19 February 2006

My killing cousin

Sunday Times

February 19, 2006
The Sunday Times

What do you do if your best friend and cousin becomes a terrorist? Walter Ellis reveals a secret

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usLike Stalin, my boyhood best friend and distant cousin Ronnie Bunting held the view that friends outside the cause of armed revolution were no more than useful idiots. As I was no revolutionary but had always done his bidding, it was clear into which category I fell. (Photo: Ronnie Bunting - image from irsm.org)

He made my life a misery for years before going on to blow up Airey Neave, a close ally of Margaret Thatcher, in the car park of the House of Commons.

Ronnie had his own dark destiny to fulfil as an Irish terrorist leader. He should have been no part of mine, but he had a peculiar ability to bend others to his will. I tried to break free of him several times during our long friendship, but he always drew me back. The connection was so close that I was arrested myself on suspicion of terrorism.

Not until I left Ireland as an adult was I able to put him behind me. Even then, from hell’s heart, he continued to stab at me. If you have ever wondered where terrorists come from, and what it means to know one, here’s our tale. It began as farce and ended as history.

Ronnie entered my life soon after I failed the “qualy”, Ulster’s 11-plus. Denied grammar school entry, I was put in the G (for grammar) stream of Orangefield boys’ secondary intermediate, in east Belfast, and found Ronnie in the same class. He was my second cousin once removed, a blood bond in Ulster.

On that first morning in the autumn of 1960 we all introduced ourselves, Ulster-style, by religious denomination. I was a Presbyterian, Ronnie a Methodist. There were, of course, no Catholics; they went to church schools.

Ronnie was a year older than the rest of us. His father, Major Bunting, had recently retired after 20 years with the British Army. Ronnie had grown up in Malaysia, Germany and Cyprus, where his education never quite took hold.

A malign version of myself, more outrageous and more cunning, he became the godfather and I the consiglieri of our two-man “mob”. I didn’t like the bully and the braggart in him. But the other side — the dreamer, the thinker, the fool — was attractive.

He began talking about revolutionary socialism in his teens, taking against the school and the system that underpinned it. As he still wanted to pass his exams and go to university, he needed an instrument with which to upset the school’s equilibrium — me.

He egged me on to greater and greater excess. Typical was my excursion from one side of the school to the other on the outside, holding on to window frames with nothing but air below. On another occasion I exchanged blows with the vice-principal and had to defend myself with a chair.

There were ludicrous moments. At 16, Ronnie was besotted by a girl called Pat; but her dad, like any concerned parent, warned the young vermin off. This led to the episode known as Le Déluge.

The scene was Braniel Hill, Belfast. Ronnie moved swiftly up the street, bent on revenge. My progress was more jerky. I was carrying a bucket of water.

“Any chance of you carrying the bucket for a while?”

“F*** off! I’ve told you, I’ve got to be ready to take a swing at him.”

With the touch of melodrama that was to colour the rest of his short life, Ronnie had decided to fix a burning cross to Pat’s front door. The idea was that, as her father gazed at it in horror, Ronnie would drench him from head to foot. I was to wade in if the going got rough.

We reached Pat’s house. “Right, Smokey (I never knew why he called me that), don’t forget, if he looks like he’s got the drop on me, use your boot. Now, hand us the bucket.”

Ronnie pinned the straw cross to the door and struck a match. I watched from behind some bushes. He got the cross to burn with the fourth match. As a pitiful flame arose, he hid with the bucket.

“The door!” I hissed. “You forgot to knock on the door!”

“Shit!” Ronnie kicked the door and hid again. Pat’s father appeared. He was not big, but he looked mean.

“Who the hell is that?” he called out. “What’s goin’ on here?” He gazed at the smouldering cross in astonishment.

Seizing his chance, Ronnie roared out and hurled the contents of the bucket. But the father, no slouch, ducked behind the door. Ronnie was going too fast to stop. The water described a high arc in the air and, as it descended, Ronnie ran into it.

Soaked, he bellowed with rage and surprise. Pat’s father re-emerged with a blackthorn stick, looking ready to do vicious battle; but when he saw Ronnie — sodden and red-faced, the veins bulging in his neck — he began to laugh.

Half-blinded, Ronnie lashed out. Before Pat’s dad could get going with his stick, I dragged Ronnie away. His humiliation was complete. The father’s mocking laughter followed our wet, retreating footsteps as we ran.

At school Ronnie egged me on even more. In a fit of madness I set fire to the prefects’ room, putting a match (provided by Ronnie) to some posters on the wall. There was no lasting damage; but the smoke set off the fire alarm and the deputy head, my sparring partner, came rushing up to investigate.

It was the final straw. I was expelled. Ronnie was well known as my Svengali, but I admitted nothing about his role. Nor did he step forward to take his share of the blame. He went on instead to take his A-levels and win a place at Queen’s University Belfast.

Ronnie could see I was depressed. This cheered him up considerably. He suggested suicide. Pills would be best, or I could throw myself into the Lagan. “Sure, you can’t swim, it’d all be over in a minute.”

My father said if I wasn’t going to study I’d have to work at his shop. I was bloody sure I wasn’t going to be a grocer, so I got out my books. I was allowed back to school to sit my A-levels and was escorted off the premises each day.

I did okay and got a place at Queen’s alongside Ronnie. To celebrate, I spent an afternoon in the trendiest boutique in town, spending my grant money. I bought Ronnie a pair of white bell-bottoms with pink candy stripes.

At Queen’s many of my new pals were Catholic, the first representatives of the “other side” I had known socially. Ronnie and I took to drinking in a nationalist shebeen, the Old House. I relished the experience, especially the rebel songs, and I supported Irish unity. But it didn’t make me a hardliner, still less a terrorist. Ronnie was the revolutionary. I was simply along for the ride.

While I lived at home, Ronnie moved into a flat with his new girlfriend, Suzanne. She came from a Protestant background that had no truck with republicanism or even liberal unionism. How they ever got together is a mystery.

Their devotion transcended their differences, but their rows were spectacular. One Saturday morning I climbed the stairs to their flat only to realise that I was walking into a perfect storm. Something shattered against the door as I turned the knob.

I found Suzanne standing on the dining table. “Walter, would you tell this bastard that if he doesn’t stay here and eat the dinner I’ve cooked for him, I’m going to do something desperate. I’m not going to put up with his shite any longer.”

It was Ronnie’s turn: “I’ve told you, you daft cow. I’m meeting the lads for a couple of drinks in the union — and that’s it.”

Suzanne inserted her right forefinger into the empty light socket above her head, stretching her left hand to the switch on the wall.

“You go out that door and I’m pullin’ this switch,” she said, her eyes wild in an ashen face. “I swear to God, I’m not bloody jokin’.”

“Aye,” Ronnie said, moving to the first-floor window. “So go ahead. Only, you pull that switch, I’m goin’ out this window.”

Suzanne flicked the switch. At the same moment Ronnie jumped. A loud cry accompanied his departure.

Suzanne’s hair stood on end and her eyes bulged with a maniacal glee. But the effect only lasted a split second. With a pop her finger shot out of the socket and she collapsed onto the table.

“Where’s Ronnie?” she pleaded, sucking in air. “God! God! Is he dead?” I rushed down the stairs. Ronnie was sitting in a flowerbed rubbing his left leg. A tree had broken his fall. He looked up: “How’s Suzanne?” Most westerners, growing up in stable societies, did not go through what I and other Ulster men and women experienced in the 1970s and beyond.

Though I may not have been abused as a child, the entire society in which I grew up was abused, causing me, like everyone else there, to see life through a jagged and peculiar prism.

From 1969 our world shrank into itself. And as the darkness closed in and the killings started, we found it harder and harder to look beyond and see ourselves for what we truly were.

Ronnie was shattered when his father, who had once been election agent for Gerry Fitt, the Republican Labour MP, was reborn as a Protestant loony. In early 1969 Major Bunting led an attack on a protest march from Belfast to Londonderry by the student-based People’s Democracy movement.

More than 200 of the major’s men descended on the students at Burntollet Bridge, near the village of Killaloo, with pickaxe handles and iron bars. (One of those given a bloody nose was Bruce Anderson, now a right-wing columnist but in those days a Sixties radical.)

Ronnie, who had always respected his dad, was profoundly ashamed. No longer was he an onlooker; now, aged 21, he wanted to hit back. As a Protestant it was impossible for him to throw his lot in with the Provisional IRA, because of its naked sectarianism. He joined the secular Officials.

I was still close enough to sell him my green Austin A35 for £35 in 1970. It served him well, except for a problem with its gears. For several weeks he had to drive in reverse.

It was a more chilling Ronnie I found one evening in the Old House shebeen. He was surrounded by cronies. He wore a PVC jacket, black shirt and high-waisted loon pants. His heavy sideburns and Clark Gable moustache made him look like a bandit leader. The aura of barely contained violence was overwhelming.

A harsh voice echoed from the doorway. “Hey, Bunting, you Proddie bastard! Where are you? Why don't you show your face, you f*****?” Three of the heavies sitting at Ronnie’s table went over to the source of the trouble: a large, muscled man in his forties.

“It’s okay, lads,” Ronnie said, standing up. “Let him through.”

With his first punch the stranger caught Ronnie on the side of the head, sending him reeling into a table laden with drinks. But before he could land a second blow Ronnie’s boot caught him full in the crotch. As he swayed, Ronnie picked up a whiskey bottle and smashed it on the man’s temple.

The intruder was bundled, bleeding, into the street. Ronnie stood at the front of his people, jeering and gesticulating.

I saw much less of him after that, but in the early summer of 1971 he phoned my mother and asked her if she could do him a favour. A friend of his, Joe, had had a terrible argument with his wife. If mum could put Joe up for a couple of days, he was sure they’d sort things out and get back together.

My mother had known Ronnie since he was 12 years old and she and his dad were cousins. What harm could it do? Joe was good looking, charming, with impeccable manners, and said he was a brickie. Mum took to him instantly. When he left he gave her a hug and said he was terribly grateful. Dad gave him a lift.

He wasn’t Joe the brickie, of course. Or at least he hadn’t been for several years. He was Joe McCann, soon to be the Most Wanted Man in Ireland. A day or two before going into hiding at my mum’s, he had shot and killed a British soldier. In the months ahead he would be responsible for scores of attacks on soldiers and members of the RUC.

Violence escalated rapidly that summer after hundreds of republicans, including Ronnie, were interned without trial. I at last found my own metier as a journalist and began reporting on the growing mayhem.

One night, while I was in the Black Bull pub in the Markets district talking to Official republicans, news came that seven internees had escaped from a prison ship in Belfast harbour. They had dived over the side and somehow managed to swim to shore. According to the news, they had fled to the Markets, which was now being surrounded by British troops.

The mood of the bar changed in an instant. Whatever had to be done to repel the Brits and give the lads a chance would be done. A revolver was pressed into my hand. A hard-faced man with blackened teeth said to me, “Well, don’t just stand there lookin’ at it. Come on, the Brits’ll be here any minute.”

The weapon felt heavy. It smelt of oil and grease. Nervously, I handed it back to him. “Sorry, I’m a journalist. I don’t shoot people.”

“Then you’re a sorry f****** eejit,” he said in disgust.

Two weeks later, in the wake of Bloody Sunday when British troops shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, I was again asked by a republican why I wasn’t prepared to take up arms to defend the Irish people. The man doing the asking this time was Martin McGuinness, second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Derry.

McGuinness, still just 21, told me after I tracked him down to an upstairs room in the Creggan estate that if I, as a Protestant, truly supported Irish unity then there was only one course of action open to me: the armed struggle. I begged to differ.

“You’re a strange boy, Walter,” he said.

Ronnie was released from internment in April 1972. I drove over to pay my respects. He and Suzanne lived in Turf Lodge, the Official enclave close by Provisional Ballymurphy. Police and soldiers let nobody through without radioing their details through to Clarabelle, the mainframe computer in Lisburn army base.

Ronnie was even more disdainful than usual. He had suffered for the people and he wore his suffering with insufferable pride. It was obvious that he and I were no longer friends in any meaningful sense. But we still were tied to each other by a grim, visceral bond.

Months later he asked me to meet him in Robinson’s Bar, opposite the Europa hotel. We chatted about the “situation”. Then he indicated the padlocked suitcase next to him.

“I want you to look after this for me, Smokey,” he said. “I’ve been staying down South, but I have to head off again straight away and I don’t want to be lugging this thing round.”

“Okay. What’s in it, anyway?”

“Ach, just stuff. Clothes and books and that. I’d fetch them home myself, only I don’t have the time.”

A week later I handed it back to him. He checked the lock. It wasn’t until months afterwards that I learnt the truth from a pal of his. The case had been packed with about £100,000 in banknotes, the results of an armed robbery.

Worse was to come. In September 1972 the British government convened an all-party conference in Darlington presided over by the new Ulster secretary, William Whitelaw. On the second night, after filing my story, I headed for a club with a friend. En route we stopped to buy petrol. As we pulled away from the filling station we heard sirens wailing and brakes squealing. We were surrounded by flashing blue lights. We could hear voices. “Armed police! Don’t move! Don’t do anything! Just sit in the car.”

Uniformed men opened the doors and ordered us out. The filling station had just been robbed at gunpoint, we were told, and we were the suspects.

At a police station two plain-clothes officers introduced themselves as members of Special Branch. One of them had a file on his knee that he consulted before he spoke. I was in serious trouble, he told me. Oh, yes — they knew all about me. I regularly consorted with terrorists. My political sympathies were an open book. It was obvious that I was using my cover as a journalist to obtain information that would help expedite a terrorist attack.

My dumbfounded denials were met with smirks and guffaws. What was I planning? Who was I working with? Who was my intended target? Was it Whitelaw?

I was questioned in relays through the night. Why had I joined the Communist party? (I had done so as a teenage prank with, of course, Ronnie.) What was my relationship with Ronnie Bunting? Why had I visited his house after his release from internment? He had sent me to Darlington to get him information for a hit, hadn’t he? Was I a member of the Official IRA?

As dawn broke, however, the two Branch men announced nonchalantly that I was free to go.

“But what about the armed robbery of the petrol station?” “Robbery? What robbery? There was no robbery.”

“And the terrorist charges? You said I was plotting to assassinate Willie Whitelaw.”

“Did I? Well, we’ve looked into the matter and it’s been decided you’re not a threat after all.”

“So, that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

I was furious. I may even have said, “You haven’t heard the end of this, you bastards!”

The officers looked at each other. “I see,” said one. “Well, that’s most unfortunate.” The other got up and left the room.

A minute or so later a young constable came in with a breathalyser. “Would you mind blowing into this, sir?”

“What do you mean? I wasn’t drinking . . . and I’ve been here for the last eight hours.”

“If you don't mind, sir.”

I blew. The constable showed the breathalyser to his superior. “Just as I thought,” the Branch man said. “Driving while drunk. Book him, constable.”

I returned for trial intending to expose the whole rotten process. My solicitor advised me strenuously against this. If I ignored his advice, he said, I would have to find new representation. I gave up. He registered a plea of guilty. I was fined £500, plus costs, and banned from driving for a year.

It was, once again, the final straw. I re-resolved to have nothing further to do with Ronnie Bunting, the never-failing source of all my evils.

Ronnie had problems of his own when the Officials called a ceasefire that summer. He couldn’t believe it. Political struggle was hardly worth getting out of bed for. Politics was what you imposed after you’d won. Ronnie sought a 32-county terrorist republic ruled by commissars like himself. He spoke admiringly of Stalin’s purges. “Kill the kulaks!” he loved to repeat.

He broke away with other refuseniks and worked to turn them into a fighting unit that became the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). While I obituarised the victims of the conflict, he engaged in wholesale death and destruction. Like Pol Pot, he wanted the bodies of the unworthy piled up on the streets.

The INLA was willing to have a go at almost any target for almost any reason, provided it advanced the profile of Irish republicanism and international socialism. And mayhem. Many IRA men died at its hands. Loyalists also suffered. So did crown forces. In turn, Ronnie was on just about everybody’s hit list. In March 1975 he called me in Brussels where I was working.

“Ronnie! What the . . .?”

“I’ve been shot.”

“You’ve been what?”

“Shot. Shot in the neck.”

“Jesus! What happened?”

“Long story. But look, here’s the thing. I need your help. I need to get out for a few weeks, a month maybe. How are you fixed to put us up?”

I knew that if I didn’t say no straight away he would browbeat me into saying yes, or make me feel so guilty that I’d be practically begging him to stay.

“’Fraid not,” I said. “Out of the question. It’s a small flat, it’s paid for by The Irish Times and I’m not having you and your family staying here while half the gunmen in Ireland are looking for you. I’m sorry, but that’s it. You’ll have to find someplace else.”

A day later the phone rang again. It was Major Bunting. I could hear the sobs in his voice.

“Ronnie tells me you’re not willing to put him up.”

“That’s right, major. It’s too dangerous . . . I’m not prepared to play the patsy any longer.”

“But they’ll kill him.”

“They could kill me.”

He didn’t give up. He was pleading for his son’s life. “You’re his friend. We’re related. You’ve got to do something. In the name of God!”

For the first time in my life, so far as Ronnie was concerned, I stood firm. But the anguish in the major’s voice was disturbing. I knew how close he and his son were, despite their diametrically opposed political views.

I never spoke to either man again; but the connection between Ronnie and me, in the army’s mind at least, was not yet broken. Travelling back to Belfast from Brussels that Christmas, I was taken off the flight at Heathrow by officers from Special Branch.

The questions were familiar: “Are you a militant republican, Mr Ellis?” I stuttered through my answers and they let me go with a warning.

By late 1977 Ronnie was acting INLA chief-of-staff. His goal was to put the fear of God (or Mao) into the British Establishment. Links were forged with the Baader-Meinhof gang, then at the height of its infamy in West Germany.

All the while, he was looking for the Big One, the act that would put the INLA centre stage. His opportunity came when the British prime minister, James Callaghan, called a general election for May 3 1979.

Mrs Thatcher was the hot favourite to move into Downing Street. Her friend Airey Neave, the MP for Abingdon and a decorated war hero, was to be Ulster secretary.

Ronnie had planned to kill Roy Mason, Ulster secretary in the outgoing Labour government. He was delighted to switch targets. But Neave was a careful operator, and once he achieved office he would be guarded night and day.

Ronnie was in luck. An informer inside the Palace of Westminster discovered that security in the House of Commons underground car park was lax.

Ronnie was no expert in these matters, but he assembled a team that produced a brilliant plan. Plastic explosives and a mercury tilt-switch were combined in a small device. On March 30 it was attached under Neave’s car at the Commons by two INLA volunteers posing as workmen.

Neave got into his car shortly before 3pm and headed for the exit. As he ascended the ramp towards Parliament Street, the mercury in the tilt switch completed the circuit. Neave took the full force of the explosion. His legs were severed and his face half blown away.

Britain was outraged. Neave, one of the most respected men in the country, had been a fighter for democracy all of his life. Even as Ronnie celebrated, he knew there would be a price to pay.

He was held for three days at the RUC interrogation centre at Castlereagh, near our old school. He said afterwards that a policeman had told him: “Look at my face . . . this is the face you’ll see before I kill you.”

The final act came in the early hours of October 15, 1980. Ronnie and Suzanne were asleep at home in Turf Lodge. In the other bedrooms were their three children and Noel Lyttle, another INLA comrade. At 3.30am they were wakened by the sound of sledgehammers smashing open the double-locked front door. Seconds later they heard feet on the stairs.

Suzanne later described what happened at an inquest. She said the attackers wore green ribbed pullovers with suede patches on the shoulders and ski-type masks.

Lyttle was the first to die. Ronnie and Suzanne heard the shots that killed him but had no means of defending themselves. Ronnie did not have a gun. All they could do was huddle together behind their bedroom door. The killers pushed against the lock, which quickly gave way. One of them fired shots through the gap, wounding Suzanne in the hand. She fell back onto the bed.

“Then the bedroom door opened and two men were standing in the doorway. I heard more gunfire and when I looked one man was continually shooting into Ronnie’s body. His body was lying at the top of the stairs with his head back. I went berserk.”

Suzanne jumped onto the one doing the firing and attempted to strangle him, but the second gunman shot her twice. The man with whom she had grappled then shot her through the mouth. She survived, though her condition was critical for several days.

The Ulster Defence Association and its extreme paramilitary wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, were generally credited with the operation, but Suzanne was convinced the assailants were members of the SAS. “The attack was too well planned and carried out by men who were cool and calm and knew what they were doing,” she said.

When I heard Ronnie was dead, I didn’t feel a sense of loss. He was not my friend but my “familiar” — a demon who tormented me. Now, at last, he had been exorcised.

Major Bunting refused to allow his son to be buried alongside other INLA volunteers in the republican plot at Belfast’s Milltown cemetery. Ronnie’s grave is in a churchyard in Donaghadee, looking across the Irish Sea to Scotland, not far from a lighthouse once tended by his grandfather.

The major died of a heart attack four years later. He never recovered from the death of his son. I saw a photograph of him at the graveside, bowed and humble, wiping the tears from his eyes. He was shattered. Ronnie would have expected no less.

Extracted from The Beginning of the End: The Crippling Disadvantage of a Happy Irish Childhood by Walter Ellis, to be published by Mainstream on March 2

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