Willie Frazer: In many ways, he is his own worst enemy, says Alex Kane
In many ways, he is his own worst enemy; his publicity-seeking obscuring his real objectives. But, as Willie Frazer finalises plans for another Love Ulster rally in Dublin, Alex Kane says there is more to him than an ill-conceived Abu Hamza act
You tend not to get a shrug of the shoulders when you ask people about Willie Frazer; you don't get many of them asking who he is.
It really is surprising the number of people who know the name and who have an opinion about him - and usually a pretty strong one, as it happens: fantasist, publicity-seeker, troublemaker, extremist, nutter, weirdo, disturbed, unpleasant and relic of the past are all descriptions you'll hear about him fairly regularly. Some of the reactions are unprintable.
These responses are probably determined by the fact that he courts publicity and often seems to go out of his way to attract it in any and every form.
Last September, for example, he turned up at Laganside Courts as the radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, dressed in a flowing black robe, skullcap, fake beard and with a clothes-hanger hook attached to one of his hands.
Willie Frazer is not a man for nuance, or subtlety. He's not the sort of guy to pass on by when he spots a camera, or microphone. In media terms, he's one of those people you can always rely on for a story on a slow day.
Of course, it's not exactly hard work to knock people like Frazer. Indeed, with his mixture of stunts and occasionally bizarre statements, he makes it easy for his opponents to set him up as a figure of fun.
Yet it needs to be remembered that Frazer has a story to tell and a story that deserves to be heard. His family was dealt some particularly bloody and brutal blows during the Troubles. His world was turned upside down as old certainties and lifestyles were wiped away. He has had to deal with events that would crush even the strongest of us.
Yes, he's angry. Yes, he's had a raw deal along the way. Yes, there's a level of resentment within him that may make it impossible for him ever to move on and accept the new political dispensation here. But he's not alone.
Dismissing him, ridiculing him, or pushing him aside won't, however, deal with the reality that he's just one of thousands of people - albeit one of the best-known - who have to deal with the past every single day, because the past is part of their present.
William Frederick Frazer was born on July 8, 1960, in Ballymoyer, close to Whitecross in the republican heartlands of south Armagh. He was one of nine children: his father, Bertie, was a driver for Armagh Council and his mum, Margaret, a full-time housewife.
"I remember growing up and starting school. I had to attend a Catholic school, because there were no Protestant schools nearby. I also played Gaelic at Whitecross in my youth and never treated anyone differently to myself.
"It was a tough life and the family always felt there was no space for speaking out on how you felt going to a school where you had to go outside whilst those inside practiced their religious beliefs. It wasn't easy for a young child to understand why you were put out of school every day for an hour."
His father had joined the Ulster Defence Regiment shortly after it had been established and their home was attacked with bombs and bullets on a number of occasions. Yet even against that background, Frazer maintains that there was still a "cross-community" dimension to their lives and that he played football and other games with local Catholics.
On August 30, 1975, when Frazer had just turned 15, his father was murdered by the IRA as he drove his car out of a farm near Whitecross. He was shot in the head and died at the scene.
A few months later his uncle, John Bell, was also murdered and over the next few years another uncle and two cousins were killed.
"The reality of the Troubles first hit me whenever I lived in Newtownhamilton and helped out at a shop which belonged to William Meaklim. This man drove to Crossmaglen to deliver groceries to people and often took me with him. There was no hatred of Catholics; we strived to deliver the groceries to everyone, often late on a Saturday evening.
"On a couple of occasions, he told me he was doing the run on his own and it was on one such occasion when he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. This was difficult to accept, as William Meaklim was brought up and walked in the Christian faith.
"I felt immense pain at the loss of such a good man, who was allowing me to help after school to get a bit of pocket money. I think this had a severe effect on my future at school, as I lost my way because I never got over the grief and could not come to terms with it.
"Then my father was murdered and everything became unbearable, so I couldn't continue to study, or settle. I felt lost, because I couldn't really do anything to bring my father back for the younger ones in the family and my mother who continually cried."
That's gritty, graphic stuff. And that was the reality of Willie Frazer's life as a teenage boy. Then and for years afterwards he, his family, his friends and the wider Protestant/unionist community in that area looked over their shoulders and under their cars. They could take nothing for granted. They never knew when a goodbye to someone would be the last goodbye.
Some of his critics write off Frazer as "just a bigot". Yet there's no evidence of sectarianism, or bigotry, in his thinking. He doesn't hate Catholics - even though there are elements of republicanism that seem keen to promote that view. What he does hate, though, is the IRA and, by extension, Sinn Fein. He hates the fact that Sinn Fein is in government, while victims of IRA terrorism are left without either truth, or justice.
Some of his supporters - and he has many across the groups and organisations that cater for victims - express concern that his tactics have damaged their cause. One, from Fermanagh, told me: "I know where Willie's coming from and I know the grief he carries. But he shouldn't allow the flags stuff and parades issue to muddy the waters for the very separate issues which we in the victims' groups deal with."
He denies that he's a self-serving publicity-seeker. "A publicity-seeker? For what? To sell books? To fill out halls? I seek publicity for one reason and one reason only: to keep the victims issues to the fore, so it's not publicity for me; it's for what I am saying.
"It's just the way the world is. I could spend my life writing letters to people and the papers and, at a guess, Id say one in every 100 would be published. So, sometimes, you have to say and do things to get your message out there."
Inside Willie Frazer there's still a teenage boy trying to make sense of what happened to him, his family and the cross-community dimension of his life 40 years ago. And that same boy is still trying to make sense of what happened from 1998 onwards.
In many ways, he's also his own worst enemy, because he has often allowed the stunts to mask the reality and tragedy of his own life and that of countless others.
If Willie Frazer wants us to listen to his story and the issues that matter to him, then he needs to find another way of getting that narrative across.
On a personal level he is both likeable and articulate. His problem is that the very people who need to hear his story have switched off and tuned out because they haven't been able to get past the noise, the anger and the photo opportunities.
That's a pity, because what he has to say is actually a very interesting and very important part of our collective history.
A life so far
- He attended a Catholic school and was a member of the under-11s GAA team
- His mother received more than 1,000 mass cards after his father was murdered in 1975
- He is married with one son, who is at university
- When he was a boy, he liked wrestling and still likes John Wayne films
- He has been both a lorry driver and the owner of a nightclub
- He created FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives) in 1998
- He is pressing ahead with plans for a Love Ulster 2 victims' rally in Dublin