The contradictions and complications of friends’ past lives

The contradictions and complications of friends’ past lives

People who change their minds, and so their lives, should be lauded

After my friend Henry McDonald died in January numerous friends and former colleagues put messages up on social media expressing their grief and admiration for a tenacious journalist. Henry had been Ireland correspondent for The Guardian. Before that he had been a security correspondent for the BBC and at the time he died he was the political editor of the Belfast News Letter.

He had published several books including two novels and was hoping to move from journalism to fiction writing.

One of the first to express condolences was the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

Like an eager news digger, Henry had got around, accumulated contacts and made many friends.

He had attracted critics too but most had the decency not to mar the moment for his grieving friends and family.

Then Ed Moloney, himself a journalist with a great reputation, former Northern Editor of the Sunday Tribune and author of great books wrote his tribute and referred to Henry’s time as a militant young republican in the Official Republican movement.

The ‘Stickies’ had sent young Henry to East Germany on some kind of training camp.

I had never spoken to him about this. Maybe I should have done.

Shane Paul O’Doherty, who had been a member of the Provisional IRA and regretted his crimes came out with several tweets criticising journalists for overlooking Henry’s republican past.

He dug out an old article by Kevin Myers describing Henry as a former member of the Official IRA.

Why then was this being overlooked in the obituaries? That was Shane’s question.

Henry himself said that he had been saved from a possible paramilitary career by, of all things, punk.

Through that music culture he had made Protestant friends and also acquired a sense that cultural evolution effected more meaningful change than armed militancy could.

I have other friends today who were members of the IRA or loyalist groups. I don’t probe them about the past. I take them as the people they are now. I don’t get on well with ideologues or people who spout party lines so these are friends who have left all that behind.

I also have journalistic contacts, people I go to for information and who, like other journalists, I keep sweet with civility. Journalists cultivate contacts and they are happy to fudge the distinction between their professional dealings with them and more amicable association.

Some past interviewees are real friends, people that I meet socially, discuss ideas with, share problems with, seek advice from.

One of the surprises of the peace process period was the discovery that some of those who had bombed and killed or ordered others to bomb and kill turned out to be civil and decent people. Some of course did not and were objectionable louts. Others were such fixated ideologues that they could not dissent from party lines and propaganda. You could have an argument with them but you couldn’t have a conversation.

Davy Adams is one who made a radical journey away from his past. He had been a senior member of the Ulster Defence Association.

Friends and neighbours of mine have been murdered by the UDA. They would have murdered me if they’d got a chance and very nearly did, at least once.

Davy was one of the representatives of the UDA at the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. He is a strong believer in that agreement.

He was later a columnist for The Irish Times for ten years. He then joined the Dublin-based international humanitarian organisation, GOAL and worked in many stricken countries, including Syria and South Sudan.

Should I tell him that I don’t want his friendship unless he tells me what he did in the UDA? I don’t think so.

He doesn’t interrogate me about how I lived my early years.

Richard O’Rawe was the PRO for the IRA prisoners on hunger strike in the Maze prison. He was arrested and imprisoned for taking part in an armed bank robbery.

He has written about this but I assume that as an armed republican he did things that he has not written about.

Still, I know the ground he stands on now. He is a novelist and playwright, a man with a great mind who speaks frankly, and he is a friend, as Henry was, as Davy is.

I met Anthony McIntyre when he was doing his PhD at Queen’s University Belfast in the mid 1990s. There had only been one place for a PhD student at the politics department that year. Mackers, as his friends call him, was competing for it against a young woman who was a member of the SDLP and got through on the basis of a degree he had studied for in jail.

But though he passed his PhD he never got an academic job.

Henry McDonald thrived in journalism despite his early militancy and enjoyed a career that was denied to others because they had served time in prison which Henry hadn’t.

Henry’s last job was as political editor of a unionist newspaper, having travelled as far as anyone might have conceived he could when he was a young militant. People who think for themselves and change should not be disparaged for what they did or thought in their youth.