We need to talk about violence: harsh reality of teen gangs

John Coulter with a regular Irish Daily Star column. It featured in Newshound on 11 June 2014.

Make a drama out of a crisis – that's how to solve the problem of dealing with past conflict in Ireland! 

No, I'm not talking about upping the ante as we approach the teeth of the loyalist marching season with Pastor James McConnell-style sermons or speeches.

The real history of the conflict can be communicated through using plays, and drama should become a compulsory part of the school curriculum alongside Maths and English. 

Take the excellent, no-punches-pulled drama, Tartan, penned by former paramilitary prisoner Robert Niblock about the loyalist gangs which roamed the North in the 1970s with their sectarian ethos of 'any Taig will do'. 

Loyalist Tartan gangs were set up in memory of three Scottish squaddies who were murdered in a Provo honey-trap ambush. 

Bedecked with tartan scarves, and donning denim jackets, such loyalist working class gangs dished out vicious beatings on Catholic victims and became breeding grounds for loyalist death squads seeking new recruits. 

Niblock's true-to-reality play is peppered with the cursing and swearing which accompanied the gangs. 

Forget the view that Tartan gangs were on a holy crusade to defend the Protestant faith. 

As one of Niblock's characters described wrecking a "wee fellowship" with the words: "It's shite anyway. Christian music and wee games. All goody goodies." 

The importance of dramas like Niblock's Tartan is that they open a window into the reality of the conflict. Such dramas are vital so that false impressions of events are not created. 

I found Tartan a shocking and deeply disturbing play. Niblock kindly gave me a copy of the script because I cringed with personal agony throughout the performance. 

As a teenager, I belonged to a Tartan gang in my native north Antrim. But I was living in a fantasy world compared to the harsh reality of Niblock's portrayal. 

I bought my tartan scarf from a Bay City Roller fan shop in Southport during a Boys' Brigade camp. I wore a Wrangler jacket, but all the lads in our Tartan gang were non-drinking, church-going Prods who didn't use foul language! 

For us – and especially me – being in the local Tartan gang was about impressing the lassies in our community that we were 'hard men' so they would go on dates with us! 

Niblock's Tartan members best summed up their intentions with the line from his play: "I'll be waiting on some fucker coming out of that Fenian bar to bate the shite out of him." 

During my time in the Tartan gang, we never confronted one Catholic. Niblock's drama was bitter medicine for me as to what I was really involved with. 

To the best of my knowledge, none of my fellow so-called Tartan gang members ever got involved with loyalist terrorism. For us, the Tartan gang met in the BB, church youth club, Bible class and Sunday night youth fellowship. 

Niblock leaves the audience in no doubt what the real aim of the Tartan gangs was – as a feeder organisation for the loyalist godfathers to pick the hardmen for their death squads. 

Niblock was also accurate about the schooling fate of many working class Prods who got caught up in Tartan gangs. 

Talking about his dad, one of the play's characters quips: "He had me marked down for university … and all I wanted was to leave school like all yousens … and earn a few quid." 

Most of us in that so-called Tartan gang either went to university or got good jobs; many of us got both. 

The issues of the past can be addressed through drama, and Niblock's Tartan is one small step in that long process. 

My fantasy bubble was burst by Niblock's Tartan. The healing process in Ireland can be achieved when a lot more bubbles are burst. 

So the solution is simple – all those with experiences of the conflict, start writing and get them on the stage for the sake of peace! 

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