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Ex-RUC man Thompson's novel championed by Danny Morrison

The retired officer talks to Ivan Little about his new book Nights In Armour and of the lucky escape from three bombs that convinced him it was time to quit front line policing

Sam Thompson
Sam Thompson
Smoke rises on Bloody Friday
Rave review: Danny Morrison
Samuel Thompson's novel, Nights In Armour
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Retired RUC man turned author Samuel Thompson wept openly when news of the IRA ceasefire in August 1994 reached him at a training course in England.

The tears he shed in a police canteen in Harrogate were of relief, but they were also for the victims of the Troubles.

And the faces of upwards of 30 policemen and women whom he'd lost during his 29 years in the RUC flashed through his mind.

Later, much later, it occurred to Sam that with the onset of peace as opposed to the onslaught of violence, he could maybe once again make a cup of coffee with the lights on.

He explains: "I knew two colleagues who were shot dead from outside their kitchens after they flicked on the light switch at night and so for years I made my coffee in the dark."

Fast-forward almost a quarter-of-a-century to more peaceful times of 2019 in Northern Ireland, and though Sam insists he no longer dwells on the possibility of being a target for terrorists, his body language belies it.

For as we meet for a coffee and a chat in a south Belfast cafe, he insists on sitting in a seat facing the door.

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"It's just an old habit. I wouldn't feel comfortable if I was sitting with my back to the street," says Sam, who has used his experiences as an RUC officer in the Troubles as the bedrock for his new book Nights In Armour, a publication that has received a rave review from Sinn Fein's former publicity director Danny Morrison.

It's a fictionalised account of the lives of three policemen in the early Eighties but Sam admits that he's based much of the fast-moving story on the fast-evolving Troubles of the time, an era dominated by the republican hunger strike.

He says though there are parts of his own story in the book, he isn't one of the RUC trio in Nights In Armour, but another character is largely based on a real-life policeman. "I've told him. And he's okay about it," says the author.

An RUC patrol in Belfast
An RUC patrol in Belfast

Sam, who frequently has to tell people he isn't related to the late Belfast playwright Sam Thompson, was born and raised off the Shankill before moving to other parts of the city.

And he remembers the Troubles were exploding all around him in his formative years when his parents tried to keep him and his siblings away from the paramilitaries and protect them from the violence.

But living where he did, that was sometimes an impossible aspiration.

One of his earliest memories is of seeing his terrified grandfather arming himself with a hatchet because he lived close to where nationalists from the Falls Road and loyalists from the Shankill were engaged in vicious clashes.

He says: "I can recall as clear as day that the hatchet was in his lap in case someone came to attack his home. And I can also remember seeing a bloke walking round the area with a rifle wrapped in brown paper. It was bizarre.

"Then when I was at primary school our sports day had to be abandoned because a crowd of youths threw stones and bottles at us. And our school buses were attacked regularly too."

McGurk's Bar after the loyalist atrocity
McGurk's Bar after the loyalist atrocity

His late father, who shared his name, was an ambulance man and controller during the height of the bombings and shootings in Belfast. But Sam jnr said he rarely talked about what he saw.

On one occasion the Thompson family heard on the TV news that an ambulance man had been shot dead and they asked Sam snr if he knew about it.

Sam jnr says: "Dad told us that he was sitting beside the murder victim. But he'd tried to keep it to himself though a couple of days later he collapsed with stress and we also found out later in life that dad had been on the scene of other major atrocities like Bloody Friday and McGurk's Bar."

For Sam jnr the daily rigours of life in north Belfast saw him running foul of other teenagers and being stopped repeatedly by soldiers and police.

But he now thinks that when he was a young boy, a loyalist paramilitary leader may have used him as cover to evade security checks.

He says: "The man would bring me and a friend who knew him with him to a farm where we would play to our heart's content while he busied himself in the outbuildings.

Sam Thompson
Sam Thompson

"I never saw anything suspicious but when he drove us back to Belfast he was never stopped by the Army or RUC, presumably because there were two kids in the vehicle."

At the Boys' Model school he was regarded as a promising pupil who was destined for university.

"But I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says.

"I fell into the RUC, really, because I could see that the days of the big industries like the shipyard were numbered.

"The idea of joining the police was quite exciting for a teenager like me, and because of the violence to which the RUC were subjected, there wasn't exactly a queue of people wanting to join."

After training in Enniskillen he was stationed in Armagh city and several bases in Belfast before moving to backroom work in RUC headquarters for five years until he went to the police's Mobile Support Unit in Dungannon.

One week in 1992 changed Sam's RUC life for ever.

The deaths of two colleagues in the previous months were on his mind but in the space of seven days in Dungannon Sam was within 25ft of three bombs, and though he escaped injury, he reckoned it was time to say farewell to front line policing.

He says: "One of the bombs contained 20 pounds of Semtex and a similar amount of nails in it. We had been lured into the area after a man was murdered as bait and we were right beside the bomb, but for whatever reason it didn't go off.

"If it had exploded we would have been cut to ribbons. I'm a firm believer in the law of averages and I didn't want to chance my luck any more.

"My feeling was that it was like Russian roulette - if you keep on spinning the barrel and pulling the trigger sooner or later the gun is going to go off.

" I applied for other jobs in the RUC and I worked at different times in training, personnel, IT and criminal justice before deciding to retire at the age of 46."

Looking back, he says he believes he was fortunate to have come through his RUC career virtually unscathed.

"I got hit by bricks. I was headbutted and punched but I was never badly injured in a bombing or a shooting. I was shaken definitely and I was slightly burned by petrol bombs. But nothing serious."

However, Sam says that, even 11 years after retiring from the RUC, looking at a photomontage poster that was produced of the 300-plus police officers who died during the Troubles is still chastening for him.

He adds: "I counted up the number of people that I knew and it came to over 30. But if you add on the number of officers who died in accidents or suicides the figure on the poster would go up to more than 500."

He says writing Nights In Armour was cathartic.

"It was one way of getting it all out I suppose. Although it's fiction and not fact, obviously your experiences influence what you write."

He used notes from his day to day service in the Eighties to help him with the writing of his book, which he says gives it an authenticity.

"What you see in the book and what people are saying in it - plus their attitudes - are very close to what was happening at that time," he says.

"Time does change perception. And the way we think about 1981 nowadays isn't the way we thought about it back then."

He says that the first edition of the book, which he has set in the fictional town of Altnavellan, was published in 1993 under the pen name of Blair McMahon.

The publisher was David Trimble's Ulster Society, but the book didn't trouble the compilers of the bestsellers' list, though it's become something of a collector's item since.

After leaving the police he didn't pursue his writing again for years.

"But then a couple of years ago I thought that a whole new generation had grown up without any real knowledge of the Troubles and I wondered if it was time to explore a new audience," says Sam.

Cork-based publishers Mercier Press had made it known a while back they were interested in reviving historic novels.

But because there was no copy of it on a computer, Sam had to seek help from halfway round the world.

He says: "I took pictures on my mobile phone of the pages from the original book and sent them off to a virtual office in the Philippines to get them typed up.

"Then I submitted the book to Mercier Press and they took it. They assigned editors to make whatever changes they felt were needed and so the new book is a bit different from the first one, but not markedly."

Ironically the launch of the book was delayed because of Brexit. The publishers feared there could be problems getting copies across the border from the printers in Poland but their worries were unfounded.

Nights In Armour is primarily about RUC officers, but Sam has also tried to look at how and why young men in the Eighties became terrorists

He says: "Maybe they had bad experiences with the police and decided to get involved because they thought they were being harassed and wanted to get their own back.

"I've tried to get a sense of balance, to look at it all through both sides of the equation. I didn't want the book to come across as propaganda."

Morrison, who is now an acclaimed writer and who has been promoting Nights In Armour on social media, clearly agrees.

On the cover he says: "A very good book. Despite my having diametrically opposite experiences, the book does not read as propaganda."

Sam says he has got to know Morrison and several other republicans through a "loose reconciliation group" run by a former member of the Parachute Regiment.

"I was a bit wary of meeting them but I get on very well with everyone," says Sam, whose earliest encounter with Morrison was a less cordial affair… in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital after the UDA shooting and wounding of Gerry Adams in Belfast in 1984.

"It's a strange old world," says Sam, who's an amateur actor in Bangor and a part-time lecturer at Queen's University in Belfast. "But I would rather have it the way it is now than the way it was then."

Sam, who has written a book about the Second World War, is currently planning another novel which he hopes to write in his home in France.

In the meantime he would love to see TV drama producers buying the rights to Nights In Armour.

"I think it would make a great mini-series. But we'll wait and see," he adds.

Nights In Armour by Samuel Thompson, published by Mercier Press

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