Agence France-Presse

Booze and anguish haunt Northern Ireland's retired terrorists. Some regret not putting ballots first

A Catholic republican mural in the Falls road area of Belfast, photographed in March, 2009. Although Northern Ireland is at peace, tensions remain high.
Credit: Jeff J Mitchell

BELFAST, UK — Joe Doherty steps carefully among the bodies of his dead friends.

Seventy-seven men and women lie in the gravel-strewn graves at his feet. There isn’t a name on these headstones he can’t pair with a face, a memory.

“That was a good friend of mine. It was on his birthday. Only 19. Jesus Christ,” Doherty mutters.

There was a time when the former gunman half-expected to end up alongside them. Doherty, like his fallen comrades, was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. 

Today, he is 60, old enough to be a grandfather to the young people buried here. He’s ruddy-faced, heavy-set; he wears soft-soled shoes and his sunglasses clipped to his shirt. He lowers himself onto a bench.

When he was young, Doherty shot a British soldier in the head because he wanted the man’s army out of Northern Ireland. In the interrogation room the cop asked him if he was sorry for killing Herbert Westmacott.

“I’m sorry, no, not really,” Doherty replied. “He’s a British soldier. They shouldn’t be here. It wouldn’t have happened if the British weren’t here.”

Doherty spent 23 years in prison. At some point he stopped thinking of the person he killed only as a member of an occupying army. He started thinking of him as a young man like himself, brought to that spot by the current of history. He started thinking of him as a father and husband who should still be alive.

Joe Doherty examines memorials of fallen friends in Milltown Cemetary in West Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“I walk by the spot where he was killed when I go up to Tesco and do my shopping,” he said of the Belfast block where the shooting happened. “I stop and do a prayer for him. For his soul. It’s all I can do.”

An Irish tricolor flag is whipping in the wind at Milltown Cemetery, the banner of the country the people here died trying to join.

“Was it all worth it?” he asks. “I don’t know. Probably yes. And no.”

It’s been almost 20 years since the official end of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the four-decade sectarian conflict between Catholic nationalists opposing British rule and Protestants loyal to Britain.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was the best known of the conflict's paramilitary groups. In their version, IRA combatants were soldiers fighting to expel the British from the island.

To the British government, the IRA and other militias were terrorists.

A succession of British prime ministers spoke out against the IRA in the kind of language Prime Minister David Cameron now uses to denounce the Islamic State. Many laws the UK deploys today to combat violent Islamist fundamentalism originated in the Northern Ireland conflict.

At a time when it seems like Britain and the US are waging an endless war on terror, Northern Ireland is a reminder that all wars end eventually. Even terrorists get old.

Today, the average man who spent the height of the crisis wielding a black ski mask and an Armalite rifle is about 60. Men who once outran cop cars are hobbled with arthritis and bum knees. Those who once made themselves available any time of day or night for “operations,” as attacks were called, now cancel plans with former comrades if they’ve got their grandkids for the weekend.

Survival, it turns out, comes with its own struggles. The men are beset by injuries, poverty and crippling rates of alcoholism. Those with criminal convictions associated with the conflict have struggled with unemployment and the prejudices of a society where many still view them as terrorists and murderers.

Post-traumatic stress flourishes in the decades after an event. Veterans of the conflict are finding themselves haunted by old ghosts.

"The fundamental thing you have to understand about this society is that nobody won."

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. IRA volunteers believed they’d kick out the British or die trying. Virtually all those who fought in the unofficial armies of Northern Ireland’s long and ugly war thought their involvement in the conflict would end in either the grave or a prison cell.

It turns out there was a third option: that they might outlive the war, and their anger, and the convictions that made it possible to do vicious things in the name of battle.

Almost all ex-combatants alive today spent some time in prison. Many never expected to see the outside again. Doherty spent 23 years behind bars. Noel Large, a loyalist hitman, was sentenced to 357 years and four life sentences.

The Good Friday Agreement, which helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, threw open the prison gates, releasing all conflict-related inmates in an effort to start anew.

Nearly two decades later, some on both sides are willing to talk — albeit guardedly, given that they could still face conviction for crimes committed but not tried. They provide a rare window into the lives of people labeled as terrorists, and the minds of those willing to kill to achieve their political goals.

Neither peace nor war

At the peak of the conflict, Belfast was a war zone. Tanks rolled through the streets. Bollards and checkpoints sealed the roads. Bombs and snipers’ bullets felled civilians with brutal swiftness as they went about mundane activities.

Today the military checkpoint that closed off Belfast’s central shopping district at 6:00 p.m. sharp each night at the height of the Troubles is gone, replaced by McDonald’s and a Disney Store.

Pubs have taken down the security cages that kept out bombs and assassins. A car pulling up slowly alongside you in the city center is no longer cause for panic, locals say; these days, it’s most likely a lost foreign tourist needing directions to a hotel.

Protestant-Catholic tension in Northern Ireland dates back to the 19th century. The period known as the Troubles began in the late 1960s, with a civil rights movement protesting institutional discrimination in jobs, housing and policing against Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority.

The Protestant-dominated police force responded violently against demonstrators, while armed gangs launched deadly attacks against Catholic civilians. Rioting erupted across the region.

Groups involved in the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007.

In 1969 Britain deployed the army to Northern Ireland for what was meant to be a brief peacekeeping operation. They stayed for 38 years, as the IRA mounted a guerrilla war against the state. 

The IRA was not the war’s only unofficial army. On the republican side, groups like the Official IRA and Irish National Liberation Army splintered off and waged their own attacks. Paramilitary groups also sprang up from the Protestant communities loyal to the British state, waging deadly attacks on republican paramilitaries and innocent civilians alike.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 marked the official end of the Troubles. It required the decommissioning of all paramilitary groups, power sharing between unionists and nationalists in government, and — most controversially — the release of all people imprisoned for their role in the conflict.

Everyone walked free, from low-level operatives in on a first weapons charge to cold-blooded assassins sentenced to die in jail. For many in Northern Ireland, the sight of these men leaving prison was as shocking and infuriating as the release of Al Qaeda convicts would be to Brits or Americans.

It’s an imperfect peace, one that calls on all sides to suppress feelings of injustice. Northern Ireland has never had something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to air and heal its grievances. Victims of horrific atrocities now live alongside the people they consider responsible for them.

There’s no amnesty or statute of limitations for Troubles-era crimes. People speak freely only about what they’ve already been convicted of. Everything else is strictly off-limits. People watch their words carefully. If an apology means admitting to something that never made it on a rap sheet, they’ll go to their graves without giving it. 

“We haven’t come to terms with our issues here. We really, really haven’t,” said Professor Bill Rolston of the University of Ulster. “It doesn’t take much to turn everyday normality into another shouting match.”

Fears of mass crime once prisoners were released turned out to be unfounded. A decade after the Good Friday Agreement, fewer than 10 percent of Troubles ex-prisoners had committed crimes. The recidivism rate among the general prison population in Britain at the time was almost 60 percent within two years of release.

The problem for many wasn’t giving up violence. It was figuring out what to do instead.

A lot of these combatants had dedicated their life to the conflict. They’d foregone trades, education and normal family life, shouldered prison sentences and lifelong injuries from shootings and explosions. They saw friends and family members killed and did terrible things themselves. And all of a sudden, it was over.

“A lot of it was traumatic for people. I remember discussing it with a guy in the yard [at Maze Prison]. He said, ‘What am I gonna do with my life now?’” said Sean Lynch, a member of Northern Ireland’s legislature who served 12 years for an attempted IRA ambush on a British special forces patrol.

Undated picture of IRA member Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in Belfast's Maze Prison to protest for prisoner of war status.

Many prisoners “got involved in the struggle at 16. They knew no other life,” Lynch said. “People who have channeled energy into politics have done much better, people who got involved in what they saw as a continuation of the struggle.”

For the vast majority, politics means Sinn Fein, the nationalist party once called the political wing of the IRA.

Nationalist politics provides an outlet for former militant republicans that’s as much about psychology as politics. The IRA ceased their campaign of terror without achieving their goal of a united Ireland. Politics lets them look at the peace process as a change in tactic, not an admission of defeat.

The presence of former terrorists in government is still a shock to many in Northern Ireland. Former terrorists included.

“I look at the TV and they’re talking about building business, commerce, hotels,” Joe Doherty said of Sinn Fein politicians. “Once upon a time we were bombing the same hotels. Now we’re in government. It’s amazing.”

Living with the dead

The peace dividends of increased tourism, commerce and building have paid out mostly for those at the higher end of Northern Ireland’s socioeconomic scale. In the working class neighborhoods, this remains a tense city.

Most of the people who fought and died in Northern Ireland’s conflict were working class. The streets of those neighborhoods are still fighting to write history. Union Jack bunting lines Protestant neighborhoods loyal to the British crown; Irish tricolor and Gaelic street signs signal nationalist Catholic areas. Painted tributes to innocent victims and locals who fought to avenge their deaths look down from the sides of buildings.

All sides in the conflict played fast and loose with civilian life. The IRA claimed to target only British soldiers, police officers, politicians and economic targets. But their tactics made civilian deaths inevitable.

Republican and loyalist paramilitary groups alike tossed bombs into busy pubs, assassinated innocent people and committed appalling acts of kidnap and murder. The police and army killed civilians, too.

Certain corners of Andersonstown, a staunchly nationalist area southwest of the city limits, feel like portals to the past. A fading mural on one brick wall reads “Disband the RUC” — the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the old name for the local police force. It was rechristened the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001, an effort to shed its reputation as an anti-Catholic force.

A resident reads a local newspaper October 24, 2001 in Andersonstown in West Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In a brick row house not far away, a silver-headed man named Joe Simpson cradles a framed photograph of his brother Seamus, an IRA volunteer shot dead in 1971 while hurling a bomb at the British army.

The brothers were among 10 children raised in poverty in Andersonstown in a family with a long history of republicanism. Joe Simpson was first arrested in 1972 driving a bomb-laden car into Belfast city center. He served three years, got out and went straight back into the movement, only to be arrested again with a bomb in 1980.

Simpson has bushy gray eyebrows, twinkly blue eyes, soft slippers. He looks like a grandfather. Maybe he is. He doesn’t know. His relationship with his children is among the conflict’s casualties. In 1980 his wife took the kids and left, fed up with a husband who worked intermittently and disappeared on a moment’s notice when called for a bombing run.

"If you haven’t got that [belief that what you did was right], it makes you a mass murderer."

“You had to work around a family life and your beliefs,” he said. “I said to my wife, 'Don’t ever ask me to pick between you and the movement.’ I said it to Carol [his current partner] too. You could say I was selfish for sacrificing them. But you have to look at the bigger picture. You have to be totally committed in what you’re doing. If you’re not, you’re making mistakes and you’re putting other people’s lives in jeopardy, other people’s freedom.”

He was never specifically charged with membership in the IRA. Even as he uses “we” to refer to IRA operations, he refuses to confirm if he belonged to the organization. It’s not just a code of omerta. IRA membership remains illegal in the UK.

He was a foot soldier in the guerrilla war, and now he’s a foot soldier for Sinn Fein, dutifully passing out fliers before elections.

“We put the cart before the horse. We should have tried politics first,” Simpson said.

During the years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland, thousands died. Joe Simpson's recognition that they should have tried politics first feels like a big admission. He insists he does not regret his past. His reasoning is a delicate balance of apology and justification.

A forensics officer takes notes beside a bullet ridden BMW September 13, 2002 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Stephen Warnock, thought to be a prominent loyalist, died after a gunmen on a motorcycle fired shots into the car.

“It takes a long, long time to sit down and mature in your mind — that’s somebody’s son. That’s a human being,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of what I done. If it kicked off tomorrow, again, I’d be straight in the middle of it. [But] some of the things we done, some of the decisions we done, were wrong. It was wrong. We were wrong. You understand? We were wrong. And that’s just the crux of it.”

“In the jail, you started questioning yourself. You started questioning your own commitment. People say, 'Ah, you’re getting old.' It’s not getting old. You’re using that there,” he said, tapping his head. “When you question yourself, you have to put something in its place. When the armed struggle stopped, there was no big chasm to fall into. You just moved on. And now politics is the struggle.”

Regret is a tricky word in this part of the world. It is the rare ex-paramilitary who will express unqualified remorse for his or her actions. They will say they are sorry for the loss of innocent lives, for mistakes made.

Their logic sometimes sounds like a form of self-protection against the crushing weight of the Troubles’ atrocities.

A Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer keeps an eye on a flag-waving loyalist demonstrator in central Belfast on July 10, 2000.

In 1977, Rory O’Connor fired seven rounds at a police officer. One struck him in the arm, another missed his skull by a fraction of an inch. O’Connor then turned and aimed his Armalite at a second officer trembling too badly to draw his weapon. He pulled the trigger. Click. Empty.

The injured officer lived. If O’Connor had any regrets then, it was that the bullet to the head missed its target. Today, at 56, he’s grateful it did.

“Maybe as you get old, you get more mellow. You get less militant. You get more mature,” he said, leaning back on his living room couch. “Then, I wouldn’t have given two thoughts. But now, in my own mind, I’m glad the man’s alive. I’d rather have him alive than dead.”

O’Connor does not regret his membership in the IRA or the things he did in its service. He believes that the IRA was right and necessary — that the harassment, violence and discrimination that he, his family and community experienced as Catholics merited an armed response. But as the years pass, some memories gnaw with more urgency. The missions that went wrong. The missions that killed bystanders. The missions that killed children.

“You can say war is war and innocents die in war. But that doesn’t make it any easier. You put it in the back of your mind, but it does get to you.

"You always have a wee bit in you, a wee bit that says what you did was right. If you didn’t have that wee thing, that ‘you were right’ — what does that make you then?” he said, before answering his own question.

“If you haven’t got that thing, it makes you a mass murderer.”

Out of prison, out of work

Joe Simpson was released from prison in 1993. He moved in with his girlfriend and put bars on the windows. A part of his mind can’t quite leave the war behind.

“I’m in the mode of readiness,” he said. “Not ready with a bomb or a rifle. Alert-like. I watch cars like hell. Any time I go out for a drink, I have to be facing the door.”

He works part-time at a bar. There isn’t a whole lot else to do. His prison record — “I won’t use that word, criminal, I’m not a criminal” — dogs him.

The law in Northern Ireland allows employers to reject job candidates who were involved in Troubles-related violence. The convictions pose problems for insurance, mortgages and other issues as well. Life as a former prisoner can mean a lot of paperwork, and a lot of being told no.

Ex-combatants are approaching retirement age with a unique set of problems. State retirement payments in the UK are linked to the number of years a working individual contributed to the system, similar to Social Security contributions in the US.

Years in prison — or years spent as a full-time terrorist — don’t count. Only 2 percent of ex-combatants surveyed this year said they had prepared financially for retirement. More than 90 percent have struggled with financial problems since their release.

Prisoners encountering such difficulties often turn to Coiste na nIarchimí, an advocacy group for former republican prisoners that links people with services and lobbies for ex-prisoners’ right. It’s kind of like AARP for the IRA. Similar groups exist on the loyalist side as well. The groups also offer jobs, employing former prisoners as community mediators, youth workers and tour guides. 

This spring, the grants that fund those programs ran out, leaving dozens of people unemployed. There’s a scramble to find work in Belfast: shelf stocking, parking lot attending, club security, anything. Anything to bring in cash, and to avoid those long empty hours idle, and thinking.

One of the towering walls physically separating Belfast's Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Also called "peace lines" or "interfaces," the walls separate communities with a history of violent confrontation.

A lot of former combatants have slipped through society’s cracks over the peace process years. Some are paralyzed by lack of opportunity; others, by thoughts of the past.

Alcohol offers an easy antidote. Nearly 70 percent of respondents in a 2010 survey of former paramilitaries reported hazardous levels of drinking. More than half were alcohol-dependent, a rate almost five times that of Northern Ireland’s heavy-drinking population.

Murals in Belfast memorialize men who became icons during the struggle and drank themselves to early deaths out of prison. Survivors mention names quietly, not wanting to impugn the legacy of friends and comrades.

A man delivering coal to the residents of Beechmount in west Belfast, walks past a mural dedicated to IRA volunteers on December 7, 2004.

Pat Livingstone has seen this firsthand.

“There's one died there recently, a good friend of mine. But he was out every morning, he would have been out every single morning drinking, you know. You knew looking at him ... we're all saying that he hasn't long to go, and he wouldn’t listen to ya. He just knew he was dying. He finished up like that there. Just drinking. He probably wasn’t eating.”

“But then again, the worst nightmare, he was lying in the house dead for ...  I’d be afraid of that. We're all gonna die, [but] I don't want to be lying in the house for days with nobody finding me. Know what I mean? But that’s what happened to him. Your worst nightmare. He lied there — couldn’t even open the coffin cause the body was in a battered state, you know? But he was a very good friend and it happened to him.”

Livingstone has rules to safeguard himself from this. He never drinks at home. Never during the week. Never alone at the bar, unless it’s maybe one pint while he’s waiting for a friend. Yes, he can put it away once he gets going. Maybe 16 pints in a session. But not as much as his friends. Lots of people around here drink far more than that. Lots of them do.

Livingstone spent 17 brutal years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The conviction was overturned in 2013.

He’s 6-foot-2, powerfully built at 64. When he talks, he leans assertively forward over the table. A slug-shaped white scar above his right wrist marks a stab wound. An eagle tattoo above that obscures the name of a long-gone girlfriend.

When the subject of trauma comes up, he leans back in his chair. He crosses his legs. He folds his arms protectively around his chest. He bites his nails.

He can recite memories in searing detail: The boy shot dead steps away from him during a 1971 riot. The night he and his 12 younger siblings were burned out of their family home by a loyalist mob. The night a warden came into his prison cell to bluntly tell him his 14-year-old sister was dead, struck in the temple with a plastic bullet fired by a British soldier.

A fire burns on a loyalist neighborhood street in central Belfast late on July 5, 2000.

Bringing the Troubles home

The psychological legacy of the conflict casts a long shadow in this part of the world. Almost 30 percent of people in Northern Ireland suffer from mental health problems, and nearly half of those cases are directly related to the conflict, the University of Ulster found earlier this year.

For all the horrific experiences of the conflict’s victims and witnesses, the violence has also left profound damage on its perpetrators.

The line between victim and perpetrator can be blurry, advocates for ex-prisoners say. Fighters tended to come from the most violent areas. About half of ex-prisoners in one 2008 survey had family members killed during the conflict. Nearly all lost friends.

More than half of former paramilitaries surveyed in 2010 reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can manifest in years of flashbacks and panic attacks and can intensify with age. Witnessing violence to another person — even an enemy — can be more distressing in the long term than being injured oneself, according to a study cited by the war correspondent Sebastian Junger.

A recent survey of ex-combatants found that just over half had been prescribed medication for anxiety, sleep problems or depression in the last year. Alcoholism rates suggest that even more are self-medicating.

Tar Isteach — the name means “Come In,” in Gaelic — is among the ex-prisoner groups offering counseling to former combatants. But it’s not as easy as walking in to an office and unburdening oneself of secrets, said Joe Barnes, a former republican prisoner who now works as a licensed counselor at Tar Isteach.

UK law requires therapists to report any admission of terrorism to the authorities. Some counselors get around that with a wink and a nod. Others follow the rules to the letter.

Many troubled people are scared off by the story of a former loyalist paramilitary member tormented by a crime he’d committed but not confessed.

He sought counseling. Informed that the therapist would have to report any terrorist activity, he left the office and hanged himself.

“We call them sort of the walking wounded,” said Breige Brownlee, 55, a former IRA volunteer who spent eight years in prison for carrying a bomb.

Brownlee is more familiar than most with the tolls this conflict can take. Her husband Paul Norney served 22 years in prison for shooting a police officer. He was released in 1996 but struggled with alcoholism. On Christmas Day 2012, Norney attacked Brownlee in a drunken rage in the family’s living room. Three days later he returned and set her car on fire.

He was jailed for a year on domestic violence charges. The couple has separated, though she is assisting him with his recovery. (Norney declined to speak with GlobalPost.)

“People don't see the injuries. A lot of times people don’t understand the injuries,” she said. “These men came through a conflict. Maybe 15, 16, 17 years old, maybe in their early 20s, they were going out with guns to shoot people. They were blowing places up. There are terrible, terrible tragedies of our conflict and these people, they’re carrying that. They felt it was right and they still think it was right. But the scars are there.”

Brownlee is part of a small and often overlooked number of women jailed during the Troubles. She believes many of her female comrades fared better post-prison than their male counterparts because they didn’t have the luxury of time.

Women got out of jail and had children to look after, bills and mortgages to pay. Men had women to take care of those things for them.

“There’s a great saying here — ‘have to’ is a good master,” she said. “If you have to take care of the family and the kids, the mortgage and the bills, all the rest of it, you’re focusing on that. Whereas men a lot of times came out of prison and the women were doing that. So they were left to float there.”

Sparing the future from the past

There are no tidy endings in Northern Ireland. Republicans still chafe at British rule. Loyalists seethe at the presence in government of former IRA members turned politicians. No one gets the satisfaction of victory.

“The fundamental thing you have to understand about this society is that nobody won,” said Peter Shirlow, a professor and deputy director of the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queens University Belfast. “Nobody won, so there’s no moral victory to be had. The loyalists didn’t stop Sinn Fein. The republicans didn’t get the Brits out.”

Belfast’s working class neighborhoods are cross-hatched with so-called “peace walls,” erected at flashpoints where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods meet.

They are tall enough to make throwing a bomb, stone or Molotov cocktail onto the other side impossible. Graffiti makes clear whose side of the wall you’re on. K.A.T. means “Kill All Taigs,” a local slur for Catholics. K.A.H. is “Kill All Huns,” an equally derogatory term for Protestants.

Grafitti declaring "KAH" and "Brits Out" on a wall in Belfast.

Splinter republican groups opposed to the peace process still cause flares of violence. In May, dissident republicans left a large bomb in a north Belfast neighborhood with the intention of killing nearby police officers. An 18-year-old was arrested and charged in connection with the device.

Per capita, terror arrests in Northern Ireland far outpace the rest of the UK. There were 338 terror-related arrests in England, Scotland and Wales in the year ending in March. In Northern Ireland alone, there were 227. Put another way, the region has 3 percent of the UK’s population, and about 40 percent of its counterterror grabs.

The biggest threat to peace, many ex-fighters say, is the generation of young people who never lived through the nightmare of the Troubles and romanticize the war. In the absence of real opportunity in working class Belfast, they fear it is too easy for young people to slide back into violent sectarianism. 

Dissuading youths from violence is, for many combatants, a form of community service and personal redemption. Their work over the years with young people — talking to schools and groups, arbitrating disputes, calling for calm during restive periods in the streets — has been invaluable to maintaining Northern Ireland’s uneasy peace, many observers say.

“If they were not there doing the work they are doing, we would not have a peace process,” Shirlow said.

But as time moves on, that influence is waning. Most teenagers in Northern Ireland weren’t born when the conflict was going on. They’re not as interested in the exploits of older people who once walked the streets of their communities like celebrated war heroes.

Shortly after getting out of prison for the final time in 1998, Joe Doherty worked with teenagers in a Belfast youth center. Doherty’s shooting of a British soldier and dramatic escape from jail made him something of a folk hero in republican circles. The kids treated him like a celebrity.

Earlier this year, he went back to the same center to give a talk to a group of 15-year-olds. None had ever heard of him.

But he still goes and talks to kids, tells them how violence ends in death and heartbreak and jail and futility. He watches the news reports about British kids hopping flights to Syria to join the Islamic State and wishes he could sit them down.

He would tell them that he too was once an angry young man, who felt powerful when he picked up a gun. He would tell them that it doesn’t end well. It doesn’t get you what you want.

He would tell them what he always tells young people: “I want youse to have an opportunity to make an informed choice. You’re gonna come to a stage in life and look back and say, it wasn’t worth it.”

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