29 July 2005

Growing up with the IRA means it’s good enough for me

Daily Ireland

Robin Livingstone

Soldiers coming under Provisional fire in Lenadoon

I grew up with the IRA. Not in the IRA – never had the nerve – but with the IRA. I remember as an 11-year-old visiting my brother in Dundalk in my St Mary’s uniform when he was on the run.
He was ten years older than me, but at that time it seemed much more. These days you wouldn’t think there were two years between us, never mind ten.
As he sat speaking to our mother in an upstairs lounge, he leaned forward and his jacket moved to the side to reveal a handgun in the waistband of his trousers. As I sat there eating crisps and drinking Coca-Cola I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Occasionally my brother would venture home for a visit and he’d give me and my brothers 50p each to stand at strategic corners near our home in Lenadoon looking out for foot patrols. Which was nice.
Not so nice were the late-night visits by British soldiers with their faces blackened who ordered us out of bed.
As we left our bedrooms, soldiers would take up position at the windows in the hope that my brother would make a home visit in the wee small hours.
Downstairs we were marched – 14 of us in all – and herded into the front room where we sat through the night in total silence – over-15s on the chairs, everybody else on the floor – with a soldier on guard duty at the door.
I remember that in the dark, and with my mother and father staring powerless at the floor, I would run private films in my head to pass the time.
The movies involved me downing the guard with a Bruce Lee leg-throw and incapacitating him with a James Bond karate chop to the neck.
I’d relieve the stricken soldier of his weapon and, switching quickly to full automatic, cut a swathe through his colleagues, downstairs and up, before they knew what hit them.
When Lenadoon was a no-go area, young guys would walk the streets in snorkel anoraks carrying armalites with women’s stockings hanging from them (something about a twist grip, I think).
They used to crouch in the gardens of houses in Carrigart Avenue near the Suffolk Road in order to keep an eye on the commandeered Woodbourne Hotel, where at the windows of upstairs rooms British army snipers and UDA men rubbed shoulders.
As we played handball in the evenings against the big gable wall of Blessed Oliver Plunkett school, IRA men would drill in the ‘echoing hall’ – the enclosed courtyard where pupils would gather in the morning to be let into school.
As we thudded the tennis ball off the bricks, the stamp of marching feet and the call of “clé, deas, clé” drifted across the school yard.
Later, as a young journalist, I sat across the table from IRA men that I knew as friends and neighbours and spoke to them about war, about politics, about death and about dying and it struck me, as it does up to today, how the IRA was able to attract the brightest and the best from my estate and from many others.
These were no mumbling, jewel-encrusted louts, but intelligent and earnest men on a deadly serious mission.
Twenty years of growing up with the IRA, of seeing and knowing the men with the guns but never having them pointed at me, has had its effect.
I recall watching news of the Loughgall ambush in 1987 at home on TV and feeling sick to the pit of my stomach.
Next day it occurred to me that three years earlier, I had sat in a bar on the Lisburn Road as news of the mortar attack on Newry barracks came through and when customers started shouting anti-IRA remarks at the television, I felt more angry at the men shouting at the TV than I did at the men who had fired the mortars.
Though I was struck powerfully by the sense that this was wrong, more powerful was the sense that there was nothing I could do about it, that some inchoate notion of comradeship or shared experience picked up as a schoolboy on the streets of Lenadoon was stronger than my adult intellectualising that all violence was wrong.
So it was a relief for me, as the statement emerged yesterday and the prospect of the IRA going out of business loomed, to feel... nothing.
No vague, guilty pangs of regret or sorrow, no sense of being left abandoned or unprotected. Rather, it seemed to me that this was how it should be – should have been for quite a few years, in fact.
I’m just sorry now that it’s all over that I never told lies about the IRA the way so many journalists did because maybe today I’d be the toast of Fleet Street.
I was notorious as having the worst republican contacts of any journalist in Ireland because the makey-uppy ‘republican sources’ route was never open to me – I just couldn’t do it, for one thing because I had to look them in the eye in the supermarket aisle or down the pub; and for another thing because none of them ever told lies to me.
Which is why when I asked them yesterday if it was really over and they said yes, it was good enough for me.

Read Robin Livingstone’s 'Here’s The Thing' in tomorrow’s Daily Ireland.

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