Coming to terms with the horrors of the past

Coming to terms with the horrors of the past

A FEW years ago I wrote a novel.

It’s the story of Terry Brankin, a former IRA man, now a successful solicitor and property developer.

But a cold case review team is looking into past crimes and is almost ready to charge him with a bombing in which a little girl and her parents were killed.

The novel was published in Ireland by Merrion as Terry Brankin Has A Gun.

Brankin had put his past behind him. His wife had known he was in the IRA but didn’t know he had killed a child.

She is appalled and distressed. Everything is about to fall apart.

She moves out but someone firebombs all the Brankin properties that night, including the house she is staying in.

And the mystery is: who is attacking them and why?

Is it the IRA trying to shut him up in case he confesses to the crime and implicates a senior republican politician?

Or is it someone with a grievance against him from his days as an IRA enforcer?

Anyway, Irish critics called it a ‘superb thriller’ but no English publisher wanted the book.

My agent sent the manuscript to several London publishers and they turned it down.

They felt that they could not get their readers to empathise with a character who had killed a child.

I could see their point but we live in a different political culture here in Northern Ireland.

Our entire peace process is predicated on the idea that people who did awful things in the past can be constructive members of society now.

They can even be ministers in the Northern Ireland executive or members of the policing board which appoints the chief constable.

Here we have got our heads round that idea that it’s enough to trust that old killers won’t kill again. We don’t have to hate them forever.

I accepted that when I voted for the Good Friday Agreement and the mass release of prisoners that came along with it.

Actually I might have voted against it if I had known that nearly all the prisoners, foul beasts among them, were going to go free.

But my point here is that the reaction to Terry Brankin by London editors seemed to me to indicate how far we had moved here, in our indulgence of past horror, further than those editors thought reasonable.

I was freelancing in the BBC when a rule came down that families of victims should be informed any time a former violent criminal was to be interviewed.

We realised in Belfast that we interviewed so many former violent criminals that finding all their victims and notifying them of every interview would be impossible.

We do things differently here.

Martin McGuinness, who was undoubtedly an IRA commander became our minister of education and then our deputy first minister though he sanctioned perhaps hundreds of bombings and murders.

When Terry Brankin Has A Gun was published in 2020 in Ireland none of the Irish reviewers voiced the criticism that had come naturally to some of the London editors.

Terry Brankin is real to us. We know him already.

We may not have actually forgiven him but we accept that he would probably not have been a terrorist if he had grown up in Glasgow or Liverpool and that circumstances have changed in Northern Ireland such that he is not likely to wage war again.

Or is he? That’s the question.

And some former paramilitaries are now writers.

Bobby Niblock, a former member of the loyalist Red Hand Commando, served a life sentence for a grotesque murder and has had his play The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary performed in the Lyric Theatre Belfast. It’s now on tour.

It’s based on the former UVF bomber David Ervine who later became leader of the Progressive Unionist Party and a negotiator at the Good Friday Agreement talks.

Then there’s Richard O’Rawe, a writer of thrillers and books on Troubles history, most recently Stakeknife's Dirty War, the story of the British agent whose job in the IRA was to find agents and kill them.

Among the tired old terrorists who have settled into routine professional life in Northern Ireland there are some who regret what they did and some who continue to justify it.

Ironically, it is the ones who are proud of their bloody past who are more likely to be prominent in public life here.

It’s a little different within the unionist tradition.

Former loyalist paramilitaries do not get advancement into political life.

The political parties which they formed at the start of the peace process and which participated in the negotiations towards the Good Friday Agreement have not thrived in the way Sinn Féin has.

The republicans who accept now that it was all a fruitless waste of their own lives and of the lives of those they killed, are less likely to thrive because they are not supported by Sinn Féin.

The party is committed to preserving the myth that the IRA campaign was a necessary phase in our political evolution and that those who advanced it were noble, self-sacrificing and heroic.

It’s a line that works. More people now retrospectively endorse the IRA than ever supported their campaign at the time.