The rookie scuba diver panicking deep in the clear blue seas off Bali could never guess that the instructor coming to help them had, in a previous life, been blown up, picked up the body parts of murdered colleagues and arrested a top IRA terrorist.
But retired RUC inspector William Clegg says that surviving harrowing experiences during his 30-year policing career during the Troubles guarantees he always stays calm with his students no matter what situation arises underwater. “I don’t get fazed,” he says.
That isn’t to say he is man at peace with the past. Though he’s a great talker and the gripping recollections spill forth — some dark, others heroic, many spliced with typical copper’s black humour — beneath the surface lies a troubled soul. But we shall come to that.
Photos of Clegg in his early RUC days show a suave, handsome officer and a colleague, in the foreword to his book, Crime, Comedy & Combat, describes him as a “lady’s man as well as a man’s man” which aptly sums up his good looks and all-round fearlessness.
He quit the force in 1999, three years after sustaining serious leg injuries on July 11, 1996, when a loyalist mob cornered him in Ahoghill and dropped concrete blocks on his legs, breaking both knees. A desk job beckoned, which didn’t appeal to this man of action.
Now 62 and single, the memoir started as a series of stories jotted down on A4 paper for his 11-year-old son. He’d write in a cafe in the Philippines, the region where he spends most of the year.
Inevitably policing during the conflict wrought a heavy toll — within three years Clegg went from a 19-year-old lad resitting his A levels, earning cash working in Crazy Prices supermarket and cruising round Bangor in his prized Triumph Bonneville to a hardened young policeman arresting an IRA unit on the border after an SAS operation.
He signed up in 1978 after a friend suggested he’d like it and still sporting long hair and earrings — “A cross between Alvin Stardust and Sid Vicious!” — he found himself at the RUC Training Centre, then based in Enniskillen. Fourteen weeks he was stationed in Belfast, the start of a career that saw him often working in the Divisional Mobile Support Unit across Northern Ireland.
In July 1981, Clegg was just 23 and back in Co Fermanagh, based at Rosslea RUC station, when he was involved in an extraordinary incident — arresting an IRA active service unit that included Seamus McElwain. First Minister Arlene Foster believes he was one of two gunmen who tried to murder her policeman father in an ambush at their farmhouse.
“We got an emergency radio transmission to make our way immediately to the townland of Mullaghglass,” recalls Clegg. “I drove the first vehicle — I’d selected a Datsun 180b unmarked police car as I knew it was reliable and fast. When we arrived a soldier directed us to a narrow laneway.
“This led to a stone cottage and the sight which greeted us will never leave my mind. In front of it lay four figures on their stomachs dressed in civilian work clothes. They were trussed up like chickens, tied with their hands and wrists around their backs. These, in turn, were attached to their ankles which were raised from their knees in a skyward position. They were bounded in plastic ‘zip ties’ which were broader than usual and couldn’t move.
“It had clearly been an SAS operation though only one heavily camouflaged soldier without a beret was visible. His colleagues were either out of view or already had been airlifted away. He stood over the four prisoners and faced us.”
Clegg continues: “It was only when he slightly nodded his head and blinked, did I feel the urge to get out of the police car. Scattered around were three military assault rifles, two Kalashnikov AK-47s and a plain black standard American Army issue type Armalite rifle. The whole scene was totally surreal, like a dream.”
Later, Clegg was told that if the IRA had carried out their first planned attack that day, a second attack would have seen him and other officers blown up on their way to investigate.
McElwain was jailed but escaped from the Maze prison in the 1983 IRA breakout. He was shot dead by the SAS in 1986 as he prepared a landmine for detonation.
Clegg found life in the RUC exhilarating, but by the time he was arresting the IRA unit he was already painfully aware of the heavy price terrorism was exacting on the force’s ranks. Barely a year out of police college, he attended the murder scene of a friend, Constable Noel Webb, who had trained with him.
The 30-year-old officer died alongside Constable Paul Gray (25), Constable Robert Lockhart (44) and Constable Richard Baird (28) on April 17, 1979, when their Land Rover was blown apart by a huge IRA bomb planted in a transit van.
The following day Clegg and colleagues were tasked with searching the murder scene. “I will never forget that sight,” he says quietly. “The vehicle was split asunder, the only visible remains were the chassis and some of the armoured plating panels. The four occupants had in effect been vaporised by the explosion. They wouldn’t have heard or felt a thing.
“We’d been trained for incidents such as this but nothing could prepare us, or anyone, for the emotional shock. After searching all day until twilight the largest identifiable portions we found were a steel rim about 100m away and a black boot with part of a foot and leg still inside. It was truly horrific.”
Amid the horror, he was struck by the most bitter of ironies — that such a gentle person as Noel had met such a violent end. “Noel was a quiet soul who was liked by everyone. He was around 10 years older and like an older brother. He also had an aversion to weapons.
“That night we drove back to Belfast and no one said a single world on the journey. Each of us was left with our own thoughts and prayers, all observing our own informal one hour moment of silence.”
Inevitably, this was to be the first of many friends Clegg lost to terrorism, among them Superintendent Robert Buchanan (55), who was murdered alongside Chief Superintendent Harold Breen (51), on March 20, 1989. Clegg was in charge of a base that “Bob” would call to inspect every other month. “He was a devoted family man who was deeply involved with his church,” he says.
Policewoman Rosemary McGuckin (27), among nine officers killed in February 1985 in an IRA attack on Newry RUC station, also had trained alongside him.
And he also spent a lot of time with Drew “Smokey” Beacom, “a huge lump of a country man who educated me about culchies”. Their humour sparked off each other. Drew was dead at 46, shot with Ernest Smith (49) while on mobile patrol on the Fermanagh border on December 12, 1993.
The deaths of civilians haunt him too. He was on the scene when Norman Donaldson (59), a father of eight, was shot dead in a case of mistaken identity after leaving Derrygonnelly RUC station, where he’d called to collect money for a hospital charity. In a cruel twist of fate, Mr Donaldson’s friend, John James Dundas (65), a father-of-six, drove past the barracks shortly afterwards and suffered a fatal heart attack. “Fourteen children left without a father,” notes Clegg.
Clegg had his own near-misses. In 1978, he and a colleague were evacuating houses in University Avenue, Belfast, following the discovery of a grille bomb — so-called because they were attached to iron security barriers — when the device exploded, blowing them both off their feet. “The blinding flash told me something had happened,” he says. “Then there was a loud bang followed immediately by a huge vacuum drawing you towards the site of the explosion, then instantly propelling you away.”
Clegg felt “disoriented and confused, ears numb and ringing. My first reaction was to try and get up, but I couldn’t. My balance was gone. After some moments we both managed to stagger up.”
The pair treated their shock by self-medicating with alcohol.
And with typical humour Clegg recalls how in 1985, while at Carrickmore RUC station in Co Tyrone, he was visiting the bathroom in a portable building when a mortar attack occurred. “It landed about five yards away. The lights went out, my lights went out; then I got up, p*** and s*** all over the place. I really thought it was my last movement. Luckily, although I was disorientated, I wasn’t very badly hurt, at least not physically.”
He was signed off on sick leave, which was fortunate as three weeks later another mortar attack on the same police station destroyed the bedroom he’d have been sleeping in.
What’s striking about Clegg’s story is how personal it all is. Colleagues are referred to by nicknames. Station camaraderie helps them cope with the terror threat as well as the more mundane challenges from certain senior officers who’d mete out disciplinary punishments, banishing the unfortunate culprit to a station in darkest Ulster.
It’s after we’ve been talking for almost two hours that the conversation lurches into more reflective hinterland. For some time Clegg has fended off my persistent queries about the emotional toll of it all, usually by saying you couldn’t allow yourself to think about risk, to get fearful.
He tells me of older officers who were strong mentors. He revered former Chief Constable Sir John Hermon. “When a colleague was killed, you’d raise a glass to them that night and get back to work the next day,” he says. It’s a world of straight-talking hardmen.
He won’t be drawn on PTSD and it appears the only time he had any counselling was following the attack in Ahoghill.
But then Clegg starts to talk about how Northern Ireland’s cold, damp weather aggravates the pain from his old injuries, which is why he spends most of his year in the warmer climate of Bali, where he has a small property. And suddenly it’s starkly clear that putting distance between himself and here is vital for his mental health too.
Though he’s glad he made it back home just before lockdown and has relished spending time with his son, Clegg reveals he is on medication, including anti-depressants and sleeping pills. That there are weeks when he struggles to sleep, pulls the blinds, withdraws from the world.
He tells me about a morning ritual. “I’ve a poster of the 302 RUC officers who were murdered. I knew about 30 of them personally. I was brought up Presbyterian and if anything I’m agnostic now. But each morning when I come down the stairs, I pause by that poster, choose a photo, look up the details of what happened to that person and say a few words.”
He’ll miss his son but will be glad to get back to Bali, to that feeling of total escape he feels diving among the coral reefs. “When you join the police religion doesn’t come into it. We always said there were Protestants, Catholics and peelers. It was Protestants who finished me off. I’m apolitical. I’ve never voted in my life. I’m just telling my story as it happened to me.”