unto death. This is not wishful thinking. This is not the product of post-Catholic guilt. Rather it’s an admission that all cannot be explained especially when it comes to the loss of a loved one and the continued sense that that loss is not utterly and totally final. That something remains perhaps amid those chemicals in the brain that revisits happy memories, care and love to sustain you in the most difficult of times. Or maybe something more non-corporeal, something that survives after the disintegration of flesh and blood…

Green Gaddafi and some ‘Ra flame throwers

There is one question regarding the Libyan crisis that the Irish media so far fails to ask: what will the downfall of the Gaddafi regime imply for De Shinners? Barring the Evening Herald during the election campaign virtually none of the news organisations in Ireland (electronic and print) have raised the issue of Sinn Fein − the IRA and the strangely moss-coloured man that is Colonel Gaddafi − during the current uprising against his dictatorship.

The historical facts are already in the public domain regarding the republican movement and the Gaddafi tyranny. In the 1970s, and more crucially the 1980s, the Green Colonel’s government armed and helped finance the IRA’s campaign. Following the United States bombing of Tripoli in the mid-1980s Gaddafi took revenge on the UK (which allowed American planes take off from England to bomb Libya) by supplying the Provisionals. According to security forces on both sides of Ireland’s border the Green Colonel gave the IRA enough AK47 assault rifles to arm two infantry battalions, around 1,200 activists. In addition, Gaddafi passed on tonnes of semtex explosive which was used to [let’s not get sticky about the wording here] kill, maim and wrought physical destruction in Northern Ireland and Britain. The Libyan dictator even provided the IRA with flame throwers and surface to air missiles, although these were used only sparingly during the armed campaign in the north.

But what else will emerge if Libya goes through a DDR-style experience of lustration if and when Gaddafi is finally toppled? After the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regime collapsed the country’s secret police, the Stasi underwent democratic investigation. Thousands upon thousands of files from Stasi archives were released to the public. They included links between the regime and terrorist groups as disparate as the Baader Meinhoff-Red Army Faction gang to various Palestinian armed organisations.

If and when the forty odd year old regime crumbles in Tripoli and the archives of Gaddafi’s murderous secret police are exposed to the light, what will we find there in relation to the connexions between the state organs of his dictatorship and the IRA?  How many leading Sinn Fein figures may be named as regular visitors (secret tourists) to the Colonel’s alleged socialist-paradise-in-the-sand during the Troubles? And how will these revolutionary-tourists explain their presence in the Libyan sun to say their chums in Irish-America particularly on the conservative right of US politics?

These questions are wholly absent from current reportage and commentary in Irish newspapers or on our airwaves. Or am I missing something? Perhaps we have to wait and see if this week’s imposition of a UN no fly zone will impact on the struggle between Gaddafi loyalists and the rebels based in Ben Ghazi. If Gaddafi is unable to bomb the anti-regime forces from the air and the balance tips in the insurgents’ favour the Green Colonel’s government may finally fall after more than four decades. Then, maybe, just maybe, the Irish media will wake up and realise that there’s a massive “Irish angle” to the end of Colonel Gaddafi and his murderous tyranny, and some newly elected members of the 31st Dáil.

This post originally appeared on the Anti Room blog in March 2011, to read comments, click here