Christopher Owens interviews Gareth Mulvenna and Beano Niblock about an upcoming event in East Belfast.
|Gareth Mulvenna & Beano Niblock|
On 8th November, the Ballymac Friendship Trust in East Belfast will be hosting an event called "Belts and Boots to Bombs and Bullets." Hosted by Gareth Mulvenna and Robert 'Beano' Niblock the event "...seeks to examine the origins and rise of the Tartan gangs in Belfast and their transformation into loyalist Paramilitaries in the violent maelstrom of the early 1970s. Gareth Mulvenna will talk about the research he carried out for his acclaimed book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries - The Loyalist Backlash while playwright Robert Beano Niblock till read new poems he has written from the perspective of a young man who went from being a member of the Woodstock Tartan to a member of the Red Hand Commando in July 1972. The event will also feature guest speakers and there will be a discussion afterwards."
With this in mind, I decided to speak to both men about the event.
CO: What was the impetus behind such a night?
GM: From my perspective it was about ensuring that the Tartan story and associated events didn't just end with the publication of my book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries. As I've probably mentioned before, the accounts of the Tartan and the nascent Red Hand and YCV in my book only cover a small percentage of the potential number of stories out there. Notwithstanding that, I’m still convinced that the Tartan experience and better understanding it in a historical context is crucial in comprehending what was going on in loyalist working-class areas such as the Woodstock and Shankill during the early 1970s.
I also think some journalists and documentary makers are beginning to realise that loyalism in the early 1970s wasn’t just a case of bigoted psychopaths prowling for Catholics. Of course the sectarian dimension to the Tartans can’t and shouldn’t be whitewashed, but what I am sensing is an emerging realisation that the experience of the early 1970s isn’t as black and white as some republican commentators and academics would like us to believe.
‘Belts and Boots…’ will highlight the complex experience of being a Protestant youth in the early 1970s - trying to get work, listening to rock music and playing football; all the while listening to older men talking about the threats posed by the IRA and then watching the local pub being blown up by the IRA, hearing about your friend being dragged off the street and interrogated by the IRA – all the while being told that you are denying people their civil rights and that you are part of a ‘labour aristocracy’.
It’s all well and good for Sinn Fein to come out and claim that the British were the main protagonists of the Troubles, and for Relatives for Justice and the Pat Finucaine Centre to demand justice for certain victims, but no-one has ever been brought to justice for outrages such as the Four Step Inn bomb or the Balmoral Furniture Showrooms bombing – both of which were nakedly sectarian attacks on the Protestant people designed, in my opinion, to draw out a paramilitary loyalist response. To this end, the IRA succeeded in creating sectarian conflagration.
If we are to fully understand what happened here over a period of 30 years or more then it is important that these stories don’t disappear into thin air; the loyalist paramilitary response and the motivations of people who became involved is a huge part of that.
On the night itself Beano will read some new poems he has written about 1969 to 1972 and I think they will encourage a better appreciation of the feelings of a 14 – 17 year-old loyalist during this period. I’ll give a bit of context to the poems by talking about the research I have carried out and the conversations I have had with people.
CO: Could you envisage a night like this being a stepping stone towards an exhibition, with photos, narrated accounts and artefacts?
GM: Well, we’re living in interesting times with debates over legacy, the fallout from the Boston tapes and other related issues. I get the sense, certainly with my own research, that people are less willing to put their head above the parapet now. When I was writing Tartan Gangs I anticipated that people might not want to talk too much about their involvement in that period, but what I actually found was a group of men who felt that the time was ready to tell their side of things. That was just before the other matters I described – as well as some people feeling that their trust had been abused by work that was produced - sent things into a tailspin. Subsequently I have found researching something seemingly as straightforward as the prison experience and related issues to be hugely difficult. People who would trust you are now, I feel, wary of the wider concept of research.
This will of course hinder any attempt to put together an exhibition and get narrated accounts pulled together. This is where I feel loyalism will fall further behind republicans in terms of putting forward their point of view. I have encountered loyalists who say ‘Well, if that’s what the media want to write and it’s so prevalent, what is the point in trying to challenge it?’ I likened it to an already-relegated football team just playing out the season, resigned to its fate. However, I do understand why many of these men don’t want to go public in challenging inaccuracies. Many of them have retired into normal life again and don’t have the positions of political power that some of their republican counterparts might have. We have seen how republicans who go against the grain are isolated and run down, so many former combatants on the loyalist side might see the odds as being stacked against them. There is no durable social or political structure to prop them up or protect them when the press come calling.
I am eternally optimistic however that people will see our night as being a confidence boost toward recording their experiences, whether it be through the medium of oral history, memoir-writing or creative writing.
I think ACT and the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre deserve huge credit for curating the displays of artefacts that they currently hold. This is immensely important as it captures the physical memory of loyalist paramilitaries in terms of how they understood themselves in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. We wouldn’t want to be stepping on their toes, or those of other similar enterprises. However I think ACT and also ATIC would be willing to help both myself and Beano if we did attempt to draw out an exhibition of sorts. There is enough goodwill there I feel. I also understand that EPIC and ACT and the new Open Door project are currently looking towards new initiatives to encourage former combatants to participate in a range of activities based around encouraging the narratives, so perhaps our event will compliment that quite neatly.
BN: I also understand that EPIC and ACT and the new Open Door project are currently looking towards new initiatives to encourage former combatants to participate in a range of activities based around encouraging the narratives, so perhaps our event will compliment that quite neatly.
CO: Beano, was Gareth's work the spark behind the new work of poetry?
BN: Whilst Gareth’s work - both the finished book - and perhaps more importantly the research -figure heavily in my recollection and understanding of those times they weren’t solely responsible for the recent works of poetry/prose. A while back I started writing from the perspective of a young person growing up in a Protestant working class area of East Belfast. Much of that work covers the period from 1961 to 1968. I have already have had a joint poetry reading with Philip Orr who also wrote some prose relating to his Protestant upbringing in the same period, from a rural County Down perspective. Following on from that the natural progression was to cover the period from 1968 to 1973 - the growing Civil Rights movement, the early days of the Troubles encompassing the mayhem of 1971-72 and also covering my involvement in the Tartan Gangs and subsequent path into a paramilitary grouping which in turn led to imprisonment at the age of 17.
CO: Although this is a unique event within loyalism as it examines a particular moment in recent history, it seems that, with the recent event hosted in the Con Club by Jamie Bryson on legacy and loyalism, there is a lot of discussion going on in regards to the past. What would you say is the take on the general mood regarding these issues among the Protestant community?
GM: I wasn’t at the event, so can’t comment directly on it. However I sense there is an emerging fight back against the narrative that the British were solely responsible for the Troubles. Like anything within Protestantism (or the PUL community) things become fractured and people split into camps. There is the urban experience versus the rural experience, the working-class experience versus the middle-class experience, and sometimes it can be difficult to square these circles. I think one thing that everyone can agree on is that the republican movement’s sanitising of the IRA campaign, now retrospectively ‘justified’ to define it as war for equal rights in terms of issues such as marriage equality and gay rights, is Orwellian if not downright preposterous. It is also dangerous because it gives a false impression of what actually happened here. Every now and again the mask slips and the blatant sectarianism comes out as we saw with a well-known republican commentator recently, justifying the killing of Patsy Gillespie on political grounds. In essence, I think there is a frustration within the broad Protestant community, but there is also an incoherence regarding how best to respond.
CO: Beano, you've been quoted as saying that “There’s always been this notion that Prods, for want of a better word, see the arts, and theatre in particular, as belonging to the middle class and to the Fenians. I think it’s wrong,” Where do you think that originates from, and why do you think it is still strongly held among loyalists?
BN: The notion that working class prods have disengaged from the arts and in particular theatre has always been there as far as I remember and it is something I have heard said on many occasions. Strangely though I spoke a while back to Ross Hickey-director at the Grand Opera House in Belfast and he told me in recent years –going by the postcodes of people ordering tickets-proved the opposite. So maybe it is a bit of a myth. What I do believe however is that much of that disengagement is self-imposed and I feel that given drama with the “right” subject matter the working class Prods will attend. On the 2 occasions I have packed venues with my plays the general feedback I got from audiences was that they were happy to attend plays that they could relate to or interested them.
CO: Keeping on the theme of legacy and how to handle it, Gareth, would you mind talking about the issues you've been having with PRONI?
GM: Well, as part of my research for the Tartan Gangs book I had requested access to internee files relating to a number of deceased UVF/RHC members such as Lennie Murphy, Bo McClelland, Ken Gibson, John McKeague and so on. I felt that the information held within these particular files might be of potential use in providing a view of these individuals from the perspective of the security apparatus. These were requested alongside Crown Court files relating to Stevie McCrea, UDA men Davey Payne and Albert Baker as well as the Coroner’s Inquest on the killing of Stevie McCrea.
I thought that it might take some time to view these files when I requested them in March and April 2014, but I didn’t anticipate the amount of red tape that would be thrown in front of me. By December 2014 I was still corresponding with PRONI staff regarding the internee files. I had to ‘prove’ that some of the internees were deceased – Bo McClelland and Ken Gibson most notably. This involved, bizarrely, having to procure obituaries for them from Combat so that I could furnish PRONI with the evidence of their having deceased. Then, I had to sign an academic research agreement form with a sponsor letter from my publisher. This meant I would be allowed to view the files, but not photograph or copy them.
By April 2015, with time running out for the files to be any use for the book, the goalposts had shifted again and the files were still out for consultation with Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office. The trail went cold for a while as I had other things going on, and the book had been completed. By early 2016 however, I learned that other researchers had been granted access to Coroner’s Inquest files and the like (not internee files). I communicated my irritation with PRONI who shortly thereafter produced the Coroner’s Inquest and Crown Court files I had requested. In the two and a half years since I have been back and forward with PRONI regarding the internee files. Still nothing. It’s incredible that other bodies can turn up highly sensitive material from archives at the drop of a hat, while I have been chasing my tail on this for nearly five years. Is there material that is deemed too sensitive in the internee files? Of course there is – I am under no illusion of that; some information has to remain unseen. However, the fact that nothing has been released from them makes me wonder whether there is an agenda at play.
PRONI staff are, I believe, equally frustrated and in no way would I ever shoulder the blame onto them. They are hard-working people who are under a considerable amount of pressure from various individual researchers like myself as well as having to sensitively deal with families of Troubles victims. I think, however, that if we are to adequately understand what went on in Northern Ireland; if we are to deal with ‘legacy’ issues, then nothing should be off-limits.
I don’t buy into the vast majority conspiracy theories about this place – indeed, for once I found myself agreeing with Martin Dillon when he responded to Sinn Fein’s criticism of him for not writing that the RUC colluded with the Butchers. He talked about their ‘conspiracy theory nonsense’. Though in turn of course, Dillon has relied on dud information from other security personnel to make claims about some loyalists. Sometimes, however, when you get messed about looking for information like this you do begin to have nagging doubts. The only way to relieve people of those doubts and conspiracies is to reveal the paper trail.CO: Beano, with people like yourself, Gary Mitchell and the late Billy Giles mining your recent history for fresh creativity, have you personally found any understanding or revelations when writing that make you look at your past very differently?
Although I know Gary and his work and I was a close friend and work colleague of Billy’s I would never speculate on anything they did. From a personal point of view most of my writing is built on my own perspectives and I draw heavily on my own experiences. In the course of this I discover many things about the past that may not have seemed relevant at the time. Much of it I see in vastly different ways know. Certainly the understanding of many things rather than anything being revelatory.
CO: Out of all the work you've done, is there a particular play or poem that you feel exceptionally proud of, almost like it wrote itself?
Writing poetry on a regular basis now is allowing me to look at my early years and pinpoint certain periods and passages that motivated or led me in a direction. Some are of a very personal nature and would mean more to me that they would to someone hearing them read. The Men Behind the Ire I like a lot because it was about something I always felt very strongly about and spoke about often. I think I captured concisely what I wanted to say in that and that pleased me a lot. A more recent piece was Moving Out where I speak about the very early days of the Troubles-August 1969-and me witnessing-and taking part in-the removal of families from their homes. There was so much displacement particularly in Belfast at that time and it was something that left a big impact upon me. Both plays I have had produced pleased me for different reasons. Of the two I prefer Tartan... because it was virtually autobiographical and while writing enabled me to look at a critical period in my life and relate it for others.
Belts and Boots to Bombs and Bullets
➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
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