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The Troubles with Twitter: We meet Belfast Child, On This Day The IRA, Irish Border and MLAs And The Like

Twitter users in NI are increasingly using the platform to document our recent past. Laurence White talks to four account-holders about their labour of love

Looking back: John Chambers
Looking back: John Chambers
Belfast Child
The irish border
Worlds apart: John Chambers (left) with his siblings
John Chambers now, with his wife Simone and their two children

By Laurence White

Twitter, founded in 2006, is a hugely popular social media platform, with 261 million account-holders worldwide sending some 500m tweets (short messages) a day. There are an estimated 13 million Twitter users in the UK.

The medium is widely used by celebrities and perhaps the most famous user is US President Donald Trump, who has embraced it more wholeheartedly than any other world leader.

The platform is used for all kinds of reasons - 74% of users say it is where they get their news. Others use it shamelessly for self-promotion, or companies find it useful to build up a relationship with customers.

We look at four Twitter account-holders in Northern Ireland and examine why they joined the medium and the reaction to their tweets.

One has already obtained a book deal, another is seeking one, a third uses it as a platform to remember people killed by the IRA and the fourth simply pokes fun at our politicians. Here are their stories:

Belfast Child

Belfast man John Chambers has a very simple reason for setting up his Twitter account and also a blog: to tell the incredible story of his search for his mother.

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She was a Catholic from a strongly republican family on the Falls Road, who married John Chambers from an equally staunch Protestant background in the 1960s. From the outset, there was friction between the families and, as the Troubles began, with its attendant dangers to those in mixed relationships, their marriage fractured and John's mum, Marie, fled to London with three of her children.

However, her husband and his brothers tracked her down and brought the children back to Belfast to live in the intensely loyalist Glencairn estate. All mention of Marie was banned. The children were led to believe she had died in a car accident.

John takes up the story: "My dad died from lung cancer at the age of 39, when I was 10. It was only at his wake that I realised my mother was still alive and was a Catholic.

"Her religion had remained a closely guarded family secret as my dad had been a member of the UDA, but not involved in paramilitary violence.

"Initially, I was angry that he had married a 'Taig', as I had grown up in Glencairn, where hatred of Catholics was almost in my DNA at that time. It was only when I was in my late teens and began getting into Mod music and meeting young Catholics who shared my interests that I realised they were no different from me.

"I began searching for my mum, but had no real knowledge of how to go about it.

"But I was eventually to find her through a bizarre coincidence about two decades ago. A friend was on holiday in Florida and met a couple in a bar who, on hearing his Belfast accent, asked if he knew a family called Chambers from the Shankill. He replied that he had gone to school with me.

"The woman revealed that she was my mother's sister and wrote a letter to me, which my friend delivered. From it I found that my mum had been trying to find her children.

"My brother and I met her in Preston in the north-east of England. It was great to meet her after so long.

"Sadly, my mum died last October, but I had a great 20 years knowing her. She, too, died of cancer."

He adds: "I had always wanted to write a book about my story, and have put several chapters on my site. I had once been offered a (book) deal, but it happened just as Princess Diana was killed and everything just fell through.

"My Twitter account and blog are ways of getting exposure for my story, but I have broadened it out to include many other things - I put all kinds of music on it and also commemorate those who were killed in the Troubles, irrespective of religious or political affiliations, and include everyone - even paramilitaries who killed each other. There are a lot of young people in Northern Ireland who don't know what went on. I saw things that no kid should ever see."

He now keeps in contact with Stephen Travers, who survived the Miami Showband massacre.

"As long as there are survivors of the Troubles, or bereaved families, I will keep posting information on those kiwwlled. People today don't understand how bad things were then. That was one of the reasons why I left Belfast."

Now aged 52 and married to Simone - a former professional dancer in the West End of London ("I never thought I stood a chance with her") - and with two children, Autumn and Jude, he lives near where he was reunited with his mum.

"When I go back to Belfast now after decades in England, people remark about my accent. I remember being at my grandmother's wake in Sandy Row and talking to Alex Higgins. He later asked someone who the Englishman was and I felt quite offended."

Blog: Twitter: @bfchild66

From chronicling crimes of the IRA to mocking MLAs

On This Day The IRA

This page, updated daily, chronicles the deaths caused by the IRA during the Troubles. Started in January last year, each tweet carries the name of the victim, information on how he or she died and, if possible, newspaper cutting, photos or even videos.

The man behind the account, Ivan (not his real name), works with a researcher to gather the information. The aim, he says, is to personalise each death.

"We know there were thousands of people killed in the Troubles, but how many do we remember? The victims should not be statistics - they were real people."

Ivan, who will only reveal that some of his family members were seriously injured in an unnamed IRA outrage, is too young to remember much of what happened during the Troubles.

"There is an attitude that people suffered, but no one really wants to talk about it," he says.

"Because of that and the process which tries to rehabilitate people who were in organisations which committed murder, there has been a reluctance to look at the interests of victims.

"They are largely being airbrushed out of history, almost as (if they are) an embarrassment."

But why just concentrate on murders committed by the IRA?

He replies: "There are several reasons. Of all the paramilitary groups, they are most adept at sanitising what they did, or arguing that it was a legitimate campaign of violence.

"The IRA also attempted to show themselves as better than loyalist paramilitaries, but they were also guilty of nakedly sectarian killings. The Kingsmill massacre is the often-quoted example, but who remembers the Herron family of Dromore?

"The father sold loyalist and Orange regalia and the family lived in a flat above the shop. The IRA planted an incendiary device in the shop, which exploded during the night, killing Mr Heron, his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter Noleen (27), one of their four children. That was a blatantly sectarian atrocity.

"No one would try to defend loyalist murders in the way that the IRA do. Nowadays, some people who were in the IRA have become political mouthpieces for that organisation.

"When people sit down and discuss how to deal with the past, at the same table are representatives of the republican movement in the form of Sinn Fein. I don't want them there. They help decide on how to deal with the past, and that is outrageous."

He recalls the death of Alan Johnston, a joiner from Kilkeel, who was shot, as the minister at his funeral said, "with his lunch box in one hand and a set of tools in the other".

"That was a good riposte to Danny Morrison, who said republicans would take power with a ballot box in one hand and an Armalite in the other," Ivan says.

He also cites an example of what he calls "cleansing" by the IRA in border regions. "The last Protestant shopkeeper in Roslea village in Fermanagh was Douglas Deering. He was a 57-year-old father-of-three who was shot dead at his shop on May 12, 1977.

"The IRA said he was shot by loyalists because he had stayed open during the loyalist workers' strike, but that was only to cover up what they did. That shows the sort of honesty from these people, if we are going to buy into a truth and reconciliation process."

He stresses that he equally abhors and condemns murders carried out by loyalist organisations.

Reaction to his Twitter account has been overwhelmingly positive, and followers have contributed material which had never been seen before.

In one instance, the reverse was the case. He was contacted by the son of a soldier who had been killed in an explosion in south Armagh in the 1970s. That man had never seen a photograph of his father, but Ivan discovered one in a local newspaper from the time. "That was the first time he had ever seen what his dad looked like," he says.

He also recalls a poignant front page from this newspaper, following the death of Lesley Gordon, a 10-year-old girl killed by an IRA booby-trap bomb alongside her father, a member of the UDR, who was driving her to school. Her little brother was also in the car but survived.

"The photograph in the Belfast Telegraph showed Lesley's empty school desk and a painting which she had done just a few days earlier," he says. "On another occasion, I published a photo of a family standing around an open grave of someone killed by the IRA. They had never seen that image, but they appreciated it."

Ivan admits that compiling the daily updates takes an emotional toll. "I remember working on the entry for those killed in the La Mon fireball explosion. I finished work on it about 1am, but a few hours later, I woke up in floods of tears because of the photos I had seen and what I had written," he explains.

"I remember finding out that the husband of Christine Lockhart (33), who died in the explosion, was offered £90 compensation for her death. He left the country in disgust and went to the Philippines, where he set up a children's home called Christine's charity."

The husband of Margaret O'Hare, a mother-of-seven killed by an explosion on Bloody Friday in Belfast, got no compensation for her death as she was unemployed, and therefore there was deemed to be no financial loss. Her husband received a payment for the destruction of his Mini car in the explosion.

Ivan concludes: "Joseph Stalin once said, 'A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic'. That is what the IRA benefits from, but when their murder toll is broken down into individual cases, you get away from them being simply a statistic."

Twitter: @OnThisDayPIRA

Irish Border

This account, started in February 2018, began as a joke, according to its author, who declines to give any information about himself, not even if he lives near that much-discussed part of the island.

The account's tweets are written as if the border is a real person. The idea sprang from an account in New Zealand, where a river got legal status as a person.

The author of the Irish Border (let's call him Jim, even if that is not his real name) explains: "That is what gave me the idea. That river is fairly forthright in its views."

It is evident the Irish Border is anti-Brexit. Its introduction sets the tone: "I am the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I am seamless and frictionless already, thanks. Bit scared of physical infrastructure."

Jim adds: "The border is 90 years old, lived through hard times and for 20 years experienced peace and thought it was retired. Now it finds it has a bit more work to do. Like anyone in that position, it doesn't want to go back to work, thank you very much."

Brexit, of course, is rich material for someone wanting to take a sarcastic poke at politics.

Commenting on the continual demands for an extension to Article 50, the Irish Border says: "Now they cannot decide how long to be indecisive for."

And on the chaos at Westminster: "Backstop still intact, ERG not so much."

Jim says he posts each day. "There is no shortage of material, but it is also serious because it has gone on and on and nothing much has changed since this account started. However, part of the comedy is how boring it all is as they keep repeating things. Everyone would like to see Brexit finished, but probably it will keep going until October.

"I have become a bit schizophrenic, trying to balance my own feelings and the views expressed by the Irish Border. It just wants to be left as it is.

"Maybe there is some difference between what I feel and what the Irish Border feels."

But one thing is certain: the Irish Border is no laughing matter - its author has just secured a deal to publish a book in October. "It will be written by the account. A book was never the idea, but it's great," he says.

Twitter: @BorderIrish

MLAs And The Like

Another account to poke gentle fun at politicians, its inspiration also came from overseas - specifically, another account showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looking at random things.

Author "Paul" explains: "That gave me the idea of featuring our politicians standing around looking awkward. I started it on Facebook about seven years ago - the Executive and Assembly proved a rich source of material - and later moved to Twitter.

"There was no political point to it - it was just fun. A few ministers were repeat offenders. They were not being best-advised by their Press officers on what to do when out on photo opportunities.

"At the time, Mairtin O Muilleoir was hailing himself as the king of Twitter, and he was followed by more and more MLAs on the platform. Twitter became a much richer source of material than Facebook.

"Arlene Foster, when she was in charge of (the Department of) Enterprise, Trade and Investment, didn't appear to have a filter. She was photographed doing things which lent themselves to humorous captions. Another example was Barry McElduff, until that all went wrong for him.

"By comparison, David Ford, when he was Justice Minister, appeared to be very well-advised, so he was difficult to poke fun at. We never seemed to find any particularly amusing pictures of him."

However, the fall of the Executive meant a change of focus to the province's MPs. "This coincided with the DUP and Northern Ireland coming under more national scrutiny. Northern Ireland had again become a big new item nationally," Paul says.

He follows as many politicians as possible on social media, as well as some of the best-known political commentators.

"That is a great source of pictures for me to caption," Paul explains.

One news story which gave him great fun was the idea of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. However, given that he has a background in IT, the suggestions that there are technological answers to the border question have irked him.

"I have worked in that sector for 20 years and there is no easy answer," he says.

"I get ratty at politicians trying to fob off responsibility for the issue to the tech sector."

Despite that, Paul maintains he has no political axe to grind. "Nothing is done with particular malice, but if something looks ridiculous, I will comment on it.

"I would say I was apolitical. I don't set out to comment on one side more than the other.

"I have been called a loyalist and a republican on different days, so I suppose that proves my point."

Even though all political parties have had the finger of fun pointed at them by the account, only the DUP and Sinn Fein have engaged with it.

"Christopher Stalford of the DUP commented after we posted a photo of him in a kilt at the time of the Scottish independence referendum," Paul says.

"I just do this for my own amusement. It writes itself sometimes. One could be more vindictive, but it is pitched at a level which makes me laugh."

He recalls the time when, after the DUP signed its confidence and supply agreement with the Tory Government, he suggested a number of things the DUP had demanded in return for keeping Theresa May in power.

Among them was red, white and blue kerbstones and moving the Strictly Come Dancing results show from a Sunday to a Saturday because dancing on a Sunday was sinful.

Twitter: @MLAsAndTheLike

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