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Fair play to you, Tim McGarry!

Ahead of a BBC NI show tonight, Tim McGarry talks to Ivan Little about politics, poking fun and peace

The ready smiles and the quick-fire quips disappear the instant that comedian Tim McGarry, who has made a living out of his wickedly humourous takes on the Troubles, starts to recall the horrific night he and his family came perilously close to death as a result of the sectarianism he so despises.

Unsurprisingly the versatile and always-busy funnyman who is about to go on tour again with the stage version of the still popular TV comedy series Give My Head Peace finds nothing to laugh about as he talks about the nightmarish arson attack on his family home in north Belfast 33 years ago.

Tim remembers it all with crystal clarity.

"It was February 1981 and it happened at the same time as the Stardust disaster which killed 48 young people in a nightclub in Dublin. Our house was just one of the targets of a gang that night who torched several properties in north Belfast including a church and a convent.

"They broke into the house in the Fortwilliam area as we all slept and set three different fires."

Tim's father, a respected surgeon in the Mater Hospital who helped countless victims of the violence here, woke up on hearing the sound of glass breaking because of the heat but couldn't alert the emergency services because the intruders had cut the telephone line.

He jumped out of a window to raise the alarm and broke a leg in the process.

Tim says: "My sister was nearly killed. She was trapped at the top of the house while my brother and I had our heads stuck out of windows."

The McGarry brothers got out but their sister had fallen unconscious in the dense smoke and had to be rescued by the Fire Brigade.

The Valentine's Day tragedy in Dublin and the sheer regularity of murders and sectarian attacks right across Belfast at the time meant that the fire at the McGarry home didn't feature for long in the headlines.

But Tim says: "As the victims you never forget something like that. It was a horrible experience, waking up and not being able to breathe.

"It was the smoke and not the fire which was getting to us and we were stumbling blind. In the panic I tried to open a window which hadn't been opened in 20 years and my brother walked into a door, banging his head. It was scary stuff.

"I remember waking up in the Mater Hospital covered in black soot which took three days to get off."

The police believed the attacks were the work of a gang from a nearby loyalist area but they didn't have enough evidence for prosecutions.

The fire was treated by police as attempted murder. "Five of us could have died that night," says Tim, who was just 16 at the time.

One aspect of the spate of arsons did amuse Tim, however, and sometimes finds its way into his comedy routines.

"One thing which made the police so certain that they were sectarian was graffiti painted by the gang on a minibus. The slogan said they were from the Protestant Loyalist Volunteer Force – only they used a 'd' in the spelling of Protestant," says Tim.

The McGarrys were out of their home for six months as builders refurbished it.

Despite the Troubles coming so close to home, Tim has managed to make thousands of people laugh at the ridiculousness of the conflict and at themselves.

But tonight his latest offering on television is deadly serious. It's called "Discrimination – they think it's all over." It's about the history of religious discrimination here. It's a subject that Tim knows particularly well. For he and one of his comic partners Michael McDowell both worked as lawyers for the Fair Employment Commission for four years from its inception in 1990.

"We took some of the earliest important cases that changed things dramatically. So the documentary is about a story which has never really been told – a personal story in many ways."

It is, of course, sometimes easy to forget just how controversial the introduction of Fair Employment legislation was in Northern Ireland where discrimination in the workplace was seen by some employers and their employees as almost a way of life.

Tim says: "Fair employment was a major political issue and though it's now largely died down and disappeared, 20 years ago there was an awful lot of fuss about it. The setting up of tribunals was exceptionally important and I am very proud of the work I did there and the Equal Opportunities Commission which I joined later."

A number of politicians from both sides including Martin McGuinness, Jim Allister and Gregory Campbell have been interviewed for the programme, along with historians, but people who were discriminated against were reticent.

"We approached a number of people who I had dealt with in their complaints but even though it's two decades on, they were still reluctant to talk about it," says Tim.

Tonight's programme may be a world away from Give My Head Peace but Tim has enjoyed going back to his legal roots. He studied law at Queen's University in Belfast and worked in private practice before going into the FEC which was headed up by Bob Cooper, who Tim believes was crucial to the ground-breaking success of the Commission.

But all the time he was furthering his law career, Tim's parallel life in comedy was flourishing. At Queen's he'd teamed up with Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, who were also law students with a similar jaundiced, if not judicious, view of the mayhem that was going on all around them in Northern Ireland.

But there were so many members in the first group they formed, that it became unwieldy and unworkable before it was pared back to a five strong set-up, the Hole in the Wall gang, which included Marty Reid and Nuala McKeever, whose big break came after regular Friday appearances on David Dunseith's Talkback programme. The Gang's popularity soared and they became a cult must-see act in Belfast before Radio Ulster gave them their own Perforated Ulster series which included a sketch called 'Too Late to Talk to Billy and Paddy about love across the barricades and the terror triangle' which eventually morphed into Give My Head Peace.

The TV version of GMHP ran to 10 series with 73 episodes and though critics loved to hate the humour, it was a massive hit with the public – a collective guilty secret in some quarters.

"In my own acting career I played three characters on the show, a loyalist villain, a republican thug and a priest. And it was remarkable how many people who swore they never watched Give My Head Peace were able to comment on my appearances afterwards," Tim says.

The BBC decommissioned the series – so to speak – six years ago but regular reincarnations of the stage show are still putting up to 12,000 backsides on seats across the province.

And everywhere that Tim McGarry goes, his alter ego – Da, the hapless republican – goes with him. "We haven't been on the television for six years now but not a day goes past without someone shouting 'Da' at me and wondering where Uncle Andy is," says Tim.

Tim and his colleagues are currently developing a new satire about Stormont called Number Twos which they swear gets it title from the central characters, civil servants, who are second in command in their departments working to a DUP and Sinn Fein agenda.

"We've done two radio pilots which went down really well and we are working on scripts with a view to putting the show on TV," says Tim for whom it doesn't seem possible that there are enough hours in the day for him to fulfil all his commitments.

For he's a political satirist, a stand-up comedian, a stage and film actor, the host of TV and radio shows, a documentary maker, a master of ceremonies and a producer of docu-dramas like one-offs about the Father Brendan Smyth scandal, the role of the ship California in the Titanic disaster and the Patricia Curran murder. A couple of romantic comedy movies are also in the pipeline, including one about a middle-aged man who finds himself a Thai bride.

As for his own family, Tim is married with two teenage sons who share his passion for Cliftonville Football Club. His uncle Dr Kevin McGarry was a legend at Solitude, a goalscoring Northern Ireland international who went on to manage the north Belfast side. Tim's father was the club doctor.

"In those days about 10 people used to turn up to watch Cliftonville and we would be brought as a punishment," Tim jokes

His son Michael plays for the Cliftonville under-12 team and the current club doctor and the kit man are also Tim's relatives.

The only area into which Tim, who turns 50 this year, has never strayed is politics. Well almost never. He did help his brother Philip with his election campaigns for the Alliance Party but he adds: "You can't get involved in active politics if you're taking the hand out of them all. You have to maintain a distance and I do."

At university he was interested in politics surrounding world development but nearer to home he's never been approached by any parties.

"I've been asked to do gigs for most parties, apart from Sinn Fein. And I do poke fun at them all," Tim says

But while he may put a brave face on it, Northern Ireland does depress Tim from time to time – especially so during last year's riots on the streets of Belfast.

He says: "I have a son who was born a month before the Good Friday agreement in 1998. I thought that he was going to grow up in a society that was a bit calmer and better but there's still so much bitterness out there," he says. "We did an archive programme a while back called Pop Goes Northern Ireland which looked back at the years of the Troubles and you forget how miserable, awful, terrible and drab it all was. We are definitely in a better place now."

As for Give My Head Peace, Tim has no idea if it will still be doing the rounds of Ulster theatres in five or 10 years' time. But there's no shortage of source material for the writers to draw upon.

Last week for example Tim and his colleagues signed off on the finished script for a new Give My Head Peace show which starts touring tomorrow night in Lisburn. Within hours the controversy over the on-the-run letters had exploded all over the news. And a re-write began immediately. "But let's face it, " says Tim with a grin, "Northern Ireland politics are a golden goose that just keeps on giving ..."

Discriminations - they think it's all over, BC1, tonight, 10.35pm. Give My Head Peace, Island Hall, Lisburn, tomorrow, 8pm. Tel: 02892 509254. For tour details, visit www.givemyheadpeace.co.uk

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