A former IRA gunman and hunger striker tells his story

Weekend Read: One night 40 years ago Laurence McKeown ambushed an RUC Land Rover. He was jailed for 16 years. Now a playwright, he looks back on his life's journey

 

From his hiding place in the hedge Laurence McKeown could clearly hear the conversation between the two bingo women. It was a summer’s night in July 1976, and McKeown had walked a short distance from his parents’ home in the countryside near Randalstown, Co Antrim, to ambush a police vehicle.

“I was lying in a hedge with an M1 Garand rifle – a very slow rifle – with a clip of eight bullets, waiting for the Land Rover. I had been there a couple of other nights, but nothing happened,” McKeown says. “I heard two women passing by, coming from the bingo in the local [Ancient Order of Hibernians] hall. They were having a conversation about the bingo, and I remember thinking, That’s normal life, and you have a chance of being part of that normal life; instead you are waiting in this hedge with a rifle for a police Land Rover to come along. It seemed like some form of madness. But that was my choice.”

That night the Royal Ulster Constabulary Land Rover did come along.

McKeown says there is trepidation before an attack. But “once you make the move psychologically, then the fear goes. You are in a different mode, in a militaristic mode.”

As the Land Rover passed, the gunman stepped into the road.

“I aimed between the tail lights and fired off a whole clip. They returned fire from up the road from a long distance, from far enough away not to do any damage.”

Although nobody died in the attack, he says that “one officer was slightly injured when hit by a ricochet bullet”.

McKeown’s solo attack would lead to his conviction and life imprisonment for attempted murder and other offences. He spent 16 years in prison, from 1976 to 1992, and joined the blanket and no-wash protests in the Maze prison in the late 1970s. He also took part in the hunger strike in which Bobby Sands and nine other republican prisoners died in 1981.

If it had been up to him McKeown would have been the 11th fatality. But in the end it wasn’t up to him.

Catholics who kept their heads down

McKeown grew up in a mixed area, where his immediate neighbours were Protestants. “I learned to drive a tractor on the Warwicks’ farm,” he says. “I used to go down to the Todds at Cookstown Junction with my brother to watch The High Chaparral on TV. Mrs Todd was a fantastic cook and baker.”

Laurence was 12 in January 1969, when the People’s Democracy civil-rights march from Belfast to Derry camped overnight near the Ancient Order of Hibernians hall.

“I remember going to Mass that night and seeing all these people with long hair and Afghan coats. I would have preferred to be going with them than to Mass. The next day they headed off and were stopped by protestors at Randalstown. A fellow who previously lived beside us drove his car into the marchers.”

McKeown describes his parents, Margaret and George, as Catholics who generally kept their heads down. His father was a van driver with Standard Telephones and Cables. “I remember him coming back from London one Christmas with annuals like the Victor and Hotspur.”

His first experience of discrimination was as a young boy in the 1960s, when George McKeown “got plans for a house from a Protestant colleague who had built a bungalow. He used the exact same plans, but the council turned down his application on 39 grounds.

“It was the first time I saw my father take a stand. He got a lawyer and appealed. The lawyer pointed out the council had passed the exact same plans a couple of years previously. Suddenly all the objections disappeared apart from three face-saving ones. It was only in later years that I realised it was to do with civil rights.”

Laurence was a bright student with ambitions to be an architect. He went to St Malachy’s College, a prestigious Catholic grammar school in north Belfast, but disliked it and quit to return to local education. “It was very regimented,” he says. “I left before they threw me out.”

His father was upset, complaining that Laurence was wasting an opportunity for a good education. His mother, he says, was more understanding, saying, “Well, if he’s not happy . . . ”

McKeown had many verbal tussles with his father growing up, but Margaret McKeown had a quieter, more effective way of making her point. He remembers once as a teenager coming home one night quite drunk. “I got up to go to school in the morning, but there wasn’t a word from her.”

His mother’s clear nonverbal communication of her disappointment was “devastating” and “worse than anything she could have said”.

Later, while he was on the run in the Republic, McKeown’s mother visited him with a priest. “We had one of those bizarre, awkward conversations where we talked about everything other than what was really going on. She never said ‘do this’ or anything else. She wasn’t going to change me.”

Joining the IRA

In his youth McKeown had often heard people singing rebel songs in bars, but he considered that behaviour soft and hypocritical. He believed that something more militant was required.

He’d been going to dances as a teenager in places such as Ardboe, Cookstown and Moneyglass and had got to know one particular IRA member. At the age of 16 McKeown pestered the man to let him join the organisation. “Eventually he said, ‘You can join when you’re 17.’ ”

McKeown’s desire to join the IRA wasn’t the result of extensive political analysis. That would come later. “I suppose it was a very simplistic thing of ‘Brits out’.”

Other experiences, such as being questioned by local Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers at checkpoints, also played a part.

“You were being stopped by people you played football with in Randalstown. They were asking me who I was, where I was from, where I was going, when they knew me well. It was not about where you went to church on Sunday; it was about who had the power to carry a rifle and wear a uniform and stop me whenever they wanted to do it, which they did.”

McKeown joined the IRA in 1973.

“I met a man and a woman, and they gave me the usual spiel: that joining the IRA meant you’d likely end up dead or in prison. They were telling me to think carefully. I was getting pissed off with all the talk. I wanted them to just get on with it.

“It was an informal swearing-in. There was no Green Book [of IRA rules] or anything like that. They just said: ‘Watch yourself. If questioned, never say anything.’ It was as simple as that.”

He did not question the morals of his actions. “There was never a point where I thought we were wrong morally, because we did not think too much about it morally. State armies don’t think like that, for that matter. We were going against the state, our church, our teachers. Republicanism was not very popular at the time.”

McKeown was trained in making explosives and using an M1 carbine, a Thompson sub-machine gun, an Armalite rifle and handguns. Much of the schooling was on the shores of Lough Neagh.

By the time of the Land Rover ambush McKeown had been on a number of operations and was a reasonably seasoned Provisional IRA member, on the run.

But he had also become reckless. Not long after the attack the police nabbed him. How? “I was at home one Monday morning when I should not have been.”

Interrogation in Belfast 

McKeown was questioned at the RUC’s Castlereagh interrogation centre, in Belfast. IRA members weren’t so expertly versed in anti-interrogation techniques at the time. He admitted being involved in bomb attacks and the Land Rover ambush.

“It was more psychological than physical pressure in Castlereagh. They were saying things like, ‘Your parents will be lifted,’ or, ‘Your father works in mixed area: he’ll be targeted by loyalists.’ ”

From August 1976 McKeown was on remand awaiting trial, and in April 1977 he was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of attempted murder and bombing offences. “I refused to recognise the courts,” he says.

In court the judge asked if anybody wished to say anything on his behalf. Margaret McKeown stood up and told the judge: “He is my son. I love him.”

After sentencing McKeown was brought to a central area of one of the so-called “H-blocks” of the Maze prison near Lisburn, Co Antrim.

A “blanket protest” had begun at the prison the previous year, after the British authorities began phasing out “special category” or political-prisoner status for paramilitary inmates. This put republicans on a par with “criminal” prisoners and required them to wear prison uniforms, which they refused to do.

McKeown joined the protest on arrival. He was instructed to strip naked and was offered prison clothes, which he refused.

“I remember the walk down to the very bottom of the wing. I was thinking, What do I do with my hands? If I put my hands over my privates, then it looks like you are embarrassed. At the same time you are not going to march down with your arms swinging. So I just walked down with my arms by my sides.”

The only reading material during the Maze protest was the Bible, which McKeown read from cover to cover. Although he admired the writing, he describes himself as agnostic.

After the blanket protest McKeown participated in the no-wash protest that followed, in March 1978, and in hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981.

‘Living in sh*te in the Maze’

He describes his time in jail as an educational period. “You get rid of the crap that you had learned, or that you had internalised or soaked up over the years,” he says. “You never sat down before to sort out [your] view of the world. You did not have books or TV. All you had was discussion. You learned from one another. Then you started debating.

“We were probably the most irreverent group of republicans. There is no mystical ‘wrap the green flag around me’ when you are living in sh*te. You have to work out what are your values and principles, because you are living in a hellhole. You have to really believe.

“I remember at that time we would get the IRA Christmas message – you know, sometimes you’d have people getting carried away with themselves and saying, ‘The Brits are going to be driven back into the sea.’ And people in the cells would be blowing raspberries out the door and saying, ‘Give your head a shake . . . ’

“Part of it was humorous, but it was moving away from romanticism, because you were not living in a romantic situation. It was also a great leveller, because it did not matter who you were, what age you were, what you were in for: you were all the same. All the social norms were gone. You built up a strong bond.”

Even then, McKeown says, there was a sense of a vicious circle about the Troubles. The British army and the RUC realised that they could never totally defeat the IRA, and the IRA was learning that it could not defeat the British. So why continue with violence?

He says now that, although there was a realism about the conflict, he and other republicans believed that the violence would achieve concessions from the British and that republican goals would involve a “long-game struggle”. But he also allows that the violence and the campaign had nearly become a way of life.

‘Our political naivety was stripped away’

McKeown was, in his mid-20s, a much different person from when he joined the IRA, a few years earlier. “By the time the hunger strikes came around, in 1980 and 1981, a lot of our political naivety was stripped away,” he says. “It was a different ball game entirely. It was a lot more realistic, I suppose.”

He has good memories of Bobby Sands, the leader of the IRA prisoners, who began the 1981 hunger strike on March 1st and died 66 days later, on May 5th. “You felt he was one of the lads. He was a good singer, full of energy, always singing and talking and thinking. A bundle of ideas, good humoured.”

Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in April 1981. There was a sense among the prisoners that his election would be a trigger to resolve the fast. That optimism soon evaporated.

“We realised that if they would let Bobby die, and he was an elected MP, they would be prepared to let others die,” McKeown says. “We had not really thought about that before.”

In embarking on the hunger strike, McKeown says, there was “no long-term vision about how this is going to work out”.

After Sands’s death “even the screws themselves were fairly muted”. “It was a quiet, intense time. People were sitting with their own thoughts. And, in just over two weeks, four people were dead.”

People were dying outside the prison as well. The IRA was responsible for several killings, including RUC officers and British soldiers. During the overall period of the protests – from 1976 to 1981 – 19 prison officers were killed.

At the time, McKeown says, prisoners felt it right that their warders be targeted. “Our view was that this would stop the brutality in jail.”

But he was also struck by how one prison officer in the hospital wing could not understand how Kieran Doherty, the seventh prisoner to die, was “so calm and confident that what he was doing was right”.

“The screw was born-again, and what Kieran was doing contradicted his religious belief. He saw it as suicide. On a human level the screw felt sympathy for the situation. There was humanity there as well.”

McKeown is conscious of the continuing debate about the hunger strikes. Former IRA prisoners such as Richard O’Rawe claim that the strike could have been stopped after six – or even four – deaths but that the republican leadership prolonged it to ensure that Owen Carron won Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the byelection caused by Bobby Sands’s death. McKeown rejects this argument: there was no such conspiracy, he asserts.

He says that he was later told by the makers of a BBC documentary that the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, would have made acceptable concessions but that some “top Northern Ireland civil servants threatened to resign if she did, that for them it was a personal battle with the enemy – republicans – and that there would have been a civil service rebellion.”

‘After 40 days your eyesight starts to go’

Laurence McKeown began his fast on June 29th, 1981. His friend Brendan Bik McFarlane, who had taken over as the IRA prisoners’ leader, asked him to rethink his decision, because “you will be most likely dead within the next two months”.

After 21 days McKeown was admitted to the Maze Prison hospital. “After 40 days your eyesight starts to go, you get blurred vision, light gets annoying. Your sense of smell is intensified; you can smell water.”

As his fast moved into its 60th day he was anxious to continue drinking – “if you could not keep the water down you were in difficulties. I also tried to walk up and down a bit, because you have this idea that if you lie down you are gone.”

On the 68th day of McKeown’s fast a doctor told him that he was not going to live much longer.

“At that stage you get to a point where, realistically, you know the Brits are not going to do anything. Part of it is that you are resigned to it, part of it is fatalism, maybe part of it is that you are just exhausted.

“It’s not like sitting and thinking you are going to die in the next few hours or days. You are falling asleep and waking up; you are still conscious. You are not frightened. It is more of an acceptance. It is not going to be dramatic. You are slipping away.”

McKeown’s father, brother and sister visited and implored him to come off the strike. “My mother was the only one who didn’t.”

On the 69th day of McKeown’s fast, power of attorney switched to his mother. He protested to her that he must be allowed to die. “She said to me: ‘You know what you have to do, and I know what I have to do.’ ”

On the 70th day – September 6th – McKeown fell unconscious. His mother gave instructions that he be fed intravenously. Other families were also intervening, and the overall hunger strike was officially called off on October 3rd.

McKeown was moved to the Royal Victoria Hospital, in Belfast. The first thing he recalls as he regained consciousness was the “female voice” of a nurse, “a soft hand on my shoulder”. In the ward “drips were going into me as quickly as they could”.

As for how he immediately felt, “It was neither happy, delighted nor sad to be alive; I knew I existed. What was going to happen next day, what was going to happen next week, I had no idea. Emotionally, psychologically, physically I was exhausted. I was just burnt out.”

The toll on his parents

Margaret McKeown died in 1983, from a brain haemorrhage, at the age of 61. George, who was younger than his wife, died five years later of a heart attack, aged 59. Laurence was allowed to attend both funerals, although another protest at the time made prison authorities reluctant to allow him out for his father’s funeral.

McKeown says that James Mehaffey, the former Church of Ireland bishop of Derry and Raphoe, played a role in persuading the authorities to relent.

He says that the hunger-strike period also took its toll on his parents. His bond with his mother always was strong; any differences with his father were long forgiven and forgotten in George’s later years.

From 1987 to 1989 McKeown was in charge of republican-prisoner education at the Maze. He also started a prison magazine, An Glór Gafa/The Captive Voice, and began learning the craft of writing.

In prison he took an Open University degree in sociology. He gained a doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast when he got out. His thesis was called Unrepentant Fenian Bastards.

McKeown was released in 1992. In October Sheena Campbell, a Queen’s law student and prominent Sinn Féin activist, was shot dead at the York Hotel, near the college. “You had to be careful going to Queen’s,” he says.

‘Picking up bits of bodies’

Although he still suffers eye and stomach trouble as a result of his hunger strike, Laurence McKeown is now a playwright and film-maker.

He recently returned from the National Arts Festival in South Africa, where his play about dealing with the past, Those You Pass on the Street, was performed. The play – produced by Kabosh Theatre, Belfast and directed by Paula McFetridge – was also staged at the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, in Rwanda, on the site of the memorial to the victims of genocide, and in west Cork as part of the Fit-up Festival.

The Cold House, an early play that he wrote with his friend Brian Campbell, a fellow former inmate, is about a former IRA prisoner who comes to fix an ex-RUC officer’s boiler. While they were researching the play an intermediary arranged a meeting between McKeown and a senior police officer.

“We had dinner together. It was funny: he was shaking, and we could not quite figure out why he agreed to talk to us. ‘I just see you as criminals’ or ‘terrorists’, he said – I forget which term he used. We said: ‘That’s fine. We just want to hear what is it you would say in such a situation, as we want to faithfully reflect your words in the play.’

“He was talking about IRA bombings and ‘picking up bits of bodies and putting them in plastic bags after what you did’.”

As a teenage member of the Provos McKeown didn’t reflect on the morality of a campaign for a united Ireland in which the IRA killed about 1,800 people. And although the years since then have brought more reflection, he remains convinced that the campaign of violence was justified. The reality, he says, is that once you go down the road of an “armed struggle” it is “very difficult to get out of it”.

McKeown is well aware of the argument that the political settlement we have now could have been achieved without violence. He disagrees. He also says that he is not sure of the value of dealing in philosophical what-ifs when what is real is “what was”.

What he did learn was that “someone getting killed on the British army or RUC side is the same as someone on the IRA side or the loyalist side”. “Everyone has their story. We can tell ours, certainly, and we should tell ours, but there are going to be other stories. And for the RUC man his story was ‘picking up bodies in plastic bags because of what you guys were doing’. That’s his truth.”

By contrast, he recalls that when they performed The Cold House in west Belfast in 2003 the audience wasn’t too happy to see the viewpoint of an RUC officer reflected in the work.

“One woman whose husband was killed by the British army said she wanted to shout from the audience but then thought that ‘if we are serious about the peace process I suppose we have to engage with this’.”

As a playwright McKeown believes that telling and hearing other stories can be cathartic and reconciling. But he wishes that more unionists would meet republicans halfway.

He says that a Protestant acquaintance once told him that some unionists won’t engage with republicans because “they are afraid that they might actually get to like them”.

“I have said to unionists – some of whom still won’t even shake hands with Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness – ‘The person you give so-called loyalty to, the queen, she comes over, meets Martin McGuinness, looks him straight in the eye, smiles, puts her hand out and says, “Hallo, Martin”.’ It’s almost as if she is saying, ‘Look, watch me. This is how you do it.’

“It is common courtesy and humanity. Martin is not going to become a monarchist. She is not going to become an Irish republican, but at least they are saying, ‘I respect where you are coming from.’ It amazes me sometimes that people are so afraid of meeting the other. To me it says more about their own insecurity.”

McKeown disagrees also with the dissident-republican argument that they are just carrying on where the IRA left off. There is no comparison between the conditions that prevailed in 1969 or in 1981 and the situation now, he says.

“I have no problem with people having an argument with Sinn Féin’s position. But to argue that you can bring about a united Ireland by killing some PSNI officer just doesn’t stand up at all.

“To criticise Sinn Féin policy is fine – I would have my own criticisms of policies. That’s the way politics should be. But to actually argue that there is a role today for armed struggle . . . no, I don’t believe that at all.”

McKeown admires the leadership of Adams and McGuinness. “The strength of the whole republican struggle is because we had people there, and still there, who were cause politicians, not career politicians.”

He dismisses the view that it is time for Adams to quit. “Yes, people who are not friends of Sinn Féin are very concerned about Sinn Féin needing a new leadership.”

After his release from prison McKeown continued a relationship with Deirdre, a woman who regularly visited him at the Maze. They have two daughters. Órlaith, who is 17 and studying for her A levels, and Caoilfhionn, who is 19 and about to start university.

After his relationship with Deirdre broke up, in 2002, he entered a second relationship, marrying Michelle in 2012.

Running and laughing in the Maze

Laurence McKeown’s daughters know of his history, although, he says, he does not shove his republicanism “down their throats”. He recalls, when he lived in south Armagh, driving his daughters to school and how, perplexingly, Caoilfhionn, who was seven, began crying. He stopped and asked what was wrong. She said, “Daddy, are the soldiers going to come back and take you to jail?” Her comment was sparked by one of the old British army watchtowers on the south Armagh hills.

Not long afterwards he and Michelle brought the girls to the overgrown site of the former Maze Prison. “I was able to show them that it was not a prison any more. Michelle got a picture of them running and laughing in the yard of the prison hospital with me in the background. I was always struck by the comment that Bobby wrote: Let our revenge be the laughter of our children. What I had was my children laughing in the prison yard.”

McKeown has never again met up with the Todds or the Warwicks, his childhood Protestant neighbours. “All those people were always great neighbours to my family. I don’t know what they thought personally, but if they met my parents there was never any change in their attitude or behaviour to them.”

Though not a man for what-ifs, McKeown occasionally reflects on what might have happened had he not been arrested. “I probably would have been back out on active service; I could be dead now.”

There was no pressure to re-engage in IRA operations after his release from the Maze. As well as his writing, he worked with Coiste na nIarchimí, a prisoners’ support group. He resisted attempts to persuade him to become an elected representative for Sinn Féin, preferring to continue his creative work.

McKeown says he never killed anybody when he was in the IRA. He seems calm and thoughtful. Is this because he doesn’t feel anyone’s death on his conscience?

Former IRA members are now in many walks of life. Some entered politics; some took up regular work; some shifted to the dissident movement. Others took to hard drinking and drugs or became depressed. It was as if their experiences during the Troubles were too difficult to live with.

Recently, in Dublin on business, McKeown met a former blanket protester by a canal. They had been in prison together 40 years ago. “He recognised me immediately. He was a small guy with a big beard; he is sort of a dropout at the moment. He came over and threw his arm around me. He was a wee bit embarrassed. He told me, “Sometimes I can’t do it and I need to get away off, and I just sit on a park bench beside the canal, drinking.’

“I said, ‘Well, if it works for you, if you are happy with it, just live in the moment. Don’t be embarrassed.’ ” But the former IRA man also told him that in his own way he was content with his life.

McKeown knows that thousands of people were affected by the Troubles and the violence. But he says that he has no regrets about giving much of his life to republicanism and the IRA.

“This idea of blaming others for how things turned out, I don’t wear that. You make your own bed and you lie on it.We did what we felt we needed to do at the time. I am totally content with that.”

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