‘My journey towards the IRA started on Bloody Sunday’
Tony Doherty was nine years old when his father Patrick was shot dead in 1972
It takes time to walk the length of Clarendon Street in Derry – especially with a bomb in each hand. A long, steep street lined with Georgian houses, most of its former homes have long been converted into offices for the city’s solicitors, accountants and dentists. The main police station, Strand Road, is just around the corner.
In 1981, Tony Doherty made this journey, carrying a firebomb destined to be used to torch a local furniture shop. He had just turned 18, and was – by his own admission – an inexperienced member of the Provisional IRA.
I meet him near the top of the street where, 36 years ago, he – and the devices – had been dropped off by comrades. “It was quite heavy, it was four containers filled with petrol, and I remember they were in two black plastic bags.”
We begin walking. Doherty points out his target, then a furniture shop at the bottom of the street. A delivery man climbs the stairs up to the shop on the first floor; the ground floor is now a busy restaurant.
“The staff were being held against the wall facing away from me so I went in, placed the blast devices down on a table and unwrapped the bags from around them. I was wearing goalkeeper’s gloves so I couldn’t do what I’d been instructed to do because the gloves were too thick. As part of the arming of the device you had to remove two dowels, so somebody who did know what they were doing did it for me.
“I took the dowels, which I suppose were used as proof that the thing had been armed properly, and when I was coming back down the stairs I heard a whole series of sirens going off in the street. I must have been on autopilot because I just kept going, and as I was crossing the road all these RUC vehicles came from Strand Road barracks. I just stood there, in the middle of the road, with the dowels in my pocket having come out of a shop where there was now a bomb, armed.”
The device failed to explode. Doherty was arrested a week later, and charged with causing an explosion, possession of a firearm, and IRA membership. He confessed to his role in the bombing, and served four years in prison.
Now a writer, Doherty has told the story for the first time in his latest volume of memoir, The Dead Beside Us, which is published by Mercier Press later this month.
The furniture store employed locals, and it did not have to be destroyed. There was a choice. However, Doherty says: “I have to say I never questioned it from a moral standpoint, my commitment to the cause of Irish freedom and participating in IRA activity at the time was unquestioned. Inexperienced as I was, it was still unquestioned.
“We were just told this is what you’re going to do on such and such a day, and here’s the plan for it, and show up at a certain time on a certain date with a pair of gloves in your pocket and we’ll give you more details when you get there.”
The third child in a family of six from the Brandywell area of Derry, Doherty was nine years old when his father, Patrick, was killed on Bloody Sunday. He heard the news while out playing marbles in the street – and to this day remembers only numbness, and disbelief.
“My journey towards the IRA happened on that day,” says Doherty. “I have a very clear memory of the day of the funeral, and thinking that it was only a matter of time. After Bloody Sunday, and the killing of my father, I think a lot of it was predetermined, so it’s not that surprising to find that as an 18-year-old I ended up walking down a street in my own city with a bomb in my hand.”
Even on foot, the Bogside is only a few minutes from Clarendon Street. We walk along Rossville Street, the wide road that is the main artery through the area, and where many of the victims of Bloody Sunday died. To our left is the grey stone memorial which lists the names of the dead; behind it is Joseph Place, where Patrick Doherty died.
His son shows me how “Soldier F” – as his father’s killer was referred to during the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday – made his way along the street. “He came up Rossville Street here, he came up the furthest of all the soldiers,” says Doherty, “and he fired directly in towards Joseph Place.”
A sequence of photographs, taken by French photographer Gilles Peress, shows his father in the moments before he was shot. He is crouching in front of a low wall, a handkerchief over his face; subsequent images show his lifeless body.
The Saville Report found that he had been shot and mortally wounded as he tried to crawl to safety. There was “no doubt”, Lord Saville wrote, that Soldier F shot Patrick Doherty. He had fired “either in the belief that no-one in the area...was posing a threat, or not caring”.
In the months after Bloody Sunday a makeshift memorial was painted on to a flagstone. “I remember standing here,” says Doherty, “and seeing all the cars driving up and down, and people walking home from work or from the city centre, and wondering how this could have happened in such a place, where everything just appears normal?”
Far from normal
Life in the Bogside or Brandywell then was far from normal. Doherty counts on the fingers of his hand the other fatalities on his street – an IRA man, an informer, a teenage girl.
He recalls, at the age of 10, seeing an IRA sniper firing at the British army in the street, prompting him to ask his mother how old he had to be to join. She laughed, and told him that it would be well over by then.
The extent to which Bloody Sunday, in Doherty’s words, “changed everything”, is well documented. It marked the effective end of the civil rights movement and led to a huge influx into the ranks of the IRA. Some 497 people died in 1972, the greatest death toll of any year of the Troubles.
“It changed the discourse even among children in that we started talking about murder,” says Doherty. “It was all about how you oppose the Brits, it was all about rioting, and even though we could only throw small stones with small hands. that’s what you did.”
Doherty passed the 11-plus and won a place at St Columb’s College – the school that educated Seamus Heaney and John Hume. He was expelled at the end of his first year for truancy. In primary school he had won a prize for attendance.
“With my father not being there and my mother not being in control we were to a large extent free to do what we wanted. I certainly wouldn’t have been expelled – I would have been marched to the gates of the school.
“Today my father would have been well into his 70s, almost 80, so he could well still have been alive and in reasonably good health. Life would have been much different, I expect.”
Sights of a rifle
He recalls seeing “young, working-class squaddies, black squaddies” on Derry’s street, and pitying them. “But it didn’t stop me joining the IRA, and if my career had continued at that time I could well have been eyeing them up in the sights of a rifle.”
Doherty was sworn into the IRA at 17. “When we were being trained I imagined shooting the soldier that shot my father, that’s what I did when I was holding the rifle.
“For me it was a very personalised journey that had a bad start and a bad ending.”
Nevertheless, he does not regret his decision.
“Violence does beget violence, but I thought I was doing right at the time. As far as I’m concerned you can draw a direct line from what happened on Bloody Sunday in 1972 to me deciding to join the IRA eight years later.”
Others in Derry, however, took a different path, supporting the SDLP and the cause of constitutionalism nationalism. Nevertheless, Doherty is unrepentant.
“Some people may struggle and other people may not as far as I’m concerned. As far as I’m concerned there was more right in me becoming an IRA member than there was in any respect for the killing of my father.”
Questioning “the moral authority” of the judge who jailed him, Doherty says he was jailed “for a relatively trivial event” even though the soldier who killed his father was not, and would serve less than Doherty did if he was prosecuted now. “If you’re asking me about the morality of it that’s my response.”
Doherty says he was lucky that he was not killed during the Clarendon Street attack, and, most importantly, that he did not take a life.
“Sometimes I do think of the staff of the shop who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I suppose if there’s any regret to be expressed it probably needs to be expressed to them.
“I don’t know who they were or what their lives have been since, but I think in looking at where we’ve come from and all the difficulties and trauma and violence that we’ve come through, it’s people like that who were caught in the middle.
“I think they deserve an apology, and if I messed up their lives in any regard I’m sorry for that.”
In the years since much has changed. In 2010 he and the other relatives stood on the steps of Derry’s Guildhall and were cheered by thousands after the publication of the Saville Report and the declaration by the then British prime minister David Cameron that the 14 Bloody Sunday deaths were “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
Doherty became one of the leading campaigners in the Bloody Sunday campaign after he was released from jail. On the day Saville was published he said he had felt “a great sense of control, not personal control but collective control, over our own destiny”.
“When I reached a certain point in my 20s I thought about the whole notion of hatred, and how it turned me into a person who was driven by the hatred of having the experience that I had and how that came about, and I just didn’t like it.
“Then, when I stood looking out at the thousands of people who’d gathered here, that was a great moment for me, and I thought of my father and thought what a great day it was.
“As I walked out of these gates I remember thinking, ‘this is for you, daddy’. A different sort of revenge.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) began a murder investigation after Saville. Prosecutors in the North are currently considering whether to bring charges, including murder and perjury, against a number of former soldiers.
Doherty – who now works across the North promoting community healthcare in disadvantaged areas – is not seeking the prosecution of his father’s killer.
“I’m 54 now, and in some ways I’m a different person. I suppose you always carry hurt, but I don’t think I carry the damage and the hatred that I did when I was in my teenage years.
“Equally, there’s a lot of people who still carry hurt and who don’t know the circumstances of their loved one’s death. The thing about conflict is that everybody loses, and I can easily identify with other people in my position, British soldiers, members of the RUC, anybody, because at that human level grief is all the same.
“What we had to endure wasn’t just grief but the humiliation of knowing that a terrible wrong had taken place but there was no due process to investigate that wrong.
“In terms of the responsibility of the state, not one policeman ever came to our door to try to explain to us what had happened or treat us as a victim’s family. The next time we heard from the state forces was when they were raiding our house in 1974.
“So the issue isn’t only about loss and grief, it’s also about how the state responded to it, and how people were treated differently by the state afterwards.”
In 1995, Doherty spoke alongside Gordon Wilson as part of the Irish government’s Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Wilson’s daughter Marie was killed when an IRA bomb exploded during a remembrance service in Enniskillen in 1987.
“I spoke at it as a Bloody Sunday relative and he spoke from his own experience, and we both associated with each other’s grief and each other’s loss.
“I remember he had no bitterness in his voice, and he was able to address issues of peace and reconciliation and justice in a rational manner, a very dignified manner, and I commended him on that.
“He died shortly afterwards, and I always regret that I never met him in a private capacity as I’m sure we would have had a lot in common.”
Doherty still believes that “some form of truth commission” is the only way forward.
“Legacy is still one of the big stumbling blocks to a peaceful society, and that tells you legacy is a very serious issue and it needs to be resolved.
“Conflict was ingrained in society, sectarianism was ingrained in society, and I think the effects and the legacy of that will remain as long as the truth of all these matters still remains to be unearthed and explored and acknowledged.
“If it doesn’t happen, well, I think we’re condemned to fight the battles of the past through peaceful means for a long time to come.”
The Dead Beside Us by Tony Doherty is published by Mercier Press this month.