"Boots and Belts to Bombs and Bullets: From Tartan to Terror in the Early 70'

Christopher Owens attended a cultural event on the Shankill Road at the end of last month.

Spectrum Centre Belfast 31/01/19

Dr. Mulvenna and 'Beano' Niblock setting the scene.
Image courtesy of ACT Initiative and Gareth Mulvenna

Located right on the Shankill Road, The Spectrum Centre describes itself as an "Arts and Cultural...multi purpose venue which encourages a creative and innovative spirit amongst all of its users." I believe that regular classes are held here by a variety of dance groups, and that the main hall has been used for everything from concerts through to history classes. It certainly seems a vital place for people to come and express themselves through art and dance. 

Tonight's event is located in the cafe, which has recently reopened. It's a cosy, intimate spot with friendly staff with banners detailing various aspects of local history. It's the perfect stage for tonight's event, with the close proximity meaning people feel more involved in the event.

Previously hosted in the Ballymac Friendship Centre, 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 will 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.
After an introduction from William Mitchell from ACT Initiative, the evening begins with Dr. Mulvenna reading excerpts from his book, as well as giving some context as to the events discussed, it then leads to 'Beano' Niblock reading the following poems from his catalogue: "We Are the People"; "One Way or Another"; "The Men Behind the Ire"; "The Score"; "Geallaim Go Sullunta" and "One on B-Wing", with each of them telling a story right from 1969, being a part of the Woodstock Tartan, being used by politicians, joining a paramilitary organisation and, finally, ending up in Long Kesh. 

What's great about Niblock's work is his simplistic wording, which makes the imagery he's describing all the more stark and, in some cases, harrowing ("The Score" recounts a tale of a blast victim, noting the loose change in his pocket). There's nothing glamorous going on in his work, but an evocation of a young mindset who felt their world was going to hell. This, truly, is the voice of the working class.

Eddie Kinner prepares to read his tale.
Images courtesy of ACT Initiative and Gareth Mulvenna

This is further reinforced when actor John Travers comes forth to act out a monologue from Niblock's play 'Tartan.' He delivers an intense, confrontational performance of the type of person being discussed tonight: young, still obsessive about youth and pop culture, but on the cusp of crossing the Rubicon. The mannerism, recital and look are spot on. Looking around afterwards, it seemed others could recognise the character all too well.

Uniquely, we get a reading from Eddie Kinner. Known for his appearance on Peter Taylor's 'Loyalists' for his recollection of the Balmoral Showroom bombing and his subsequent claim that his " '...mentality would have been: whenever they blow up a location in the Shankill, killing one or two people, I would want to double that", tonight he was talking about his experience in hospital (he was injured when the bomb he and two other UVF members went off prematurely outside Conway's Bar in 1975).

Recounting a tale involving military police, a Nurse Ratched style character in charge of the ward and Gusty Spence, it is a story that is darkly comic, barren and emotional; made all the more so by Kinner's delivery. Of course, some will recoil at him because of his involvement in the bombing but, if we are to get a better understanding of our recent history, we need people like Kinner to tell their story and show a different, human side. One that demonstrates that, regardless of what happened, loyalists were people with perceptions and emotions themselves.

What really makes the evening something else are the various discussions. While all in the room agreeing with Billy Hutchinson that loyalists really need to tell their stories in order to explain their motivations so as to not (in the words of Beano) be reduced to a cartoon style "baddie", there seems to be a divergence of opinions on whether that was possible (due to, it was felt, the media perception) and how to go about it. Certainly, tonight's combination of reading, poetry and acting was seen as an excellent way in engaging with the recent past.

The one theme that is well received is the notion that the story of loyalism itself was one of protecting the community and the family. Several recount the Four Step Inn bombing as such a moment. Other talk of family men manning barricades by night and going straight to work when morning came. Certainly, as Anthony McIntyre has pointed out in the past, the theme of defence crops up constantly in loyalist writings so it is clearly something that cannot be dismissed out of hand when considering their involvement in paramilitaries.

'Beano' Niblock and John Travers acting a scene from 'Tartan.'
Images courtesy of ACT Initiative and Gareth Mulvenna

Loyalism is certainly a lot more complex than others like to think, and it has never done itself any favours by adopting a hostile attitude towards the media in the past. Hence why the likes of Aaron Edwards can get away with publishing such sub par work (also noted by many at the event).

One segment which fascinates me begins when someone voices their view that unionist politicians (specifically naming Paisley and Trimble) were always quite happy to use loyalists when they needed them, and swiftly discard them, but that he admires William Craig for never (publicly, at least) disowning the loyalists. This leads to an exchange where Niblock recalls meeting Craig in his house to discuss the condition of the huts in Long Kesh. Stating that Craig was drunk, Niblock recounts that he explained the situation and asked for intervention, to which Craig responded that he didn't believe him.

Similarly, Hutchinson recounts a tale of being arrested by the British Army, which resulted in him being brought up to the mountains, shot at while wearing a hood, then being hung upside down on a hook in Tennant Street police station and beaten repeatedly. When Craig was confronted with this he, according to Hutchinson, said that "the army do not do such things."

These angles (human rights abuse/manipulation by higher powers) would certainly make for an interesting book in itself, and would certainly make a stronger case for the inhuman, degrading treatment suffered by many at the hands of the security forces. However, I get the impression that loyalists see that as part and parcel of what to expect when engaging in paramilitary behaviour, instead of thinking how such behaviour by a "respectable" force is unreasonable.

In conclusion, I can honestly say I found this event a highly engaging one in terms of not only looking at a particular place and time, but also a demonstration of how art can cut to the bone far more succinctly than a ten thousand word history dissertation.

⏩  Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

3 comments to ''"Boots and Belts to Bombs and Bullets: From Tartan to Terror in the Early 70'"

  1. Hutchinson and his cronies inflicted the same and much worse physical torture on Taigs when they got the chance and this cold blooded sectarian racist behaviour seemed to be par for the course among is hard to understand their 'defensive stance' separate from that.
    As much a kin to understanding the KKK killing of black people in America as a stand against perceived attacks on white culture, especially southern culture.....hard to fathom.

    1. Niall

      at a visceral level my initial responses are very much similar to those you've expressed. Yes, for a long time Unionism was at its heart a supremacist ideology. Though on reflection, I'd propose that tendency has softened somewhat and even been relinquished in some quarters. But its also true that a shadow lingers on in other quarters too.

      The reasons for this mindset and for the behaviour of Loyalists during the conflict surely isn't that hard to fathom?

      Given even the most cursory of consideration the siege-mentality that permeated Unionism is readily enough understood; if one could bring a bit of detachment to one's musings their stance is as easily appreciated as, and equal to, the unification/liberation drives of Nationalists.
      What we have are historical patterns which have been played out repetitively.

      It's way beyond time for all thoughtful people to take all necessary steps and finally erase this destructive motif, don't you think?

  2. I don't think anyone, even the loyalists themselves, would deny the cold blooded sectarian behaviour they carried out. The 'defensive stance' is quite easy to understand: despite being viewed with contempt by Stormont, ordinary working class loyalists saw the state of NI as their own. The IRA were determined to destroy it. Hence the defensive stance.


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