Blame Bushy! That’s the Fianna na hEireann member who must shoulder the blame for all the articles which get so many heckles up in my writings and why I now classify myself politically as an unrepentant Radical Right-wing Unionist.
Bushy was the nickname I personally gave to a member of the junior Provisional IRA in north Antrim. Although I come from a staunch Orange Order, evangelical Irish Presbyterian and Ulster Unionist background, my early political thoughts were heavily influenced by liberal-minded teachers and headmasters at Ballymena Academy.
Indeed, after becoming a born-again Christian in 1972 and as political thoughts began to develop, I saw the Alliance Party as my natural home. While my late grand-parents had major connections to the Orange Order in Co Tyrone, they also had a strong relationship with the thriving evangelical Faith Mission movement in the county.
Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, the Twelfth in Tyrone was as big a family fun day out as the annual Christmas Day gathering of the Coulters in Stewartstown. The Twelfth in those early years of my life was not about sectarianism, but waving the Union flag which Gran bought me and bringing a punnet of strawberries to my dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, who was an Orange chaplain.
The same family atmosphere was also true of the traditional end to the Protestant Marching Season, the last Saturday of August – known as Black Saturday – with the Royal Black Institution.
Even when the family moved to Clough, Co Antrim, where my father had become the local Presbyterian minister, my liberal views on life flourished. Although the exclusively Protestant village had a large Glasgow Rangers following, I and a few friends from the church, took a keen interest in the successes of the rival Old Firm club, Glasgow Celtic.
One of my best chums, who later became an RUC officer, was an avid Celtic fan. I looked forward to the visits to Clough Manse from one the neighbouring Presbyterian ministers, the Rev Robert Dalglish of Newtowncrumlin Presbyterian Church, known affectionately as ‘Bob D’ (My dad being equally affectionately known by the Rev Dalglish as ‘Bob C’).
‘Bob D’ had been an equally avid fan of the former Belfast Celtic club and we used enthusiastically to chat about the links between the two soccer clubs.
My early years, too, at Ballymena Academy – one of the town’s grammar schools – were equally formative, and especially the influence of four key members of staff – my prep school form tutor James McWhirter; headmasters William Mol and Denis Jagoe, and my history tutor, Robert Mitchell (affectionately nicknamed Big Bob).
My parents allowed me to develop my own political views and never rammed Orangeism and Unionism down my throat. From the age of 13, I became an avid follower of Alliance and could not wait until the age at which I could join either Young Alliance or the party in North Antrim.
This was in spite of my early times as an Ulster Unionist activist, serving tea and sandwiches in Clough Manse to a shaking North Antrim UUP MP Henry Clark after a tough encounter with Paisley supporters near Clough during the hard-fought 1970 Westminster General Election campaign.
In my youthful dreams, I imagined myself as first an Alliance councillor on Ballymena Borough Council, and then perhaps when Stormont was brought back, becoming a Stormont MP for Alliance. The original Stormont Parliament had been axed by the Tories in 1972, but I always harboured ambitions to work at Stormont.
Even when my cousin, Arthur Henderson, a police reservist, was murdered by the Provos in a booby trap car bomb in my native Stewartstown in October 1974, I still felt Alliance was the best way out of the sectarian impasse.
The turning point came in the mid Seventies when Ulsterbus decided to change the daily bus route into Ballymena to include republican strongholds near Clough. The Catholics would get on first, then we – most Protestants – would get on the bus as it picked us up at the former Carnbeg primary school and make its way into the town via the Doury Road.
This was to be my first taste of naked anti-Protestant sectarian hatred. Any seats not occupied by the Catholics, they had covered in classroom chalk or spat upon making them unusable. They jeered and sneered as we Protestants had to stand.
All of this sectarian vandalism had been done by male students attending the Catholic secondary school in Ballymena. The very few seats occasionally untouched and usable were occupied by middle class female students from the Catholic grammar in the town.
Ulsterbus drivers did nothing to combat the sectarianism; in reality, what could they do? Unless you wanted you coat covered in Catholic spittle, or chalk, it was best to stand and endure the taunts to sit.
When the Catholic grammar girls would give you a seat to sit, the male secondary school pupils pushed them out of the way to threaten you to their face; you were out-numbered a dozen to one, so physically either fighting them back or ‘giving them some verbal’ was pointless and a recipe for disaster.
The Catholic male students would then produce their sheath knives and penknives and rub them up and down your legs to see your reaction. Sit tight and don’t move was the correct tactic.
After a couple of the knife rubs, one young Catholic male taunted me as to why I didn’t fight him back. I decided to give him the response. I said I was a born-again Christian, that my dad was minister of Presbyterian Church they passed on the way to the Doury Road, and my dad would not approve of me fighting.
The Catholic thug’s reaction was interesting. As soon as I told him I was related to a cleric – albeit a Protestant one – his face went as white as a sheet and he ordered all his mates to stop flashing their knives at me. From that day on, I was never taunted again, or threatened, and I always had a seat free of spittle and chalk. It was very clear my link to a clergyman frightened these supposed young republican ‘hardmen’.
Was their respect or fear of their local Catholic clergy transported into a fear of any type of cleric? I can only assume that, but the initial experience of the Catholic ‘chalk and spittle’ tactic left a bitter taste in my mouth politically. Worse was to follow and the key turning point in the political development.
In spite of my born again Christian beliefs, the inward Carnbeg bus journey left me questioning my Alliance principles. Maybe the Alliance methods were not tough enough to realistically combat sectarianism? Maybe Alliance was only a fancy talking shop with no real political muscle to deal with the seemingly bitter hatred between Catholic and Protestant?
That key point came in the early to mid Seventies when some older Catholic males began getting our Carnbeg bus route home. One was Bushy. That was simply a nickname I gave him. He was never known as Bushy to anybody else. I never referred to him as Bushy – certainly not to his face!
Bushy loved not just to taunt Protestants, but to target them. His mates would laugh at his sectarian antics, but never get involved in the physical sectarian bullying. It was clear from his comments towards me that he knew my dad was a senior member of the Loyal Orders.
Rumours began to spread through our community that Bushy was a member of the Junior IRA. The situation came to a head on the bus one evening when Bushy set fire to my coat. He always sat behind me and had flicked a lit match onto my plastic coat which had been a present from a relative in Canada.
I did not even realise my coat was burning until some girls sitting nearby saw the flames and stubbed them out. Bushy merely laughed. I was distraught more at the fact that the present from my aunt was ruined. When I showed my parents the remains of the coat, they lodged a formal protest, but Bushy never bothered me again on the bus.
Even worse was to follow with the final incident. I was walking through Ballymena one day when Bushy and a group of his mates in a car pulled alongside me. Bushy opened his passenger door and began to hurl verbal abuse at me.
Naturally, I backed away, but was saved by the fact that a short distance behind me was a member of the feared Harryville Tartan loyalist gang. Even though the Tartan member was alone, it was enough to scare Bushy and his mates away.
The Harryville Tartan had a fearsome reputation in its day and probably struck more fear into the nationalist population in Ballymena and the surrounding areas than the loyalist paramilitaries.
I never saw Bushy again. In February 1977, the IRA murdered a police reservist from my dad’s church, Samuel McKane. Again, rumours began to spread that Bushy was allegedly linked to the murder of the reservist.
For me, Bushy became the living embodiment of republicanism which had to be combated and Alliance was certainly not the vehicle to do so. Down came the posters in my bedroom of Glasgow Celtic, and up went Unionist Party posters and pendants of King Billy.
Within a year of Samuel’s murder, I was a member both of the Orange Order and the North Antrim Young Unionists, the UUP’s youth wing. My journey to the radical right of Unionism was complete. During my time in the Young Unionists, the North Antrim YU association became probably in its day the most hardline of all the YU associations in Northern Ireland.
As for Bushy, he must be a pensioner by now, if he is still alive. Some people say he was ‘jumped’ by loyalists near his work, had his arms broken and he was tossed in the river. Others say he fled either to America or the Republic; another rumour had him killed by loyalists; others say he is alive, but has left republican politics.
Maybe some day I will meet Bushy again. It would be interesting as adults to discuss our respective political journeys. There was no gradual indoctrination from my parents or peers on my own journey to the Radical Right of Unionism; it happened in seconds when a lit match landed on my coat.