The recent media coverage of the life and death of Martin McGuinness has been thought provoking. I can’t write on his behalf and wouldn’t attempt to but I would have viewed him as a Republican Leader, and not just since he entered constitutional politics.
Recent coverage and comments from Politicians and victims have made much of the fact that he made the choice to join the IRA and use military force to obtain his objectives. Nobody asked why he made that choice, maybe it’s just taken as a given but while I can’t speak for Martin, I think it raises a point that has never been given thorough consideration.
The point I’m referring to is the environment that people from a nationalist/republican background grew up in. Too many personal stories have went untold, too many people who have a story to tell have felt that in the scheme of things , their story is not significant because it wasn’t unusual at the time. In a way I think this almost enables the history writers to miss a key element of the conflict.
As a young lad my family had moved from Greenisland (not through choice) to squat in a house in the Lower Ormeau and I attended primary school at St. Colmans in Eliza St. I knew why we had moved but had no real understanding of the reasons behind it. Politics was not an issue in our family but it did become an issue as it was impossible to ignore what was happening around you.
From my own experience (I was 8 yrs old) I walked to school with friends. The walk took us past the gas works where there were three permanent army billets and regular patrols. It was not uncommon to be stopped and searched, questioned, verbally abused and even then sometimes physically abused. Granted it was minor by the standards of the time, mainly grabbed by the throat or pushed and shoved, but it was bullying and for some kids terrifying.
Our house and almost every house in our street was raided regularly and they didn’t knock doors in those days. As we got used to this, we had learned that a family member should try to follow the soldiers as they searched the house because they either stole items or we had to watch encase they planted something in the house. For the most part the process was aggressive but without major incident. When my brother reached 16 he was arrested regularly during these raids and it was purely to interrogate about known volunteers. My mother had MND and had a hospital bed downstairs. This didn’t deter soldiers from forcing a dying woman out of the bed during the house searches and on one occasion they tipped the bed. My father had not a political bone in his body and struggled to make sure we didn’t. Somehow he managed to hold that position to the day he died, which was I believe more to do with his faith than anything else.
Im trying to limit this as much as possible to my own experiences as I have family members who’s experience was much worse in later years and it’s not my story to tell. My brother joined the IRA and was jailed for membership along with a lot of other young lads when he was late 16 or 17. My mother died in 1978 while her son was in jail and my memory of it as a 10yr old was that every young lad of that age joined either the IRA or INLA and really then or now I don’t believe they had a choice. Politics was not a credible option, it did absolutely nothing to prevent the terrorisation of an entire community by both the British Army and as things progressed the RUC.
When I say terrorised, I mean terrorised. Even when my brother was in jail they raided the house on the pretext of looking for him. They stopped, searched, beat and abused men, women and children every day. As I moved to secondary school the harassment increased and when the hunger strikes began they swamped nationalist areas. From my first year in secondary, myself and most people my age (male & female) were crying out to the organisation to let us join and fight back. They were swamped with young ones demanding an opportunity to play a role and they struggled to keep young people running solo.
Throughout this period there was also sectarian assassinations, either by shootings or bombs. During my time there were three pubs left in the lower Ormeau and all had been bombed multiple times. They’d also come under gun attack multiple times and people had been killed and injured. Many more had died while fighting back and many more had been jailed (sometimes wrongly) for a multitude of conflict related issues. I know of very few families in that area alone that were not affected by the conflict.
During my young teenage years the RUC took primacy over the British Army and in many ways they were worse. Though I and most I knew viewed them as just another arm of the state who had one purpose – to continue the terrorisation of our community. They conducted the same raids in the same way and because we were slightly older, the stop, search and beatings increased. It was common practice to get stopped and searched by the same patrol on multiple occasions while walking to botanic gardens for example. They knew our names, knew we were kids heading up to meet girls or play football but they relentlessly harassed us.
The point I’m making is that this narrative of police and army being anything other than participants in the conflict is false. The state were active combatants and in many ways created and sustained the reasons for conflict. The other point I’m making is that many young people felt they had no choice but to fight fire with fire. Most would never have been involved in any form of armed conflict or violence of any form if they had not been under attack by the state.
I could say more about how this evolved and progressed but the purpose of this piece is to show how state violence contributed to the growth of the conflict. How ordinary young people grew up in what they perceived as a normal environment when it was really far from it. I can understand anger from unionist victims, some of our experiences are not that different. Some of the motivations for young loyalist to become involved in conflict are not that different.
What really disgusts me to this day, is that the state have never acknowledged their role in the conflict. This insanely arrogant position that they were impartial or not actively engaged is a myth. They killed and imprisoned innocents, they trained others to do the killing for them, they provided intelligence to their proxy agents to carry out assassinations for them, they to this day are still covering up the murder of innocents. They are not now and never have been neutral and until they are gone they will continue to hinder progress towards reconciliation here. The great bastion of British democracy are the biggest obstacle to finding truth for victims, they’ve admitted as much by using national security as a justification for refusing to provide evidence.
Some may say that Republicans aren’t forthcoming with the truth and in some cases they might be right, but they have acknowledged they’re role. They have accepted responsibility for actions and most have been convicted and served time for their actions. The State have not and will not even acknowledge their role.
My contribution here is just that, a contribution that shows a different slant. There are thousands more with memories of the past and they should be recorded. I have left out a lot because it involves other people and I don’t have that right.