My editor would have killed me, if I still had one of those. I attended a roundtable discussion among a republican, a unionist and a British Army soldier who fought during the Troubles and didn’t get anyone’s names.
I was a guest of the Agnes Scott College group visiting Belfast and Derry earlier last week at the session and didn’t want to intrude. I was more interested in what they had to say than who they were. And they said a lot.
The Roots of Riots
At least two of the participants were from lower socio-economic classes, the disaffected more prone to do what’s necessary instead of what might be necessarily right. The British soldier, who did two tours in the North before quitting, was a council house kid who dropped out of school at 16 and apprenticed with a butcher’s for a year, because the local mine was closed.
So the British Army was a step up, despite the misogyny, the beatings and the “you’re not paid to think” mentality. “We were given no Irish history—we were ignorant of the situation,” the former soldier said. “The Army doesn’t do complicated. It was black and white to them that the republicans were the enemy.”
They were taught that anyone is a possible suspect, even children who could grow up and become IRA soldiers. In open areas, they were taught to surround themselves with women and children to deter potential snipers.
He eventually came to realize, “We were part of the problem.” He left the army in 1996, got his qualifications, an education, settled in the North and started a dialog with former combatants.
Hey, hey, mister union man
The unionist also came from a working-class Protestant background and was indoctrinated into the unionist cause by an uncle who was a staunch supporter of Ian Paisley. He joined the youth wing of the UDF, a paramilitary organization, and later volunteered to be a gunman in 1981. He admits to being involved in murders, attempted murders and armed robberies and pled guilty to murder after being arrested. He was given four life sentences and imprisoned for 16 years until after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that, for the most part, ended the armed conflict.
About five years into his sentence, “I began to see Paisley as part of the problem.” While still in prison, he began to work for peace, and he still does. Spotting a trend here?
Getting to the heart of the conflict
The nationalist joined the IRA as a teen-ager after seeing how the British Army treated residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, an island of Catholicism in a deep sea of Protestants. The Short Strand backs up to the Lagan River.
Basically, he saw an occupying army come in and take over houses, schools, hospitals, sports grounds and parish halls, turning them into fortresses. “Soldiers are not trained to keep the peace, they are trained to kill,” he said.
Like the soldier, the former IRA man said that everyone was treated as a threat. Teen-agers were targeted, forced against walls, searched and questioned. And if they gave the soldiers any “cheek” they were taken in for interrogation that lasted four hours or more.
He got arrested in 1973 and spent most of the next 26 years in prison, also being freed after the Good Friday Agreement. At first, those arrested were treated as political prisoners, which afforded them certain rights. But in 1976, the UK withdrew political status and started treating them as criminals, including taking away the right to silence and allowing torture, the nationalist said. At one point, he says 85% of people appearing in court were convicted by their own statements, most of which were obtained through torture.
The situation resulted in the hunger strikes in 1980-81, in which 10 men died. Although the government never did return political status to the prisoners, the hunger strike did shine a harsh light on the worst practices.
“Troubles” doesn’t adequately explain the circumstances that caused more than 3,600 people to be killed over a 30-year period. “I refer to it as the Conflict,” the republican said. “Trouble is what you have with a neighbor or when kids are fighting. It doesn’t capture the depth and gravity of what was happening here.”