Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Why veteran TV reporter Peter Taylor's Bloody Sunday remarks are an insult to the thousands who didn't join the IRA

The BBC journalist wants us to believe that we were all in it together, says Tom Kelly. We weren't. And he should know: he grew up during the Troubles, too

Father Edward Daly uses a blood-stained handkerchief as a white flag on Bloody Sunday in 1972
Father Edward Daly uses a blood-stained handkerchief as a white flag on Bloody Sunday in 1972
Peter Taylor

By Tom Kelly

Had I been a teenager on Bloody Sunday, I probably would have joined the IRA. I would have considered taking the final steps, which is what happened to hundreds of young Catholic men and women on and after Bloody Sunday".

These remarks were made by the much-respected and veteran reporter Peter Taylor.

In some ways, while they made me bristle, it was his clarification of those remarks that sent me into a fit of rage.

Clarifying his remarks to the BBC, Taylor said: "What I was trying to explain to people was what drove so many young Catholics and nationalists to join the IRA; why do ordinary people decide to make this huge step and use violence to achieve a political end."

Taylor is an experienced and nuanced journalist and he must have known the import of what he was saying.

The reality is, notwithstanding Bloody Sunday, or the Ballymurphy massacre, the greater majority of young nationalists/Catholics did not get involved with the IRA, or any other paramilitary group.

I know: I was one of them. I grew up in the same environment and saw the same events. We were the majority, not those who signed up for a senseless and unwarranted war.

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Nothing justified the war. Not a single life was worth taking for a political end. As someone who grew up in the Troubles, I and the vast majority of others, could see that. Nothing was inevitable.

Alex Kane, the liberal unionist commentator, when asked on the Nolan Show to respond to Taylor's remarks, referred to the answer which the late David Ervine gave to him: namely that young loyalists, from working-class backgrounds, felt they had no option but to join the UVF or UDA.

I always believed that, while Ervine was a fine man in so many ways, his explanation of the path to paramilitary involvement was way too simplistic. He, like the rest of us, had a choice. And, what's more, he had a conscience. Our shared working-class backgrounds didn't exonerate, or excuse, our choices.

His explanation and, in some ways, that of Peter Taylor is an insult to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland.

Stephen Nolan makes constant references to his social background, as if it was unique. It isn't. Most of us come from working-class backgrounds and even those in the leafy suburbs of Malone, or the Somerton Road, are likely to be only one or two generations from humble beginnings.

Some of us even come from single-parent families, such as mine.

It was tough, but it wasn't unhappy, or without joy. I doubt if Stephen, like me, or others, felt it would be a good idea to become a paramilitary.

My father is a joiner. His father a carpenter and his father before him was a labourer. My father was stopped often by the UDR and RUC. He was even taken to the Maze Prison while on the way to work. He faced sectarianism as a sub-contracted worker in the shipyard.

We lived in an estate where the IRA and the Army regularly shot at each other. Houses were regularly raided, but political hatred was never a feature of our home. I doubt it was in the majority of other homes, either.

My father would have walked on broken glass to make sure we went to school during the Troubles.

He gave up smoking just to be able to buy us stuff we needed for school. He had one good suit and we had no family car. Everything was centred on us as his children.

When I think back to the estate where I grew up, my dad was no different to any other parent in our street.

They all had ordinary jobs, or no jobs at all.

Yet, one street produced children who went on to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, accountants, engineers and a host of other occupations. One of my former neighbours became chair of the Law Society and another a QC. We were not the exception.

The vast majority of parents across the north, irrespective of whether unionist or nationalist, did not allow their children to become involved with paramilitaries and it is grossly offensive to offer any narrative that suggests otherwise.

Of course, some young people were lured into paramilitary activity and the majority of those who paid with their lives, or who ended up prison, did come from ordinary, working-class backgrounds.

That's because those godfathers and the money men behind terrorism rarely get caught. Their collars were never felt by the law.

It is true that some young people may never have become involved with the IRA, or UVF, had it not been for what they witnessed and how it radicalised them.

That said, they were not the majority and it is incumbent on us to keep repeating that.

Taylor's comments were ill-informed. To say that had he been a teenager on Bloody Sunday he probably would have joined the IRA seems beyond any rationale. Certainly, it's beyond the rationale of the majority who witnessed the same atrocities, but who didn't join paramilitaries.

Derry, the place most synonymous with the civil rights movement, the birthplace of John Hume, the home of the late Ivan Cooper, is a place that despite, or in spite of, Bloody Sunday, wasn't a place where the majority gravitated towards to the IRA.

The popularity of the former SDLP leader and the success of his party electorally in Derry during the Troubles proves that.

And Taylor knows this. That should have been the narrative - not the lazy and easy throw-away explanation that everyone jumped on the IRA bandwagon. They didn't.

It has become all-too-convenient for former belligerents to contaminate the rest of us with the destruction, discrimination, despair and devastation of the Troubles era. But saying it doesn't make it true.

It's a currency that needs to be spent now.

It is a gratuitous insult to our parents, the hundreds of thousands of ordinary, working-class folk (many of whom are now dead) to suggest that their efforts to keep their children safe and help them make good choices during the Troubles was in vain, because some would like a simpler, less-complicated narrative - the one which seeks to implicate us all; the one that says we were all in it together. We were not. Those who made alternative choices did just that.

Against a backdrop of intimidation, provocation and recrimination, the vast majority in Northern Ireland, those of all creeds and none, made choices which were about laying the foundations for a better future.

The least commentators and journalists can do is acknowledge them.

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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