The recent arrest (and release, four days later) of Gerry Adams in connection with the abduction, torture and murder of unarmed mother of ten , widow Jean McConville, triggers profoundly unpleasant memories of a past when the 1982 Falklands War was another, albeit huge, conflict in the continuum of war chronicled daily on our TV screens. Adams was regarded as a gangster then, and his voice was dubbed out on mainland TV newsreels. His resemblance to the Yorkshire Ripper further alienated him from the British public.
This article represents my own recollections of the Irish Troubles which, as a paradigm of endemic gang culture, I researched for my book Messiah of the Slums. In that book, set in the fictitious English sink estate of Shriveton, it is drugs and not religious sectarianism which wreak havoc with ordinary lives. But, like the IRA in the 70s and 80s, Shriveton’s Incubo drug gang is ruthlessly efficient, organised and amoral; like the IRA, the Incubo reigns supreme, is globally networked, preys on the poor and destitute, and proceeds largely unchallenged for years.
All religions have been made by man (Napoleon Bonaparte)
Religion is humanity’s attempt to grasp existential meaning, i.e. something that cannot ever be fully seen or understood, but must be intuited and interpreted, and which is crucial to our understanding of ourselves. Science does something similar when it describes reality in terms of models, diagrams and formulae. Of course, science has a rather better track record when it comes to assimilating into its existing abstractions the new discoveries made over time. The depiction and understanding of, for example, the atom, or indeed the cosmos, has changed over time.
By contrast, the main religions sometimes cling obstinately to tradition at the expense of enlightenment. Depressing and harmful institutional intransigence on issues such as the subordination of women, contraception and homosexuality has disenchanted generations. Nonetheless, for those of us who are not nearly clever enough to be New Atheists – I include myself here – religion in some form is an important means of mediating tough metaphysical questions such as Why do we exist? or What happens when we die? Only when one overlooks their egregious flaws do the major religions become a serviceable template for managing one’s life. When it comes to religion, the price of peace is a compromise.
There have always been religious fanatics . A tiny minority of these – like the Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth – become humankind’s luminaries. But most are in some way destructive, especially those suffering from the horrible delusion that their particular religion is the only right one. The infectious tribalism such religious hatred engenders is the root of global running sores such as: Syria, Somalia and Nigeria; and, as Gerry Adams’ recent arrest, and release reminded us, Northern Ireland.
The Troubles I’ve seen..
Tribalism is not the same as religion, which like football or nationality is an abstraction onto which fanaticism fastens. It is the deliberate separation from, and demonising and exclusion of, non-members, and it is characterised by blind, uncompromising certainty that everyone outside the tribe is an enemy. Because religion, unlike football or even nationality, is profoundly connected to our core sense of self, mortality and morality, the tribalism it can generate is the most deadly of all.
At the time of the Falklands War, an inspiring young Northern Irish school teacher introduced our class to the poetry of WB Yeats. Like a lot of teenagers, I tended to make myself the focus of most thoughts. So in the days when Adams was a rather terrifying, albeit voiceless, TV puppet, I wasn’t thinking much beyond the romantic notion that Yeats’ Easter 1916 rebels might be among the people left behind by my ancestors when they fled the famine ravaged shores of Ireland for Liverpool at the end of the nineteenth century.
The political dimension of Irish republicanism did not impact on me, but I do remember one day asking this Irish teacher what she thought about the IRA.
“These people haven’t been to chapel in years!” she growled.
This had not answered my question at all, I felt at the time.
Having recaptured the Falklands, the Tories went on to be re-elected, only to suffer 5 fatalities and 31 casualties in the 1984 Brighton IRA bomb. I was a student at St Andrews University at this time. Northern Ireland was something that happened on news reels until one day I invited a Northern Irish girl – let’s call her Lizzie – back for coffee to talk about an assignment we were doing. We had much in common, Lizzie and I, being of the same age and on the same course. Usually very relaxed and friendly, Lizzie, became acutely uncomfortable as we drew up to the front door of my accommodation, which was in the Catholic Chaplaincy of the university.
A purple clad Sister of the Assumption opened the door, greeted us cheerfully, and withdrew. Lizzie did not return the friendly welcome, although she followed me in, and perched gingerly on the bed in my small bedsit as I made coffee. To begin with, I filled in her silence with essay chatter but soon, recognising that it wasn’t my imagination, and that something was wrong, I asked her if she was OK.
“I didn’t realise you were Catholic,” she mumbled, and went on to say that although it wasn’t a problem, as a Protestant herself, she had never set foot in a Catholic place such as this. Her fear was amplifying despite my attempts to be hospitable, and hers to master it. Before finishing her coffee, she departed using some invented excuse, and never sought me out again.
That same year, I took a job in a newsagent alongside a Northern Irish Catholic girl – let’s call her Elaine – on the run from her family because she had fallen in love with a Scottish Protestant boy. Although he was prepared to turn (Catholic), her father had renounced him on the grounds that a turncoat is worse than a Proddy. One day Elaine didn’t turn into work, because, my boss informed me, her family had discovered her whereabouts, causing her and her boyfriend to flee.
Never before had I encountered religious polarity of this sort. It seemed so ludicrous as to be the product of self-dramatizing hysteria. Nobody in the modern world cared about the Catholic/Protestant thing, I thought? Along with virtually everyone I had met in my life until that point, I scarcely knew, and definitely didn’t care, what the difference was between the two religions! God’s not a Catholic one of my landlady nuns was fond of saying.
24493332 Lance Corporal Stephen Burrows
At the time Lizzie and Elaine and her fiancé went out of my life , my school friend Jane married a soldier, 24493332 Lance Corporal Stephen Burrows of 1st Battalion, King’s Regiment, which recruited from the Liverpool and Manchester area. He turned Catholic so they could marry in St Werburgh’s Church, Chester, where his high security funeral would be held, just four years later, as Sun reporters climbed trees to snap it. Not long after the wedding, their baby son was born, and Stephen was posted to Belfast. Jane and the baby went with him.
At midnight on 24th October 1990, eight IRA men broke into the Londonderry home of Patrick Gillespie, and put guns to the temples of his wife Kathleen and four children. Roman Catholic Patrick – selected because he worked (as a cook) for the British Army – was taken across the Irish border where he was chained to the driver’s seat on top of a 2,000lb bomb of a van. His IRA captors told him to drive it to the Buncrana Road permanent Vehicle Check Point (VCP). A detonator was attached to the door light just in case he decided to bail. Any failure to complete his mission would mean bullets in the brain for his wife and family.
The IRA was at its height: the most efficient and deadly terrorist organisation in the world. Patrick’s van was one of three vehicles – respectively headed for British Army targets in Newry, Omagh and Londonderry – driven by kidnapped drivers whose families were held at gunpoint .
“Patrick had no choice but to comply,” Jane said. “The IRA always carried through their threats.”
Stephen Burrows had promised to call his wife after the extra shift he took on that night to cover a friend who had gone down with malaria. It would be many hours before she learned he was at the VCP where Patrick Gillespie’s van was detonated at 04.12am by IRA operatives hiding in the vicinity. Afterwards, wreckage was found as far as four miles away.
Stephen Burrows, Patrick Gillespie and fellow Kingsmen Vinny Scott and Stephen Beacham were instantly obliterated, and identifiable afterwards only by name tags and personal effects. The bodies of their D Company comrades, Paul Worral and David Sweeney, were intact because they died as a result of the terrific vacuum caused by the explosion.
24 years on, nobody has been apprehended for the bombings, and Jane does not believe anyone will be.
“Did you know that the British Army was drafted in 1969 to look after the Catholics?” she said, by the by, as she showed me her huge file of newspaper cuttings and memorabilia. A handwritten poem in among the papers caught my eye. One line in particular struck me:
I have made my peace with the hatred in my soul. (Mark Burrows aged 9)
Jane and Stephen’s son, Mark, wrote it when he was nine, four years before the last 80 prisoners left the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland as part of the Northern Ireland peace process; and five years before planes went into the World Trade Centre in NYC, bisecting world history into Before and After 9/11. On that day in 2001, US diplomat Richard Haas was in Dublin, poised to meet with Republican Tsars Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, with a view to questioning them about reports that the IRA were training FARC, enemies of the US, in Columbia.
911 – the IRA money tree is cut down
Bush’s immediate denunciation of terrorism on the day of 9/11 caused Haas to alter his message to a blunt instruction for the IRA to lay down arms. American IRA financial supporters– most of whom are no more Irish than I am – suddenly woke up to the real consequences of terrorism when, for the first time in history, foreign bombs exploded on their own turf (that being, of course, American and not Irish soil, with which they have no real connection beyond the crude inventions of their own absurd sentimentalism). Starved of American money, the IRA had no choice but to decommission its weapons and embrace the peace process.
The primary imperative of the fragile peace which has held since 1998 is to look forward, not back. Much compromise has been required on each side of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide to forget the past. There is no better example of collective forgetting than Gerry Adams himself. His spectacular ascendancy, from gagged pariah to international statesman means he has been cordially received by, among others, Britain’s Queen, Nelson Mandela and President Clinton.
Every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise. (Edmund Burke)
The widow Jean McConville and her ten children lived a pitiable life in Belfast’s notorious Divis flats slum. A convert to Catholicism, she was rejected on both sides of the religious hatred divide. One can only imagine the hardship of her impoverished, lonely circumstances. Yet the IRA, that fraternity of fanatics and freaks which the Roman Catholic hierarchy have consistently condemned, had this poor woman down for a British Army agent. There is no evidence of any treachery beyond hearsay that on one occasion she gave a wounded British soldier a drink of water.
The notion that Sinn Fein supremo Gerry Adams had no knowledge of Jean McConville’s abduction, torture and murder is – for me, at least – wholly unbelievable. Adams has been snapped at various IRA paramilitary funerals in the role of volunteer. He has brokered deals on behalf of the IRA for decades, not least in the post 911 meetings with US envoy Hass.
Those who planned and carried out the murders of Stephen Burrows and Jean McConville remain free. Before I visited my school friend Jane to interview her for this article, the question, “Where’s the justice in all of this?” was dominating my thinking. Paradoxically, after listening to Jane’s desperately sad story about the human bomb that killed her husband, I realised I was wrong to believe that justice was needed… Just as I had been wrong about W B Yeats’ poetry all those years ago, with the Irishwoman who taught me English Literature, the same person who summed up the IRA with, These people haven’t been to chapel in years.
As the Falls Road wall in Belfast makes clear, tribalism remains. It seems strange and tragic that the religions on either side of that wall are almost identical variations of Christianity; that the terror done in their name is expressly prohibited in the core text they share, the New Testament, which preaches peace, love and forgiveness.
“Why should bringing murderers to justice upset the peace process?” Jane said, with a little sigh as she looked once again at an old wedding photograph, before putting it back into one of the bulging carrier bags of memorabilia she’d got out of the loft for me to see. She spoke without a trace of anger, or belief that her husband’s killer will ever be apprehended.
The NI peace has not been founded on truce, not a victory. Whereas, for example, Nazi Holocaust perpetrators could be pursued through the courts because the war was over – Germany had surrendered – this is not as straightforward in a truce, which usually requires heroic and sustained commitment to compromise. Perhaps this is what American civil rights lawyer, Clarence Darrow had in mind when he famously declared, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”
Compromise softens our psychological perimeters so that they become porous to the other ideas, experiences and people. It is vastly easier than forgiveness. Only exceptionally spiritual people are capable of forgiveness. Stephen Burrows’ little boy was one such: he made peace with the hatred in [his] soul when he was nine years old.
What happened in 1990 to Mark Burrows’ dad, and the others who died in the 1990 proxy bombs was, in the words Catholic Bishop Edward Daly, the work of Satan. The same is true for Jean McConville. Almost impossible as it might be to accept, those responsible for these and similar evils must continue to elude justice if the peace is to hold. As is evidenced by the Falls Road wall itself, and by the smug self-assurance of unrepentant principal players like Gerry Adams – a return to the Troubles could be just one wildcat bullet away.