When Johnston Brown, a 27-year-old detective with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – the overwhelmingly protestant police force of Northern Ireland – volunteered in late 1977 to serve at Andersonstown police barracks in Catholic west Belfast, he was given a few pieces of very clear advice. He should never stop at a red light in west Belfast if it was safe to drive on. He should assume that any pedestrians who wanted to cross the road may be part of a trap – members of the security forces had lost their lives this way. Nor should Brown ever indicate that he was turning into a police barracks. He should approach with the flow of the traffic and then swerve suddenly in through the gates, to reduce the risk of being shot, and to make it harder for anyone to make a note of his registration number. And if he were unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of gunmen, he must attempt to shoot his way out – never try to talk himself out of trouble.
“I remember clearly,” Brown wrote in 2005, “one older detective sergeant, a man in his late 40s, telling me sternly: ‘Here you have at most between five and eight minutes at the door of any house you may call at on an enquiry. You have that much time to conduct the enquiry and get the hell out of those areas, because five to eight minutes is all the time it takes for the Provos [the Provisional IRA] to get hold of a weapon and a volunteer who will be only too keen to kill you before you conduct your enquiry and leave.’”
At that time, the RUC’s B Division was responsible for policing the whole of west Belfast, an area that its officers knew as the Wild West. The barracks were not always well equipped. One was prone to flooding, and a second had no women’s toilets, so women officers had to travel by armoured car to use the facilities at another.
Movement was difficult for B Division officers as the entire area was, in Brown’s words, “in the grip of Provisional IRA terrorists”, and there was very little public support for the RUC. While there were some people who tried to provide information – “there were still an awful lot of decent people living in those areas who wanted us there” – those who were seen to help the police were at risk of being killed.
For an RUC officer, simply staying alive every day was a task that required considerable planning. “I cannot overstate the enormity of the pressure we faced as we went about our task,” Brown said. “I knew we were not alone in our endeavours. Many other frontline RUC stations faced difficulties of the same nature. Every move we made out of our secure barracks had to be weighed up. A balance had to be struck between affording the locals a policing service and protecting ourselves from the constant threat of attack.”
Despite the pressure and the risks, morale was high. “The constant threat to all of us of a sudden and violent death at the hands of republican terrorists doubtless created a strong bond between us,” Brown said. “There was little, if any, backbiting or in-fighting. The uniformed branch was almost over-protective of us when we were called to investigate serious terrorist incidents in the area.”
Brian McKee, an RUC constable who had been a soldier for six years, serving with the Royal Engineers in Germany and the Middle East, was one of the officers at Andersonstown police barracks who liaised with the army units on tour in the area, including the battalion based a short drive away at the army base called Fort Monagh, on the southern edge of the nationalist Turf Lodge estate. He, too, thought outer west Belfast was a relatively easy place for the IRA to operate. As he drove between the police barracks and army bases, McKee was expected to use his own car, a red 1750 Austin Allegro, and he kept his Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol tucked under his thigh. He said: “I enjoyed it. I volunteered for it. Some army units thought they were a law unto themselves, and there were some real headaches. And then there were good units, like the Royal Marines: they were brilliant.
“You felt that the big problem was the IRA, and you felt you were doing your bit to try to defeat them, albeit not very successfully. But you weren’t like a policeman at Andersonstown, you were like a paramilitary policeman. Rather than upholding the law of the land, you were very much a military police service. You were more soldier than policeman.
“A lot of police in Northern Ireland at that time would have seen themselves as protectors of a Protestant people rather than being there to protect the public. But at Andersonstown, the first instinct of the police was to protect themselves, literally. First of all, you had to protect yourself and your colleagues. Then you had to protect the public and property. And then, lastly, your job was to investigate and solve crime. But investigating and solving crime was way down your list of priorities.”
During the height of the Troubles, when would-be IRA recruits were questioned, they were always asked why they wanted to join the IRA. It was always the events, and the desire to react to them: Bloody Sunday; the little-reported massacre in Ballymurphy by British troops of 10 Catholic civilians in west Belfast in August 1971; the torture during interrogations in police holding centres; the shoot-to-kill operations; internment without trial; the house searches and the mass surveillance; the assaults by members of the security forces. All of this resulted in some nationalists and Catholics concluding that when those who made the law broke the law, there was no law – and that a lawless response was entirely justified. In the mid-70s the IRA found, following an informal survey among its members in prison, that up to 90% had joined primarily not through ideological conviction or a desire for political change, but in order to hit back following security force violence or harassment.
In other words, it could at times be the acts of state violence – and the repeated official denial of that violence – that had, for a minority of people in Northern Ireland, untied the moorings that usually bind people into a liberal democracy. And once they had volunteered, they were members of an organisation that regarded its own violence as legitimate.
Many Protestants and unionists – and many Catholics – saw members of the IRA as terrorists, pure and simple: “men of violence” whose campaign was an aberrational and criminal attack on the democratic state. Pro-unionist security forces, so this argument went, were not protagonists in a national and sectarian conflict, but men and women who were upholding law and order in the face of a concerted assault.
But the volunteers who joined the IRA had a strong sense that they were simply members of a violated community, which they needed to defend. The republican leader Gerry Adams chose to explain it this way, in his book The Politics of Irish Freedom: “People … have an image of IRA volunteers as terrorists, but the reality is that members of Óglaigh na hÉireann [the IRA] are just ordinary citizens who are forced through difficult circumstances into resistance.”
Another republican would put it slightly differently. A BBC journalist visiting Long Kesh prison noticed that a prisoner on one of the IRA wings – a young man serving life for murder – was reading Tolstoy and Hardy. Asked why an IRA man was reading such books, the prisoner replied: “Because an IRA man’s normal, like everyone else.” When the reporter commented that normal people did not go around killing other people, the young man pointed out that normal people, elsewhere, did not live in Northern Ireland.
Many of the people living in the outer areas of west Belfast had moved there in the early days of the Troubles, when about 60,000 Catholics had been forced to flee their homes as a result of intimidation or fear. At that time, it was perhaps one of the largest enforced movements of people that Europe had witnessed since the second world war.
Areas such as Lenadoon became almost uniformly Catholic and nationalist, as Protestants moved a few hundred yards across the sectarian line in 1971 and 1972. “At that time you could have seen the exodus of Protestants,” one Protestant woman recalled, adding that Methodist church ministers had appealed in vain for families to stay put.
But those families arriving in Lenadoon had been driven out of their own homes in turn. “My wife’s family had been burned out, and they arrived with a lorry containing wee picks of furniture, and it was just a case of grabbing the nearest vacant house,” recalled one resident. Another remembered moving into a house in which the bath and kitchen sink had been smashed by the family that had fled from it. “For six months, if you were cooking something downstairs, you had to bring all the dishes up to the bathroom to wash them.”
The housing problems were truly dire. In Westminster, government ministers believed that Belfast’s housing problems were probably the worst in Europe; the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason, wrote in his memoirs that up to 30% of homes in west Belfast were overcrowded, and that in some areas up to 90% of homes lacked basic amenities. Some developments around Andersonstown and Lenadoon were so badly designed that pedestrian underpasses were regularly inundated with rainwater, a problem that the local newspaper, the Andersonstown News, highlighted by photographing children inside the underpasses paddling in canoes.
The last hopeful housing estate to be constructed in the province had been Twinbrook, built in the late 60s on the far outskirts of south-west Belfast. Its labyrinthine lanes are set around a slightly boggy 21-acre park; some of the housing is solidly built; some less so. Initially, the Catholic and Protestant families who moved in were determined that it would remain non-sectarian and, as far as possible, untouched by the Troubles. In 1972, when Catholic families who had been forced out of their homes elsewhere in Belfast began to arrive at the estate, looking for a place of refuge, local people of both traditions were less than welcoming, with Catholic residents fearing they would drive the Protestants away.
The arrival of squatters was said to be the cause of bitterness and bad blood between the settled residents, Catholic and Protestant, and the new Catholic arrivals. Soon, Protestant families were moving out.
Like Lenadoon and Andersonstown, Twinbrook was, as far as the IRA was concerned, the territory of its 1st Battalion, or One Batt, as it was known. Here the population was under constant observation by the police and the army. There were endless stop-and-searches on the streets, searches of homes and businesses, surprise vehicle checkpoints, telephone intercepts, surveillance photography, paid informers and covert army observation posts.
The data that was gathered was entered on card indexes and carefully collated, sifted and analysed. By late 1977, the security forces had built up an entire parallel census for nationalist areas, with a street-by-street register of the population, containing the details of terrorism suspects, their families, friends, neighbours and habits, all of it cross-referenced to incident reports, intelligence summaries and photographs. A computer system code-named Operation Vengeful had also been created to help the security forces track the movements of vehicles. The British army and the RUC had concluded that the main problem they faced was identifying the enemy, so an extensive dossier existed for every person of interest. As a consequence of the security force apparatus and presence required for these operations, nationalist areas of west Belfast began to resemble open prisons.
However, unlike the IRA’s active service units based in the Lower Falls area in west Belfast, which operated in a location where the streets were narrow and alleyways and back entries plentiful, One Batt lived and fought in an environment that was unfavourable to guerrilla tactics. The roads were wider, there were more parks and open spaces, and soldiers in fortified watchtowers could observe the movements of people and vehicles far more easily. Few insurgencies or terrorist campaigns can have taken place in such open view as One Batt’s war in the parks and wide avenues of outer west Belfast.
From his base at Fort Monagh in nationalist west Belfast, Private Jonathan Tompkinson, a new recruit to the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, was experiencing Northern Ireland and west Belfast for the first time. Tompkinson had grown up in Sweden, and his comrades nicknamed him “Swede”. The base was cramped, and the soldiers slept on bunks and had little privacy. “The posting proved to be one long bad dream, and sometimes worse,” Swede later recalled. “Such hatred from the locals, and the tension on every patrol around Turf Lodge.”
During Swede’s battalion’s six-month tour of duty, troops mounted 118 searches of houses on the relatively small estate, engaged in 122 chases and made 176 arrests. Throughout the Troubles, army searches of houses could be extraordinarily destructive: furniture dumped in gardens, kitchen units dismantled, floorboards and stairs ripped up. It was not unknown for soldiers with power hammers and generators to dig holes through concrete floors until they reached the soil. On occasion, new foundations would need to be constructed. Such searches could bring short-term success. But the destruction of property, and the humiliation of families, ensured that they lingered as long-term defeats.
On patrol, Swede was sometimes expected to be the last man in line, “and the feeling of being in the sights of a potential sniper preyed on my mind,” he said. Rioting was an almost nightly occurrence. Before long, Swede was depressed and exhausted. The level of hostility came as a shock. Abuse and bottles of urine were hurled at them. “I was a fresh-faced soldier raised in Uppsala who had previously never had a bad word said to me. It was hard to cope with. The constant banging of dustbin lids, whistling and other noises kept me on my toes, waiting for the next ‘contact’ – of which we had many.”
Another soldier serving in Northern Ireland at that time recalls how sad he was after being spat upon. “That was the greatest shock, just being spat on, by an extremely pretty girl. If you’re being shot at, it’s detached … there’s no personal contact. But if someone spits at you it’s hate, pure hate.” Hatred for British soldiers sometimes translated into support for the IRA, both tacit and active. As a classified British military intelligence report of the time noted, there were plenty of areas “where the terrorists can base themselves with little risk of betrayal and can count on active support in an emergency”. Nor was there ever a shortage of high-calibre recruits. Gerry Adams wrote that “it is obvious that the IRA exists and operates with the active consent of a sufficient number of people to finance, arm, clothe, feed, accommodate and transport IRA volunteers”.
Cultivating this active consent was also part of the IRA’s strategy. Having grown up on Twinbrook, Bobby Sands, who went on to lead the 1981 hunger strike in which he and nine other men died, believed this support should be a two-way street: IRA volunteers, he argued, must become involved in local community affairs. He helped to organise a pre-school playgroup and a Friday-night youth disco, and encouraged the Provisionals’ supporters to join the tenants’ association. He produced 2,000 copies of his own local newspaper, Liberty, which was typed or written by hand, set with stencils and printed on a duplicating machine, and distributed door to door. The underlying purpose was to turn the estate into a consciously rebellious and republican area.
Despite the level of local support in places such as Twinbrook and Andersonstown, arrest was a constant risk. There were many convictions, and sentences were long. Each week the Andersonstown News carried personal messages from the families of prisoners, marking the anniversaries of their incarceration and urging them to stay strong: “Let me carry your Cross for Ireland Lord … we salute you and your comrades’ courageous stand, from Joe and Betty, Jim and Maura, Harry and Kathleen, Paul and Sandy … ”
There were casualties, too: Laura Crawford, from the Lenadoon area, was killed in the city centre by the bomb she was transporting. When passersby pulled her from the wreckage of her car, she was still alive, but on fire. She died within minutes. Brendan O’Callaghan, an IRA volunteer who lived in the next road to Crawford, was shot dead by the army at the foot of Lenadoon Avenue. The IRA said he had been a member of a three-man patrol that had been attempting to protect the area “after recent bombings by British and loyalist elements”.
Not all the people living in nationalist areas like One Batt’s patch were supportive of the IRA. In 1976, the republican movement had been severely rattled by the way a spontaneous public protest against the conflict had ignited suddenly in west Belfast and spread rapidly across Northern Ireland.
It was born in tragedy, after soldiers opened fire on a car carrying two IRA men across Andersonstown, fatally wounding the driver. The vehicle crashed into Anne Maguire, who had been walking along the road with her children. Three of the children were killed, and Maguire was seriously injured and traumatised. Three years later, she took her own life.
The day after the incident, up to 1,000 women, many with pushchairs, had come out on to the streets of Andersonstown demonstrating against the violence. As the protest spread, Maguire’s sister, Mairead Corrigan, and a second woman, Betty Williams, found themselves at the head of a burgeoning working-class women’s movement, Women for Peace, which became known as the Peace People. It captured imaginations across the north, and headlines around the world, becoming a serious threat to the IRA. By the end of the month, 20,000 people from across the divide were marching up the Protestant Shankill Road, where local people embraced Catholic nuns.
It was to be a short-lived movement. The republicans launched an intense campaign to discredit the two women, and they severely damaged their own reputations among nationalists by urging them to inform on IRA volunteers. At the end of 1977, Corrigan and Williams were awarded the Nobel peace prize, which brought with it a substantial amount of money: £80,000. Williams decided to take her share and start a new life in the US. Corrigan stayed in Belfast and continued to campaign, but too many people felt her work had been tarnished by the money, and her campaign fizzled out.
While the Peace People failed to have a lasting impact, Gerry Adams would acknowledge that, even among those people whom the republican movement regarded as its natural constituency, “there is no doubt that on occasions, genuine war-weariness did surface, and it is very understandable that it should”.
There was more than just war-weariness in nationalist areas, however: there was always a significant number of people who resented the IRA and its methods. The writer Malachi O’Doherty, who grew up in Andersonstown, and who feared and detested the British army, had concluded that the quickest way to see off the soldiers was to not shoot at them. “I have a long annoyance with the IRA for the way they treated non-members like me in the housing estates of west Belfast,” he wrote. “I resented wee lads of 16, moving into a safe house near me, taking me out of a car at night, sometimes with a gun in their hands, to demand to know where I lived and who was with me.”
O’Doherty also resented the pressure to become engaged in the conflict. After the army raided his home, and a British soldier with an automatic rifle and a blackened face stood in his living room screaming at his mother, who was standing in her nightie, screaming back, a local IRA man told him: “Some people here are saying you’re not pulling your weight.” O’Doherty felt that his decision not to join the IRA at that point was not entirely to his credit. On the other hand, he “loathed the thought of entering hierarchies in which gruff people could tell me what to do”.
Roy Mason, the Northern Ireland secretary, was convinced that the IRA fed off social alienation and economic deprivation. After Mason took up his position in 1976, some attempt was made to improve community relations and promote integrated education, and provide new jobs. A young peer, Peter Melchett, was appointed as a junior Northern Ireland minister and given responsibility for improving community relations, and for establishing new leisure facilities.
Lord Melchett, who had been to Eton, was horrified at the social and economic conditions he encountered, especially in nationalist areas. “I had had a fairly sheltered background,” Melchett told me. “I felt a burning sense of injustice at the poverty and deprivation: there were families who lived in Catholic west Belfast with three, four generations unemployed. I hadn’t seen that before. It was a shock.”
Mason’s senior civil servants were convinced that only economic progress could create a more receptive climate for a future political settlement, and so attempts were made to create new jobs alongside new homes. In Andersonstown, for example, the government wrote off the £4m debts of Strathearn Audio, a state-owned local factory that manufactured hi-fi turntables and speakers.
But Mason and his advisers believed that the real key to job creation lay in attracting greater investment from overseas, particularly from the US and Japan. The US state department was wary, however, with some of its diplomats warning that too much investment from the US might be seen as a direct challenge to the IRA.
There was good reason for such caution: a few weeks after Strathearn’s debts were written off – and at a time when the government was looking for a Japanese purchaser for the plant – James Nicholson, an English PR consultant who had been offering marketing advice to Strathearn, flew to Belfast for a meeting at the factory. Afterwards, as he drove back to the airport, he was shot dead, a victim of the IRA’s economic war.
Eventually, despite the economic risks and physical dangers, Mason’s efforts began to pay off: a tyre company announced a £3m investment in a research laboratory in Belfast, and a US electronic components corporation announced that it, too, was opening a small plant. They were followed by General Motors, which announced plans for a £16m seatbelt manufacturing plant to the east of the city.
Meanwhile, the war ground on. In mid-December 1977, Paul Harman, an undercover British soldier, was driving through Turf Lodge. He was at the wheel of what his unit called a Q Car – in his case, a red Morris Marina whose interior had been strewn with old newspapers, crushed cigarette boxes and other pieces of litter, in an attempt to give the impression that it was a civilian vehicle.
He brought the car to a brief halt outside a row of neat semi-detached houses on Monagh Road, and paused just a little too long: a gunman walked up to the Marina and shot him in the head. The IRA took his Browning pistol, his radio and some documents, then torched the car.
A week later, Jim Callaghan paid one of his rare visits to Northern Ireland. Downing Street aide Bernard Donoughue noted in his diary that the prime minister had “enjoyed it immensely” because a bomb had gone off nearby while he was visiting an army post.
None of this was enough to dent Mason’s confidence that progress was being made. He persisted in believing that victory could be achieved by quantifying progress. At Christmas, despite the many warnings he had received, Mason announced that “the tide has turned against the terrorists and the message for 1978 is one of real hope”.
On New Year’s Eve, bars and pubs were rammed with people determined to enjoy themselves at the end of what had been another painful year. There was just time, however, for one more murder before 1977 came to an end. Gordon Quinn, a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary organisation, had a row with some members of the rival UVF about a girl. Gordon was stabbed 20 times and his body was tossed in a skip off the Shankill Road. He was 18.
The following day, Callaghan gave an interview to the BBC in which he made a number of predictions about the year ahead in the UK. They all concerned the economy. Northern Ireland was not mentioned.
In February 1978, one evening’s events brought the glare of international attention back to Northern Ireland, and forced the IRA to rethink its deadly tactics. Friday 17 February had begun rather well for the IRA: its volunteers, armed with an American M60 machine gun, had brought down a British army Gazelle helicopter near Jonesborough in County Armagh. One of the occupants, Lt Col Ian Corden-Lloyd, the commanding officer of an infantry battalion, was killed. It was an episode that reflected the way the IRA liked to see itself: an army, out in the field, bravely fighting a well-armed foe.
That evening, more than 400 people were gathered at the La Mon House, a restaurant, dance hall and hotel complex in the Castlereagh hills east of Belfast. The two largest groups were from the Northern Ireland Collie Club, many attending with their well-behaved dogs, and from the Northern Ireland Junior Motor Cycle Club.
Shortly before 9pm, a small IRA team from west Belfast arrived in a hijacked Fiat. They hooked two blast incendiaries to the security grilles of the windows of the hotel’s restaurant, the Peacock Room, and then went in search of a telephone box from which to convey an advance warning. All of the public telephones in the area had been vandalised. The warning call to the police was eventually made nine minutes before the bombs were due to detonate. When the police rang the hotel, the man who picked up the phone shouted: “For God’s sake get out here, a bomb has gone off.”
When the devices exploded, a fireball rolled through the crowded building. Those caught in the flames were burned alive. Others fled and staggered from the building with their clothes, hair and flesh alight.
Twelve people, all Protestants, died in the blast. A further 23 were seriously injured. Many were identified from their dental records, and one only by a process of elimination. At the inquest later that year, James Mills would describe how his brother-in-law, Joseph Morris, pulled him away from the blaze. They could hear their wives, Carol and Sandra, screaming. “We tried to get back in, but could not because of the intense smoke.”
In parliament, Mason faced calls for the restoration of the death penalty, while one unionist leader demanded that “the Republican ghettos” be bombed by the RAF, on the grounds that “there were no innocent people in them”.
The IRA was at one of its lowest ebbs. An organisation that regarded itself as an army was now seen by most people around the world as a gang of despicable terrorists. Revenge was swift. At the RUC’s intelligence centre in east Belfast, where torture was often used to extract confessions, police doctors noted that even more suspects than usual appeared to be receiving beatings.
After the La Mon House firebombing, a tide of shock and revulsion flowed rapidly across the world. But it was not long before that tide ebbed. Tales of the carnage disappeared from the front pages, the evening news bulletins moved on. Early the following month, when parliament finally debated politics and security in Northern Ireland in the wake of the bombing, only 15 MPs were present.
• This is an edited extract from Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island by Ian Cobain, published by Granta on 5 November and available at guardianbookshop.co.uk