I ‘SHARP LIKE AN AXE AND QUIET LIKE A SNAKE’: ETA
The Basques have inhabited a 22,000-square-kilometre region straddling the Franco-Spanish border which they call Euskal Herria for a very long time. Exactly how long is contentious. Many Basque nationalists claim their presence is aboriginal. There are Basque anthropologists who believe that the Basques are descended from cave-dwelling bipeds that achieved human form without evolutionary contact with anyone else. That the Basque language, Euskera, is autochthonous, meaning that it has no relationship to the Indo-European tongues of the Basques’ European neighbours, further fuels feelings of uniqueness. So does a conviction that they have been victims of Spanish colonialism, a hurt that the Basques compulsively explore like a person using his tongue to probe a disintegrating tooth.1
The Basques believe in a political version of the fall from original grace, of the loss of historic liberties. The only time the Basque country was a single political entity was when it was encompassed within the kingdom of Navarre. In medieval times Castilian monarchs annexed their territory, granting the Basques unique rights (fueros). So as to neutralise feuding Basque warlords, the Castilian kings granted noble rights to the inhabitants of two of the Basque provinces, Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya. This meant that the Basques were ‘gentlemen’ entitled to serve in the administration of the incipient Hispanic empire. They were exempt from military conscription, and enjoyed important regional fiscal privileges. There were no import duties on foreign goods entering the region, while the Basques retained the ability to tax agricultural goods arriving from the rest of Spain.
By the nineteenth century these protectionist arrangements did not suit Basque manufacturers in thriving industrial towns but they saved the livelihoods of many modest Basque farmers. Another line of division, this time political, opened with the two Carlist Wars of 1833-40 and 1873-6. The Spanish succession was contested by a Liberal camp, which supported the female line represented by the child Isabella, and the reactionary Navarese gathered around her uncle don Carlos. The countryside fought for God and king - for, as the jumping off point for the medieval Reconquista and the home of the Jesuit founder St Ignatius Loyola, the Basque country was militantly Catholic - while the city dwellers of Bilbao and elsewhere supported the Liberals. The Liberals abolished the fueros, except in Navarre which managed to retain them, leading to a marked aloofness between Navarre and other Basque provinces. For while the Basques claim that Navarre is their historic heartland, the majority of Navarese, including those who speak Euskera, do not regard themselves as Basques first. The general breakdown of public order in Spain after these wars led a Navarese aristocrat to found the mobile police Guardia Civil, with their distinctive tricornio hats, ironically to nationalist eyes the most visible symbol of Spain’s colonial rule in these northerly provinces.
Migration to the cities - Bilbao had trebled in size by 1900 - meant that Spanish became the lingua franca of the streets. Unlike Catalan, which is easy for a Spanish person to acquire casually, Basque is so sui generis that it requires major effort, on a par with learning Finnish or Hungarian. Although Euskera survived in the countryside, the language was dying a death where society was most dynamic, to the horror of the Basque middle class. They felt marginalised in their own country by socialist Spanish-speaking proletarians, whose profanities also outraged their faith, and by an avaricious local oligarchy with more time for their British business partners than for their fellow countrymen.
Enter Sabino Arana (1865-1903), the son of a shipbuilder who founded the Basque Nationalist Party or PNV in 1895. Arana believed that the Basques were a distinct race, with big noses and a higher proportion of RB negative than found in the Spanish population. He was on what, to us at any rate, seems less sticky ground when he argued that the Basques had unique laws and their own language, although this overlooked those urban liberal Basques who had campaigned to abolish the fueros as an impediment to industry. Arana used the British Union Jack as a model for the ‘ancient’ Basque flag or ikurri$nMa except that it is red, green and white.
Sport was integral to the distinctive local culture. There were communal games, resembling those of the Scottish Highlanders. Games included lifting and rolling around one’s shoulders huge round rocks, mountaineering, and the Basque version of pelota, known as jai alai, in which a ball is flung around a walled court at high velocity with a curved wicker-basket extension to the hand. Other fun activities include ocean-rowing, tug-of-war and headbutting one another (a national pastime in Glasgow too) or hauling and pushing a vast rectangular rock attached to two oxen. The Basques also go in for rap-like poetic extemporisation, and have a peculiar musical instrument called a txalaparta, the double consonants being typical of Euskera. There is a distinctive cuisine, often involving ox and seafood, which may explain why ETA bombers have twice struck at a restaurant complex set up near Biarritz in the French Basque country by award-winning chef Alain Ducasse, forcing him out of business in the area. He had allegedly been guilty of reducing Basque culture to the folklore industry.2
Basque Catholicism was also of the dogmatic northern Counter-Reformation variety, eschewing the superstitious semi-pagan Andalusian south, in ways that would be familiar to a northern Frenchman or Italian. In contrast to Ireland, where Catholic priests have been IRA cheerleaders, with only a tiny contingent offering logistic support to terrorists, ETA has included a substantial number of lapsed seminarians who brought moralising single-mindedness to killing people. Seminaries and retreats were also used to hold covert ETA meetings. Finally, economic facts undermine any general association between economic deprivation and terrorism. Arana described Spanish migration as ‘an invasion by Spanish socialists and atheists’, suggesting that if this was colonialism it was that of the poor. Historically, the Basque provinces have been much richer than Spain as a whole, with the exception of Catalonia which has a powerful (non-violent) separatist movement too. Both the Basques and the Catalans were industrious folk who looked down on the backward, sluggish, and snobbish Castilian heartlands from a position of commercial superiority. The Basque country was a wealthy place, with arms firms, banks, iron-ore mines, shipyards and processed steel. In 1969 Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Alava ranked first, second and third out of Spain’s fifty provinces in terms of per-capita income, with Navarre near by in seventh place. They felt that their productivity was being inequitably taxed so as to support southern idlers and wastrel Castilian aristocrats.3
The PNV was a Basque nationalist Christian party that was opposed by both left and right on the eve of the Civil War. The left resented the PNV’s creation of a Basque nationalist trades union to compete for the same working-class constituency, while the right thought the Basques were part of a Red-Judaeo-masonic conspiracy to break up Spain. Although the Basques might have gained the sort of autonomy which the Second Republic had granted Catalonia in 1932, the murderous anti-clericalism of the republic’s anarchist supporters led to poor relations, and then a sudden lurch to the left when the right came to power in 1934 with the slogan ‘Better a Red Spain than a broken Spain’. While the implacably reactionary Carlists supported the 1936 military rebels, the PNV stood by the republic, in the isolation which the rebels succeeded in imposing on Basque provinces cut off from the main areas of Republican support around Madrid. The Basques briefly achieved autonomy at a ceremony held around the ancient oak tree in Guernica, which would shortly be obliterated by the Luftwaffe. On 19 July 1937 general Mola took Bilbao. The Basque nationalist battalions surrendered to Franco’s Italian allies in the vain hope of avoiding the vengeance he dealt out to his opponents. The Basque provinces were occupied in ways that earlier Basque nationalist mythology could not have conceived of. US policy towards Franco, who as a Fascist dictator was frozen out, was crucial. The CIA was interested in the PNV, while a US colonel was deployed to train Basque guerrilla fighters gathered at a camp outside Paris. When because of the exigencies of the Cold War the US decided to leave Franco in place, he was able to repress the Basques with impunity.
The Basques were subjected to military rule and their language was outlawed. Priests were banned from using it in services and sermons, while people had to use Spanish in public even in places which were wholly Basque speaking. In a further effort at what some call linguacide - that is, the total eradication of their historic language and identity - Basques were forbidden to give their children identifiably Basque names such as Jon instead of Juan. When Basque-language primary education was eventually conceded, children had to sing the anthem of the authoritarian Falangist movement ‘Cara del Sol’.
ETA is the acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or, in English, Basque Homeland and Freedom. It was founded, as EKIN, the verb for ‘to act’, in 1952 by youthful supporters of the PNV who belonged to student discussion groups at the university of Deusto in Bilbao. In July 1959 they changed the name to ETA, breaking with the parent party because it appeared too accommodating of Franco. ETA’s gestation as an active terrorist organisation was protracted, partly because key leaders were arrested even before the campaign had got under way, but also because the different factions in ETA went in for interminable discussions both at and between their assemblies which supposedly set group policy in the manner of IRA/Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis.
Three fundamental tendencies battled for power within ETA. Traditionalists, of whom José Luis Álvarez Enparanza ‘Txillardegi’ was the most prominent, stressed ethnological and linguistic factors, arguing that ETA should embrace all those who spoke Basque regardless of class or wealth. By contrast, Paco Iturrioz and others espoused the Marxism of the New Left, wishing to bring about a class struggle in conjunction with Spanish workers, a struggle that would be waged against the Basque oligarchy too. This led them to being dubbed ‘españolistas’, which was not complimentary in Basque circles. They were also accused of revolutionary attentisme - of waiting for the gears of history to grind - and of being Trotskyites by the so-called tercemundistas or Third Worldists who were enthused by the guerrilla struggles of Algeria and Vietnam. Their chief spokesman was Federico Krutwig Sagredo, the son of a German industrialist living in Bilbao. This self-styled revolutionary vanguard won the day, expelling the alleged Trotskyists, while the cultural nationalists went their own way.
Despite the heady talk of Che Guevara, ETA’s initial activities were on a par with what students do everywhere: daubing slogans or the acronym ‘ETA’ on walls and surreptitiously flying the red, white and green Basque flag. The more a person demonstrated, the more they were liable to be savagely beaten up by the Guardia Civil, who were not known for their restraint. If you look for trouble, you tend to find it, as a leading ETA member recalled:
Ten years ago in the festival of Aya, I was wearing a cap with four clusters of ribbons hanging from it. They [the police] grabbed me, they took off the ribbons and they took away my identity card, and they told me to come to Ataun the next day to get it. I went there and they made me return home and come back with the cap that I had on in Aya. I went back with the cap. They slapped me around a little, and yelled at me. And I had to remain quiet. The ribbons were the Basque colours. They gave me a fine of five hundred pesetas and they let me leave.4
Participation in strikes and demonstrations was banned across Spain as a whole, and brought a heavy-handed response from the police, who in the Basque provinces were equally brutal towards any manifestation of separate national consciousness. Repression drove Basque militants off the city streets and up into the hills and mountains where they could plausibly claim to be engaged in climbing or hiking. Others joined ETA as their cuadrilla, that is the groups of boys who hung around together from childhood, and whose bonds were closer than those of extended Basque families. ETA recruiters identify suitable candidates, and then spend months grooming them, through tasks of escalating risk, until they became fully fledged members of the terrorist organisation. It is a long-drawn-out and considered process, with opportunities for disengagement, rather than a hot-blooded spur-of-the-moment enthusiasm.
On 18 July 1961 ETA attempted to derail a train carrying Nationalist veterans of the Civil War to twenty-fifth-anniversary celebrations held in San Sebastian. The attack failed miserably. In response, 110 ETA members were rounded up and tortured, before being given jail sentences of between fifteen and twenty years. Another hundred or so supporters fled across the border to France, whose three French Basque provinces - Soule, Labourd and Basse-Navarre - became a haven for ETA despite the fact that most French Basques reject ETA’s politics. Of course, the highly centralised French state has never conceded its Basques an iota of autonomy.
In exile, the surviving ETA leadership formed an Executive Committee, with four subordinate fronts, for finance, politics, armed struggle and culture. They adopted an eight-year plan, in which propaganda and training would eventuate in an escalating series of terrorist attacks designed to trigger all-out guerrilla war. The Fourth Assembly, held in secret in Spain in 1965, also saw the adoption of the action-repression-action spiral-of-violence theory. Each terrorist attack would provoke a stronger counter-reaction, whose random violence would swell the numbers of ETA supporters. This strategy was much favoured at the time by revolutionaries who seem to have imagined they were directing a play, in control of each actor’s action and reaction. In the case of the Monteneros in Argentina and Tupamaros in Uruguay, this proved to be a disastrous calculation, the sort of thing middle-class students envisage in woeful underestimation of the dark forces they stirred up with their ludic Robin Hood ventures. In Uruguay it led to the replacement of Latin America’s sole democracy by a police state, while in Argentina the military obliterated dissidence through torture or disappearances involving suspects being thrown from helicopters.5
ETA underwent some organisational changes, not least the creation of an Activism Branch of about thirty men under Javier ‘El Cabro’ (the Goat) Zumalde, who took to the mountains to wage armed struggle. This was untypical as most ETA terrorists operated within a five - to twenty-kilometre radius of their homes, and did a regular job in between attacks that occurred at half-yearly intervals. Other commandos were created to rob banks, although the first attempt in September 1965 resulted in the arrest of most of the robbers. Armed robberies and shootouts became more frequent in 1965-8, though only one person was killed as opposed to several wounded in what invariably became gun-fights. On 7 June 1968 a car carrying ETA militants was stopped at a Guardia Civil roadblock set up in a village called Aduna. One of them shot dead a Guardia Civil called José Pardines before fleeing into another checkpoint where the Guardia Civil dragged Txabi Etxebarrieta from the car and shot him beside the road. His accomplice, Inaki Saraskueta, escaped, but was captured, tortured and jailed for life. Etxebarrieta’s death was the pretext for commemorative masses, demonstrations and riots in the streets of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Eibar and Pamplona. St Txabi became a magnet for future recruits.
ETA decided to capitalise on these disturbances, seeking to provoke the reaction that would convert demonstrations into an uprising. On 2 August 1968 ETA gunmen murdered police commissioner Melitón Manzanas, a man not known for his charitable treatment of suspected terrorists, as he returned home to his house in Iran. Partly because it was raining heavily no one could positively identify the killers. Franco responded by declaring a state of emergency in Guipúzcoa province, which in January 1969 was extended to Spain as a whole. About two thousand people were arrested in the Basque provinces, including Gregorio López Irasuegui and his pregnant wife Arantxa Arruti, a couple suspected of involvement with the murder of Manzanas. Despite her condition, Arruti was tortured by the police, which caused her to miscarry. Her husband, who had been released without charge, was recaptured when he and a colleague tried to break into the prison in Pamplona to liberate her. Ballistics experts established that the Czech machine pistol his accomplice carried matched the weapon used to shoot commissioner Manzanas. This sequence of events led to the arrest of several ETA leaders, including two Catholic priests who belonged to the illegal group. Further raids netted virtually most of the rest, although José María Eskubi managed to flee to France joining Krutwig in exile.
The Franco government used a military tribunal to try the so-called Burgos Sixteen of major ETA figures. Prosecutors asked for six death sentences and aggregate jail sentences of seven hundred years, demands which focused national and international attention on the proceedings. The accused endeavoured to politicise the six-day trial by dismissing their lawyers and reading out calls for Basque self-determination, demands punctuated with revolutionary songs. The military judges flourished their ceremonial sabres. Beyond the courtroom, there were riots in Basque cities that led to ugly clashes with the police, and ETA kidnapped Eugen Beihl, the honorary West German consul in San Sebastian. This was designed to influence the sentencing process after the tribunal had found all of the defendants guilty with the exception of Arruti. A few countries broke off diplomatic relations with Spain, while requests for clemency came from pope Paul VI and Jean-Paul Sartre. The painters Joan Miró and Antoni Tápies joined three hundred Catalans in locking themselves in Montserrat’s monastery by way of protest. Biehl was released four days before the sentences were read out. Six men were sentenced to death, and the rest to 341 years in prison. On 30 December Franco commuted the death sentences to thirty-year jail terms. Demonstrations held in support of his regime uncharacteristically inclined him to clemency over the New Year festive season, because ETA’s activities were responsible for a resurgence of the extreme Spanish right within an otherwise senescent Francoism.
That ETA survived was due to the conviction of its military wing (ETA-m) that only sustained violence would stop the loss of members to other groupings on the left that occurred whenever they emphasised political struggle. ETA-m was massively strengthened when in 1970 five hundred members of the PNV youth wing Batasuna went over to ETA, providing the necessary manpower for renewed violence in 1972-5.
The military wing consisted of about fifty to sixty active terrorists organised in five - or six-man commandos, with a ruling directorate of fifteen, at the heart of which was a four-man Executive Committee. They attacked the businesses and homes of known right-wingers in San Sebastian and other towns in the Basque region. In a new development, they kidnapped an industrialist called Lorenzo Zabala Suinaga to influence the outcome of a labour dispute that had led him to dismiss 154 striking workers at his PreciControl factory. ETA demanded their reinstatement, compensation, wage rises and recognition of their union. These conditions were accepted and Zabala was released. Eleven men were arrested in connection with this affair, all aged between twenty-two and thirty-six, with occupations that ranged from butcher, painter and decorator, and truck driver to student. One of them was a Benedictine seminarian called Eustaquio Mendizábal Benito ‘Txikia’, who led ETA during this phase, organising its bank robberies and kidnappings. He was shot dead by the police when he met a fellow etarra at a railway station in April 1973.
In autumn 1972 ETA received a tip that it would be feasible to kidnap admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s right-hand man and chosen successor as the regime struggled to perpetuate itself. Carrero Blanco attended mass every morning in the same Madrid church, accompanied only by a driver and one bodyguard. The aim of the kidnap was to secure the release of 150 etarras in jail. Meanwhile, ETA decided to intervene in another labour dispute, while hoping to also get a ransom for the next kidnap victim. ETA alighted upon the Navarese industrialist Felipe Huarte, scion of a family worth an estimated US$100 million, whose network of factories was plagued by labour troubles. After paying strikers to ensure that a strike at the Torfinasa plant continued beyond its easy resolution, ETA entered Huarte’s home on 16 January 1973, locking his three children and four servants in a cellar until Huarte himself and his wife returned. Huarte was spirited away to a cave near Mendizábal’s home, and then to a safe house near San Sebastian. A ransom of the peseta equivalent of US$800,000 was paid out to intermediaries in Brussels and Paris. Next, ETA raided a powder magazine in Guipúzcoa, making off with 3,000 kilograms of explosive, some of which was used to kill Carrero Blanco after thoughts of kidnapping were abandoned in favour of assassination.
Four men masquerading as economists had rented an apartment from which they could observe his progress each morning to the Church of San Francisco de Borja, near the US embassy in Madrid. By this time Carrero Blanco had been promoted to head of government; his beefed-up security made kidnapping unfeasible. While other etarras were ordered to increase the ambient noise through arson and bomb attacks, four men in a commando named Txikia in honour of the slain Mendizábal moved to carry out Operation Ogro (Ogre). They rented a basement flat at 104 Calle de Claudio Coello, claiming to be sculptors. That explained the noise and dust as they tunnelled under the road, so as to form a tunnel shaped like the letter T. Seventy-five to eighty kilos of Goma 2 explosives were packed in the tunnel, directly below the place where Carrero Blanco would be driven after attending church. A car was double parked to slow his driver down at this deadly spot. On 20 December 1973, ETA commandos disguised as electricians working on cables detonated the bomb as Carrero Blanco’s car slowed down. The blast hurled the car over the five-storey-high wall of the church, killing all three occupants instantaneously.
One unanticipated result of this high-profile assassination was that those members of ETA who favoured a more political approach split from ETA-m to join the myriad leftist sects that formed the coalition party Herri Batasuna, which in 1978 would paradoxically emerge as the political wing of the military faction, however much its members deny this fact. Apart from obvious signs that Franco’s regime was in its death throes, across Europe these years saw the collapse of Salazar’s New State in Portugal and the end of the Greek colonels. A bomb attack on Madrid’s Cafe Rolando, which was favoured by members of the Bureau of Security opposite, which left nine dead and fifty-six wounded, led to the more politically motivated members of ETA seeking to re-establish tighter control over the fighting etarras. They wanted greater co-ordination between the military wing and a mass left-wing movement. When ETA-m rejected this strategy, the political-military wing became ETA p-m, which eventually spawned its own political party Basque Left or Euskadiko Ezkerra after Spain had reverted to democracy. Although the ultimate ideological goals of ETA p-m were more revolutionary, the radicality of ETA-m meant that by the early 1980s it had three times as many members, including anyone weary of the slower political-military route to revolution.
Government responses to ETA terrorism included draconian anti-terrorist laws, military tribunals and ubiquitous pairs of Guardia Civil on the lanes and streets. The latter received extra pay in lieu of danger money and generous leave to serve up north. There was also a darker extra-legal response, the first ‘dirty war’ waged by elements of the police and security services. As the Basques, and many democratic opponents of the regime, celebrated Carrero Blanco’s death with the ‘Waltz of Carrero’, throwing caps, bread and girls in the air while singing ‘He flew, he flew, Carrero flew’, the latter’s admirers struck back in April 1975 when the Mugalde bookshop in Bayonne was bombed by a mysterious group calling itself the Basque Spanish Battalion. A few further attacks followed, many marked by extraordinary incompetence, like the ex-OAS man who blew himself up in Biarritz as he prepared to kill an ETA leader. Following the death of Franco in November 1975, the country moved rapidly to democracy under king Juan Carlos and his moderate conservative prime minister Adolfo Suárez. The rule of law and multiparty democracy were established and the Basques were invited to accept a Statute of Autonomy, which after negotiations that resembled drawing teeth gave them their own regional government and more independence than they had ever enjoyed before. Every single imprisoned member of ETA was amnestied, although this was done on a slow, case-by-case basis, which aggravated the Basques. Instead of responding to this new climate, ETA increased its military operations. This requires explanation, because to outside eyes ETA seemed to have gained most of what it sought.
It is inordinately difficult for anyone who does not use a minority language to understand this mindset, though perhaps one would if one were Welsh or Flemish. The Basque nationalists regarded anything other than total independence as tantamount to linguacide, a view that took little or no account of their fellow Basques’ voluntary immersion in a Spanish culture that flourished after the death of Franco, and of the fact that Basque-language literature hardly existed. Some 24 per cent of Basque voters rejected the new constitution in the December 1978 referendum, in contrast to 8 per cent of voters in the rest of Spain. Three months later 10 per cent of Basques voted for Herri Batasuna in elections for a parliament the party refused to recognise. In March 1980, Herri Batasuna’s share of the poll rose to 16.5 per cent in the first elections to the autonomous Basque parliament. Support for extreme Basque nationalism has remained at around 12 per cent of the Basque population, with support strongest in Euskera-speaking areas. Forty per cent of ETA terrorists also come from Basque-speaking areas. It is worth stressing that the largest political party in Navarre, the Union of the People of Navarre (UPN) founded in 1977 to oppose Basque nationalism, wins about 37 per cent of the vote in elections, and that the majority of Basques too are opposed to ETA, which has murdered many Basque PNV politicians.6
As if to fuel Basque separatist paranoia, in July 1978 mystery gunmen shot up a car driven by former ETA leader Juan José Etxabe in France. He was badly wounded, but his wife was killed by a hail of bullets that almost cut her in half. Another ETA figure, José Miguel Beñaran Ordeñana, was blown to pieces by a bomb in the sleepy French town of Anglet. Further attacks involved rape, before the female victims were shot, and the killing of two gypsy children when a bomb went off outside a playschool. The tactically driven failure of democratic governments to reform the army, intelligence and police services - which thereby acquiesced in Spain’s transition to democracy - meant that parts of the state apparatus were still wedded to the old ways of killing and torture, using Argentine, French and Italian killers to do their dirty work.
In November 1980 about forty people were drinking inside in the Bar Hendayais just across the French border when two men entered and blasted them with a shotgun and bursts from a semi-automatic. Two customers were killed and nine others wounded. The gunmen drove off in a green Renault 18, which sped through the French border post and crashed on the Spanish side. Three men got out with their hands up, and were quickly surrounded by Guardia Civil and armed police. One of those detained proffered a telephone number in Madrid, claiming they were acting under official orders. A policeman then phoned Manuel Ballesteros, head of police intelligence and of the Unified Counter-Terrorist Command, and Spain’s leading expert on ETA. He said: ‘Let the matter drop. No one has seen or heard anything.’ The men disappeared, their identities unknown, never to be seen or heard of again. Across the border, the French police were apoplectic with fury.
The Spanish police intelligence chief was covering for a dirty war waged by an assortment of ultra-right extremists. They included Fuerza Nueva (New Strength) and Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey (Warriors of Christ the King), a version of the Mexican Catholics who had fought the anti-clerical Reds in the 1930s. The personnel included polyglot rightist drifters who washed into Spain on the tide of lost causes: former members of the OAS, the Italian neo-Fascist Ordine Nuovo, the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina or Triple A, and sundry gangsters, fantasists and mercenaries, drawn to what under Franco had been a notorious haven for ex-Nazis and wartime European collaborators. Since this first dirty war has never been extensively investigated, the degree of government involvement remains unclear.
These killings were used as partial justification for ETA’s own outrages. Most of their attacks consisted of individual assassinations or killings of small groups of Guardia Civil, who bore the brunt of their violence. In April 1976 one was imaginatively murdered by a booby-trapped Basque flag that electrocuted him. Targeting was extended to the Basque Ertzaintza police when they participated in counter-terrorism campaigns, and to prison officers too, for holding ETA prisoners in remote Spanish jails became a grievance. Erzaintza officers had to wear black balaclavas to disguise their identities. ETA also murdered several mayors and local government figures for alleged collaboration with the Spanish authorities. More senior army officers have died fighting ETA than in any Spanish war. High-value assassinations included several leading figures in the Spanish armed forces, including more than a dozen generals, the aim being to undermine the compromise the armed forces had made with a democratic Spain, a compromise that was rocked sideways in February 1981 when lieutenant-colonel Antonio Tejero and his comrades hijacked the Spanish parliament for a day. The army in particular has regarded itself as the constitutionally decreed defender of Spain’s territorial integrity, rattling the sabre whenever concessions to separatist sentiment seemed to get out of hand. Industrialists were a favoured target for kidnappings (and kneecappings), either to raise funds or to curry favour with workers involved in labour disputes. More recently ETA has struck at judges, lawyers and journalists, including any of Basque descent brave enough to criticise these fanatical nationalists. I have had the experience of being interviewed on Spanish CNN, on a subject unconnected with terrorism, by an anchorman whose four police bodyguards waited outside the studio door. At night any decent Madrid restaurant frequented by journalists or politicians has bodyguards loitering along the pavements. Finally, ETA also sought to wreck one of Spain’s major industries by leaving bombs at Barajas airport and in such tourist resorts as Benidorm and Marbella. Although ETA prides itself on its precision targeting, and use of prior telephoned warnings, several bomb attacks have resulted in significant innocent casualties. In one incident, a small child was killed after she kicked a bomb that had failed to go off under a passing Guardia Civil jeep. On 19 July 1987 an ETA bomb killed twenty-one people and injured forty-five in Barcelona’s Hipercor shopping centre.
ETA also dealt out death in the course of its own faction feuds and against anyone rash enough to seek amnesty through the Spanish government’s social reinsertion schemes. In April 1976 ETA p-m kidnapped Angel Berazadi, another industrialist. He was killed on the orders of Miguel Angel Apalategui Ayerbe ‘Apala’, the leader of ETA p-m’s Berezi Commando, who was on the run for killing a Guardia Civil. The murder of Berazadi collided with the strategy of ETA p-m’s leader, Eduardo Moreno Bergareche ‘Pertur’, who at that time was exploring a ceasefire with Madrid in order to take ETA along a political course. On 23 July 1976 Pertur and Apala met in Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the French side of the frontier. Pertur agreed to talk without their respective bodyguards and drove off with Apala in a car. He was never seen again. Apala claimed that after their discussion, Pertur had fallen into the hands of Spanish police who had killed him.
In June 1977 Apala was arrested by French police and held in preventative detention in Marseilles as the French refused extradition requests from Spain. A month earlier his Berezi group had abducted the leading industrialist in Bilbao, Javier de Ybarra, demanding the release of twenty-four Basque prisoners, all but two of whom were freed. The arrest of Apala led ETA to up the stakes by demanding a ransom of one billion pesetas, or about US$14 million, a sum even the Ybarra family could not raise. On 20 June his family received a message that he was dead, with a map showing the location of his body, which was eventually found wrapped in a plastic sheet in the highlands of Barazar. To the accompaniment of mass demonstrations in the Basque provinces, French courts endeavoured to decide Apala’s fate, a matter rendered emotive by his ongoing hunger strike. In September 1977 his lawyers secured bail for him; he never turned up for his first scheduled appearance at Marseilles police headquarters.
Those who decide to renounce ETA violence tend not to live long. María Dolores Katarain was an ETA commander, for, like Herri Batasuna, the organisation espouses several contemporary faiths. A pious Catholic, she had wanted to be a missionary in Latin America, until her fervour was re-routed to a political cause. At seventeen she joined ETA, acquiring the code-name ‘Yoyes’. In 1976 she was forced to flee to France where doubts about the organisation she fought for began. She called the life of a terrorist ‘this tomb, this living death that was beginning to suffocate me and in which I was physically dying’. In 1980 she moved to Mexico where she studied sociology and had a child called Akaitz. She decided to return to France in order to negotiate her route back to pre-terrorist normality in Spain. The Spanish authorities agreed not to pressure her into renouncing her political views, while ETA assured her she would be safe. In 1985 she returned to Ordizia, where against her will the Spanish government feted her as a reformed terrorist. Threatening graffiti appeared on walls. She did not help herself by publicly calling Herri Batasuna ‘a puppet of [ETA’s] Fascist militarism’. On 10 September 1986 Yoyes walked with her son to see the town fete. An ETA assassin stalked her: ‘I went up to Yoyes and said, “Are you Yoyes?” She asked me who I was. I said, “I am from ETA and I have come to execute you.” Immediately, I fired two shots from my pistol into her breast. She fell to the ground and I finished her off with another shot to the head.’7
In October 1982 ten million Spanish people voted for the Socialist PSOE in a heady dawn that brought many 1960s radicals to power under the charismatic prime minister (or president of the Council of Ministers), the lawyer Felipe Gonzalez. Among his appointments was José Barrionuevo, who in 1969 had forsaken his Francoist past to join the PSOE. He had been Madrid’s deputy mayor, responsible for the city’s police. He became Spain’s interior minister, retaining many of the intelligence and police officers left over from the Franco years. After ETA had murdered the general commanding the army’s elite Brunete Division, the Socialists adumbrated Plan ZEN - the Spanish acronym for ‘Special Northern Zone’ - which perpetuated the Francoist policy of saturating the Basque country with intrusive policing. This availed them little because ETA could fall back on its cross-border sanctuary in France.
Spanish efforts to get the French to crack down on ETA’s organisation failed because the French did not realise that the Socialists were conceding many Basque nationalist demands; the French also clung to a romantic view of political refugees to compensate for their own dubious policies in the 1930s and 1940s. This led senior elements in Gonzalez’s government, which many suspect included the prime minister himself, to launch a second dirty war, which had commenced even before the murder squad GAL was formed when two young ETA members, Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala, the latter on the run in France with his friend after a bank raid, vanished in autumn 1983. Although the police did not realise it at the time, their bones turned up on Alicante’s coast two years later when they were disturbed by a dog. As it would transpire much later, they had been abducted in Bayonne by Guardia Civil and then held in a disused palace assigned to the civil governor and the Ministry of the Interior. There they had been repeatedly tortured before being shot in the back of the neck. A little after their disappearance, an ETA leader riding a scooter in Hendaye was rammed by a Ford Talbot that loomed into view behind him. Four men put a hood on his head and tried to drag him into the boot of the car. French police stumbled on this attempted abduction and found themselves arresting a police inspector and a captain and two sergeants from Spain’s crack anti-terrorism unit. They claimed the incident had been a traffic accident. Later their story shifted to wanting to have a word with their victim. Released on bail, they disappeared back to Spain.
The formation responsible for these nefarious activities was called Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberacíon or GAL, in English Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups. Its bombers, kidnappers and killers were an idiosyncratic assortment of boxers, publicans, Marseilles gangsters, mercenaries and a lady so short that the recoil from the shotguns and rifles she used to kill nine people with routinely almost knocked her flat. Her nickname was ‘the Black Lady’, or ‘the Blonde Assassin’ when she donned a platinum-blonde wig. Unlike the ideological neo-Fascists who ran the first dirty war, these individuals worked like bounty hunters for money. That they had nicknames like ‘the Godfather’ tells one about the general milieu. Their strategy did not baulk at the occasional collateral French Basque casualty since, as GAL correctly anticipated, in September 1984 this prompted the French to resort to existing national security laws that enabled them to deport ETA terrorists to remote third countries such as Panama or Togo that were paid to receive them. Transcripts of conversations recorded by Spain’s intelligence services reveal that, at the time GAL was being mooted, some of the lower-ranking operators had more doubts than their chiefs. A Guardia Civil sergeant Pedro Gomez Nieto said to his chief colonel Enrique Rodriguez Galindo:
Let’s think this through, mi comandante: What guarantees do we have that this is really worth doing? That is to say, mi comandante, we go there, we take someone out. That is the least of it, you know what we gain from that. You already know that one thing we may achieve is that there will be 10 new members who join ETA as a result of this action. Have you thought about the kind of publicity this will get? What kind of cover-up line are we going to give to the media?
As if to illustrate this objection, on 20 November 1984 two gunmen disguised as gypsies walked into the Bilbao clinic of Santiago Brouard, who was treating a small girl while her parents looked on. In addition to being a much loved paediatrician, ‘Uncle Santi’ was a leading light of Herri Batasuna, which he represented in the Basque parliament. The gunmen shot him five times in the head and once in the hand as he tried to defend himself in the only attack GAL conducted on Spanish soil. Apart from the nurse, who recalled bewigged gypsies pushing past her, the parents were the only witnesses, but they failed to appear when the killers were tried. There had been a car accident in which the mother and daughter had been killed; the husband had been blinded. ETA gunmen ambushed a general whose brother had instituted the social reinsertion programme designed to deradicalise ETA supporters. An estimated half a million people turned out for Brouard’s funeral. GAL killers had a similar regard for collateral casualties to that of ETA itself. When in February 1985 they attacked the Batxoki bar in Petit Bayonne, girls aged three and five were among those wounded, by gunmen who had expressed their concern about the children’s presence, but had been expressly ordered by their chief to disregard it. Exactly a year later GAL assassins who had mounted an ambush on a remote road near Bidarray contrived to kill a sixty-year-old shepherd and a sixteen-year-old Parisian holidaymaker who had been desperate to see some newborn lambs while she stayed in her parents’ caravan. The tough interior minister Charles Pasqua in Jacques Chirac’s new administration decided to terrorise the terrorists. One ETA leader with refugee status was deported to Algeria, while - making use of a 1945 edict - twenty-six ETA activists were handed directly to Spain.
In addition to making little or no impact on ETA atrocities, which averaged forty deaths a year throughout the 1980s, revelations by investigative journalists and magistrates into the GAL death squads prompted the Socialist government to use every trick in the book to frustrate them in one of the most unedifying and protracted cover-ups in modern European history. The fashionably long-haired idealists of the 1960s had mutated, during what would be fourteen years in power, into a corrupt clique that made policy around a private bar in the Moncloa palace in the company of ‘los beautiful’, that is their intimate circle of wealthy bankers, while less savoury figures shot at children and shepherds in the Pays Basque.
Dogged magistrates like Baltasar Garzón followed the money trail, discovering ‘reserved funds’ attached to the Ministry of Interior which were being used to pay for GAL’s activities. Individual police officers, like superintendent Amedo, had bank accounts containing exorbitant sums; Amedo’s held twenty-seven million pesetas when his net annual salary was just under two million, a disparity that seemed to explain his sybaritic lifestyle. The Socialists used every available method to obstruct investigations into GAL murders - notably withholding evidence and rallying around the accused to prevent them turning state’s witness - while smearing journalists, lawyers and the conservative opposition for pursuing this. The belligerently porcine Gonzalez himself insisted that ‘no one will succeed in demonstrating’ links between GAL and the state, while simultaneously claiming that ‘The rule of law is defended in the courts, and in the salons, but also in the sewers,’ a devious way of saying that GAL’s actions were justified. Apparently preferring Hobbes to Montesquieu, Gonzalez would subsequently claim that the judiciary had become over-mighty vis-a-vis the elected executive. Another, disgraceful form of defence was to claim that ‘everybody else does it’. Gonzalez’s wife, the noted democrat and feminist Carmen Romero, claimed: ‘Why should we lose sleep because of a phenomenon which has happened in Spain like it happened in France, in Germany, in all democratic countries? Phenomena of dirty tricks, settling of accounts, are normal in very many countries.’ This was said in the context of José Barrionuevo, her husband’s former interior minister, being jailed for ten years for his involvement with GAL, following several very senior police figures into prison.8
ETA atrocities ran parallel with these revelations. Brief ceasefires in the late 1980s came to nothing, with ETA complaining about the pace of negotiations. In 1992 it launched its local version of the Palestinian Intifada - the kale borroka or street struggle - in which groups of youths and minors vandalised buses, street lamps, ATMs, telephone kiosks and rubbish bins, while beating up anyone carrying a Spanish newspaper. This was designed to increase the flow of recruits who lacked their grandparents’ experiences of being beaten up by Guardia Civil. Three years later ETA put forward a ‘Democratic Alternative’ in which it offered a cessation of violence in return for Madrid recognising the sovereignty of the Basque people over ‘their’ territory, the right to self-determination, and the release of all ETA prisoners. This was rejected. That year, ETA narrowly failed to kill the opposition leader, José María Aznar, with a car bomb, making an abortive attempt on the life of king Juan Carlos too. In July 1997, by which time Aznar was prime minister, ETA kidnapped a People’s Party deputy, Miguel Angel Blanco, ordering the government to relocate all ETA prisoners within forty-eight hours. He was shot dead when the government did not respond. Six million people demonstrated throughout Spain—including the Basque country—to secure his release, with many more coming on to the streets to scream ‘Assassins!’ after Blanco had been killed. In 1998 ETA declared a unilateral ceasefire, so as to negotiate with Aznar’s government, a ceasefire the terrorists broke in 2000, and which they may only have called so as to regroup and rearm. On 6 November 2001 sixty-five people were hurt by a car bomb in Madrid, with further attacks on football stadiums and tourist resorts. The events of 9/11 led to the banning of Herri Batasuna and the nationalist youth group Jarrai. Spanish police have thwarted several ETA attacks—not least by detecting an enormous truck bomb by a motorway. Another ‘permanent’ ceasefire declared on 22 March 2006 was called off on 5 June the following year. To herald this development ETA killed two Ecuadorean immigrants in December 2006 as they napped in a car at Barajas airport when ETA collapsed a car park with a bomb. ETA apologised for what it called these ‘collateral casualties’.
ETA is engaged in armed struggle to this day. It claims that it has been cheated of the further possibilities allegedly promised when the Basques achieved autonomy. It further claims that many of the things the Basques were granted were never implemented. Relatives of ETA prisoners are aggrieved that they have to make a two-thousand-kilometre round trip on a coach for each forty-minute visit to their fathers or husbands in remote Huelva. People suspected of ETA involvement claim they have been beaten, given electric shocks or threatened with rape with a vibrator, although forensic physicians dispute such claims. What is not in dispute is that ETA has waded sufficiently far out into a river of blood that it cannot psychologically turn back. To do so would dishonour so many of its own glorious dead. Successive Spanish governments have resisted talks with ETA, and eventually banned Herri Batasuna, which meant that a few Basque towns were disfranchised. That in turn meant that supposedly democratic nationalist politicians, beyond Batasuna, emitted ambiguous responses to ETA violence sufficient to justify it. At present, ETA is attempting to extort immense sums of four hundred thousand euros from each of the two thousand Basque businesses it has sent threatening letters to. The situation is so grave and complex that the Northern Irish Redemptorist priest Alex Reid is among those clerics trying to resolve it. There is a wealth of grim experience there too.9
II STATES OF SIEGE
The Northern Irish countryside is as lushly green as the Basque country, but the skies tend to be grey and louring rather than blue. The cities are less elegant, consisting at the centre of rows of red-brick terraces of two-up-and-two-down houses, and vast housing estates which feel very grim under the glare of the sodium lights that make so many British cities seem like they have been drowned in a fizzy drink at night. Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland had core political and socio-economic rights, including the vote at general elections, a free press, and levels of state welfare that did not exist in the Irish Republic. This was one of the reasons why the Republic’s claims to the North remained largely rhetorical—albeit asserted in its constitution—since picking up the social security tab north of the border would have bankrupted an Eire to which EEC structural subsidies were as yet a dream unfulfilled. Take a few vital statistics.
Although Northern Ireland had half the population of the Republic, in 1964 it had ninety-five thousand children in secondary schools, as opposed to eighty-five thousand in Eire. Northern Ireland’s schools were and are some of the best in the United Kingdom. Using contemporary British decimal coin rather than historic shillings, in 1963 the Republic spent 85p per head on university education; the equivalent sum for Northern Ireland was £2.44. In 1969 an unemployed man in Northern Ireland received £4.50 a week while his unemployed opposite number in the South got £3.25; the same disparity existed for a widow’s weekly pension in both countries too. Northern Ireland was not South Africa or the US Deep South. Except for a few diehard bigots there were no impediments to social (or sexual) intercourse between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Protestant friends of mine from Dungannon say that they often dated Catholic girls, who tended to be more feminine than the butch Unionists. Unlike the US Deep South, they could do this without fear of being lynched. There was another distinction. African-Americans marched for equal rights, not to abolish the Union, which is what many Irish republican civil rights activists wanted.10
However, in some parts of Northern Ireland both access to social housing and control of local government were blatantly gerrymandered. In narrowly Protestant-dominated Dungannon, for example, no Catholics were offered a permanent council house for nearly a quarter of a century. There was also the curious way in which 911,940 registered electors entitled to vote for the provincial parliament at Stormont became 658,778 voters in local government elections. Although Londonderry was 60 per cent Catholic, Unionists had a permanent majority of 12: 8 on the city council. This was achieved by excluding Catholic lodgers and subtenants from a voting system that favoured resident occupiers, while concentrating ten thousand Catholic voters in one ward so as to guarantee a Unionist majority in the other two.
Protestants were not to blame if it proved impossible to raise the numbers of Catholics in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) from 11 per cent so as match those from Church of Ireland or Presbyterian backgrounds. After all, if you contest the legitimacy of a state, only an act of monumental hypocrisy would allow you to serve it. Catholics were most likely to be found in unskilled employment, heavily dependent upon catching a foreman’s or gang-master’s unprejudiced eye, while Protestants had solid skilled trades in engineering and shipbuilding. A father’s membership of a lodge belonging to the quasi-masonic Orange Order would help if a boy was seeking an apprenticeship in the shipyards of Harland and Wolff, whose towering yellow cranes dominate the Belfast skyline. Catholics were 31 per cent of the economically active population, but only 6 per cent of mechanical engineers, 8 per cent of university teachers, 9 per cent of senior local government bureaucrats and so on. The one area they were not discriminated against was access to higher education, for by 1971 Catholics were 32 per cent of students at the prestigious Queen’s University in Belfast. One of the most memorable aspects of these years was the emergence of a highly articulate generation of Catholic civil rights leaders, such as Bernadette Devlin and John Hume.
But that was a mixed blessing if graduate access to professions was blocked by opaque forces that noted the Christian name Bernadette, Brendan, Finbar, Liam, Malachi or Mary, a Falls Road address, a school called Blessed this or Sacred that, and hair that was black rather than ginger, although one prominent PIRA (Provisional IRA) Belfast leader is inevitably nicknamed ‘Ginger’ for just this reason.11 These details marked one out as a ‘Croppie’, ‘Fenian’ or ‘Taig’, this last being the short form for the Gaelic equivalent of Timothy. Even reformist measures seemed always to tilt to one side of the sectarian divide. When a decision was made to establish a new university at Coleraine, this was situated within a predominantly Protestant area, as was a new town provocatively called Craigavon (after James Craig, the Unionist politician ennobled as Lord Craigavon). There was a further fact that is often lost sight of by those inclined always to see one underdog. When new tower blocks went up in predominantly Catholic areas in the 1960s, these seemed luxurious to Protestants living in rat-infested terraced housing where the walls felt damp to the touch. A Protestant recalled what life was like:
I was from very much a working-class background. We had two small rooms downstairs, two bedrooms upstairs, no hot running water and the old outside toilet. We lived in small, steep streets with terraced houses. You almost felt that if you took the bottom one away, all the rest would collapse like a deck of cards. Not only was I not a first-class citizen, I remember the absolute sense of indignation and outrage whenever I was accused of being one. There was this explicit inference to Catholics being second-class citizens and therefore this inference that I was in some way depriving them of their rights. I can distinctly recall, even as a sixteen-year-old, looking round my humble surroundings at home and saying, ‘Well, if this is second-class citizenship, I really wouldn’t want to meet the third-class citizens.’12
For a very brief moment in the early 1960s it seemed as if change would confound Churchill’s famous observation about the grim permanence of this sectarian quarrel. A dash of 1960s optimism characterised the Northern Ireland premiership of Terence O’Neill, acting almost contrary to type. O’Neill had little alternative to modernising the economy since Ulster’s linen and shipbuilding industries were in steep decline, creating unemployment rates twice those of the mainland UK. One method was to attract outside investment, luring such firms as Grundig, Goodyear and Michelin, although new manufacturing capacity never matched the closure of the old firms. Another was to end the cold war between Dublin and Belfast, which had ensured that the prime ministers of Northern Ireland and the Irish taoiseach had not met since the 1920s, although there were lesser official contacts on the stands of rugby matches. O’Neill was also the first Unionist premier to visit Catholic schools or to shake hands with nuns. This was revolutionary, since one of his august predecessors had boasted that he had never knowingly employed a Roman Catholic.
In 1965 taoiseach Sean Lemass visited Northern Ireland, with O’Neill making two reverse trips. These developments appalled a thrusting evangelical preacher called Ian Paisley who shouted ‘NO MASS, LEMASS!’ Paisley was the US-educated moderator of his own Free Presbyterian Church; he became first minister of Northern Ireland in May 2007 at the age of eighty-one. A lumbering charismatic demagogue with a gift for exploiting the bad publicity of an almost entirely hostile media, Paisley articulated a beleaguered brand of Unionist sentiment no longer encompassed by the staid Unionist Party. Working-class Protestants were losing their ingrained deference to the Unionist ruling classes whom Paisley dismissed as ‘the fur-coat brigade’ living in posh suburbs or country houses.13
Paisley spoke for the inner-city Protestant working class and for Protestant farmers in the province’s rural sectarian hotspots. These people had a visceral fear of Catholicism, and specifically of the wily ways of the Roman Catholic Church, for after all, through ethnic cleansing and regulations on mixed marriages, Protestantism had been virtually extinguished in the South within living memory. It was obligatory in Eire to have Gaelic to enter state employment, even though few Protestants knew it. Catholic prohibitions on abortion and contraception also made the South seem benighted to those who saw these things as part of modernity. When northern Protestants sang ‘Our Fathers knew the Rome of old and evil is thy name’, they meant it. Protestants felt besieged, a feeling that came easily to people for whom king James Il’s siege of Londonderry was part of their historical identity. They lived in Derry City, parading around the fortified walls every August, so as to look down on the majority Catholic population in the extramural slums of the Bogside below. On vast bonfires they burned effigies of the pope; as someone said, Protestants were those who burned wood. Their basic foundation myth was that Ireland had been an undeveloped bog inhabited by feckless idiots until the forces of civilisation arrived in the North.14
In 1964 Paisley indirectly provoked the worst rioting in Northern Ireland when he insisted that an RUC that was 89 per cent Protestant enforce the 1954 Flags and Emblems Act by removing an Irish tricolour from republican headquarters in the Catholic Falls Road district of Belfast. Flying that flag, with its faux-ecumenical incorporation of an orange that Catholics insisted was yellow, was an assertion of Catholics ‘in’ Northern Ireland rather than of Catholics ‘of’ Northern Ireland.
Catholics did not fear Protestants for reasons of their religion; in their eyes the English Reformation was a theological fix-up to sanction a royal divorce. Rather they feared the prosperity and the political power of Protestants as manifested in the Stormont regime in Ulster, behind whose Unionist MPs lurked the Orange Order, and the raw bigotry that they exclusively attributed to their Protestant neighbours. This was at its most elementally abrasive in the bonfire and marching season of July and August. Youngsters spent weeks collecting wooden pallets and rubber tyres for huge fires, upon which perched effigies of the pope or nationalist MP Gerry Fitt. Orangemen thumped giant Lambeg drums to the jaunty tune of ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ as their sergeant-majors launched their staffs improbably high in the air, the ‘catch-up’ marked by a hip-shaking swagger. The piercing pipes gave aggressive menace to songs like ‘We are, we are, we are the Billy Boys / We are, we are, we are the Billy Boys / Up to our necks in Fenian blood.’ Some commentators find all this quaintly stirring; I find it vaguely nauseating in its abridgement of British values to those of a tribe.15
Beyond what was legal, and all this was, darker forces began to stir when in 1966 a small group calling itself the Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF, based in the backstreet bars of the mainly Protestant Shankill Road, decided to attack a quiescent IRA. However, unlike policemen or soldiers, the IRA were not so easy to identify, so the UVF made do with Catholics in general—a policy of brazen casualness. They murdered a seventy-seven-year-old Protestant widow in a firebomb attack on a neighbouring Catholic drink store; a drunken Catholic man wandering up the Falls Road shouting ‘Up the Republic, up the rebels!’; and a young Catholic hotel barman who went to a late-night drinking den with his friends and was shot dead when UVF members marked them as supporters of the IRA after mishearing snippets of their conversation.16
Inspired by the example of civil rights activists elsewhere, a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in January 1967. A highly articulate new generation of Catholic leaders came to the fore. Protestants secretly envied their articulacy, while resenting them as ‘uppity’ Fenians and Taigs. The movement also included a number of IRA figures, who in search of a pie for their fingers saw it as another route to realising their republican agenda. In no sense were they the decisive or directing hand behind a movement that was too inchoate to control and which was part of a global generational revolt in the 1960s. The extreme-left students who were prominent in the movement consciously sought to provoke what they could characterise as a Fascist reaction from the ‘Orange Tories’, the necessary prelude to a full-scale revolution. Instead they were engulfed by a sectarian civil war as old monsters surfaced from the sea deeps.17
Along with its calls for an end to discrimination by the police or in public housing, the movement crystallised around the slogan ‘one man, one vote’ in protest against the disqualification of mainly Catholic lodgers, subtenants and young people living at home from voting in local government elections. As the wise Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote, there was something of Antigone provoking Creon about such civil rights starlets as Bernadette Devlin, known to critics as a three parts innocent abroad. The civil rights movement borrowed the US tactic of marches to the sound of ‘We Shall Overcome’, in a sectarian context with a very developed sense of ‘our’ territory. Orange marches were an assertion of dominance; therefore, whatever the civil rights rhetoric, predominantly Catholic marches must be assertions of Roman dominance too. Left-wing activists deliberately selected routes to maximise the likelihood of trouble.
A march that took place despite being prohibited in Londonderry in October 1968 resulted in a police riot which put more than seventy people in hospital. As the young Max Hastings reported at the time, with their revolvers, Sten-guns, armoured water wagons and tear gas, the RUC was not in the mould of Dixon of Dock Green, the avuncular star of a 1960s TV London police drama. There were also the part-time Special Constables or B Specials, that is another eight thousand Protestants armed with guns. Close-up television footage showed a senior RUC officer bludgeoning demonstrators, among them three Labour MPs, one of whom, Gerry Fitt, was soon covered in blood from a head wound.18 How that situation was engineered for the cameras probably warrants notice. In January 1969 a radical wing of the civil rights movement, called People’s Democracy, principally associated with Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann, ignored mainstream advice and marched from Belfast to Londonderry, a route that took them through some heavily Protestant villages. At Burntollet Bridge in rural County Londonderry the marchers were ambushed by loyalists, as the RUC appeared to stand by idly, watching Protestants—including off-duty police officers—smashing up Catholics. The civil rights marchers may have called for civil rights and socialism (while shouting ‘Get the Protestants!’ despite themselves) but the effect of their actions was to spark deep-seated ethno-nationalist sectarian hatreds.19
In the interests of a quiet life, the British had enabled the Unionists to dominate Ulster for fifty years, and the latter had manifestly failed to improve the lives of the minority population. Having alienated them, they were losing working-class Protestant support to self-styled loyalist groupings, that is people whose primary attachment was Ulster itself rather than the United Kingdom. The queen-on-the-wall, red-white-and-blue ultra-Britishness of the Unionists seemed alien to an English majority, beyond a few old biddies in London’s East End, for whom demonstrative patriotism is something that Americans and foreigners do. Both major British parties regarded the louder sort of Unionist as embarrassing parodies of their former Victorian selves, although that feeling was stronger among Conservatives than among Labour politicians who had no historic links with Unionism. Labour ministers had no special regard for the upper-class former army officers of the Unionist Party, who insisted on being called ‘captain’ this or ‘major’ that more than a decade after the war. Scenes of violence led prime minister Harold Wilson and home secretary James Callaghan to use threats to curtail transferred subsidies to Northern Ireland to force O’Neill to accelerate the pace of reform. The trouble was that ‘in a rising market, Unionism always tried, unsuccessfully, to buy reform at last year’s prices’, offering belated compromises to people whose demands had already moved on. O’Neill was also subjected to a devious campaign of sabotage conducted by the UVF but blamed on the IRA. A homosexual paedophile, William McGrath, and a gay Protestant terrorist, John MacKeague, bombed Belfast’s electricity grid and water infrastructure. These attacks were blamed on the IRA so that it would seem that O’Neill’s putative liberalism had encouraged them. Although O’Neill had finally accepted ‘one man, one vote’, in April 1969 he resigned his post in favour of his kinsman, the remarkably similar James Chichester-Clark. In a televised address, O’Neill said: ‘For too long we have been torn and divided. Ours is called a Christian country. We could have enriched our politics with our Christianity; but far too often we have debased our Christianity with our politics. We seem to have forgotten that love of neighbour stands beside love of God as a fundamental principle of our religion.’20
By August, the height of the local summer marching season, an Apprentice Boys’ parade in Londonderry was stoned by Catholic youths after a few coins had flown the other way. The Catholics were attacked by the RUC and Protestant rioters who followed wherever the police opened up a path for them with their batons, tear gas and water cannons. Unhelpfully, the Irish taoiseach, Jack Lynch, set up field hospitals in border areas of the Republic while calling for UN intervention to protect Catholics. Loose talk in Dublin of despatching the Irish army to protect Catholics, at a time when it had a mere 11,500 troops, merely raised Unionist hackles. The rioting spread from Londonderry to Belfast, where the first shots were fired. Near Divis Flats on the Falls Road, rioting youths hurled petrol bombs at the RUC; as night fell, there was the periodic crack and muzzle flash of a sniper as the IRA disinterred ancient guns from attics and floorboards.
The RUC responded by wildly strafing the flats with .30 Browning machine guns mounted on Shorland armoured cars. Patrick Rooney, a nine-year-old Catholic boy, had half of his head blown off when a round flew into his bedroom. Eight people were killed and 750 injured, while some 180 homes were gutted by fire. Eighteen hundred families were forced to flee their homes, like refugees from a war zone. With a total strength of 3,200, the RUC was exhausted and depleted by weeks of dealing with mob violence; this forced Chichester-Clark to ask Wilson to despatch the British army. By the end of August there were six thousand troops on the streets. They came equipped with signs to deter rioters written in Arabic since their last posting had been in Aden. The locals found the accents of Birmingham, East London, Glasgow and Newcastle challenging, just as the soldiers had to get used to ‘oul’ for ‘old’ and ‘youse’ as a plural ‘you’. Operation Banner had commenced, with troop numbers rising to over twenty-five thousand by 1972, and enduring until August 2007.
The soldiers were enthusiastically welcomed in the Catholic Bogside, where locals urged them to shoot Protestants throwing petrol bombs, saying ‘If you won’t use the guns, give them to us who will.’21 James Callaghan was also popular when he arrived to boss posh Unionist politicians around with the commanding bluntness of a former navy petty officer turned senior cabinet minister. ‘Sunny Jim’ had a steely interior behind the amiable disposition. But scenes of relieved Catholic housewives inundating British squaddies with tea did not conceal a major error of policy. For, in an act almost guaranteed to confuse the army with the local Unionist agenda, Stormont was perpetuated, as if it was under the protection of British soldiers. British officials conducted separate inquiries into the origins of these disturbances and the conduct of the RUC and B Specials. The latter were abolished and a new, smaller Ulster Defence Regiment or UDR placed under army control. A senior policeman from London was brought in to reform the RUC. This triggered rioting in the loyalist Shankill Road and the first death of a policeman. A UVF member blew himself up near an electricity pylon in Donegal.
One final aspect of these events was the emergence of the Provisional IRA. The southern-led IRA had been conspicuously slow to fulfil its traditional role of defender of the northern Catholic community in crisis. Contemptuous graffiti reading ‘IRA = I ran away’ appeared in Catholic ghettos. The southern Marxist leadership was obsessed with the surreal goal of uniting the Catholic and Protestant working classes in the name of socialism. This theoretical gobbledygook led to the breakaway of republican traditionalists in the Provisional IRA and Provisional Sinn Fein on a platform of ‘combined defence and retaliation’. Its leader was John Stephenson, or as he preferred Séan MacStiofáin, a forty-year-old with an English father who had been brought up in south London. He was a rabid anti-Communist and a devotee of the Irish language, all reflective of the fanaticism of a convert. His Catholicism was so orthodox that he even refused to import rubber condoms into the Republic for PIRA to test the utility of acid bomb fuses. MacStiofáin was joined by two schoolteachers: the first president of Provisional Sinn Féin, Ruarí Ó Brádaigh, and Dáithi Ó Conaill (or Dave O’Connell), the first PIRA quartermaster-general. Leo Martin, Joe Cahill and Billy McKee from Belfast also joined the PIRA Army Council, giving the lie to the claim that Gerry Adams and his Young Turk northern friends dramatically wrested control away from southerners in the late 1970s. The Official IRA declared a ceasefire, and were thence known as ‘Stickies’.
At the time there were about forty to sixty IRA men in Belfast, a limitation that favoured the rise of an aggressive new generation of local leaders, notably Gerry Adams, who in 1969 became the city’s PIRA commander, while his father, mother and siblings (with the exception of a sister) came across too. He married, although he would never allow his wife to engage with the PIRA women’s formation. His memoirs rather too vividly conjure up the world of the Falls Road, with its street characters, urchin gangs, wakes, superstitions and belief in fairies.22 There was, and is, no record that Adams had ever fired a gun or planted a bomb in his life. His talents lay elsewhere. Under the general leadership of Joe Cahill and then Seamus Twomey, Adams was second in command of the Belfast PIRA, with Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes as his deputies. The Provisionals gradually established an underground version of martial law within Catholic ghettos from which the police had withdrawn while the army patrolled the perimeters beyond. The Provisional IRA’s limited platform, with socialism shorn of Marxism, would appeal to supporters in the USA. The most atavistic republicanism one can encounter is that of Irish-America, not just that of the Boston or New York Ancient Order of Hibernians, but of billionaires rich enough to donate a house in Palm Springs for charity. For the next thirty years there would be plenty of defence and retaliation, and much offence too, for in January 1970 the PIRA Army Council declared an all-out attack on the ‘British occupation system’.23
In this they were aided and abetted by prominent members of Dublin’s Fianna Fáil cabinet which surreptitiously colluded with the Irish intelligence service in supplying the PIRA with combat weaponry, partly so as to diminish the challenge from the Marxist Official IRA in the South by deflecting armed republicanism north. Between 20 August and 2 March 1970, a total of £100,000 of Irish public money was relayed via bank accounts in Dublin and Clones to Belfast, from where some of it went back to other Dublin accounts to be used to purchase arms.
Although key UVF leaders like Gusty Spence were in jail for the murder of Peter Ward, a much larger pool of potential loyalist terrorists was created as Protestants formed local defence associations to protect themselves from IRA or sectarian Catholic attack. Men dressed in camouflage jackets, bush caps and face masks, and armed with baseball bats and clubs, patrolled Protestant areas. One of these groups, the Shankill Defence Association, formed a clandestine elite called the Red Hand Commandos, which was closely linked to the UVF.
In June 1970 republicans killed two Protestants in the Catholic Short Strand enclave of east Belfast, action which led the army to strike against them. Without military intelligence structures in place, the army was fatefully reliant upon the RUC’s idiosyncratic identification of republican terrorists, which in turn meant that many innocent people had the experience of soldiers smashing through their front doors, ripping up floorboards or tearing the doors from cupboards, and roughly handling many of those they arrested. In July 1970 troops imposed a curfew on twenty thousand people living in the lower Falls Road, and shot dead three men who breached it, while running over a fourth with an armoured vehicle. The experience of being humiliated by British troops became one of the main recruiting mechanisms for the PIRA, as did the decision—at the prompting of prime minister Brian Faulkner—on 9 August 1971 to introduce internment for suspected terrorists. This was decided after five engineers had been killed by an IRA bomb while servicing a BBC transmitter, and three off-duty Scottish soldiers—one aged seventeen, his brother a year older—had been lured to a remote spot where while relieving themselves they were shot at close range by PIRA assassins.24 Ironically, the British general officer commanding Northern Ireland, lieutenant-general Harry Tuzo, was opposed to internment, not least because if it was not simultaneously introduced in the Republic it would be hopelessly ineffective. Thousands of people were picked up under Operation Demetrius. Some of them had not fought for the IRA since the Easter Rising of 1916. It was revealing that, of the 1,590 interned between 9 August and 15 December 1971, only eighteen were eventually charged with criminal offences. It was revealing too that whereas there had been twenty-five deaths in the six months before the introduction of internment, in the following six months the IRA killed 185 people. Some detainees were subjected to rough treatment, or to psychological tortures involving sensory deprivation and white noise. Long-term internees were held at a camp on the disused RAF base at Long Kesh. With its Nissen huts and barbed-wire fences this looked like a Second World War German prison-of-war camp; that was exactly how its terrorist inmates wanted to see it. On the continent, idiot Belgian socialists compared Long Kesh with Dachau in newspaper images one can now see displayed in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library of the Troubles.25 In March 1976 the camp was renamed the Maze prison, and the Nissen huts were replaced by the H-Blocks—reforms which did nothing to lessen the republican propaganda.
Meanwhile, on 15 May 1971 some three hundred members of the Protestant defence associations met in a Belfast school to form an Ulster Defence Association or UDA. Like the PIRA, this had a military structure borrowed from the British army—brigades, battalions, companies, platoons and sections. Eventually some thirty to fifty thousand men joined this legal organisation, which in early 1973 spawned a much more select terrorist group called the Ulster Freedom Fighters or UFF. In July 1972, Gusty Spence was allowed out of Crumlin Road jail for a couple of days to attend his daughter’s wedding. He gave his word he would return. Technically Spence honoured this vow by arranging his own kidnapping by the UVF, action that afforded the Orange Pimpernel, as he became known, four months to reorganise the UVF while acquiring arms through raids on police and Territorial Army bases. Many of these men were motivated by a raging desire for revenge after incidents like the 29 September 1971 PIRA bombing of the Shankill Road’s Four Step Inn, which led to two deaths and many injured. Fifty thousand people attended the funerals. The PIRA leader, Séan MacStiofáin, had decided to indulge in indiscriminate sectarian murder, although that is not how he would describe it.
Britain had no economic interest in Northern Ireland, and scarcely feared that the severely Catholic South would become another Cuba were it not for the Protestant presence in the North. Nor did the army derive any advantage in terms of training from having its men scuttling along Londonderry back alleys, at a time when the main war it might have to fight was against Soviet tanks on the plains of north Germany. Au fond, Britain was fighting for the territorial integrity of its own domestic empire, for the rule of law against an armed minority, and because ministers believed that ‘terrorism, by its very nature, represents a relapse into barbarism and savagery that unites the entire civilised world in determined and unquenchable opposition’.
Policy had to be made against a backdrop of worsening violence. In 1971 a total of 180 people were killed in Northern Ireland, the majority victims of the PIRA. The twenty-nine killed by British troops proved contentious, since some of the victims were teenaged rioters, whom the army routinely claimed had possessed firearms. PIRA attacks against policemen who were invariably Protestant inevitably fuelled a desire for revenge on the other side. The UVF carried out its most deadly attack in December 1971 when a fifty-pound gelignite device demolished McGurk’s bar in north Belfast killing fifteen Catholics. They included Mrs Philomena McGurk and the couple’s fourteen-year-old daughter Maria, and a thirteen-year-old boy friendly with the McGurks who happened to be visiting them in the flat above the bar. The army endeavoured to lay the blame on the PIRA by claiming that the bomb was being primed inside when it went off. A week later the PIRA struck back, bombing the Balmoral Furnishing Company on the Shankill Road, murdering four shoppers, or rather two adults, two-year-old Tracey Munn and her adopted brother, seventeen-month-old Colin Munn, who were crushed when a wall collapsed on their pram. One wonders what political cause explains that.
Five hundred people died in 1972, the nadir of the Troubles as a whole. The year began inauspiciously with Ireland’s Second Blood Sunday. On 30 January thirteen unarmed men were shot dead by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment despatched to contain the violent aftermath of a civil rights rally in Londonderry. The army leadership was exasperated by endless rioting, while mindful that PIRA snipers could be operating within peaceful crowds participating in an illegal demonstration. Claiming they had been fired on, soldiers ran amok, it being questionable why the most battle-hardened regiment in the British army should have been policing an illegal civilian demonstration in the first place. No weapons were found on or near any of those killed. After a contemporary judicial inquiry, widely deemed to have been a whitewash, a further (pointless) inquiry continues to this day, the only beneficiaries being the lawyers who have racked up costs totalling £200 million in a process that many regard as an obscene waste of public money solely designed to placate republicans.
In Dublin an angry mob burned down the British embassy. An Ulster vanguard movement was set up by the Unionist politician William Craig, who told its monster rallies: ‘We must build up dossiers on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.’ In March 1972 the British government abruptly terminated Stormont and introduced direct rule from the new Northern Ireland Office at Westminster. They had concluded that Stormont was part of the problem rather than the solution; direct rule would provide breathing space for inter-communal and cross-border talks to resolve the problem. That July, four UVF/UDA loyalists, hyped up by the imminent bonfire night on the 12th, broke into the home of a Catholic widow claiming she had IRA hidden weapons in her house. She was robbed and raped. The men took her upstairs where they shot dead her fourteen-year-old retarded son, and then shot her in the hand and thigh. A (Protestant) lodger had a cigarette lighter held under his chin until he could produce the Orange sash that saved his life.
The new Northern Ireland secretary, the koala-like William Whitelaw, introduced Special Category status for prisoners convicted of certain terrorist crimes; this meant they did not have to wear prison uniforms, and effectively gave them political status. Whitelaw also released a few internees, and arranged for various IRA figures, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, to be flown over for secret talks in the Chelsea home of a fellow minister. This was the first time the government had held direct talks with Irish terrorists. While these men reiterated familiar demands, Whitelaw proposed a power-sharing assembly based on proportional representation to protect minority rights, which would choose an eleven-man executive to restore local rule in the province. The status of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom was repeated like a mantra to assuage Unionists. Brian Faulkner managed to persuade a narrow majority of Unionists to pursue this path, which was vociferously opposed by Ian Paisley. In the autumn of 1971 he had begun forming the Democratic Unionist Party to signal his breach with the landed gentry and urban bigwigs who had dominated the original Unionist Party since its inception.
Subsequent talks held at the Civil Service College at Sunningdale in Berkshire between the British and Irish governments and representatives from Ulster’s moderate nationalist and Unionists were designed to set up the bi-national institutions that would ensure the success of local power-sharing, a Council of Ministers and a Council consisting of thirty representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish parliament. This recognised that many nationalists in the North saw themselves as Irish. Clandestine contacts between Michael Oately of MI5 and some of the PIRA leadership may have been intended to draw them eventually into a wider settlement, as was separately indicated by the lifting of bans on both Sinn Fein and the UVF.26
Two constituencies rejected the power-sharing settlement: the Protestant majority and the PIRA as a whole. The Irish Republic did not help matters when it publicly reaffirmed its claim to Northern Ireland in clauses 2 and 3 of its constitution, and rejected the extradition of PIRA terrorists from their cross-border bases and sanctuaries. Radical Unionists deposed Faulkner as head of their party, and then went on to win a resounding victory as anti-Sunningdale candidates in elections in February 1973. In a further blow, UK prime minister Edward Heath’s Conservatives were replaced by Wilson, whose wish to be shot of Northern Ireland was well known. Unionist workers also underlined their hostility to power-sharing when they launched a general strike in May 1974 which brought the province to a standstill. Hooded masked men from the UDA, armed with wooden clubs, blocked roads and intimidated key workers in power stations into staying at home so as to reduce the electricity generated and transmitted. Since the UDA was not a terrorist threat to the army, the latter left the matter of removing barricades to the RUC, which routinely did nothing to offend people it sympathised with.
Nineteen seventy-four saw the start of something that was discovered by chance three years before. On 30 December 1971 an IRA master bomb maker, Jack McCabe, had been mixing explosives on the floor of his garage when the shovel emitted a spark and he was blown to pieces. Worried that such materials were unstable, the IRA had a ready batch put in a car which was driven into central Belfast and detonated. Two could play at that game. On 17 May 1974 three loyalist car bombs exploded during the rush hour in Dublin killing twenty-two people. A twenty-two-year-old woman, who was nine months pregnant, died as a piece of shrapnel went through her heart, leaving her twenty-two-month-old daughter wandering around alone. Another fatality, twenty-one-year-old Anna Massey, had spent the previous evening writing out invitation cards to her wedding in six weeks’ time. She went not to the altar but to the grave. A further five people were murdered in simultaneous car bombings in Monaghan. One hundred and twenty people were injured in attacks whose eventual death toll of thirty-three provided the worst day of the Troubles. The UVF found this attack ‘funny’, despite the severed arms, legs and heads, and called it ‘returning the serve’.
Wilson seriously entertained the Doomsday scenario of British withdrawal from the province so as to extricate England from the mess of Ulster. He went so far as to signal to the PIRA that his government ‘wished to devise structures of disengagement from Ireland’; the PIRA responded by proclaiming a ceasefire, which it monitored in republican areas, a first indication of its controlling autonomous green ghettos. Wilson’s dark prognostications also had the effect of calling the Republic’s bluff, for Irish reality—as distinct from the rhetoric of Irish republicans and the ill-informed fantasies of their US supporters—was that ‘we should do everything possible to bring [continued British involvement] about’. That exposed the cold truth that northern republicans were fighting not only to leave a state that did not want them, but to join one that did not want them either. Wilson did not have much time for the loyalists. Venting his fury against the loyalist strikers, he spoke on television of ‘people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods’. He angrily asked: ‘who do they think they are?’ In subsequent weeks, loyalists sported small pieces of sponge in their lapels. Within two weeks Faulkner acknowledged the failure of power-sharing and the Executive and Assembly collapsed. One of the most promising peace initiatives prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement—described as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’—had failed.
In 1974 the PIRA extended its terror bombing campaign to the UK mainland, both to let militants have their head and to remind the British of the costs of non-negotiation. Deaths in Belfast were so commonplace that only those on the mainland might reignite media interest. In February a bomb exploded on a coach carrying soldiers from Manchester to a barracks in North Yorkshire, killing nine soldiers, a woman and two children. In October two pubs in Guildford, the Horse and Groom and the Seven Stars, frequented by off-duty soldiers as well as the general public, were bombed, killing five people, two of them women. On 7 November 1974 a bomb exploded in the King’s Arms near the Royal Artillery Training Centre at Woolwich, murdering a soldier and a civilian. In all of these attacks dozens were injured. On 21 November, bombs went off at the Mulberry and Tavern in the Town pubs in Birmingham, killing nineteen and wounding 182 people. In each case, media and public clamour for a quick result led to unsafe detective and forensic work and the conviction of innocent people who went to jail for very long periods before their convictions were quashed. In December 1975 the four men who were responsible for many of these attacks were cornered in a London flat after they had shot at a restaurant they had bombed a few weeks before. After a five-day siege they surrendered, and in 1977 received forty-seven life sentences and an aggregate two thousand years in jail. An Irish-American citizen who had shot dead a policeman unfortunate enough to alight upon the group’s bomb factory was jailed in 1988 for murder after five years of extradition proceedings. Despite these outrages, which led to localised anti-Irish sentiment, especially in Birmingham, the British government developed its contacts with the PIRA. On 10 December 1974 Protestant clergymen from the Irish Council of Churches met PIRA leaders at a hotel in County Clare. A document was prepared which the clergymen took to the home secretary Merlyn Rees, with an offer of a ceasefire from 22 December 1974 to 2 January 1975.
Rees vowed that Britain had no long-term territorial or security interests in Northern Ireland beyond its obligations to a people the majority of whom wanted to remain in the UK. A steady number of republican detainees were released, and prisoners held on the mainland returned to Northern Irish jails. The army was less conspicuous in Catholic neighbourhoods. Managed with the help of clandestine talks between MI5 officers and the IRA, with the only written records stemming from the latter, the ceasefire endured for almost the whole of 1975, although it was punctuated by IRA killings of members of the security forces whenever it deemed its conditions to have been breached. While fewer police and soldiers were killed that year, the ceasefire saw an upsurge in blatant sectarian murders, which a younger generation of IRA figures—including Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes in Long Kesh and Martin McGuinness in jail in the South—viewed as an indirect consequence of the disastrously naive PIRA leadership’s talks with the British who they thought were spinning them along while the loyalists depleted them.
Much innocent blood flowed during the ceasefire. On 13 March 1975, two UVF terrorists planted a gas-cylinder bomb in the entrance to Peter Conway’s bar in Belfast; it exploded prematurely, leaving both men badly injured. On 5 April 1975 loyalists left their own gas-cylinder bomb in the doorway to McLaughlin’s bar in the Catholic New Lodge area, killing two men watching the Grand National on television. A few hours later, the PIRA shot up Protestants watching the same race-meeting in the Shankill Road’s Mountainview tavern, so as to facilitate the throwing of a bomb that murdered five people. Before the night was over, loyalists shot dead a sixty-one-year-old Catholic. On 31 July the Miami Showband were stopped at 1 a.m. as they headed south after a concert in the North by what they took to be UDR soldiers manning a roadblock. They were in fact members of the UVF, although some of them were also part-time soldiers in the UDR. The aim was to plant a bomb in the band’s Volkswagen van timed to go off as they went south, the intention being that people would say ‘Well, you can’t even trust the Miami Showband’ not to be PIRA bombers. One of the ten UVF terrorists told the musicians: ‘Well, that’s great, fellas, thanks for your co-operation, jump in and off you go.’ At that moment the bomb exploded prematurely, blowing the head, arms and legs off two of the UVF men. An arm found at some distance had the tattoo UVF on it. The eight remaining gunmen then decided to eliminate any witnesses, putting twenty-two shots into the handsome singer Fran O’Toole’s face, before killing Anthony Geraghty and the Protestant trumpeter Brian McCoy. Two of the men convicted of this attack were sergeants in the UDR. On 13 August the PIRA hit back with a bomb and gun attack on the Bayardo bar on the Shankill Road, murdering six Protestants, including one member of the UVF. The leader of the attack was a former seminarian called Brendan ‘Bic’ McFarlane who would go on to lead PIRA prisoners in the Maze prison in the 1980s.
On 1 September, a PIRA front group murdered five Protestants at the Tullyvallen Guiding Star Orange Lodge in Newtownhamilton. Seventy-year-old farmer William Ronald McKee and his forty-year-old son James died, alongside eighty-year-old retired farmer John Johnston. As the ceasefire ended, loyalist gunmen killed six Catholics living in remote rural areas. On 4 January 1976 masked UVF gunmen burst into a party the O’Dowd family were having around their piano. Three male O’Dowds were shot dead, their bodies collapsing on several children aged under ten. Fifteen minutes later three brothers in the O’Reavey family were killed by the UVF as they watched television. The next day PIRA terrorists stopped a bus carrying ten Protestant workmen home at Kingsmill, South Armagh. They identified one Catholic, the bus driver, and set him aside, before mowing down the remaining nine, their bodies left amid pools of blood and half-eaten sandwiches. The only survivor had been hit by eighteen rounds as he crawled away.
Late 1975 also saw the advent of a UVF unit so ferocious that it was a law unto itself as fellow terrorists were afraid of it. One group to reflect on in what follows are the detectives and forensic scientists who had to cope with the bloody aftermath of what these men did. Thousands of these policemen have never been properly compensated for the traumatising scenes they had to witness—the effects on them including alcoholism, divorce and suicide. The forensic reports were usually so long that it is impossible to quote fully what amount to serial atrocities on the human body.
Hugh ‘Lenny’ Murphy was a slight man with dark wavy hair and smiling blue eyes. As a child he had extorted money from schoolfellows by threatening them with his elder brothers. Murphy hated Catholics, although with names like Hugh and Murphy (which is why he preferred ‘Lenny’) he was often teased as a ‘Mick’ because he was the son of a lapsed Catholic who had married his strenuously Protestant mother—in further illustration that this was not Birmingham, Alabama. The schoolboy name-calling did not last long. Central to the successive gangs the adult Murphy formed were Robert ‘Basher’ Bates, Samuel ‘Big Sam’ McAllister and William Moore, with such additions as Benjamin ‘Pretty Boy’ Edwards and James ‘Tonto’ Watt.
All of these men were members of the UVF, with a visceral hatred of uppity ‘Taigs’. Murphy had ‘William of Orange, Rem [ember] 1690’ and Ulster’s Red Hand tattooed on his upper body, plus a more conventional ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ on his hands. By the age of twenty, he had developed the strange pastime of frequenting hearings at Belfast Crumlin Road court in his spare time from his job as a shop assistant. He would sit there for hours, in his leather jacket and scarf, listening to the trials of IRA men, and watching their friends and relatives sitting in the public gallery, while learning how to evade a guilty verdict. One of the key things was to deny malicious intent, and to omit key parts of any story, all evident in records of interrogations whenever gang members were arrested.
In 1972 Murphy and his friends abducted a thirty-four-year-old Catholic from a taxi. The man was held in Murphy’s ‘romper room’ in the Lawnbrook Social Club, a loyalist drinking den, until the non-hardcore clientele drifted away. After midnight the man was beaten by those who remained, with Murphy delivering the sickeningly heavy blows that broke bones. Murphy then repeatedly stabbed his victim. At 4 a.m. the victim was shot in the head and his body dumped a mile away. Several more Catholics were selected at random by Murphy and his gang for similar treatment. A forty-eight-year-old mill worker, Thomas Madden, was strung up from a beam in a garage while Murphy went to work on his naked body with a chisel, leaving 147 separate incisions before Madden was choked to death with a pull on the rope. He kept screaming ‘Kill me! Kill me!’ Forensic reports recorded the distressingly large numbers of wounds Madden had felt.
As a psychopath Murphy was extremely cunning. In September 1972 he set off on a motorbike with Mervyn John Connor, on a UVF contract to shoot a Protestant flautist called Pavis who the UVF thought was selling arms to a friendly Catholic priest acting for PIRA. Murphy shot Pavis in his home. Both Murphy and Connor were arrested in connection with a second shooting, with Connor being persuaded by the police to turn queen’s evidence after he had been identified by eyewitnesses. Although Connor was protected in Crumlin Road jail, Murphy resolved to eliminate him. A first attempt, with poisoned custard that would have killed not only Connor but all at his table, failed when the custard went a funny colour. Undeterred, Murphy acquired cyanide from the prison hospital, where he now worked, and a pass to move around, which he used to dodge idle guards so as to enter Connor’s cell. There he rammed the cyanide down his friend’s throat after Connor had written a letter exonerating him of the Pavis murder. The only prisoner to witness his crime died shortly after his head was battered into a cell wall.
Returned to his Shankill Road habitat, Murphy set up his gang in the Brown Bear pub, an early recruit being William ‘Billy’ Moore, a black taxi driver connected to the UVF already—because the UVF ‘licensed’ the entire Shankill Road fleet, just as PIRA did along the Falls Road. For both organisations this was a lucrative racket, made easier by the fact that many public buses had been burned or otherwise driven from the roads. Moore also had a collection of cleavers and butcher’s knives he had stolen before he was sacked from his job in a meat-packing plant. He prided himself on keeping the knives ‘as sharp as lances’.
In October 1974 the Murphy gang robbed a Catholic drinks warehouse, shooting dead all four employees after they could not find any cash. When in November 1975 PIRA killed three British soldiers at an observation post at Crossmaglen in South Armagh, Murphy’s Butchers went on their next rampage. They set off in Moore’s taxi into the Catholic Antrim Road, coming upon a lone walker heading for the city centre. Francis Crossan was clubbed on the head with a wheel brace and dragged into the taxi. Murphy cut into his throat so ferociously that Crossan’s head almost came off. When police found his body, the head was at a right angle to it, and shards of glass protruded from his face where it had been rammed with broken beer glasses.
Although Murphy and his men were criminals themselves, the UVF sanctioned them to carry out punishment attacks against petty crooks operating from the rival Windsor bar who had burgled an elderly widow. Usually, punishment involved dropping heavy concrete blocks on legs or heads, followed by a shooting, or a session with an electric drill on the offender’s front kneecaps if they did not get the first message. Most frontal kneecappings could be repaired with surgery; Murphy decided a shot to the back of the kneecap would be permanently incapacitating. Three men were kidnapped and taken to a garage; one was shot dead after he tried to flee, while the other two had their kneecaps blown off. Although Murphy was responsible for this murder, he ensured that another gang member was shot dead by the UVF when it exacted retribution for an unauthorised killing.
In early 1976 Murphy and his gang resumed their night hunt for ‘Taigs’. The gang would always claim that the idea (and the victim) just popped into their heads whenever they went out for bags of chips. In fact, each killing was hatched as they talked themselves into it during all-day drinking sessions in loyalist bars. They would drag some unfortunate fellow into a black taxi after hitting him on the head with a wheel brace. Inside the victim would be brutally assaulted, while the taxi stopped off to collect butcher’s knives or a hatchet for the wet work. Then there would be a long torture session at some dingy loyalist drinking den, which ended when Murphy sawed through the victim’s throat and spinal column. Then the corpse would be driven away and dumped—near a republican area if the victim was a fellow Protestant. There was one variation on the theme inspired by the Kingsmill massacre, when Murphy’s men launched a gun attack on what they thought was a gang of Catholic workmen on a lorry in the Shankill Road. Two men died and two were wounded. The dead men were both Protestants, information which made Murphy go berserk, vowing to kill twice as many Catholics to make up for the error. He made his first major mistake when he crashed through an army checkpoint after having shot at two young Catholic women in another car. Although in a police station he tried to wash gunshot residue from his hands in the lavatory bowl, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
The resulting six years served did not prevent him from directing an extramural campaign of sectarian murder. In June 1976, after the Times bar was bombed by the PIRA, the Shankill Butchers shot dead three Catholics in the Chlorane bar that same morning. On Friday 29 October they abducted twenty-one-year-old Stephen McCann as he and his girlfriend Frances Tohill returned home from a party late at night. McCann was a dreamy boy who played the guitar and wrote dark adolescent poetry and songs. The gang had spent the day drinking and planning this attack, although, again, they would subsequently claim that the idea of murder came up when they went looking for more chips. McCann was subjected to an horrific assault in the taxi, and then was shot in the head, prior to his head almost being sawn off by William Moore. This was done to distract the police, who suspected that the imprisoned Murphy was the butcher killer. Leadership of the group devolved on Sam McAllister, a bloated tattooed hard man always looking for a scrap. After a drunken brawl with a UDA man was narrowly averted in a loyalist pub, McAllister waited around for his opponent and crushed his head with a breezeblock as he lay on the ground. For this McAllister received two punishment shots to each arm after he had negotiated the penalty up from his precious knees.
In May 1977, after several further murders, the gang’s luck expired when, posing as policemen, they abducted twenty-two-year-old Gerard McLaverty late one night. They claimed the idea of ‘knocking the bollocks off a Taig’ came to them as they cruised Belfast after the bars closed. McLaverty was severely beaten by McAllister with a stick which had two six-inch nails driven through the end, a session so sustained that the gang had to stop for a tea break to catch their second wind. McLaverty was then driven to where they planned to kill him; the fact that they only had a bootlace to strangle him and a small clasp knife to slash his wrists saved his life. The mode of attack not only resulted in the gang’s capture, but also the police’s realisation that they had those responsible for thirty earlier deaths. McLaverty’s testimony and twelve-hour bouts in Castlereagh interrogation centre eventually cracked the gang members’ evasions and lies. A broken William Moore at last conceded, ‘Murphy done the first three [an underestimate of his lethality] and I done the rest.’ He added: ‘It was that bastard Murphy led me into all this. My head’s away with it.’ Eleven men appeared in court charged with nineteen murders. In February 1979 Moore was jailed in perpetuity while most of the others received life sentences, to serve a minimum of eighteen or twenty years. One person was not in the dock.
Lenny Murphy was released from prison on 16 July 1982. There was a party for him that night in the Rumsford Street Loyalist Club. Shortly before midnight a bedraggled vagrant, Alexander Maxwell, drifted in with a view to cadging drinks before hitting his slumbers in a Salvation Army hostel. When Murphy ordered him out, Maxwell made the mistake of giving him too much ‘lip’. Murphy took him outside and proceeded to punch and kick him. Maxwell fell unconscious to the ground. Murphy then went inside to fetch some car keys and drove a car back and forth over the vagrant until the man was dead. Within six weeks of his release, Murphy had formed a new gang and was living well from the proceeds of extortion. He drove a smart yellow Rover car. So as to avoid paying the agreed price for this vehicle, he first tried to poison the former owner, and then shot him eight times in a drive-by motorbike shooting. Inevitably, the actions of this maniac eventually caught up with him. He tried to muscle in on a racket related to gambling machines in bars and clubs, while his counter-kidnapping and killing of a Catholic hostage after the PIRA had abducted a UDR soldier aggravated his own side. He seems to have crossed an ex-boxer called Jim Craig, when he tried to get into the same line of work extorting money from construction sites. Craig was UDA commander in west Belfast. While in the Maze he had explained to a PIRA leader he sat with on the Camp Council his idea of disciplining his own men: ‘I’ve got this big fucking hammer and I’ve told them that if anybody gives me trouble, I’ll break their fucking fingers.’ It seems that Craig had also come to an arrangement when in jail with senior members of PIRA as to relative boundaries for their respective extortion rackets, and had quite possibly reached a agreement to murder each other’s enemies like the strangers on a train in the Hitchcock movie.
On the evening of 16 November 1982, Lenny Murphy parked his Rover at the rear of his girlfriend’s home on a Protestant estate. His wife and children had long ago left him. He had not noticed a blue van in his rear mirrors, nor that it had backed up so as to face his car. The back doors opened as Murphy prepared to get out; he was hit by twenty-six bullets to the head and body, fired by two men in overalls who were spirited away in stolen cars. At Murphy’s funeral, six masked UVF gunmen fired a salvo over his coffin which was draped with an orange and purple flag. A piper played ‘Abide with Me’ as the cortège progressed along the Shankill Road. Murphy had just turned thirty; his mother averred that ‘Lenny would not hurt a fly.’ His friend ‘Basher’ Bates, who had got God in prison, was shot dead in 1997, in a UDA revenge killing for Bates’s murder twenty years before of dark-complexioned James ‘Nigger’ Moorehead in the lavatory of a Belfast bar. The vengeful memories were like those in a medieval Icelandic saga. Jim Craig was shot dead by the UFF in a bar in 1988 after his dealings with the PIRA came to their attention.27
III DELIVERING CHAOS
If all Irish terrorists were psychopathic criminals like Murphy, there would be no demonstrable ebb and flow to the violence, or shifts in how it was used vis-a-vis other forms of political activity. In fact, many people joined terrorist organisations because they had direct personal experience of injustice or were witnesses to it. Eamon Collins came from a farming family in Crossmaglen, a republican stronghold on the North-South border. His politically pragmatic father raised and traded cattle and bloodstock. His mother was the pious Catholic, responsible for planting in Collins’s heart the tear-jerking myths of Irish republican history, and a tension between rebel violence and Christian turning of the other cheek. He had low-level contacts with the IRA, took part in civil rights riots, sold republican papers, and, after odd jobs in the civil service in London, went to Queen’s University in Belfast to read law.
On vacation at home, Collins came back to the farm late at night after having drinks with schoolfriends. As he wandered down the lane, British paratroops emerged from the bushes, shouting ‘Get your fucking hands up, don’t you fucking move. Don’t you fucking move.’ This was followed with ‘Get your arms out. Spread your fucking legs, you cunt.’ They then proceeded to beat him with rifle butts, while kicking him with heavy combat boots: ‘Get your fucking hands on your head, you Irish cunt.’ The soldiers dragged him into the house, pinning him down with the aid of a self-loading rifle shoved into his mouth, which broke some teeth. His guard remarked: ‘I’d blow your brains out for tuppence, you rotten Irish cunt.’ While his mother screamed hysterically, Collins, his father and brother were arrested, and beaten with rifle butts as they lay on the floor of the Land Rovers that drove them away. Collins was forced to sing ‘The Sash’ with soldiers marking time by hitting him on the back. After a frightening spell in the army’s Bessborough barracks, the three were turned over to the RUC. They were eventually released when forensic scientists determined that the ‘explosives’ a sniffer dog had detected in the father’s car came from spilled creosote used to stain a fence. Collins explained the psychological effects of this mistreatment: ‘I would feel a surge of rage whose power unbalanced me: I would sit alone in my room and think with pleasure of blowing off the heads of those para scum.’ He became more and more involved in activities designed to support the H-Block prisoners in the Maze. After a lengthy induction period, he joined the PIRA, attending lectures in Dundalk and receiving the organisation’s Green Book. This gave the history of the organisation, its military rules and advice on how to resist deep interrogation—the army euphemism for a rough time.
Collins worked as a PIRA intelligence officer under the guise of his day job of Customs and Excise officer in Newry, where he inspected the papers of lorry drivers coming across the border. In his spare time, he was first tenor in the Cloughmore Male Voice Choir. His own colleagues were among the early victims of terrorist attacks he facilitated. He coldly set up major Ivan Toombs of the neighbouring customs house at Warrenpoint, even though Toombs had introduced him to his charming eight-year-old daughter and the two men had got drunk together while inspecting a Russian ship. The forty-seven-year-old Toombs’s part-time membership of the UDR was sufficient grounds for him to be shot in his office in January 1981 after Collins had supplied the killer (known as ‘Iceman’) and his accomplice with details of the building’s layout. An obviously intelligent man, although that did not prevent him being beaten to death in 1999 by the PIRA after he had dropped out and narrowly avoided becoming a police supergrass, Collins captured something else about being a terrorist that does not figure as much as it should. This is the desire to bring chaos to the lives of others. After the PIRA had virtually obliterated Newry in a bombing campaign, it looked for a fresher target. It alighted upon Warrenpoint, about ten minutes’ drive away. It is worth looking at why Collins made this decision:
The people there seemed to be cocooned and relatively prosperous. Middle-class Catholics and Protestants lived in harmony, united—as I would have put it from my Marxist perspective—by their class interests in maintaining their high standard of living … I loathed the tranquillity of this little seaside town: Warrenpoint was to me a little sugar-plum fairy on the top of a rotten unionist cake … Its plump citizens enjoyed a good nightlife with pleasant pubs, coffee-houses and restaurants … I was going to enjoy bringing Warrenpoint’s fairy tale existence to an end.
Shortly afterwards, the Crown hotel in Warrenpoint’s main square was demolished when the PIRA deposited keg bombs in which ANFO (a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, the so-called fertiliser bomb) was packed into metal milk containers and triggered by gelignite. Chaos had arrived in Warrenpoint.28
The so-called 69ers joined the PIRA for uncomplicated reasons. Take Bernard Fox, an apprentice coachbuilder from the Falls Road who joined in 1969, and was rumoured to be a member of the PIRA Army Council. Recalling how he had embarked on a path that would put him in jail for nineteen years, Fox said: ‘I was almost shot in a gun attack at Norfolk Street. I came away wanting a gun. It was survival. You wanted to protect your own people … my family and myself. When the barricades went up I wanted a gun so I approached this fella who was in the IRA and asked for a gun and he said: could I shoot a British soldier? At that time I hadn’t the idea that it was the British government’s fault.’ Another prominent PIRA figure, rumoured to head the PIRA in west Belfast, joined after his non-political father was shot dead by British soldiers in 1971. The future Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, who almost wiped out Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, claimed that he had been roughly manhandled by soldiers. The young Martin McGuinness was stopped by an army patrol in Londonderry in August 1969 as he left Doherty’s butcher shop, where he worked, to fetch some lunch. They told him to remove his shoes and socks before spreadeagling him against a wall: ‘Martin was a very shy wee boy, and the soldiers humiliated him in front of all the girls from the shirt factories. They were on their break and stood around staring. Until then, he was a quiet young fellow but after that Martin went down with the rest, throwing stones. He never would have done that,’ recalled the brother of a workmate.29 The injustice of internment was another major contributory factor to volunteers joining IRA ranks, especially since internees developed an elaborate system for smuggling out minutely written accounts of abuse.
One did not actually have to experience brutality or discrimination to feel it, for some leading PIRA terrorists, like Martin Ferris—nowadays a Sinn Fein member of the Irish Dáil—and Sean O’Callaghan, a former head of PIRA Southern Command and member of its GHQ, were from Kerry in Eire’s republican deep south. The further away from the North, the more intense the republicanism. Ferris came from a Kerry farming family that augmented income from potatoes, pigs and onions with the haul from oyster beds. His father had spent some time in the US and was a keen amateur fighter. The first song Ferris heard as a child was about an eighteen-year-old hanged by the perfidious British. The best local pub, Mick Lynch’s in Spa, doubled as an IRA safe house and a favoured honeymoon venue for people like Gerry Adams’s brother Paddy. Ferris was well on the way to being a talented footballer when the first TV sets showed graphic scenes of northern Catholics being ‘given the timber’ by the baton-wielding RUC and B Specials. After suitable priming by Mick Lynch, on 29 May 1970 Ferris was sworn into the IRA by a local painting contractor and the local vice-chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association.30
O’Callaghan was born in 1954 into a working-class republican family that lived on an estate on the outskirts of Tralee, the largest town in otherwise rural Kerry. Like many PIRA terrorists, he had a happy and uneventful childhood. At the age of nine his paternal grandmother reminded him: ‘Never trust a policeman, even a dead one. They should always be dug up and shot again just to be sure.’ After seeing the shocking start of the northern Troubles on southern TV, the precocious fifteen-year-old O’Callaghan contacted a man he knew to be a local IRA figure, and was soon being trained in the use of revolvers and high-velocity rifles. By age sixteen he was a proficient instructor in remote PIRA camps where northerners with no experience of weapons came to learn how to use them. He recalled that his trainees had ‘a youthful fascination with guns and bombs and a desire to get even with the Prods … [that] was all the motivation they needed’. In 1972, now aged seventeen, O’Callaghan received a six-month jail sentence after a bomb he was making accidentally detonated and demolished his father’s garden shed. That was the start of it.31
Another diehard republican area was South Armagh, where Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, a bachelor pig farmer from Ballybinaby with a keen interest in the rough and tumble of Gaelic football, was lord of all he surveyed. The farm complex straddles the North-South border, a location of some use to smugglers who have haunted the area for centuries. There were three brothers, one of whom became mid-Ulster junior heavyweight boxing champion. These were all big men, who took the distinctive soubriquet ‘Slab’ from their bully of a grandfather. Thomas ‘Slab’ was at the heart of a major PIRA-organised crime empire that relies on a network of interrelated South Armagh clans and a slow but steady training programme that teaches extreme caution in perpetrating criminal violence. Several members of Murphy’s gang, with names like ‘the Surgeon’ and ‘the Undertaker’, are or have been key members of the PIRA, although only ‘Slab’ himself has been its chief of staff. Unlike the more baroquely vicious loyalist terrorists, PIRA’s leaders make a virtue of low-key anonymity, which is why there are no lurid biographies of, among others, Brian Keenan, Martin Ferris, Bobby Storey or Padraic Wilson, all at various times members of its Army Council. That is also why they are still alive, in contrast to Dominic ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey, their publicity-seeking rival from the breakway INLA who was shot dead in 1994 by loyalist gunmen.32
The decision to embark on a career of politicised violence was invariably construed by PIRA members as something forced upon an individual, in this case by state or sectarian violence against the community that he (or she) was defending, rather than a personal choice that could also reflect a no less keen desire to experience the thrill of clandestine activity in a secret organisation that bestowed status on its members. Status within the PIRA partly derived from belonging to an ultra-republican family already, not least because this brought automatic trust. If the terrorist came from a republican family living in a republican area, like Gerry Adams’s home territory on Belfast’s Ballymurphy estate, then his adoption of the gun and bomb was both socially sanctioned and morally justified. It was a matter of being true to family tradition. No authority figures were there to argue otherwise, since many Catholic clergy espoused sentimental violent republicanism when they were not vicarious supporters of PIRA violence.33 To complicate matters, whereas the Irish primate, cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, was an advocate of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, and was hence known to Ian Paisley as ‘the IRA’s bishop of Crossmaglen’, archbishop Cahal Daly of Armagh, which covered the northern counties, was an outspoken critic of armed republicanism and was detested by his parishioner Gerry Adams.34 Although mothers played a significant role in perpetuating sectarian hatreds across the generations, they were sometimes loath to see their sons (and daughters) involved in political violence. The mother of Declan Arthurs tried to dissuade her son from becoming a Provo:
What was his future? Life imprisonment? On the run? Or was he going to be killed? I knew his future wasn’t going to be any good. I said to him, ‘For God’s sake, Declan, please think of us because we love you so much.’ And he’d just look at me and say, ‘I’m sorry, mum, there’s nothing else I can do. I have to fight for my country.’ I begged him, often I begged him, but to no avail.35
Twenty-one-year-old Declan Arthurs was one of eight PIRA members shot dead by the SAS, who ambushed them as they tried to blow up Loughall police station with a bomb in a mechanical excavator on 8 May 1987.
Jail was also not a deterrent in Northern Ireland (or in the South, where many PIRA figures were locked up in atrocious conditions in Portlaoise jail) since paramilitary prisoners invariably dominated their sections in any institution. This is unsurprising in the case of the Maze, where they were gathered in their hundreds, in a geographical context where they could intimidate or murder guards and their families, but was also true of those held in maximum-security prisons on the British mainland. There they would forge alliances with major English criminals who, tantalised by the international scale of PIRA activity, soon realised they were not dealing with a crowd of demented ‘Paddies’. Some prisoners reconciled themselves to the long days and nights of nothing; others regarded every waking hour as a chance to plan a breakout. Jail was an opportunity to practise wartime POW-style feats of derring-do, notably when in 1983 Gerry Kelly led a mass escape by thirty-eight inmates from the Maze, or to improve on the ideological justifications for terrorism. Several imprisoned gunmen of all persuasions have recalled that it was only when they arrived in prison that they were given more elaborate reasons for bombing and shooting people. Veteran loyalist terrorist ‘Gusty’ Spence always asked incoming prisoners to his section of the Maze at some point, ‘Why are you here?’ The correct answer was not ‘For murdering people.’
In jail terrorists had people to discuss politics with and books to read. Many took the opportunities that distance learning afforded and studied law, history, politics or sociology. This explains why so many former terrorists have a certain autodidactic plausibility, as they convert bloodshed into the anodyne pseudo-sociological jargon of ‘identity’, ‘process’, ‘situation’ and ‘tradition’. They sound as if they are almost neutral objective observers of the chaos and mayhem they are largely responsible for creating. Even those who preferred to stick with their psychotic selves at least used time in jail to turn themselves into credible hulks through hours of body-building. Although some twenty-eight Northern Ireland Prison Service officers were murdered during the Troubles, it was not an inert organisation. In the early 1990s it successfully experimented with an early-release scheme, under which carefully identified terrorists in their thirties—with attractive wives, growing children and aged parents—were allowed out on licence, to see the family life they were missing and how far Northern Ireland had improved in their absence. The condition attached to this scheme, which brought early release on licence, was that they would serve their sentences in mixed-community wings of ordinary prisons where they would be away from the corrupting influence of the paramilitary chieftains in the Maze.36
Many terrorists in Northern Ireland had few difficulties in reconciling murder with religion. Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright was forever spouting biblical quotations in the manner of an American Baptist. An uncle of Gerry Adams was both a leading republican and so devout an adherent of the Redemptorists that his workmates dubbed him ‘the Bishop’. There were plenty of people in the traditionalist PIRA who were Catholic bigots, motivated by little more than ‘wishing to see those Orange bastards wiped out’.37 IRA membership also granted a status equivalent to that of a Mafia ‘made man’, able to intimidate by his steely presence, and an object of adoration to women and young boys. Every pretty girl was available, drawn to these ultimate bad boys, whose reality was invariably that they were unemployed or in lowly occupations. For some of the full-time activists the few pounds a week they were paid by the IRA was the only money they had earned in their entire life. The only regular job Sean O’Callaghan has ever had was a year spent on a farm mixing ANFO explosives nicknamed ‘blowie’, to be used in the North.38
There was a certain look that went with being an urban terrorist. Loyalists were often like proletarian thugs in any British city, with their beer bellies, cropped hair and tattoos. They were not sophisticated people; their idea of an exotic meal was to add curry sauce to a bag of chips, while venturing as far as Tenerife for their first overseas holiday. The worst of them, like Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair, in reality a late developer in the matter of shooting people, overcame his slight stature—he was known as ‘the wee man’ before he became ‘Mad Dog’—building outwards by injecting his arms and thighs with horse steroids and pumping-iron sessions. He used the popular household aerosol furniture polish Mr Sheen to make his shaven head shine.
The urban Provos tended to affect denim jeans and leather jackets, when they were not trying to blend into a covering occupation that required a conventional suit-and-tie appearance. Alex Reid, the Redemptorist priest who played a key role in locking Adams into a peace process, forsook his black robes for a black leather jacket and jeans so as to fit in with his interlocutors. The South Armagh ‘Slabs’ looked like farmers everywhere in the UK with their checked shirts, gumboots, waxed jackets and flat caps. They also practised a low peasant cunning, calling off operations at the slightest suspicion that something might go awry, which made them harder to detect than the more volatile urban loyalist variety whose loud mouths in pubs were like a neon sign saying ‘arrest me’. The PIRA units in South Armagh were notoriously difficult to combat as they had the advantage of knowing every bend in the road, bush or culvert. While many loyalist and republican terrorists acted in a drink-fuelled rage, it is important to recall that former PIRA leader and current deputy first minister Martin McGuinness does not smoke or drink and fly-fishes in his spare time. His colleague, Gerry Kelly, who served a long period in jail for bombing the Old Bailey and Scotland Yard in the 1970s, has the gravely austere manner of a Jesuit priest.39 The same was true of Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright, leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), also a teetotal non-smoker whose pronounced evangelical beliefs meant that unlike many of his loyalist comrades he rarely swore. Many loyalists seem to have felt most at home in Scotland, where they went to support Glasgow Rangers—the Protestant antipode to the city’s Catholic Celtic. Indeed, they would like to extend the Anglo-Scottish border westwards. They flirted with English neo-Fascists, but as there were few Blacks in Northern Ireland they found the obsessive racism unfamiliar, although that did not stop them persecuting the local Chinese. Some PIRA terrorists were enthusiastic proponents of Gaelic culture, which they regard as indigenous to their island, its language relying heavily on an archaising Celtic script. A younger generation was just as likely to support English football teams, or to listen to Anglo-Irish-US rock groups like the Eagles, as to avowedly Provo bands such as the Flying Columns (whose name harks back to early IRA formations). In addition to the dirge-like plangent lamentations dedicated to long-dead martyrs like Wolfe Tone or Padraig Pearse, there was also a heavily politicised pop music for those who sought it. As Wolfhound’s song ‘Little Armalite’ has it:
Sure brave RUC man came up into our street
Six hundred British soldiers were gathered around his feet
‘Come out, you cowardly Fenians’ said he, ‘Come out and fight!’
But he cried ‘I’m only joking’ when he heard my Armalite.
Over on the other side, Adair’s UFF C Company evolved out of a skinhead ‘Oi’ band. Having started as admirers of north London’s Madness—a 1980s ska band—they graduated to the National Front-supporting Skrewdriver before founding their own combo called Offensive Weapon. Adair played bass guitar. Concerts were an excuse to sniff a lot of glue and to hurl oneself around until a major brawl broke out. The lyrics are instructive:
I like breaking arms and legs
Snapping spines and wringing necks
Now I’ll knife you in the back
Kick your bones until they crack
[chorus] Evil, evil, evil, evil [x 4]
Jump up and down upon your head
Kick you around until you are dead
Fill your body full of lead
See the roads turn red
I don’t like trendy cunts who pose
Gonna punch you in the nose
Stick my Marten [boot] in your crotch
Don’t like you, you’re too much
It is revealing that Adair and his associates became terrorists partly to avoid the serious beatings that the UDA periodically delivered to delinquents, drug dealers and petty criminals. Adair himself subsequently set up a satellite group from Tigers Bay, consisting of local low life, or ‘Hallions’ in local argot, who one policeman remarked ‘would have shot their own mothers’. They were now licensed to dole out rough justice themselves. Beyond the bars and republican shebeens (illegal drinking dens) this was also a culture of the mean streets, whose respective kerbstones were painted red, white and blue or orange, white and green. Posters threatened informers or warned against careless talk in pubs that might be with an undercover British agent. In the countryside of South Armagh or Tyrone there were PIRA roadsigns warning ‘Sniper at Work’, especially after the PIRA acquired a few .50-calibre Barrett sniper rifles which have the same effect on the human body at three-quarters of a mile as a Magnum handgun fired from a few feet. Murals, or as they are known locally ‘muriels’, were an east Belfast Protestant folk-art form first seen in those areas in 1908. They invariably commemorated King Billy’s victory at the Boyne. It was not until the 1980s and the PIRA hunger strikes in the Maze that republicans decided to green the walls of ‘their’ ghettos aggressively, while the Irish tricolour appeared everywhere. Many of these images celebrated mythical Celtic figures, or intimidated and reassured the population with gigantic masked gunmen brandishing Armalites and AK-47s as old ladies grimly went about their shopping beneath them. The problem here was that the old ladies tended to idolise the murderers among them as nice wee boys who had gone a little off life’s rails. Commemorative plaques marked the deaths of volunteers and martyrs. Each side of the sectarian divide cashed in on political violence through souvenir shops selling a wide range of kitsch from commemorative mugs to fridge magnets—‘Proud to be a Prod’—and tea towels as well as tapes (and later CDs) of loyalist or republican music. There are coach tours for anyone too scared to trudge the Falls or Shankill past all those charmers who on a cold February day loiter in T-shirts and lycra shorts with Spiderman tattooed on their bulging calves.
Any terrorist campaign is reliant upon regularly stoking the embers of communal hatred, which in the case of PIRA extends to the huge Irish-American diaspora. The deaths of volunteers—whether killed by the army and RUC or by their own choice as hunger strikers—offered a prime opportunity to mobilise a sense of collective grief and victimhood as well as calls for revenge. Cemeteries like that at Milltown in Belfast’s Andersonstown district contained a Provo section with tombstones recalling the careers of dedicated martyrs, while a sentimental shrine has appeared recessed along the Falls Road. The day I visited the cemetery, middle-aged grannies were explaining republican history to toddlers and small children. Crowds of republican sympathisers made up the funeral cortège, with grieving family and friends holding up the coffin draped in the Irish flag. If the dead man or woman was important enough, Gerry Adams—with his bodyguard ‘Cleaky’ Clark—would be there to say a few words before beetling off in his armoured black taxi. Invariably after the religious rites, masked gunmen would step out from the crowd to fire a salvo over the grave, disappearing so quickly that it was impossible for the watching security services to do more than photograph them through telephoto lenses.
What terrorists mainly do is kill and maim people: ‘nutting’, ‘stiffing’ or ‘touching out’ in a local jargon that uses ‘digging’ for giving someone a beating with iron bars and baseball bats. The target chosen and the modus operandi are vital since they can bring esteem in the gang and wider community. Anyone so minded can shoot a person randomly on the street from a passing car. Ambushing Gerry Adams as he left Belfast magistrates’ court in 1984 brought two decades of kudos for the shooter who hit Adams four times, even though Adams lives, as did firing a rocket-propelled grenade into a police station or loyalist bar. People like Lenny Murphy or ‘Mad Dog’ Adair did it with relish and wit. Adair would gabble after an expedition, incoherent with excitement, and then would routinely wet the bed when, after partying for days, he joined his common-law wife (also known as ‘Mad Bitch’, mother of ‘Mad Pup’) or one of many girlfriends responsive to his rough charms. It is worth giving an account of how one murderous operation started, as it is reminiscent of the psychopathic ‘Frank’ in David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet:
It emerged that the C Company team were present on a Sunday evening in a Shankill Road club with the intention of engaging in a session of drinking. Upon the arrival of the first round of drinks the mood of the party was jovial when one of the assembled dozen or so members shouted ‘let’s bang a Taig’. Although this comment was intended in jest, Adair picked up on the suggestion and within five minutes had detailed every member of the team to play a specific role in the murder attempt which had now become a reality. Incredibly, fifteen minutes later the operation was underway and it was only then that the team realised that they hadn’t actually discussed a target. At this point it was decided to drive into a Catholic area and shoot the first male person they encountered. Approximately twenty-five minutes after the first suggestion, the entire team had returned to the club and resumed their drinking, the celebration of the murder [of forty-four-year-old Sean Rafferty shot dead washing up in front of his screaming children] being led by Adair.41
Experience and the performance of elite tasks brought status to people who without terrorism would largely have been unemployed since so many of them had dropped out of school, going on the dole or, like Adams (a barman) or McGuinness (a butcher’s boy) or Adair (an apprentice woodturner), into low-skilled jobs. Terrorism invested their lives with significance. Leaders had charisma, evidenced by their Robin Hood acts of kindness to old ladies (breaking the legs of those who stole their purse), or the free chops at the butchers and the rum and cokes ‘on me’ in the bar. As the case of Adair shows, his charisma did not derive from his being a proficient killer, because unlike his associates he got into that at a relatively late stage, and is thought to have personally killed ‘only’ once. He routinely missed whenever he tried to shoot someone, and was risibly cackhanded with guns. On stage at a loyalist culture day even the mini-skirted and hooded ‘Mad Bitch’ got off a salvo while ‘Mad Dog’ grappled with a flashy automatic pistol on his knees. He also had a big mouth around the detectives who insinuated themselves into his circle, something they could not do with PIRA.
A real killer was like Stevie McKeag, a born-again Christian with two children and a divorce. McKeag was a ginger-haired man in his early twenties with penetrating blue eyes; in addition to his Rottweiler named Butch he kept snakes, an iguana, a parrot, a scorpion and tropical fish in his home. At Christmas he liked to have flashing reindeer on the roof and plastic Santas dotted all over the garden. When he killed first on 28 April 1992, his victim was a Catholic pharmacist called Philomena Hanna. He dismounted from a red Suzuki, walked into the chemist’s and shot her six times, bending down over her to put the last bullet into her head at close range. That coolness was his abiding characteristic: ‘Everybody, no matter who you were, got sweaty palms. But not Stevie. He just fucking flew through it.’ His notoriety increased when he used a bicycle to get away after shooting his first republican victim, the second of dozens of murders he committed. Unlike Adair, who could not keep his mouth shut, McKeag took a professional approach to his work: ‘At the end of the day I went out, I pulled the trigger and I came home and I didn’t run round shouting and screaming about it.’42 Less than a decade later, after a couple of severe punishment beatings and bad motorbike crashes, a broken-down McKeag was found dead in his bathroom in his boxer shorts after a cocaine overdose. A crossbow bolt protruding from the inside of a window added to the mystery of his ending. Adair was apparently relieved at the death of a man who had modestly allowed him to thrive in his deadly shadow. Along with notorious hitmen like McKeag, bomb makers or snipers were near the top of the tree, as was anyone involved in internal security units established to root out informing ‘touts’. A man like Freddie Scappaticci was a very frightening individual when you were strapped to a chair facing a pair of pliers or immersed in a full bath. This was what the young bucks who joined these organisations wished to be. The lowest level of terrorist was the thug who dealt out punishment beatings. In the eyes of the PIRA these were ‘the dregs of the organisation, people who aren’t any good at anything else but beating people up’.43
In these circles money began to change hands immediately after operations: £10 here, £100 there. All terrorists were aware of police forensics and so would repeatedly shower, using a nailbrush and cotton buds soaked with lemon juice to remove gun residue from nails, noses and ears. Massive amounts of bleach were used if the crime scene was somewhere they habitually used like a club or pub, a trick last used by the PIRA killers of Robert McCartney in a Belfast bar in January 2005 who also removed the CCTV tapes. Since men receiving £40 per week dole money could not afford new clothes, money was handed out to replace those burned after a murder, before many of them took to using cheap workmen’s overalls on a job. If they were smart, and many PIRA men were, they would rest up in safe houses—which included Catholic priests’ houses—watching their actions recycled on the TV news with some whey-faced priest mawkishly interested in what real men do. If something went wrong with the operation, the PIRA held prolonged debriefing sessions to go over and over the details, to get it right next time, but also on the look-out for informer-saboteurs working for the security services.
Their loyalist analogues seem to have preferred several days and nights partying, although heavy drinking and drug taking do not seem to have cramped their operational efficiency. Emulating PIRA Maze prison commander Brian Keenan, Adair introduced elaborate awards ceremonies for his crew, held in loyalist clubs hosting the annual Loyalist Prisoners’ Aid. There was a raffle, with prizes such as bicycles, camcorders and PlayStations before Adair strode on to the stage to a rapturous welcome. To the group’s theme song, Tina Turner singing ‘Simply the Best’ (Ms Turner’s record company eventually threatened to sue), Adair presented ‘Top Gun UFF’ trophies to his men. McKeag had a room full of them, so much so that he had ‘Top Gun’ tattooed too on his left breast. Massive amounts of alcohol were consumed on these occasions, together with the Ecstasy tablets which Adair’s gang were simultaneously trading, for the little acorns of organised crime were growing into sturdy oak trees. In 1991 Adair used £10,000 of UDA money to open Circle Taxis. The police called it ‘Murder Cabs’ but it was more commonly called ‘Dial-a-Drug’ as it specialised in door-to-door drug delivery after one had phoned in an order as if for a takeaway Indian meal.
IV SECTARIAN STRATEGIES
We left the narrative of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. When on 5 December 1975 the last detainees were released from Long Kesh, internment without trial ended. Prisoners who had been convicted and sentenced remained within the complex, distinguished (thanks to Special Category status) from criminal inmates elsewhere by various privileges such as being allowed to wear their own clothes and not having to work. In September 1976 the former coalminer from Barnsley, Roy Mason, became Northern Ireland secretary, a role he performed with apparent purpose. As he flew in by helicopter to his first day on the job, the PIRA burned seven double-deckers in Belfast central bus station so as to welcome him with the sight of rising smoke.44 There had already been some changes to British security policy. Diplock courts had been introduced in 1972, replacing juries who could be intimidated with a single senior judge dealing with terrorist cases. A Prevention of Terrorism Act enabled suspects to be held for up to seven days in Castlereagh; allegations of systematic abuse were designed to mitigate the inroads this had by way of PIRA suspects breaking too easily or becoming police informers. A reformed and militarised RUC was put into the frontline of combating PIRA criminality—there was no more talk of war—to be supported by local UDR troops if they needed more firepower. The police were reorganised into Regional Crime Squads roughly shadowing PIRA active service units in each area of operations. Mason was also publicly critical of the British media in their reporting of the conflict, the culture of the left university inclining many television producers and reporters to sympathise with the supposedly left-wing Provos, who spoke their language plausibly, even as they recoiled from the brutal Protestant working class.
Another measure antedated Mason, namely that all prisoners convicted of offences after 1 March 1976 were to be obliged to wear prison uniforms, regardless of whether they claimed to be political offenders. The first test case came in September 1976 when PIRA convict Kieran Nugent refused to don this uniform, and was returned naked to his cell where he cloaked himself in a blanket. Two years later three hundred PIRA prisoners were ‘on the blanket’, supported by blanket-wearing relatives demonstrating outside. As part of a broader restructuring of the PIRA for what it called the Long War, it was decided by Brendan Hughes, the senior PIRA man in the Maze H-blocks, to escalate the prisoners’ protest, as part of a wider effort to build political support for PIRA beyond its diehard republican constituency. In March 1978 the prisoners embarked on the ‘no-wash’ or ‘dirty protest’, which meant rejecting the fundamentals of human civilisation by smearing their cells with excrement and allowing food to rot so that it heaved with maggots. Prison officers had to operate in this filth, using high-pressure hoses as a last resort. Further pressure was put on prison officers by having terrorist comrades outside target them for assassination, the fate of six Prison Service members since the abolition of special status. The antics of PIRA prisoners made no impression on Roy Mason, nor on the European Commission of Human Rights which rejected inmate appeals, and were very unlikely to impress Margaret Thatcher either when in May 1979 she became Conservative prime minister.
Two months earlier, the INLA had used a remotely triggered car bomb to murder the Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave as he drove out of the House of Commons underground car park. He was a much decorated war hero who had escaped from Colditz Castle and was the architect of Thatcher’s Tory leadership bid against Edward Heath. That autumn PIRA reminded the world of its presence with a series of attacks on a single day which made major headlines. A remote-control bomb placed on a boat called Shadow V killed the seventy-nine-year-old Lord Mountbatten, his fourteen-year-old grandson, a dowager lady and a young boatman. Later the same day, two trucks containing men from the Parachute Regiment were blown up by a half-ton bomb in milk churns hidden by bales stacked on a hay carrier at Warrenpoint as they rode alongside Carlingford Lough to relieve another unit. The bomb was triggered by the sort of remote-control device used in model aircraft rather than by tell-tale command wires. Six soldiers were killed instantly by the blast, with many others horribly injured.
The survivors ran to the granite gatehouse of a nearby castle and radioed for support as they came under PIRA sniper fire designed to corral them where they had hidden. Twenty minutes after the initial attack, an emergency relief unit was dropped off by helicopter. Just then the gatehouse was demolished by a one-ton bomb that had been placed in anticipation of where the survivors might go to regroup. Twelve men were killed. In the Falls Road graffiti appeared claiming these attacks were revenge for ‘Bloody Sunday’: ‘Thirteen gone and not forgotten—we got eighteen and Mountbatten’.
Inside the Maze the five hundred blanket protesters had made such an investment in this struggle that they decided to go forwards rather than back. Seven prisoners, from 170 who volunteered, resolved to embark on a hunger strike to the death which commenced in late October 1980. In Mrs Thatcher they had picked the wrong opponent. While outwardly she was implacable in her rejection of this sort of blackmail, her secret agents cunningly appeared to concede many of their demands via clerical intermediaries, without having this committed to paper until so late in the day that one of the hunger strikers almost expired. The strike was called off, even though the prison authorities then went on to circumvent what the strikers thought had been agreed.
That resulted in the second hunger strike which began on 1 March 1981 with Bobby Sands, who through chance events shortly became the ‘H-Block/Armagh’ candidate in a by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone after the sitting MP had died. On 9 April Sands heard from an illegal radio that he had been duly elected. Parliament modified the law to disqualify prisoners as candidates. The struggle between the hunger strikers and Mrs Thatcher became personal. She said: ‘There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.’ The fact that Special Category status had been conceded in 1972 rather militated against that degree of certainty, as did the wording of the Prevention of Terrorism Act itself, under which these men had been imprisoned, since it spoke of ‘the use of violence for political ends’.
After sixty-six days Sands died on 5 May, followed by three other hunger strikers. More men took their place. Two of them were elected in absentia as members of the Dáil Éireann. The death toll rose to six as secret meetings were held between Gerry Adams and representatives of the British government to find a settlement both sides could agree on. Pressure on the PIRA leadership also came from the families of the hunger strikers who were encouraged by the Redemptorist father Dennis Faul to make their views known to those who regarded their sons’ and siblings’ deaths in purely instrumental ideological terms. Even as four more prisoners starved themselves to death, mothers asserted their right to have their sons force fed, which effectively collapsed the unanimity of the strike. Ten men had died, but hundreds of thousands of angry sympathisers had attended their politicised funerals, and the remaining prisoners had won the right to wear their own clothes and a number of smaller concessions. Meanwhile, Sands and his comrades appeared on several christological murals painted in republican areas so as to boost the idea that they were good holy men. Revealingly, there was more outrage in the US (and in Teheran, where the ayatollahs named a street in Sands’s memory) than in the Irish Republic where in Catholic eyes suicide was a sin. Nine years earlier southern republicans had burned the British embassy after Bloody Sunday; a decade of PIRA atrocities had cooled their ardour.
The security forces were not idle during this period. Early efforts to operate covertly included a mobile Four Square Laundry which collected republicans’ dirty washing with a view to examining it for traces of explosives while keeping areas under covert surveillance from a hideout in the van. A fake massage parlour was opened, so as to spy on the clients. From 1973 onwards the army deployed a highly secretive unit which became known as Detachment 14 Intelligence Company, many of its members drawn from the Parachute Regiment, and specialised in undercover surveillance in each of the military’s three brigade divisions. Its male and female members underwent an incredibly gruelling training course in Templar Barracks in Ashford, Kent and in Wales run by SAS instructors. The least of it was to be woken in the early hours and made to watch a mind-numbing film about the construction of a bamboo hut in South Asia and then be obliged to recall every detail of it. Skilled in such things as breaking and entering, they cleared the way for MI5 and Weapons Intelligence agents to bug homes and businesses or to place tiny transmitters in guns and caches of explosives that made it possible to follow their users’ movements. Some explosives were replaced with harmless substances that malfunctioned when ignited; other bombs were prematurely triggered by electronic devices operating on similar wavelengths. RUC Special Branch officers were selected for a unit called E4A to perform such functions. That meant keeping suspects under permanent surveillance even as they moved back and forth across the North-South border, unenviable work done from OP holes in the ground or unmarked Q cars and vans. In the course of the Ulsterisation of the security services, the SAS trained further RUC Special Branch men to become part of Headquarters Mobile Support Units or HMSUs, which killed a number of PIRA and INLA figures. The circumstances were sufficiently dubious to warrant a high-powered police investigation under Manchester’s chief constable, John Stalker, which MI5 tried to thwart and whose findings the government suppressed on grounds of national security. Stalker seems to have been so well smeared with allegations of questionable business contacts in his native Manchester that he went on to star in TV double-glazing adverts.
In circumstances where the PIRA was likely to be caught armed and red-handed, SAS troops were deployed, usually with maximum post-operational publicity to satisfy a widespread public desire to see terrorists get their just deserts. Although special forces were obliged to operate within the army’s Yellow Card rules of engagement, in practice the nature of their training, and the tense situations in which they were deployed, meant that they were liable to unleash dozens of rounds into the chests and heads of their ‘contacts’ in circumstances where it was impossible to shout warnings or ‘hands up’. When they were not from Auckland, Cape Town or Fiji, these men were often the products of broken homes with delinquent pasts who had served in places like Oman; when PIRA units encountered them, the probability was that people were going to die. As they had it: ‘Big boys’ game; big boys’ rules’. The Army Legal Service did its best to minimise subsequent appearances by these men—invariably called ‘A’ or ‘B’—before coroners’ inquests and courts, although conforming with the rule of law was an important part of the British campaign in Northern Ireland. Successive British ministers adopted the line that they did not dictate security to the security forces while denying that there was a shoot-to-kill policy.45
A fairly typical operation occurred on 4 December 1984. Following a tip-off from an informer, an SAS unit staked out a PIRA arms cache at Magheramulkenny. An Armalite rifle had been used in twenty-two attacks on security forces since 1979, including four killings of off-duty policemen in and around Dungannon. Six SAS men, in three groups of two, concealed themselves around the field in which the guns were hidden in a hedge. After two days of lying still and alternating wakeful-ness and sleep, a Talbot car with three men in it arrived at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Twenty-two-year-old Colm McGirr and nineteen-year-old Brian Campbell made for the cache. McGirr pulled out the Armalite and handed it to Campbell who headed for the car. A soldier emerged shouting ‘Halt! Security forces!’ McGirr turned round holding a shotgun and was hit by a total of thirteen bullets. Campbell turned towards the soldiers, with his Armalite, and was shot twice. The car driver tried to escape, as two soldiers pumped rounds into the car, shattering its windshield. It was found abandoned two miles away with blood inside. A soldier dressed a wound Campbell had in his shoulder, and inserted a breathing tube as he went into shock and died. It is conceivable that the PIRA men could have been photographed carrying the weapons and arrested later by the RUC, but that was not the spirit of those times. If it is true that the British army ensured that the PIRA never achieved its fundamental strategic objective, this was in no small part due to special-forces operations that made it very risky for terrorists to operate. This inculcated the idea that the PIRA faced a military stalemate and hence inclined it to the view that a military solution was a pipedream.
In order to monitor PIRA activities, a vast security net spread over republican areas, whose visible manifestations were watchtowers and observation posts that sprang up in both towns and country. Overhead there were also incessant helicopter flights, some of them carrying heli-teli or cameras recording movements below. RAF surveillance aircraft took aerial photos of country areas looking for signs of ground disturbed by arms dumps or command wires. Electronic eavesdropping devices, hidden cameras and motion sensors all helped intelligence agents to build up a rich picture of their terrorist opponents, as did the replacement of card indexes with ever more sophisticated computers to which foot patrols and roadblocks fed routine fresh intelligence on the movements of suspects. The Provos responded with their own counter-intelligence operations. The number plates of cars owned by respectable middle-class people were cloned, and attached to identical vehicles, which would then raise no suspicions if stopped. They had lookouts watching for undercover agents in unmarked vehicles, or for people whose accents or demeanour did not fit in ‘their’ territory. Having identified anyone too muscle-bound around neck and shoulders and with too short-cropped hair, the PIRA were soon alert to the scruffy, unshaven, weedy individuals with long hair who replaced them. PIRA technical experts examined weapons that may have been tampered with, and sought out new frequencies for triggering bombs remotely.
By far the sharpest weapon in the security services’ campaign against the Provos (and loyalist terrorists) was informers recruited from, or groomed to join, the terrorist organisation, arguably the tactic that would so stimulate PIRA paranoia that the group ultimately lost the armed struggle. In addition to MI5, an army intelligence formation called the Force Research Unit (FRU) was specifically tasked to recruit and handle republican and loyalist agents, a job requiring formidable abilities on the part of those doing it. Most agents and informers were recruited because of familiar human failings. A letter arrived with £50 inside and details of a meeting where more was to be had. A couple of hundred pounds would be handed over. Perhaps the man approached nursed a grudge after squabbling with another Provo. Perhaps he was shown graphic photographs of a local Provo commander sleeping with his wife. Perhaps he just started to talk to the man who deliberately bumped the back of his car so as to provoke a conversation.
For some terrorists the nervous tensions of the job had become unbearable, especially as victory seemed endlessly deferred. A few were appalled by indiscriminate bloodshed in which innocent civilians were killed, a theme underlined whenever relatives of the dead appeared grief-stricken or stunned on television. Apart from those being blackmailed, many probably took up the offer of avoiding a prison sentence when they were caught drunk-driving, dealing drugs or with a gun. A few probably welcomed the £20 a week they were given by their handlers, with the odd £200-300 bonus when they came up trumps with information that led to an arrest. The wife of one agent used to accompany her husband to meetings with his handler, armed with telephone and utility bills, and even the account for the monthly TV rental, knowing that they would be settled by British intelligence. This agent’s handlers also enabled him to secure funds from various government employment and community schemes, which boosted his credibility within republican Sinn Fein circles. More senior turncoats had larger sums paid into mainland bank accounts, but they were not allowed to access them lest newfound wealth provoked suspicion. They would ultimately be relocated abroad.
Even a briefcase with £25,000 was scant reward for potentially being abducted, tortured and then shot in the back of the head by the PIRA’s dedicated ‘nutting squad’. Established in 1980 this was under the sinister command of John Joe Magee, a former member of British army special forces, and Frederick ‘Scap’ Scappaticci, the son of an icecream seller from Belfast’s Little Italy. Having failed in his bid to become a professional footballer, Scappaticci had joined the Provos in about 1974. Slight of build but with a ferocious temper, he was quick to take offence when anyone mispronounced his name. By some major irony, he was the British agent code-named ‘Stakeknife’ or as some prefer ‘Steaknife’, receiving an estimated £75,000 a year paid into a Gibraltar bank account. He was a so-called walk-in who had contacted British intelligence because he had once been beaten up by the IRA before joining it, and, evidently, because he had an almost pathological detestation of the coldly pious Martin McGuinness, at that time allegedly head of PIRA’s Northern Command.46 On the loyalist side, a former soldier, Brian Nelson, was infiltrated into the UFF, rising to become its senior intelligence officer. He claimed that on behalf of the FRU he redirected UFF violence from indiscriminate slaughter of Catholics to the focused targeting of republican terrorists. Apparently he helped the FRU avert a UFF attempt to assassinate Gerry Adams with a limpet mine attached to the roof of his armoured taxi. But Nelson also set up a number of people as UFF targets, managing to misidentify innocent people, while the FRU itself sometimes deliberately failed to act on his information, thereby enabling the UFF to kill republican targets. He was also involved in the UFF killing of the elderly IRA figure Francisco Notarantonio, ironically to throw the IRA off the scent of Scappaticci.47
Nineteen eighty-one saw the first PIRA supergrass, that is someone who turned prosecution witness in return for soft-pedalling of their own offences. Christopher Black was arrested after participating in a PIRA photo-opportunity dressed in the customary black balaclava. During his interrogation he suddenly said: ‘If I help youse, will youse help me?’ In return for immunity from prosecution, and a new life in England, Black named thirty-eight people as PIRA members, thirty-five of whom received a total of four thousand years’ imprisonment, often on the sole basis of his testimony. Another supergrass, Raymond Gilmour, did for the PIRA in Londonderry, having been recruited by Special Branch as a seventeen-year-old facing bank-robbery charges, before being infiltrated into the PIRA via its rival INLA. As in the cases of Scappaticci, Nelson and others, the security services knowingly allowed Gilmour to take part in a two-year rampage of PIRA criminality so as to extract the maximum information about the organisation. Colluding in criminality was one demerit of using informers; another was their propensity to accuse people they did not like so as to boost their utility to their handlers, the problem that eventually nullified their testimony and led to the overturning of many convictions by Northern Ireland’s Appeals Court.48
The PIRA bombing campaign in England was designed to exact vengeance on Margaret Thatcher’s government and to weaken the resolve of the British public in resisting Irish terrorism. On 18 December 1984 a twenty - to thirty-pound bomb exploded at lunchtime in Hans Crescent outside Harrods department store. A telephoned warning came too late. Six people, including two police officers and an American businessman, were killed and a hundred wounded. On 12 October of that year, a twenty-five-pound bomb hidden in room 629 exploded in the early hours of the morning at the Grand hotel in Brighton, in an attempt to murder Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative cabinet. The blast collapsed the front of the building, killing Sir Anthony Berry, Roberta Wakeham, the wife of the Tory chief whip, and two middle-aged members of local Tory associations. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of senior minister Norman Tebbit, was paralysed from the neck down, while her husband sustained serious injuries and was trapped under rubble for four hours. Despite broken limbs, Tebbit managed to joke with rescuers as they extracted him. PIRA bomber Patrick Magee had left a palmprint and a fingerprint on a hotel registration card when he checked in as ‘Roy Walsh’ months before. In 1986 he received eight life sentences, to serve a minimum of thirty-five years. He was released in 1999, becoming a celebrity terrorist with his expressions of qualified regret, most recently on a distasteful radio programme broadcast on the BBC.
On 8 November 1987 PIRA bombers struck at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen. A forty-pound gelignite bomb exploded in a community hall near where a small crowd had gathered around a war memorial. PIRA claimed to have been targeting soldiers but the bomb exploded before they arrived. Eleven people were killed—a twelfth man, Ronnie Hill, died in 2000 after being left in a coma for thirteen years—and a further sixty wounded. All of the victims were Protestant civilians, some of them elderly people and five of them women, including a retired WAAF nurse with her war medals and a twenty-year-old nurse called Marie Wilson. Revulsion at this attack swept through southern Ireland, where fifty thousand people signed a book of condolence in Dublin and the country momentarily ground to a halt. Marie Wilson’s father became one of the many ordinary people who briefly flitted across public consciousness to remind the wider world that there was a large silent majority of decent people in Northern Ireland.
Bombings like Enniskillen led some within the PIRA leadership to question their sole reliance on a military campaign which could result in such propaganda own-goals. Bobby Sands’s 1981 election victory indicated that there might be more mileage in Sinn Fein which many Provos had hitherto regarded as little more than an outlet for their newspapers. Leading republican propagandist Danny Morrison was responsible for the catchy phrase about using the ballot box as well as the Armalite rifle to achieve their goals. In 1982 Adams and McGuinness were elected to a new Northern Ireland assembly, while the following year a Sinn Féin activist won a seat on Omagh district council. On 9 June of that year Adams was elected MP for West Belfast, although he refused to take up the Westminster seat. That November he displaced Ruarí Ó Brádaigh as president of Sinn Féin. Under his leadership, Sinn Fein and PIRA would advance on parallel fronts.
One important effect of the rise of Sinn Féin as an electoral force was that it pushed the governments of Dublin and London closer together in their common desire to stop Sinn Féin from marginalising the constitutional nationalists in the SDLP or from becoming a force in the South’s fissiparous coalition politics. On 15 November 1985 Margaret Thatcher and taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which established institutional mechanisms for the South to have a say in the running of the North as well as enhanced cross-border security cooperation to meet a common threat. The Irish made Northern Ireland a shade greener; Margaret Thatcher could point to a threat to PIRA’s southern supply trail and training camps. Although the Agreement stressed that unification would be entirely dependent upon the consent of the northern majority, the Unionists regarded the Agreement as a betrayal and the first step towards a united Ireland. Ian Paisley fulminated: ‘We pray this night that thou wouldst deal with the Prime Minister of our country. O God, in wrath take vengeance upon this wicked, treacherous, lying woman. Take vengeance upon here, O Lord, and grant that we shall see a demonstration of thy power.’ For the first time the RUC was heavily engaged in battling loyalists mobs, while the UVF attacked the homes of Protestant policemen with firebombs. Although the decision was not related to the Agreement, in the following year Adams and his supporters in Sinn Féin/PIRA abandoned their boycott of the Irish parliament and signalled that Sinn Fein was going to contest southern elections. An abstentionist faction seceded as Republican Sinn Fein, with its own Continuity IRA that is still active today.49
While these shifts were happening in the political landscape, a sequence of events occurred that took violence to a new nadir. During the autumn of 1987 British intelligence officers monitored the movements of a Provo active service unit as it moved back and forth between Belfast and Malaga in southern Spain. It gradually became apparent that the PIRA team were bent on driving an enormous car bomb from the Spanish mainland so as to bomb the Royal Anglian Regiment at the Changing of the Guard ceremony in Gibraltar. This was scheduled to take place on 8 March. SAS teams were despatched to join a host of intelligence personnel already present. Their orders specified that they were allowed to fire without warning if a shout might lead to death or injury of a comrade or a bystander. On 4 March 1988 Mairéad Farrell, a thirty-one-year-old former PIRA prisoner, flew in from Brussels, while Sean Savage, aged twenty-three, and Danny McCann, thirty, arrived from Paris. Savage and McCann had assassinated two Special Branch officers in Belfast Docks in August 1987. They hired two Fiesta cars, and used one of them to move 140 pounds of explosives which were then put into the other; this second Fiesta was left in a Marbella car park. They rented a white Renault, and parked it near where the ceremony was to be held, the idea being to replace it with the white Fiesta carrying the bomb so that nobody would notice. Next, Farrell and McCann drove to the border, and then walked over on foot; Savage drove the white Renault. The three wandered around and then walked back along Winston Churchill Avenue to the border. They loitered chatting at a petrol station and then split up to leave. McCann found himself temporarily smiling into a face that did not smile back. Realising his mistake, McCann brought his right arm up suddenly, and was shot by a man in jeans and T-shirt. Farrell went for something in her shoulder bag, and was shot too. Savage was confronted by two SAS men. As he went into combat mode, one soldier fired nine rounds into him; two to the head and seven into his chest as he was trained to do. The soldiers concerned were whisked away from the scene; the British public rejoiced.
Republican supporters turned out in numbers to the funerals of these three in Belfast’s Milltown cemetery ten days later. Pandemonium broke out when a UFF gunman, Michael Stone, ran amok hurling grenades and firing at the mourners with a pistol. Before he was rescued by police from a furious mob bent on killing him, Stone had murdered two civilians in their twenties and an older PIRA member called Caoimhin MacBradaigh. His targets had been Adams and McGuinness, in revenge for Enniskillen.
Three days later, republicans gathered to bury Caoimhin MacBradaigh in the same cemetery. A VW Passat suddenly hove into view, leading many of the mourners to think they were under another loyalist attack. As it happened, the two men in the car were off-duty army signals men, one of whom was showing his colleague his first republican funeral. When the car was trapped by an angry mob, one of the soldiers fired a warning shot from his Browning pistol. Any undercover ‘Det’, FRU or SAS trooper would have shot someone to clear an escape route. The mourners and PIRA stewards dragged the men out of the car. They were assaulted and bundled into a black taxi which drove them to a patch of wasteland. Watched by an army surveillance helicopter, the men were dragged out of the taxi, stabbed and shot. Various mourners were prosecuted under common-cause legislation, but the perpetrators of these two terrible murders were never caught. Prime minister Thatcher joined the soldiers’ families when their coffins were flown back to England, where many people, hitherto disinclined to engage in the ‘Paddy-whacking’ that had become normative in the popular press, regarded their killers as savages.
Against the background of unremitting bleakness, Sinn Fein had come to the bitter conclusion—based on poor poll showings in southern Ireland—that it could only thrive as part of a much broader pan-nationalist front, stretching through John Hume and the SDLP, via Dublin and on to Irish-America and the White House. There Irish issues could be used, for example, to square Democrat Congressmen to support Reagan’s war in Nicaragua, with a pay-off in Northern Ireland. The Redemptorist Alex Reid, who had administered the last rites to one of the two soldiers killed at Milltown, was able to arrange a number of meetings between Adams and Hume, talks which were broadened out to include a number of their colleagues and comrades. Hume took full advantage of the recent bloodshed to ask Adams whether Sinn Féin/PIRA thought that ‘the methods were more sacred than the cause’. He also said that since the Unionists could only be persuaded into a united Ireland, PIRA should declare a ceasefire and leave the future shape of Ireland to a conference to be convened by the Irish government. Implicitly assuming that the British government was neutral to the outcome, both the SDLP and Sinn Fein built up their support in the US, in the hope that this permutation of cards would trump any noise coming from the Unionists.
On 20 August 1988 PIRA used a two-hundred-pound bomb to kill eight soldiers and grievously injure a further twenty-eight as they travelled on a bus back to their Omagh barracks. Ten days later the SAS killed three PIRA men, including Gerard Harte, the commander of mid-Tyrone PIRA, who were believed to have bombed the bus, in an ambush near Drumnakilly. As the three drove up to kill what they thought was a part-time soldier, they were shot by twelve soldiers concealed in a nearby ditch. In the following years there were further ‘contacts’ in which PIRA members were wiped out in ambushes in which on each occasion two hundred rounds or more were fired by SAS men. While attacks like these made serious inroads into PIRA’s ranks, especially in Tyrone, loyalist paramilitaries switched from indiscriminate sectarian murder to targeting of nationalist sympathisers, who may have been identified for them by renegade members of the security services. The reasoning of Protestant paramilitaries was simple enough. If the British government responded to PIRA pressure by making endless concessions to moderate nationalists at the expense of the Unionists, then loyalist gunmen would deplete the PIRA while warning that if they were sold out they could wage a long war too. For Adair, it was a matter of not letting ‘his’ community be ‘fucking walked on’ and of ensuring that those who lived by the sword died by it, which explained his obsessional attempts to kill leading west Belfast PIRA figures. He also went for what he imagined were the brains behind armed republicanism. In February 1989 the UVF broke into the home of a lawyer activist called Pat Finucane who had represented many PIRA clients. Several members of his family were involved in republican organisations; one brother had died in a car crash while on a PIRA active service mission, another was the fiance of Mairéad Farrell who had been shot on Gibraltar. Finucane was shot fourteen times as he ate his Sunday meal while his wife was shot in the foot. Adair’s men nicknamed the victim ‘Fork’ Finucane; he was still clasping that implement when he died. The killing of Finucane has especially exercised the world’s international lawyers, who, incredulous that a lawyer might have terrorist involvements, nonetheless believe PIRA claims that Finucane was set up by elements of the security services colluding with his paramilitary assassins. There was collusion between Adair’s gang and individual policemen and soldiers, who passed on montage photos of PIRA terrorists with their addresses, but at no stage has this been found to have been official policy. On 3 March 1991 the UVF planned to hit a senior republican with his wife in Boyle’s bar in the republican stronghold of Cappagh, but killed three PIRA volunteers when they drove into the pub car park, as well as a civilian struck by a round in the lavatory. By this time Adair’s group had acquired RPG launchers although they were not especially proficient at aiming them.
On the political front the shape of a future settlement was becoming apparent, even though the will to achieve it was manifestly not universal. Moderate Unionists acknowledged that there had to be some form of power-sharing and an Irish dimension of indeterminate proportions, while constitutional nationalists in the SDLP recognised that joint authority was more realistic than a united Ireland. Among the chief reasons why the latter was unrealistic was that southern Ireland was too poor to take up the £6 billion which the UK government was using to subsidise Northern Ireland, funds which paid for its bizarre doppel-ganger infrastructure where there were two of everything from libraries to swimming pools, on each side of the concrete and meshed maze that kept the feuding communities apart.
PIRA continued to commit atrocities on the mainland. This re-emphasis reflected the fact that by then 70 per cent of PIRA operations in Northern Ireland had to be aborted for fear of detection, while of the remaining 30 per cent, 80 per cent were prevented or interdicted by the security forces.50 On 20 March 1993 two bombs left in a shopping centre in Warrington near Liverpool led to the deaths of a three-year-old boy, Jonathan Ball, and a twelve-year-old, Timothy Parry, who had gone out to buy some football shorts. In response to the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, PIRA declared a ceasefire on 31 August 1994. The two governments, by now of John Bruton and John Major, issued a Joint Framework Document which promised all-party talks but only when the PIRA had renounced violence. Unionist protests at this deal temporarily lulled republicans into the delusion that they had achieved a sort of victory. A massive explosion on 9 February 1996 in London’s Canary Wharf business district was part of a new strategy to damage the British economy at its most lucrative core. Inan Ul-haq Bashir and John ‘JJ’ Jeffries, who both ran a newsagent’s store, were blown to pieces when they took most of the blast. A low-loader with a thousand pounds of ANFO built into it had travelled from County Monaghan via the PIRA Ho Chi Minh Trail in Scotland and then down the motorways to London. Three thumbprints were found, including one on a car magazine left on wasteground where the truck had parked before the bomb-run began, another on an ashtray at a service station covered by motorway CCTV, and a third on a Stena ferry ticket from Belfast. By felicitous coincidence, these belonged to one of several PIRA men caught red-handed when the RUC managed to roll up the South Armagh sniper team, whose final victim had been lance-bombardier Stephen Restorick, the last British soldier to die in the Troubles. The bombers and snipers served a matter of months of very long sentences because of the concurrent impact of the Good Friday Agreement. The Docklands bomb followed on from a one-hundred-pound Semtex bomb a year earlier that caused £1 billion of damage in the older City of London. It killed the fifteen-year-old daughter of a chauffeur returning a car, and injured her eight-year-old sister. A middle-aged doorman and a younger man were also killed. The ambulance driver first on the scene became another casualty. Traumatised by this incident, he shot dead his girlfriend five months later and then repeatedly tried to kill himself in various secure psychiatric hospitals. The Docklands bomb was followed on 15 June 1996 by a 3,500-pound truck bomb which demolished the centre of Manchester, injuring two hundred and causing between £100 million and £300 million worth of damage. Although these operations seemed spectacular, there was something about the execution that also indicated weakness. The bombs originated from South Armagh, indicating the success British security forces had had in rolling up PIRA cells in England. They had learned to watch and wait rather than rounding up the first available group of ‘Paddies’ at the first opportunity. There was something more. Massive explosions in London undermined Gerry Adams’s claim to be able to control PIRA violence, leading Dublin, London and Washington to question the value of dealing with the middle man.
In Ireland that mood spread when on 7 June a PIRA hold-up gang attacked a security van delivering pension money in Limerick, shooting dead Jerry McCabe, a fifty-two-year-old Garda detective in the escort vehicle. The trial of five men for this outrage was hampered by the fact that several eyewitnesses suddenly refused to testify after being intimidated by the PIRA. The police were appalled when a deal was struck allowing four defendants to plead guilty to manslaughter, with Martin McGuinness endeavouring to have them released under the Good Friday Agreement.51
Shortly after the election of Tony Blair in May 1997, PIRA restored the ceasefire it had unilaterally broken, in the expectation that a Labour prime minister with a massive majority would be less sympathetic to the Unionists than Major. That was a miscalculation since Blair revealed himself as being strongly pro-Union, believing that the key to the resolution of the conflict lay in a wider policy of devolution within the entire UK. The energetic and youthful Blair brought tremendous energy to the peace process, which he rapidly treated as his domain. He was also a master at the political manipulation of language, having a natural flair for the constructive ambiguity necessary to reconcile implacable antagonists. His first three Northern Ireland secretaries were the former academic Mo Mowlam, the coldly volatile Peter Mandelson and the Glaswegian Catholic John Reid. Unionists intensely disliked Mowlam, although only the really nasty called her ‘the pig in a wig’ (she had lost her hair through chemotherapy sessions for a brain tumour), because of her foul language and over-familiarity with leading republicans like McGuinness, whom she called ‘Martin babe’. Together with the new taoiseach Bertie Ahern, whose role in the peace process was equally important, Blair elaborated what would become the agreed settlement, the Good Friday Agreement reached at Easter 1998.
There would be no change to the Union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain until the majority of the people of Northern Ireland consented to it. Republicans dreamed that demography would do its work in this respect, while they built up political support on both sides of the border, perhaps with an eye to a bid on the Irish presidency, or at least a power-broking role in the Republic’s coalition governments. Unionists had to accept power-sharing with the minority and institutionalised cross-border co-operation. If the Provos renounced violence—although establishing that would be a protracted saga in itself—then Sinn Fein would be admitted to the political process without too much talk of murderers. Indeed, the murderers themselves played a role in the peace process. When it threatened to break down after the INLA assassinated Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright in prison, triggering a further round of tit-for-tat killings, the Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam visited among others Michael Stone and Johnny Adair in the Maze to ensure their continuing commitment to peace.
Although Gerry Adams failed to make much of an imprint on the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, he managed to convey the impression that he had played a major role in it, by virtue of having slipped in matters entirely related to the politics of the gun. These included the early release of paramilitary prisoners, a commission on the fate of the RUC, which after the Patten Report was refashioned as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the sanctioning of ‘community restorative justice’ for those communities which did not trust the regular courts. This effectively handed justice over to paramilitaries who, while in jail, had reconfigured themselves into lawyers and sociologists, except those like Adair who were bent on a life of organised crime and hence concentrated on drugs and weight-lifting. PIRA spent five years prevaricating over the issue of putting its arms dumps beyond use, the face-saving formula adopted for their surrender. For a brief period, the feisty law lecturer turned statesman David Trimble emerged with the Ulster Unionist Party as the strongest grouping in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The dramatic rise in the Sinn Fein vote vis-a-vis that of the moderate SDLP resulted in a corresponding leaching of Unionist voters away from the UUP and Trimble towards the more populist Democratic Unionists of Ian Paisley. To his credit, Blair refused to be deflected from his course, even when, as in August 1998, a huge bomb planted by the breakaway Real IRA demolished the centre of Omagh, killing twenty-nine people and injuring three hundred, in the worst atrocity of the entire Troubles.
While the Provos had been militarily defeated, Sinn Fein was more adroit on the world stage than the loyalists. The latter were hopeless at presenting their case—which should better have resembled the republicans’ ‘story’—to the wider world. Their most fluent advocates tended to be Tory Roman Catholics and Dean Godson, an Orthodox Jew, writing in the British print media. Sinn Féin-PIRA had a vast propaganda and fund-raising operation in the US. Despite many Irish-Americans being descendants of Ulster Scots, integrated to the point of invisibility, the Unionists had no permanent office in a capital where one can otherwise encounter lobbyists for Burkina Faso and Fiji. It was revealing that when the loyalists got around to stressing their historic role in modernising Ulster through industry, they alighted upon the idea of christening Harland and Wolff shipyard ‘Titanic Quarter’ after the biggest shipwreck in history. There have also been attempts to rewrite ancient history in order to make the Ulster Scots rival victims to the republicans. The Iron Age inhabitants of Ulster were cruelly expelled by invading Gaels and fled to western Scotland. Their descendants returned, uncorrupted, as Ulster Scots planters in the seventeenth century. Attempts to invent or revive the language are as artificial as the efforts of nineteenth-century Catholic schoolmasters to propagate Gaelic.52 One missed opportunity was to fail to emphasise Sinn Féin-PIRA’s unsavoury affiliations with ETA, FARC and the PLO, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the advent of a US climate less indulgent towards terrorists. Where Adams was folksy, slippery and sentimental, with the tone of a sociology lecturer at a provincial university, Trimble was lawyerly and prickly. Although a more articulate loyalist leadership came to the fore, including a number of convicted terrorists who emerged from prison, in September 2001 the world was nauseated by the sight of north Belfast loyalist mobs intimidating infants who, in order to reach the Catholic Holy Cross primary school from the mainly Catholic Ardoyne estate, had to walk four hundred yards through the Protestant Glenbryn estate. This was one of several engineered disputes, designed to attract maximum bad publicity.
Every summer there were also increasingly ugly scenes as the oldest Orange lodge at Portadown asserted its right to march to a Protestant church at Drumcree, via a Catholic district whose residents’ association was riddled with republican sympathisers. At these parades cum riots leading Unionist politicians found themselves in the unsavoury company of loyalist paramilitaries bent on using an armoured mechanical digger to attack the RUC.53 Meanwhile, an Assembly and power-sharing Executive which had existed for some nineteen months had been suspended after the discovery in 2002 of a Sinn Féin spy-ring at Stormont and the resumption of British direct rule. The following autumn, Tony Blair held fresh elections, partly to confirm the US belief that the conflict could be resolved only when the extremes of Sinn Fein and the DUP were forced to confront the consequences of their own electoral success. David Trimble was offered up as a sacrifice to that goal as his own supporters deserted him. It would take four more years, and the threat to cut off the politicians’ salaries, before Ian Paisley became first minister with Martin McGuinness as his deputy.54
Repeated Irish and US efforts to achieve this end continually collapsed not just over Sinn Féin-PIRA prevarication over arms decommissioning, but because in 2004 the Provos carried out the largest bank robbery in Northern Ireland’s history—whether to buy arms or to provide retired terrorists with pensions is unclear—the most tangible manifestation of the fact that they were operating a Mafia-like crime racket within republican enclaves that has spread to the UK mainland. PIRA did eventually claim to have decommissioned its arsenals, although there is no photographic record of this process, which was conducted under the eyes of a Canadian general. Even the most notorious terrorist prisoners came out through the turnstile of the Maze prison. Johnny Adair was released in September 1999 after serving a quarter of his sentence. Six months earlier, he had taken his wife to a UB40 concert, while out on parole. A republican came up behind him as ‘Red Red Wine’ played and shot him in the back of the head. The gun may have been tampered with as the bullet merely bounced off the victim’s shaven head. Wounded, Adair fled the scene as ‘Red Red Wine’ resounded.
Loyalist terrorists had one major handicap that almost ineluctably propelled them into criminality. Whereas republicans had an impressive array of welfare organisations that reflected their rejection of the status quo, pro-state loyalist terrorists had no parallel society to fall back on when they could no longer live by the gun. In his new temporary role as a £16,500-a-year prisoners’ welfare co-ordinator, a job he failed to hold down like all earlier ones, the peacenik Johnny Adair, all belligerence and testosterone with his pirate earrings and reversed baseball cap, was prominent in organising the decommissioning of loyalist weapons, while reserving the best stuff for himself. These were essential to a major drugs business he operated in Belfast, based on smuggling Ecstasy pills from England in the detachable hub caps of a Mercedes, while cannabis was dropped off on the coast from Scotland. Since raids by the police routinely unearthed £250,000 worth of drugs at a time, this was a profitable business, with pedlars earning up to £10,000 a week provided they paid their dues and respects to the right terrorist chieftain.
In his bid to be Belfast’s Mr Big, Adair endeavoured to merge C Company and the remnants of Wright’s LVF, a move that resulted in a lethal feud with the UDA leadership, whose ageing brigadiers were still notionally in charge of loyalist violence. Adair’s key allies in both the drugs trade and this feud included the most exotic UDA members, Andre Khaled Shoukri and his brothers, the Coptic Christian sons of an Ulster Protestant mother and an Egyptian father. Demonstrating their customary awareness of the wider world, Adair and his cohorts dubbed them ‘the Pakis’. In addition to his involvement in drugs and the feud, Adair simply loved the limelight, forcing his neighbours to keep the streets spotless just in case television crews turned up. An electric road-sweeping cart was forever on his street and he would order his neighbours to move their cars to make way for it. In 2002 he made the criminal big time when he figured in a book called Hard Bastards edited by the widow of Ronnie Kray (Ronnie and his twin Reggie had been England’s most notorious 1960s gangsters), although the interviewee insisted he was ‘a soldier’. He appeared among several gentlemen one would not wish to encounter in a dark alley at night. Adair lost the feud when the massed ranks of the UDA drove his key lieutenants and his wife Gina out of Northern Ireland. Gina had to leave so quickly that the couple’s Alsatians Shane and Rebel were left behind. Since fifty or so of these fugitives live in and around Bolton, they are known as the ‘Bolton Wanderers’ to their erstwhile associates. ‘Mad Dog’ joined them, but, following the break-up of his marriage, he moved to Scotland where he lives in Ayrshire surrounded by his fellow Glasgow Rangers aficionados. His autobiography claims, ‘I will be back,’ the cinematic echo being all too deliberate.55
It would be misleading to suggest that only loyalists are gangsters. The PIRA runs the largest crime syndicate in Europe, dwarfing the Camorra and Mafia in Italy. Peace has had little or no impact on PIRA-organised criminality, which by the late 1980s was bringing in an estimated £10 million a year. Specialised police units like C13, established by the RUC in 1983, are under-funded and lacking in the confiscatory powers that the Gardaí enjoy in the Republic.
Bank robbery, kidnapping of rich businessmen and the theft of artworks and racehorses have all figured in the PIRA repertory. Since the Good Friday Agreement there have been over four hundred armed robberies in Northern Ireland, including the raid on the Northern Bank that netted £25 million. A senior IRA figure with so many shoes that his friends call him ‘Imelda’ was repeatedly questioned in the subsequent inquiry into that raid, which in southern Ireland has reached into respectable banking circles. Paramilitary rackets began thirty years ago. By now a lot of the proceeds will have been laundered into outwardly respectable businesses. Money was extorted from firms and shops under the guise of voluntary contributions to prisoner welfare charities that were formalised into a regular Danegeld. When urban bus services were disrupted by hijackers and arsonists the paramilitaries moved into the lucrative licensed taxi trade. Similarly, since many pubs closed at 7 p.m. because of the likelihood of terrorist attacks, all paramilitary groups opened unlicensed drinking dens. As the alcohol sold was usually stolen, these places made an absolute profit, albeit minuscule in relation to the sums later derived from drugs. Unemployed terrorists also gained jobs as bouncers and minders, as the clubs went in for selling stolen goods, food and drink on a large scale. Such men also joined private security services, because firms and shops were charged lower insurance premiums if they employed them. Terrorists colluded with corrupt businessmen in burning down buildings to collect the fire insurance pay-out.56
There are the usual scams, including counterfeiting CDs, DVDs, designer goods, perfume and Smirnoff Red Label vodka, this last done by replicating a complex seven-stage distilling process. The fake stuff is sold through pub optics. Irish-Americans provide the latest Hollywood films, which are illegally reproduced on PCs. Then there are gambling machines rigged against the gambler which bars and clubs are encouraged to install, along with the doormen and bouncers who accompany them as part of a package. PIRA has made a big play with being tough on criminals, having shot dead a notorious Dublin racketeer nicknamed ‘the General’, while shooting the small fry in the legs. Posing as community-spirited vigilantes, PIRA simultaneously licenses approved street dealers, thereby satisfying the moral majority while catering for drug addicts. Those who fail to pay their dues are horrifically beaten and warned to leave the country on pain of death; this has meant the surfacing on the UK mainland of sundry unsavoury characters.
Shockingly, between 1995 and 2003 there were 895 punishment shootings and 1,512 punishment beatings in Northern Ireland. Although these alarm the police, successive secretaries of state have been loath to use them to suspend political parties linked to the terrorist organisations that carry them out; instead they take rival paramilitary murders as the sole benchmark for proscription. Beatings and shootings are doled out because of some perceived slight to a paramilitary or by virtue of mistaken identity, as well as being inflicted on notorious paedophiles and juvenile delinquents, selected by popular request. As one victim has explained: ‘There’s one rule for one and another rule for another. See if your da[d]’s in the [I]RA you’re sweet, you get away with everything. See if your uncle’s in the RA you get away with so much and then they just beat you. See if you’ve nobody in the RA you’re fucked!’ What this meant for one child is worth repeating:
I was about 13 or 14, I got the first beating … masked men came round but they only hit us a couple of times in the arms and that was it, and then the next time was about 15. They just beat us again. It was a wee beating, it wasn’t hard, and then the last time was March … I got black eyes and they beat us all about, beat us about the legs and all. And then it happened … again, broke my nose, broke my arm and I was beat with hammers and all, all over my body and I had staples in … my head.
It does not take much imagination to see how vigilantism could also be enforced by those seeking to impose local sharia law.57
Excise fraud involves the differential duties on diesel and petrol in the Republic and UK, which enables the PIRA to make 15p on each litre smuggled over the border. The PIRA also rinses the dye from low-grade fuel designed for agricultural vehicles, bought at 15-2op a litre, which is then sold at 70-8op as diesel for cars and trucks. Because this fake fuel degrades car engines, a network of motor-repair shops has been established to deal with the inevitable problems. Cigarette smuggling is a lucrative racket as a single forty-foot container brought in from Taiwan houses ten million cigarettes with a street resale value of £1.5 million. A newer racket is the illegal dumping of hazardous waste from the Republic at five sites in Northern Ireland, each of which contains between 5,000 and 25,000 tonnes of rubbish, trucked in for a fee of £5,000 per twenty-tonne load. Livestock are also exported from the Republic, collecting an export subsidy on the way, and are then smuggled back to repeat the same journey later.58
In republican areas PIRA experts help people make fraudulent mortgage applications in return for a hefty cut from the loan. Inspectors investigating social security fraud are hampered by intimidation. As the army pulls out of South Armagh, where every second car is a BMW or Mercedes, there will be fewer compensation claims for a herd of cattle that fled over a cliff beneath a thunderous Chinook, only to reappear miraculously at a southern cattle market, or for a £1,000 horse that had drowned in a drain after being frightened by a helicopter which became a chestnut gelding worth £23,500 when the claim went in. Between 1991 and 1997 some £9.5 million was claimed in South Armagh as against £1.9 million for the rest of Northern Ireland; clearly it was not a healthy place for our four-legged friends.59 As the peace process kicks in, franchising expertise is also a major source of revenue. In an act of wilful stupidity, after 9/11 three senior PIRA technicians were caught training Colombian FARC terrorists, a group the US had proscribed as narco-terrorists, in bomb making, mortar manufacture and sniping; their defence was that they were ‘bird-watching’. All three were bailed pending appeal from long sentences. So far neither Jim ‘Mortar’ Monaghan nor his two associates have returned to Bogotá from the Irish Republic to serve their seventeen-year sentences. It is likely that they were involved in a franchise-type operation with FARC paying the PIRA US$6 million for services which have seen a number of Colombian soldiers killed by sophisticated mortars or snipers using Barrett rifles.60 Individual PIRA terrorists, and in particular those who live high on the hog in rural South Armagh, are believed to be involved in construction firms in London and Manchester (rebuilding a city centre blown to pieces by a PIRA bomb) and property speculation on the British mainland and in new markets like Bulgaria, Turkey and Libya. A senior PIRA figure is said to have invested indirectly in two hundred properties in Manchester alone. At least one London construction firm is rumoured to be a PIRA front organisation. This turn to Mafia-like activity may be encouraging, although obviously not for people who live in the vice-like grip of these people’s ‘community leader’ friends whose arbitration does not extend to the victims of terrorist violence, as the sisters of the late Robert McCartney discovered when they were driven from their own homes.61
The southern Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy underlined the extent to which war-torn Northern Ireland lagged behind both a booming mainland UK and an Ireland that had been transformed in a generation. It could be that Ulster’s energies will henceforth be galvanised, as economic vocations replace careers built on sectarianism and political violence. Former terrorists will eke out modest livelihoods as contemporary witnesses. Anyone with any get up and go moves to more salubrious suburbs, leaving an unemployable, superfluous, proletarian residue to keep the fires of hate burning, along with the disabled, elderly and indigent who cannot move. That people in Northern Ireland talk as much about rising property prices as they do in the Republic or UK is an encouraging sign of returning normality. However much one recoils from the sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness amiably joshing along over tea and cake, or the convicted bomber Gerry Kelly as Sinn Fein’s police and justice spokesman, jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war. One cloud on the horizon is the state-sanctioning of republican areas effectively removed from the control of normal courts and policing. This may set an ominous precedent for other so-called communities on mainland Europe and Britain should they seek to live under sharia law.
Three thousand six hundred and thirty people were killed during the Troubles. One thousand seven hundred and eighty-one of them were murdered by the PIRA, who lost around three hundred personnel, 164 of them slain as a result of PIRA or INLA internecine violence. The army, RUC and loyalist paramilitaries killed 115 PIRA or INLA terrorists. In thirty years, the RUC and UDR lost five hundred men and women, while five hundred British troops were killed. Through some divine injustice, people like ‘Mad Dog’ Adair and Lenny Murphy live on, on the True Crime shelves of bookstores, while mothers and fathers have grim memories of a knock at the door bringing emptying news of the death of a nineteen - or twenty-year-old soldier son. Police trades union officials, as they sit in homes equipped with armoured doors, reinforced glass and panic alarms, grimly recall attending hundreds of funerals of their colleagues, some blown up when they got into their car. Whether these Troubles will revive in a generation or two is anyone’s guess. The ghosts of Padraig Pearse seem quiescent. For at present they have been massively overshadowed by an existential threat to the whole of civilisation, not just in New York or London, but in Jakarta, Sydney and Singapore.62