When Alex Murphy arrived in the H Blocks of Long Kesh in 1990 he brought to it a sense of hard nosed realism. Then the jail was brimming with revolutionary zeal all of which Alex knew would go up in a puff of smoke in the effort to jettison every ounce of extra baggage in the race to have the republican project sold down the river. I guess he sensed that the one cardinal rule most revolutionaries adhere to unflinchingly is that the revolution must be sold down the Suwannee once it gets in the way of the quest for power and privilege.
Convicted of killing two British Army corporals who made an incursion on an IRA funeral cortege in West Belfast in 1988, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Unlike some other senior IRA figures who came into the jail with a sense of entitlement he carried himself without swagger and was not behind the door when it came to expressing his view of them. As for IRA leaders who had acquired a reputation Alex felt they had not achieved on merit, he assumed the role of the iconoclast, puncturing the myths. No rank was beyond his scrutiny, questioning the ability of chiefs of staff when the topic came up. In my own view he was not beyond calling it wrong but his estimation was always an informed one.
One key event in irreversibly immersing Alex in the armed struggle was the killing of a young IRA volunteer, Daniel McAreavey, in a British military ambush in October 1972, and whose body was later desecrated in Mulhouse Street British Amy base. “Local witnesses say that McAreavey was wounded and then executed.” After that, for Alex, there was no turning back. He surged ahead and as "a very active volunteer" was lethally effective at what he did.
When D Company resigned en masse in 1975 in protest at a volunteer being kneecapped for some misdemeanour, Alex didn't go with them, returning to prison for a short time towards the end of the year.
In the couple of years we were in the H Blocks together a firm friendship developed. We endlessly conversed and often at lunchtime I would partner him in a Belfast card game called Phat. He played it shrewdly and expected his partner to concentrate to the same level, which fortunately I was able to do. He had a great insight into the workings of the IRA equalled only by an discernment into those who knew how to work the IRA for their own ends. He was a volunteer’s volunteer and saw little of integrity in those eager to be leaders. His view was that anyone wanting to hold down a senior position automatically disqualified themselves from it by virtue of their want.
A great raconteur of tales about happenings within the IRA he once told us about getting hassle from the cops. They knew he was one of the few IRA operatives capable of using a RPG 7 rocket launcher effectively and harboured a particular hatred of him for it. During one of their stop and search operations they gave him a lot of abuse to which he responded by going to the side of the jeep, rapping it with his knuckles and sarcastically saying to the cops “the dart will go through.” The RUC were not amused and proceeded to manhandle him while he laughed at them.
On another occasion he relayed the tale of serving as the IRA''s Operations Officer on the Belfast Brigade. He told a senior IRA figure to no longer use an estate agent, Joe Fenton, for any IRA business. The senior figure told Fenton of Alex's suspicions and continued to use him. It was incidents such as this which led Brendan Hughes to feel the Belfast IRA was rotten and dangerous for authentic volunteers. Fenton was later shot dead by the IRA in an operation that many believe had the fingerprints of British security services all over it.
As an IRA volunteer Alex possessed an uncompromising ruthless streak and could be very critical of those who lacked it, particularly in relation to informers. As a volunteer at the heart of operations he knew the damage that informers could do to the IRA, and was merciless in his attitude towards them and disdainful towards those who allowed sentiment to cloud their judgement. He suspected Scappaticci of being an agent in 1990 and aired his misgivings with some trusted friends within the prison. When Scap was eventually outed, he was scathing of those who, even when the game was up, still opted to give the senior agent cover.
On paroles I would drop in and see his then wife and children, leaving a Christmas present from him for them. After release I took one of his sons to Glasgow to see a Celtic game. It was that camaraderie that led us to help our friends in less fortunate circumstances in whatever small ways we could. His wife reciprocated when she proved to be an invaluable friend to myself and my own wife in the most difficult of circumstances. Alex had married a wonderful intelligent woman but unfortunately the marriage did not last long after his release.
On his homecoming I headed over to the Turf Lodge social club where a welcome home do was being staged. After that we would go on the drink occasionally in Belfast or he would stop over for the night at our place.
The last time I saw him was when I travelled up for the trial of Seamus Kearney. Myself and another former prisoner called to his house en route to the court. He had a bottle of cider in the fridge which I cajoled him into sharing with me! He was in no real form for it so early in the morning but deferred to my protruding tongue with its parched appearance.
Occasionally we would speak by phone and a few weeks before he died we did just that as I walked through North Dublin. He had just come out of hospital after having a leg removed. He said he was in great form and sounded as if he was. While a leg amputation is no small health matter it never occurred to me that his life was nearing its end.
For a man who was "on the record as saying if he had to do it all again, he would" old friends gave him the type of send off he would have appreciated, firing a volley of shots over his coffin, ensuring he went out of this world in a manner consistent with how he conducted his business while in it.