‘Adams and McGuinness betrayed everyone’: A former IRA prisoner reflects on Troubles

Thomas Elliott believes futile campaign of violence should have been halted in 1987

 Dixie Elliott, at the H-Block monument in Derry’s  Bogside. “They [Sinn Féin] have no more in common with the ideals of Bobby Sands than the modern Labour Party has with the ideals of James Connolly.”  Photograph:  Margaret McLaughlin

Dixie Elliott, at the H-Block monument in Derry’s Bogside. “They [Sinn Féin] have no more in common with the ideals of Bobby Sands than the modern Labour Party has with the ideals of James Connolly.” Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin

 

Now 63, former IRA prisoner, Thomas “Dixie” Elliott, who shared cells in the late 1970s and early ’80s with H-Block hunger strikers Bobby Sands and Thomas McElwee, says the years of violence were “for nothing”.

Reflecting on 30 years of conflict as Northern Ireland marks its centenary, Elliot, from Derry, says the IRA leadership should have been ended the violence in 1987 since it is now clear that they were seeking political routes years before then.

Instead, he says, the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness let it continue for years more, while planning to “sell-out” the socialist republican ideals for which Elliott and hundreds of working-class Catholics got involved.

While welcoming the peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement, he says the 23 year-old peace process is a “scam” that has made some former IRA members “very wealthy” but has failed to deliver a fairer, less sectarian society.

Sitting in ExPop (Ex prisoners’ outreach programme), a drop-in support centre for “former combatants” in Derry, Elliot says he was 19 in 1977 when sentenced to 12 years for hijacking, attempted murder and IRA membership.

Late into the conversation he is joined briefly by Don Browne, former member of the Irish National Liberation Army but who now works as a yoga teacher in the city, who echoes many of Elliot’s observations.

Like a surprising number who joined the IRA in the early 1970s, Elliot had links to the Protestant community.

“My father was Presbyterian. My grandfather was wounded in WW1 in France. My mother was Catholic, so I was brought up Catholic.”

He grew up in Rosemount, a mixed area in the 1960s, before moving to the predominantly Catholic Shantallow in the early 1970s: “In Rosemount we were running around with Protestants, playing football together.

“There was never problems. The Protestant and Catholic working classes lived in the same conditions. Okay, some Protestants might have better conditions, but there were Catholics who were well-off too.

“The problem was the businessmen, the politicians kept us divided. They kept the Catholics down and treated us like second-class citizens, while telling the Protestants they were better off, better people. My father always says, ‘Everything was alright until Paisley came along’.”

Asked how he got involved with the IRA, he says: “Same thing as happened a lot of young people”. From about 13 he used to “sneak up to the Creggan to fire stones” and “to riots . . .It was the excitement.”

Bloody Sunday

He was not allowed by his parents to go to the Bloody Sunday march in 1972 that saw 13 civilians shot dead by the British army, but he remembers the “stunned silence” across the Bogside the following day.

And though he says that he felt he felt no sectarian animosity to working-class Protestant neighbours then, or later, he remembers the horror he felt at the British army “pointing their guns at us”.

He felt “great” when asked by the IRA to join the Fianna – the IRA’s youth wing – convinced by the leadership of the justice of the “war”, he said: “We were running around, scouting, watching, carrying out small operations.

“Then you moved on to the IRA at age 16. We were taken [to Donegal] and trained – shown how to fire Armalites, how to make bombs. It was sleeping in tents, making your own food. It was like the scouts with real guns.”

Friends were soon lost: In June 1974, David Russell (18), a Protestant, and Gerard Craig (17) died carrying a bomb in a supermarket carpark. Michael Meenan (16), also from Shantallow, died the same way the following October.

His parents did not know about his IRA involvement until his father caught him painting over the windows of an army Saracen jeep. Once home, he told his son: “You are going to either end up in jail or dead and Martin McGuinness will end up in a big house”.

“When I was sentenced my father wept. So many young working-class Catholics were being sentenced to prison “it was like a conveyor belt . . .You were in jail with your mates. They wiped out Shantallow.

“One day you were running about, living normal lives. We watched music, we watched glam rock, supporting English football teams. Next day you were in the Crum [Crumlin Road prison, Belfast, on remand],” he remembers.

There he met a fellow Derryman, INLA member, Michael Devine, who later became the tenth man to die in the 1981 H-Block hunger-strike, who he says “introduced” him to socialism.

He never saw Devine again, even though both joined the blanket protests following the British decision to remove political status from IRA and INLA prisoners and demand that they wear prison uniforms.

Amazing man

“How was it? It was bad. At the start we were in clean cells, a bed and a table. Nothing was happening, we were getting beatings. So we wrecked the cells, smashed windows, smashed furniture and put excrement on the walls.

“Coming up to Christmas ’78 there was forced washing, with scrubbing brushes . . .The ‘screws’ would storm into the cells. There were unmerciful beatings . . .You have to remember we were naked.”

Fellow prisoners in H-Block 6 included Bobby Sands, Brendan Hughes, Larry Marley and Seanna Walsh. In 1979, moved to H-3, he shared a cell with Sands.

“Bobby [Sands] kept morale very high. He was an amazing man, a fantastic singer – I actually thought he sang a bit like Bono though I don’t like Bono much. He was an amazing songwriter, poet, Gaeilgeoir.”

Recalling the two hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981, he disputes Sinn Féin’s accounts then and now of how the first strike finished and argues that the deaths of “brave men” like Sands, were “capitalised on” by the SF leadership.

“They were on hunger strike for political status, not to win elections,” he said, adding that he had not considered joining the strike: “I couldn’t, I wouldn’t put my family through it, and thank God because it would have been for nothing.”

Released in 1985, he said he got involved in Sinn Féin in Derry and “probably” would have remained in the IRA, except, by then, he could see that its campaign of increasingly bitter violence “wasn’t getting anywhere”.

“We know now the war was being wound down. We know now they [Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness] were meeting the Irish government, the British government.

“But instead of sitting the boys down and saying, ‘Look, we can’t win this, we need to take a different direction and put the guns down’, they went behind these men’s backs.

“While they were seeking peace, they were still encouraging war. Their peace process was a bloody peace process, and we haven’t seen a victory yet,” Elliot told The Irish Times.

By “victory” he means a fairer, less sectarian society.

“Our children have less opportunities now than even we had during the conflict . . .We could just go down to the signing centre and say we wanted to learn a trade.

“Now they have to go through hoops, the jobs are temporary, low paid. It’s shocking,” Elliot adds, reflecting the anguished sense of regret and betrayal that runs deep in many former IRA members in Derry, and elsewhere.

Peace process

“I never killed anybody but I know people who have and who have been broken, become alcoholics trying to drink it away,” he says.

Sitting beside him, Don Browne agrees.

Browne’s brother, Tony, died in 2018 of cancer. Though never charged, his brother was suspected of a number of killings. “On his death-bed, he said: ‘I left behind widows and orphans’ and then he says, ‘For what?’”.

Asked whether they regret the things they did, Browne says: “My true answer, none of it was worth it. But if you are asking the 15-year-old me who got his first gun, he would disagree totally with the 62-year-old here.

“Was it the right thing to do? At this time yes, of course. You have to believe it was right or you wouldn’t do it, ” he says, though both he and Elliott welcome the peace brought since 1998.

“My son and daughter have never been involved in republicanism,” says Elliot. “That is a good. But the peace process is going on almost as long as the conflict and it’s a scam. You have to be serious and stand up and ask, who is benefiting?”

Stormont’s power-sharing system “institutionalises sectarianism”, he says.

“You see both sides whipping it up to get the vote. The unionists is scared [of] a republican, and on the republican side they’re scared a unionist will get the seat.”

The sectarianism distracts the public’s scrutiny away not only from issues like housing, employment and education, but also from nepotism and cronyism within Northern Ireland’s main political parties, he says.

“Sinn Féin provides a lot of people with political careers, jobs in the community, so they’re loyal to Sinn Féin. If you criticise Sinn Féin in Derry you’re cut out of those jobs. I know people who say, ‘Dixie, you’re right but I have a mortgage to pay. I just keep the head down and keep going’.

“The only place in the North the nationalists haven’t to worry about a unionist taking a seat is Derry, and you can see how they hammered Sinn Féin,” he says, pointing to the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood 17,000 vote victory over Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion in the 2019 Westminster election.

Republicans like him, he says, find Sinn Féin today “hard to stomach . . . They have no more in common with the ideals of Bobby Sands than the modern Labour Party has with the ideals of James Connolly.

“When we were ‘on the blanket’, if you had have even suggested Sinn Féin would be shaking hands with the queen, sending sympathies for Philip’s death, especially in the 40th anniversary of the hunger strikes, it’s unimaginable.

“You have got people who are broken by it, who can’t accept this, they think ‘There must be a plan for something more’. I am angry and am entitled to be angry,” he adds.

“From 1987 Adams and McGuinness should have told us, told the IRA, that the campaign was not working and stopped the killing. They betrayed everyone.”

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