An ex-RUC man, an ex-soldier and an ex-IRA man walk into a bar... for a ‘reconciliation lunch’

Sam Thompson, author of Nights in Armour, a novel based on his time in the RUC, on making peace in the North

A few years ago, the tourist board ran an advert for south Armagh. Christened Bandit Country by a journalist, the place had a reputation for being less than inviting. In the ad, a traveller goes into a packed bar and as soon as the locals see him in the doorway, immediately fall into silence. It is the classic Wild West saloon scene and the uneasy silence lasts for, well a second, before everyone starts to laugh and the music and craic starts up again.

I expected something like that without the laughter when I was invited to a “reconciliation lunch” by someone I knew only through social media. He was a former British soldier and his views were different from what one would normally expect. I asked who would be there and he came off with a few names that I recognised from my past life in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They were names of men I was told were former senior members of the Provisional IRA, an organisation that I had lived in fear of for decades and which had killed some good friends of mine. There were also a couple of Stormont MLAs expected, one from Sinn Féin, who I also assumed was a former senior IRA man. Call me cynical if you like but when certain people say they were not in the IRA, I tend not to believe them.

I pondered the invite. I believe in peace, though like most people I am deeply frustrated by the inability of our politicians to advance it. I imagined the Wild West saloon scenario, arriving into a bar full of sullen, hostile eyes but agreed to go, provided the former soldier met me outside and did the introductions.

It was a deal. When the day arrived, I braced myself and walked through the chilly December air and soaked up a little of the Christmas atmosphere. Street hawkers sold cheap Christmas paper and a Salvation Army band played Christmas carols, the very essence of nostalgia. My host was outside the bar to greet me and in we went. I saw a few familiar faces, although there were a few others I hadn’t expected with high-profile positions along with a Sandhurst lecturer and a Swede. The MLAs couldn’t be there because a crisis had broken out at Stormont resulting in the collapse of the institutions, a situation which, at the time of writing, has not yet been resolved.

It turned out I had met one of the Provos before, an unpleasant encounter which came close to a physical fight. He didn’t remember and I reckoned such things between people of his background and the police and army were not uncommon. Chatting over a meal and a few pints I found him totally unlike the rather arrogant, aggressive individual I remembered. Back in the day, he might well have thought much the same of me. In fact, despite our very different life stories we all got on pretty much fine and I resolved to keep in touch and make the next meeting whenever it might be.

To steal a line from Fawlty Towers I thought there might have been a bit of “don’t mention the war” about the whole affair, but that was not the case. It came up in general terms, yes, but the conversation was more about the here and now and the future. We agreed to differ on certain things but listened to each other with respect, patience and politeness.

One thing we all had no difficulty agreeing was “never again”. Some of us around the table were, for want of a better term, “former combatants”, at the very least, people who were prepared to put ourselves in harm’s way for what we individually saw as the greater good. I didn’t want to know what some of the people around the table might have done – the knowledge would serve no purpose and, I suppose, they might not care for a few things I might have done, so I let sleeping dogs lie.

I considered what some of my friends and former colleagues might think, including the dead ones and the question, “What are you doing talking to those bastards?” inevitably entered my mind. We tend to make sense of the world by reducing it to black and white with good guys and bad guys and we, of course, whoever “we” might be, are always the good guys. And the bad guys? Well, they have it coming. Actually, the bad guys are our neighbours and but for an accident of birth we might be “them”.

No matter what constitutional arrangements may pertain on this island in the future, the basic problem of two communities, with divided loyalties, living in self-imposed apartheid will continue to exist and it will take generations to break that down. Politicians agreeing at Stormont will make very little immediate impact on that.

Somehow, we will have to learn to live together. That will entail admitting we have all suffered, some more than others, sure, but also that there is right and wrong on both sides. We will continue to see things in different ways but it will entail acknowledging our common humanity and refusing to be drawn into a situation where we see our neighbours as eternal enemies or worse, evil fiends.

It was with those thoughts I left my first meeting with the former enemy. I was glad I had done so. I had made peace, not just with them, but with myself. I felt that for me anyway, the war, or at least that war was finally over.

The past can’t be changed but it doesn’t have to dictate every aspect of our lives. The children of today don’t have to live through what my generation endured for almost three decades. It is up to all of us to make sure they don’t. As I write this piece, the words of Georges Clemenceau, France’s prime minister during the first World War seem apt:

“La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.” (War is too important to be left to the military.)

Maybe peace is too important to be left to the politicians.
Sam Thompson was born and grew up in the loyalist Shankill and Ballysillan areas of west and north Belfast. He joined the RUC in 1979, serving in Armagh City, west and central Belfast, Dungannon and in several posts in headquarters before retiring in 2008. He briefly served alongside the now Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in 1986 and was one of the first PSNI officers to complete a secondment with An Garda Síochána in 2007. He is the author of Nights in Armour, a novel about an RUC man during the Troubles, first published by David Trimble and endorsed by Danny Morrison