Time to peer behind the masks of troubled times
Victims of the Troubles don’t need inquiries, they need the killers to ditch the legend, tell the truth and admit the murders were wrong, says Joshua Levine
Over the last year or so, I have been writing a book about the Troubles. I have met many people from many backgrounds — and I have been struck by the fact that most would prefer not to look too closely into the recent past. With good reason. There are a lot of people with a lot to hide — and peace is not yet iron cast. But I have also met those who struggle to make sense of their lives in this historical void.
Caitlin, for example. She is a young woman whose father was shot dead in 1993, after which her family fell apart and she was taken into care. “I would love to know why they done it,” she says. “It’s not really a big thing to ask. Why?”
But even if the peace process isn’t yet robust enough to withstand intense scrutiny, even if it seems unwise to spend countless millions of pounds on an endless round of tit-for-tat inquiries, there is surely one way in which people like Caitlin can begin to receive answers.
And that is to hear sincere words from some of the men (and women) who caused violence, in order to discover their motivations and their true feelings about the things they did.
One such honest man I spoke to was Alistair Little, a youthful-looking man in his early fifties, with a keen eye for the hypocrisy and denial that he believes infects Northern Ireland’s relationship with its past. He is an ex-member of the UVF, who in 1975 shot dead a 20-year-old Catholic man.
He is nowadays determined to use his experience to shed light on the past. He explains that he took a man’s life because he believed it was the right thing to do. “Someone gave me a gun, and said, ‘Go and do it!’ I went and did it.”
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He was, he says, responding to what he was seeing and hearing at a human level. He didn’t have to work out the rights and wrongs. Once he accepted who the enemy was, nothing more had to be justified.
“I’ve talked to republicans who say the same,” he says, “that once they had accepted that the British army and the police were the enemy, they didn’t need to work out the rights and wrongs.”
It was only afterwards, he believes, that they felt they had to rationalise their actions through political ideology. “These loyalists and republicans who talk about their involvement, they’ll give you a history lesson. But the truth is, that’s not what they’re thinking when they’re involved. They were the enemy, they’re killing us, we’ll kill them!”
Little is one of relatively few ex-paramilitaries I spoke to who accepts that what he did was wrong. Others regret having taken lives, but they do not regret carrying out the acts that took those lives.
But so long as ex-members of the IRA, INLA, UVF and UDA (to cover most bases) remain shadowy archetypes, and their real motivations remain veiled, they can be seen as heroes by their own side, villains by the other, but never as human beings from whom actual lessons can be drawn. And if they do not claim honest responsibility for what they did, how can they ever dissuade young men from becoming dissidents, and embracing a life which they view as exciting and significant?
Alistair Little believes young people need to hear voices like his own — from people who have been there — telling them that killing is wrong now — just as it was wrong 20, 30, 40 years ago. “Why paint a picture that’s based on lies?” he asks, “What’s the point?”
And it is not just potential dissidents who need to hear the truth from men such as Little. It is also people such as Caitlin whose lives have been wrecked — not by pure evil, nor by political idealism, but by flawed humanity. Now that policing and justice powers have been transferred to Stormont — the last piece in the peace jigsaw — this would seem to be an important time to peer behind the masks.
Having taken a glimpse behind a few, I can report that the reality is commonplace. These people are neither gods nor demons. Their memories are not glamorous.
The breaking down of a few legends, the uncovering of a few truths, these are things that could encourage a more truthful and accountable society.
They could begin to mend some old unhealed wounds. And they could prevent some new ones from being inflicted.
Beauty and Atrocity: People, Politics and Ireland’s Fight for Peace, Joshua Levine, Collins, £18.99