‘Being Catholic was never an issue when speaking to former loyalist paramilitaries’

By the coauthor, with Billy Hutchinson, of their book My Life in Loyalism

My Life in Loyalism: Gareth Mulvenna with Billy Hutchinson

My Life in Loyalism: Gareth Mulvenna with Billy Hutchinson

 

I would imagine a lot of young Catholic men from north Belfast will read The Shankill Butchers at some point in their developmental period of life. Or if they don’t they’re certainly constantly reminded of the loyalist killers who stalked the streets of inner-city north and west Belfast from 1975 until 1977.

I was no different and I vividly remember that feeling of revulsion and fear after I had finished a tattered copy of Martin Dillon’s book. It had been given to me by a friend; a copy which he in turn had been given by his father. It would make any Catholic angry to read about such people. I know it certainly made me feel that way. However, that anger, which can so often swell and turn poisonous, encountered a safety valve in my lived experience at the time.

Although I grew up on the Cliftonville Road and then further up the Antrim Road, attending a Christian Brothers primary school throughout the 1980s, I was later sent to Methodist College on the Malone Road. My parents wanted to ensure that I mixed with boys and girls who weren’t all from a similar background. It was 1992, and I was one of the only Catholics from north Belfast attending the school at that stage.

The Troubles were still very much an ongoing and violent backdrop to daily life in Belfast. By the time I discovered the horrors of the Shankill Butchers, the year before the Good Friday Agreement, I was 16 and my three best friends in school were from Ballygomartin, Woodvale and Silverstream, strongly loyalist areas which had become entangled in the lexicon of violent loyalism in the preceding bloody decades.

We never discussed religion or politics. We were more interested in football and music (it was the era of Oasis and Blur). I certainly never admitted to them that I had read Dillon’s book, because even at that young and naïve age I was aware that it might make our friendships awkward. I did, however, lend it to a middle-class Protestant classmate from Bangor. I later learned that his mother had put it in the bin and told him never to bring such a thing into the house again.

Loyalism had always seemed to me to be a cryptic and strange thing and travelling through north Belfast I became accustomed to seeing gable walls adorned with red, white and blue motifs. I was interested in what seemed like paradoxical symbols – the Red Hand Commando crest with its Irish message (Lamh Dearg Abu) and the badge of the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV) which was centred on a shamrock.

My parents were strongly anti-sectarian, my mother one of the early members of the Alliance Party when it was formed in 1970. My father, a Catholic from Larne, worked as an accountant in the GEC during that decade. Although it was a nominally mixed work force, he was very much in the minority and his colleagues included the then local Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) commander.

People would dismiss my research out of hand and try to denigrate it to tabloid status
 

The antecedents were also a tangled web which influenced my younger years. In the early 20th century my granny had converted to Catholicism due to the Ne Temere decree when she met and married my grandfather, a printer with the Irish News. She became a devout Catholic and her sister, my great-aunt, often bemoaned the comparative lack of cohesion within the institutions of the Protestant faith. I still recall my great-uncle, Sam, a member of the Royal Black Preceptory, visiting our house off the Cliftonville Road and devouring the tomato sandwiches my granny made for him. Although he was an elderly man at that stage, he would get down on the floor and play with my cars with me. This memory is so warm, vivid and tangible that I can almost reach into the past and live with it for a minute or two when I feel the need for its embrace.

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Solemn processions

At Methodist College the Great War was commemorated with solemn processions and an array of poppy wreaths in the Whitla Hall. At home my great-grandfather’s photograph stood proudly in the living room. He was a member of the UVF and was killed by a sniper during the first World War. As a family we visited his grave at Ypres. None of our Protestant relatives ever did. In one room of my home the photograph of my great-grandfather in his UVF uniform, in the hallway a holy water font and in my parents’ bedroom a small statue of the Virgin Mary.

Gareth Mulvenna’s great grandfather, Rifleman James Downey, with his grandmother (right), before he went to war
Gareth Mulvenna’s great grandfather, Rifleman James Downey, with his grandmother (right), before he went to war

As a postgraduate student I developed a desire to understand more about the Protestant working class and loyalism and I quickly became aware that I had chosen an unpopular subject. People would dismiss my research out of hand and try to denigrate it to tabloid status. Others wrongly assumed that I was a Protestant or loyalist, and I began to see how difficult it might be to hail from that constituency; how any positive or progressive messages could be strangled at the outset.

Despite completing my thesis on the Protestant working class in Belfast from pre-Troubles to post-conflict, I kept returning to the subject of the loyalist paramilitaries. I had been fascinated and strongly influenced by Peter Taylor’s groundbreaking 1999 television series and book Loyalists. Like many of the reviewers at the time I was astounded by the candour and bluntness of many of the interviewees’ responses to difficult questions about their violent pasts. There was just the right amount of probing from Taylor with a paucity of moral judgement. When eventually I met some of those who Taylor had interviewed, such as David Ervine and then Eddie Kinner and Billy Hutchinson as well as Billy McQuiston I was impressed by their continuing honesty and self-reflection.

I often wince when I recall my first meeting with David Ervine. It was in 2003 while I was working on my MA thesis. I was an awkward and shy young man and immediately blurted out to Ervine that I was a Catholic. He looked hurt and said, “Why should that matter?” It didn’t, and it never has been an issue in my interactions with former loyalist paramilitaries.

I’m often asked, 'Why do you bother writing about those loyalists?'
 

Through my numerous in-depth conversations where I got to know these former men of violence as the human beings that they are I soon learned something. While the Shankill Butchers was an account of the subterranean manifestation of the worst excesses of loyalist violence, the vast majority of the men I sat down and talked to had been teenagers – many of them Tartan gang members – in the early 1970s who felt that they were defending their street or community. Often women in the community were pressurising them to “do something”. If it had been in Bradford or Glasgow the same type of women would have been phoning the police.

Killing people hadn’t come naturally to them, certainly not to the thoughtful older man who as a young teenager threw a gas canister bomb into the Rose & Crown pub on the Ormeau Road in May 1974. Six people were killed and many injured, including my uncle’s father who lost a leg. It was one of the first things I addressed with this former YCV member when I met him and he in turn talked remorsefully about sitting at the top of the stairs and overhearing his own mother’s distress at the killings of her near neighbours. Such was the intimate nature of sectarian violence in Belfast.

That was almost eight years ago. He, like most of the other men I interviewed for my book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries, remains a friend of mine to this day. Despite coming from a very different background to these former members of the UVF/RHC/YCV/UDA I have managed to gain their trust.

Empathy

I think with any subject matter the author needs to form some sort of empathy. I often found myself, while researching and writing Tartan Gangs, in the uncomfortable position of closing my eyes and trying to imagine what it would have been like to be a young man on the Shankill or east Belfast in 1972. I did the same when I started writing about the murder of young Catholic Sammy McCleave in 1973 earlier this year. I tried to imagine the places he frequented, the people he met and the music he heard.

I know that it’s likely people have Googled me and come to their own conclusions without knowing about my background. I was recently talking to a close friend whose father had been jailed for UVF offences in the late 1970s. I was confiding to him that I was worried about what the reaction would be toward me after my book with Billy Hutchinson was released. It was something that Billy had been concerned about too, understanding that I was a neutral player. He wanted to protect me from any hassle.

My friend said: “Maybe employers or others should be asking how this Catholic guy from north Belfast was able to build such positive and enduring relationships with former members of loyalist paramilitaries? He must have strong interpersonal skills, he mustn’t allow people’s pasts to interfere with his ability to create strong working relationships with them, he must have a strong level of empathy and an ability to understand other people’s perspectives.”

It was a Damascene moment, and I remember feeling 10ft tall after we chatted that day. It was so simple, but I had never processed the whole thing through my mind like that before.

Such positivity can melt away with one click on Twitter, of course. People don’t like things to be complicated, but we need to understand all the elements. Too much misunderstanding and fear comes from a lack of knowledge. Many people in Northern Ireland want to see the world in black and white. I wish I could. It would make getting to sleep at night easier, but my desire for knowledge about what happened in the conflict is now a big part of me. In the work I have done up to this point in my life I have tried to provide some crucial first-hand testimonies gleaned from conversations with former loyalist paramilitaries. I believe these are not only invaluable now but that they will only increase in importance when future generations come to read them.

When it emerged in another newspaper recently that I was a Catholic, many people were surprised. Some of these were my harshest critics online, but none were loyalists. I’m often asked, “Why do you bother writing about those loyalists?” I’ve tried to explain to people that I’ve found them to be open, honest and extremely generous once they understand your motivations. Often that response provokes further hostility, so now I have come up with something of an answer: “Perhaps a psychologist would be better placed to answer that question.”

Dr Gareth Mulvenna is coauthor, with Billy Hutchinson, of My Life in Loyalism and author of Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash

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