29 July 2005

Volunteer’s youth taken by involvement in war

Daily Ireland

Eamonn houston
To comment: e.houston@dailyireland.com

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Gerry Doherty was born on Rossville Street in Derry’s Bogside. At 18 years of age, he lay injured close to IRA volunteer John Starrs as the 19-year-old’s life ebbed away after a gun battle on William Street.
Doherty had been “skinny” and was wearing an oversized coat as British SLR bullets had rained on the active service unit on May 13, 1972. Eight bullets struck Doherty’s frame. One tumbled through his arm, and the other seven harmlessly passed through the coat.
Doherty had joined the IRA at the age of 16.
In 1969, a 15-year-old Gerry Doherty would get irked at the fact that he and his friends had to take a two-mile (3.2-kilometre) detour to play a game of snooker in his home town. In normal circumstances, it would have taken less than ten minutes.
A year later, the shooting of 19-year-old Daniel O’Hagan during a riot in the New Lodge Road area of north Belfast brought home to Doherty that the situation in the North at the time demanded a military response.
“At 15 years of age, I had been throwing stones at the British army. The effect of the killing of Daniel O’Hagan had the effect on us ‘these bastards are killing us’. We had a realisation then that we couldn’t beat these people with stones.”
By 1971, Doherty was a fully fledged IRA volunteer. He had joined up and was signed in just ahead of the introduction of internment.
Bloody Sunday would crystalise Doherty’s commitment to what he describes as “the struggle”.
“Before Bloody Sunday, we were ill-equipped but we had been trained in the use of arms and explosives. Free Derry was in existence then but the British made plenty of incursions.”
The deadly extent of the Bloody Sunday massacre, when it began to emerge, further steeled Doherty’s resolve to react through physical force.
“I was at the march on that day but it was not until much later that night that the number of people killed became clear. But we weren’t surprised in the end, given the amount of gunfire from the Paras that day.
“Our motivation had nothing to do with any kind of political ideology. It was instinctive. We knew after that day that physical force was our only route to force change. It was like a gut feeling telling you. We had that gut, instinctive feeling that what we were doing was right.
“As time went on, I would see friends dying beside me. At the beginning, there was all of the allure of the secrecy and mysticism surrounding the IRA. But when friends and comrades started getting killed, it dispelled all of that.
“The romanticism disappeared and we realised that we were involved in a war. The British and the RUC were the enemy and that was that. We saw ourselves purely as soldiers – soldiers involved in a war.”
In November 1973, Doherty, known locally as “Mad Dog”, was sent to prison for the June 1972 bombing of Derry’s Guildhall, which he describes as a bastion of unionist rule.
On his return to the Guildhall to give evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, Doherty took the stand and referred to himself as “a soldier in the IRA” on Bloody Sunday. He revealed that he was one of up to 50 members of the Provisional IRA locally.
“To me, the Guildhall was a symbol of miscontrol in a city where everything was wrong. Everything that was wrong was epitomised by that building,” he says.
For Doherty, the honing and maturing of the republican movement would occur in prison. Sentenced to 15 years in Long Kesh, Doherty served seven-and-a-half years. The day he was released is one of his most abiding memories. It burns deep. As Doherty made his way to the prison exit in 1981, one fellow Derry man had died on hungerstrike. Patsy O’Hara died at 11.29pm on Thursday, May 21 – on the same day as Raymond McCreesh, with whom O’Hara had embarked on the hungerstrike 61 days earlier.
Doherty describes the day as one of the most depressing days of his life.
“The day that I got out should have been one of the happiest days of my life. As I walked out, I was aware only of what was happening in a cell 100 yards away from me. It was a real downer, a surreal and terrible day. That’s what stuck out most for me on my release,” he says.
Doherty would remain active in the IRA.
“I quickly realised when I was released that we had all emerged much stronger and much more politicised. It was a different movement from my experience of it ten years before.
“I also realised that the enemy had moved on too. Their technology and surveillance techniques, their bugging equipment and use of informants brought home to me that we were in a very different phase of the struggle,” he says.
Doherty was again imprisoned, under the evidence of Derry IRA informant Raymond Gilmore. He says he became politically aware through reading and studying in prison.
“I think the 1994 IRA ceasefire came at the right time. We used to say that, if every volunteer in the IRA had spent two years in prison, the movement would have become even stronger.
“As in all struggles, people have to sue for peace. Sometimes that is a bigger statement than planting a bomb. It has a much bigger effect, like the Vietnamese travelling to London for peace talks. We were always aware through the military struggle that this was going to happen.
“Many people ask: ‘What was it all for? Was it worth it?’ The enemy will move the goalposts again, some say. All of these feelings are legitimate and it is important that the republican movement addresses all of these concerns.
“People gave a lot. The greatest battles are ahead. At least the movement has an ethos of healthy debate instead of blind faith. When all of the concerns are addressed, it can only help and enhance the movement as a bigger political force.”
For Doherty, joining the IRA was a matter of personal choice. However, he says that his childhood and youth were taken. He grew up within the framework of the armed struggle. It had a huge personal impact on his life.
“We didn’t have what the kids have now. We were born into the struggle.”
As for regrets, Doherty says that IRA “mistakes”, including the La Mon and Enniskillen bombings had a profound effect on volunteers in prison.
“We all knew that these weren’t deliberate acts. That had a profound effect. They were huge setbacks for us personally,” he says.
Gerry Doherty is now an accomplished actor, ironically playing the roles of RUC men and prison officers on stage and screen.
He now lives just yards from where he was shot during that ill-fated gun battle of 1972.

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