MY FIRST INKLING that such a thing called Loyalism existed must have come around 1973 when I was just three years old. These were terrible times in Northern Ireland. Blown up bodies were being shovelled off the streets of Belfast into black bin bags, and murder gangs were torturing people to death in the back rooms of drinking clubs.
I can remember my mother and grandmother talking about a relative who had a gun hidden in his house. They seemed scared, and they talked in hushed voices about his involvement with loyalist paramilitaries.
Around the same time, I got my first inkling that such a thing called Republicanism existed. My grandmother told me that her uncle had been in the IRA in the 1920s and had been shot in the head by the British and dumped dead in a river.
Even then, as little more than a toddler, I realised that there was something different – something complex and confusing – about all this. It was an early intimation of the bewilderment I would feel my entire life about Northern Ireland and its Troubles, and my own very tortuous personal relationship towards the political events that have shaped my country.
I was a child of a Protestant father with family connections to loyalist paramilitarism, and a Catholic mother with family connections to republican paramilitarism. I was born in February 1970 – right at the very beginning of a new 30-year chapter of violence for my country.
Some of my protestant relatives didn’t talk to my mother for years because my middle name is Patrick. My grandmother was repelled at the blatant sectarianism that her protestant in-laws displayed towards Catholics every marching season. It reminded her, she said, of the ‘pogroms’ she experienced in Belfast in the 1920s. My blood and loyalties were tangled like a ball of string.
If I’d been a kid in London or Glasgow or Cardiff, my mongrel genes and lineage would have meant nothing. To a kid in Northern Ire-land, it meant that, if I was truthful to myself, I didn’t belong. I couldn’t hate either side. But I also couldn’t identify with either side. If I supported one side or the other, then I’d end up hating a part of me and rejecting a part of me. My identity could never be based on nationality or on a sense of place; nor on a collective monolithic family history.
For that I am lucky. I wasn’t cursed to live out the hates and hopes of my forefathers simply because of the chance of my birth. If the IRA blew up a group of paratroopers, I felt pity for the dead soldiers and disgust at the men who killed them – but it didn’t make me think that Irish nationalism was inherently evil or that the UDA were the men to turn to when Republicans came calling. If loyalists opened fire on a bar full of Catholics, leaving innocent men splattered all over the floor, then I again felt pity for the dead and disgust at the killers – but that didn’t negate unionism or prove the IRA right.
Even from a young age – with no real sense of identity towards one or other of the two Irish tribes – I turned into something of an unhappy observer in my own country. I watched, listened and tried to understand. The terrible trite tragedy is that I came to realise that no side was right or wrong. How could a loyalist killer who shot ordinary Catholics be any worse or better than an IRA man who planted a bomb at a Christmas party?
I love neither side and I hate neither side. Both sides are ignorant and small-minded, I have come to understand. Both sides accept the handed-down pre-conceived wisdom of their fathers and grandfathers. Both sides are filled with hate simply because their families told them that this was how they should feel. I’m ashamed of my country for that.
Having all that fenian and orange blood mixing around together in my veins – allowed me to break away from the old trap of re-living ancient Irish history. I tried to unravel the meaning of my country without any hand-me-down hatred and heritage getting in the way.
What I saw scared me. In 1974, during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike – which was called by loyalists to defeat attempts to bring a power-sharing government to Northern Ireland – I remember being stopped by armed and masked men near my home while walking to the shops with my grandmother. UDA men were manning the barricades and enforcing a ‘day of action’ across the north. They interrogated my grandmother, asking her why she was out of her home. She told them that she was on her way to buy me some sweets.
During another loyalist ‘day of action’ in 1986 – this time in opposition to Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish Agreement – my school shut down. I’d usually have been delighted with a free day off school, but I didn’t feel loyalists had the right to stop me going to class if I wanted to. So I went. Half way there, my blue blazer and yellow badge attracted some loyalist gangs floating about my estate making sure that kids stayed away from school. I was chased all the way to the school gates, with the men shouting behind me that they’d ‘breeze-block’ me if they got hold of me. Breeze-blocking is to drop a concrete slab on someone’s head with the intention of leaving them brain damaged.
One night, while I studied for my O levels, I looked out my bedroom window and saw a man stabbed to death by a loyalist gang in the street below.
Later, when I was a university student in Belfast, I was kicked senseless by a gang of loyalists after leaving a nightclub near the Protestant Sandy Row in the heart of the city. I reckon that the gang had heard the names of some of my friends – Gerry and Niall – and thought we were all Catholics. They followed us out of the club. A few streets later, they called after us – shouting ‘fucking taig scum’. Some of my friends wanted to run. I wasn’t going to run in my own city. I woke up in hospital.
A few years later, my girlfriend – now my wife – and I witnessed one of the most horrible events of the Troubles when loyalist gunmen walked into a bookies shop on the Ormeau Road and sprayed the place with gunfire.
A friend from the estate I grew up in, ended up in prison after he joined a loyalist paramilitary organisation and was found with a torture kit – ropes, tape and knives – in his car, along with guns, masks and a map of Catholic areas.
Then I became a reporter. I started to meet the people who carried out these kind of killings; I went to the scenes of their crimes and spoke to the families of their victims. There was a loyalist paramilitary commander who I would meet regularly for information. I’d bring a bottle of brandy with me to his house when his wife was out and we’d talk and drink.
Towards the end of the 1990s, he’d begun to use drugs quite heavily and was becoming increasingly erratic. He polished off his booze and was on to his second joint, when he went upstairs and came down with the pistol he kept by his bed. He said he wanted to clean it. He showed me the magazine, filled with bullets, and slipped it back inside the gun again.
He tinkered with the gun as we talked. For no reason, he lifted it and pointed it straight at my face, said ‘watch’ and then slowly squeezed the trigger. Unbeknown to me, he had slipped the magazine out of the gun. The hammer clicked and there was no bang.
Another loyalist commander took me on a tour of his area on the ‘eleventh night’ – the night before the Twelfth of July when loyalists light bonfires and celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. He thought it would be a ‘laugh’ to go into an area controlled by a rival loyalist gang – at the time a bitter internecine feud was on-going among loyalists.
At the bonfire, his girlfriend grabbed his arm and pointed at a group of men moving towards us. It was the rival loyalist godfather who controlled the area. In the light of the bonfire I saw something glint. The rival loyalist had what looked to be a bayonet in his hand and he was about 100 yards away.
We raced back to my contact’s car. I could hear the beat of the gangs’ feet behind as they gained ground on us. We got into the car and it moved off. My contact’s girlfriend said: “Put your fucking gun away.” He’d pulled a pistol from the glove compartment and was rolling down the window preparing to shoot.
I’ve had a bag put over my head and been driven to safe houses in the middle of nowhere where masked killers holding submachine guns have read me statements on everything from exterminating drug dealers and wiping out Sinn Fein, to threats against other loyalists and warnings directed at the security forces.
A few days after the Catholic human rights solicitor Rosemary Nelson was blown up in 1999 by a loyalist gang, I met the men who ordered her assassination in a safe house in Belfast. From the outside it looked derelict; inside it was a fully functioning home, decorated in chintz and lace with lots of little nick-nacks and bits of Victoriana – as if someone’s maiden aunt had been put in charge of the interior design.
With flags and bibles and guns on display, they recounted their reasons for ordering Rosemary Nelson’s murder and promised more Catholics would die in a “Protestant Jihad”.
One contact of mine was known as ‘the Crucifier’. He reputedly got his nick-name when a local man came to his door and asked him to deal with his son, who’d mugged an old lady. My contact was the loyalist paramilitary responsible for ‘policing’ his own area. The father of the boy hadn’t specified what he wanted done to his son as punishment, but presumably he thought it would only be a bit of a beating. The next the man heard of his son was the boy’s squeals in his back garden. He had been nailed by his hands to own back fence.
I’ve met men who have – I’ve been told by their best friends and long-standing ‘comrades’ – happily slit the throats of people they knew to be Catholics innocent of any connection to the IRA.
As a journalist, I’ve charted the ‘dirty war’ in Northern Ireland which saw primarily loyalist paramilitaries used as proxy assassins by the British security forces.
None of this means that I haven’t had similar experiences when it comes to Republicanism. I’ve met just as many bastards in the ranks of the IRA as I have in loyalist organisations. The first time I was ever in an explosion was when the IRA placed a car bomb outside the cinema in which I was watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The bomb went off just at the scene where a huge boulder rolls after Indy. The timing of the bomb was so perfect that I thought the explosion was part of sound effects of the film. I didn’t realise what was going on until the lights went out and the ceiling collapsed.
But loyalism has always fascinated me more than republicanism. Republicanism has certainty. I am intrigued by the confusions within loyalism; and its sense that it stands on shifting sands that it can not understand or control. At the heart of the loyal Ulsterman there is a terrible fear that he doesn’t belong anywhere. He wants to be British – in fact he is British, as British as Finchley as Thatcher once said – but he is also removed from Britain; not wanted by Britain. Nor is he Irish; his nationalist, Catholic counterparts see him as ethnically incapable of being a true Irishman. The Ulsterman clings desperately by his fingernails to a dying cultural heritage that has almost no place in modern Europe.
Ian Wood’s book Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA, while at times overly sympathetic to loyalist figures, fully captures, from a Protestant perspective, the final deterioration of Irish politics and its slide towards full-blown ethnic hatred from 1969 onwards. But to appreciate his study, the reader needs to understand how the extreme weight of history and the congenital bigotry of previous generations is written in the DNA of the people of the north of Ireland whether they are Protestant or Catholic – making many of us prisoners of the past.
The gun still exists in Irish politics, people still kill each other in Ireland because of their religion and identity – but over here, on the cosy mainland, we believe that the Troubles are all over; that peace has triumphed. It has-n’t. Northern Ireland is a brutalised used-up society, bled white by war, which is limping along the road to a fake peace because there is nowhere else to go.
It’s hard to tolerate the sound of voices in mainland Britain crowing about the success of the peace process when just last month pipe bombs were thrown in my mother’s street, a massive car bomb meant to destroy the centre of the town in which she lives was defused, and rioting brought her life to a terrified stand-still for days. And that was a quiet week.
When I take my children back to Ireland, the look of incomprehension on their faces when they see paramilitary flags flying on lamp-posts and murals of gunmen on walls, tells me all I need to know about my country’s place in Britain at the moment.
Most English, Scottish or Welsh people know as much about what is happening in Northern Ireland today as my Primary School aged daughters. Wood’s book, while revisiting old ground for those who are intimate with the history of the Ulster Troubles, is a sound primer for readers who might just care enough about that little spit of ground over the Irish Sea which defines the worst failures of Britain and its democracy, and the lost hopes of generations of Irishmen and women whether Catholic or Protestant.
Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA
by Ian S Wood is published by Edinburgh University Press, £15.99
Neil Mackay is the investigations editor of the Sunday Herald. His new book, The War on Truth, about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is published in August.