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Why Raymond Gilmour's violent life and pitiful death are but a microcosm of our murky past

The motivation to turn informer was never as straightforward as it might suit us to think, writes Gail Walker

Published 01/11/2016

British agent Raymond Gilmour
British agent Raymond Gilmour

The revelation this newspaper broke on Saturday that the former IRA and INLA man and British agent Raymond Gilmour had been found dead in his flat "somewhere in England" prompted a maelstrom of wildly varied reaction.

Oddly, while the passing of this most sensational individual, whose name and face dominated the headlines during the most frantic days of our Troubles in the 1980s during the infamous "supergrass" trials, sent the national and international Press into meltdown, there was a palpable unease back at home.

Sinn Fein's Jim McVeigh was quoted yesterday in this paper saying the news of Gilmour's death had "made his day". Victims' campaigner Willie Frazer offered to help with the costs of Gilmour's funeral. The deceased's ex-wife exclusively told Suzanne Breen in this paper yesterday that she "had begged MI5 to help him" and now demands to speak to the PM about how Gilmour was treated by the security forces he risked so much to aid.

Hero or villain? Traitor or man of principle? The snivelling, greedy, hand-wringing wretch of propaganda lore, or a man determined not to be one of the herd? A kind of payback for a community and tradition from which he felt alienated? After all, as a child he was something of a misfit, despised by those he grew up with.

Or maybe Raymond Gilmour did what he did because of a curious amalgam of impulses, wishes, desires, fears, principles and pettiness. The answers to these questions, as we know too well, will be determined by our politics. And that very fact should make us uneasy.

One of the consequences of our conflict is that even our emotions became corrupted into simple black/white categories. Yet Gilmour is beyond those judgments now, firmly part of the historical tapestry.

But a figure, it has to be said, with whom neither friend nor foe is entirely comfortable.

Yet, it is precisely people like him - wholly odd and irregular, a true outsider - who must make us question our instincts if we are to move ahead in this society.

All the abstract talk in the world about "reconciliation", "forgiveness", "mature reflection", "regret", or "dealing with the past" is useless when confronted by the grim reality that Gilmour's story presents.

For all our grandstanding and bitterness and finger-wagging, threats and oaths and revenge fantasies, sometimes it isn't a case of black and white; sometimes, it isn't either/or; sometimes, it is both; sometimes, it is even "none of the above".

If ever anyone's story describes one of the ways in which the Troubles could take and shape and mangle and then destroy a life, it is the melancholy tale of Raymond Gilmour, whose decomposed corpse lay for up to a week in a seaside flat somewhere in Kent before being discovered by his 18-year-old son.

While there is to be an autopsy, friends believe he died of natural causes. Since the collapse of the 1984 supergrass trial and his resettlement by his handlers in England, Gilmour had suffered from alcoholism and severe psychological problems.

Enemies will see in Gilmour's end a kind of justice, a working out of our deepest taboo and most binding shibboleth - you never betray the tribe. But that is exactly the kind of morbid voodoo which can so easily come round to haunt ex-combatants of all types, as they fall victim to disease, accident, insanity, suicide, or other variety of premature death.

There is no "natural justice" in these matters. What Gilmour's fate exposes again is the sudden visibility of the legacy of our Troubles. It wasn't just supergrasses and traitors who met nightmarish ends. Many's the IRA man has taken comfort in the bottle. Many's the loyalist. Many's the RUC man and British soldier. And many's the innocent civilian or relative of the dead.

It wasn't just the scapegoats who died deaths not meant for them.

As far as could be judged, Gilmour became an agent voluntarily, infiltrating first the INLA and then the Provisional IRA. He was an ardent anti-republican. His fellow agent Martin McGartland said that Gilmour never regretted becoming an informer. He was proud of what he did.

Strange for a Creggan Catholic whose father was - by his description - an "armchair Provo". But when we look past the stereotypes, the odd people are more numerous than we like to admit.

The White Blackbirds. Catholics who should be, we think, "nationalist" or "republican", but who consider themselves British; Protestants who, we think, should be unionist and loyalist, but who dislike their assumed tradition and feel sympathy with "Irishness".

Raymond Gilmour, as a youth, stood for the national anthem when it was played as television closed down at night. As an adult he laid a wreath at the Mull of Kintyre in remembrance of the senior security force figures who died in the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash. He prayed for Princess Diana following her death. Gilmour always voted Tory and was proud to display his poppy.

Certainly, the greater degree of our hatred is reserved for those who are the greatest transgressors, or the most dangerous enemy, or both. No one can deny there must have been courage involved in being an undercover agent at the height of the Troubles; a certain resolve in the betrayal of friends; a definite nerve required just to brass it out and stay alive, some inner steel that most of us would lack.

Life is never as straightforward as we pretend it is. If anything is emerging now out of the murky past of "touts", "informers", "agents", "nutting squads" and shady double dealers, it is that terrible deeds weren't done for "the cause", whichever one that might be - or, rather, weren't done solely out of some terrible purity of motive.

Many deeds for which there is still no one to own - or own up to them - were committed for darker reasons: bravado, perhaps; the big man in the big picture, rage, psychological impulses more suited to counselling than the grand rhetoric of principle; a desire to be seen as the children of a tradition, or a desire to destroy that tradition.

A supergrass dead in a flat in England. An ex-Provo killing themselves. A relative burying their grief in anti-depressants. A handler gnawed away with secrets and guilt.

In fact, no one could have foreseen that this is how our Troubles are ending. Not with shouts of victory or gunshots, but with unremarked, unseen injuries and unheard howls of distress, in waste and hurt and disillusionment and dreadful confusion.

Not with a bang, as the poet said. But with a whimper.

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