From a Reporters Notebook
Early February 1972,
a Thursday. I have been bureau chief for NBC News London since September
1969. I came to London after more than four years in South East Asia,
almost three of them in Vietnam and a year in Hong Kong, traveling extensively
in the Far East. I lived in London, in Mayfair, near the American Embassy,
a benign neighborhood, with the most energy devoted to anti-Vietnam
war demonstrations that passed under our window on Upper Brook Street
as the marchers made their way to the American Embassy on Grosvenor
Square. Between everyday coverage of events in the British Isles and
Western Europe, I made frequent trips to Northern Ireland to witness
riots in Belfast and Derry. Memories of kids and paving stones and Molotov
cocktails, stale beer on their lips, the stink of anger in their spit
standing up to the Crown. British soldiers with fair faces standing
out against dark brown, heavy wool uniforms fired rubber bullets that
tore skin, ripped open muscles and broke bones when let loose at close
range. Northern Ireland was nothing less than pure hate mixed with ignorance
and centuries of misunderstanding. For those who lived there, all they
saw on both sides was their own deprivation of freedom, a gap none of
them, it seemed, wanted to bridge. Vietnam was not far behind me, so
I was no stranger to acts of violence. Most of the time there was no
heavy fighting in Ulster. But there was regular terror, fire bombings
of whole streets, and heavy rioting that attracted worldwide attention
in this economically and psychologically depressed holding of the British
I would arrive from London in Belfast on a two-engine prop plane with
my crew to cover the routine rioting between Catholics and Protestants.
NBC News in New York had an insatiable hunger for angry mobs of people,
people who look alike but are worlds apart as they try to destroy each
other in their drive to alleviate the horror of hundreds of years of
real and perceived oppression. I get the feeling when we go to Northern
Ireland to cover the Troubles which started in 1969, that what we do
for the Nightly News is respite from the drudgery of the endless Vietnam
The weather in Belfast is its usual damp, heavy, foreboding presence,
with gray-clouded skies and no hint of sunshine ever breaking through
the dense overcast. Many burnt out and nearly burned down buildings
are bricked up or boarded up. Those businesses still open have heavy
steel doors they roll down to protect them from destruction, and to
save their patrons from injury or death in case of bombs or a riot.
Dusty, sometimes thick, black soot covers everything on the crowded
streets. Dramatic graffiti damning the Queen and praising the IRA, painted
on walls everywhere, breaks the monotony of plain, dirty, mostly two
story brick row houses and stone fences. These occasional bright bursts
of surprisingly delicate drawings extolling the virtues of God and the
IRA, grace some walls with the ugly intensity that grows from the long-time
bitterness that imbues the politics of Northern Ireland.
For many in Northern Ireland, the IRA is their only salvation, whether
the few who are active or those who play supporting roles. I am in Belfast
to cover the latest dust-up between the two sides, but I am also there
to meet with an IRA man whom I am hoping I can interview, and thus get
an inside look at how they think and work.
On an earlier visit to Belfast, my crew and I were caught between the
two rioting factions. Bricks were flying. Each side threw petrol bombs
at the other. Quart bottles filled with gas, with a rag for wick, then
ignited so when they explode it is like a firebomb going off. The British
troops tried to stop them. To get out the way, my cameraman, carrying
a heavy Auricon, and my soundman with equally heavy gear, ran down an
alley looking for a safe haven. We had enough footage for a story, but
we would hang around in case the riot grew worse with wounded and possibly
dead fighters. Much to our unhappiness, we emerged from the alley and
were back again in the middle of the action. Catholics on one corner.
Protestants on another. British troops firing rubber bullets and advancing
on the demonstrators everywhere. Paving stones and rocks started flying
in our direction. Again we ran, because this time we thought we were
everyone's targets. As we ran back down the alley, a door swung open
and an elderly woman gestured for us to enter. Without thinking, we
"Have a cuppa,"she said.
Stunned by the unusual hospitality, we caught our breath, and said "Yes,
thank you, we will." And we did. We drank our tea and ate freshly
fried scones from the griddle. Fifteen minutes after we entered her
home, a man appeared tough, rough-hewn, dark in his soul, I thought,
and introduced himself as Colin. Colin, he said. But not his real name,
which I would never learn. After finding out more about us, yet telling
little about himself, it became clear he was IRA. I told him I wanted
to do a story about him, perhaps a day in the life where we would follow
him and he would give us his view of life in trouble-torn Northern Ireland.
He said no, but we should keep in touch and perhaps something might
work out. I found out how to find him and we stayed in touch through
other frequent visits. I returned to Belfast for the usual, always hoping
for a meeting with Colin. Would this trip be the one?
We arrived and checked in at the Europa Hotel in downtown Belfast. Minor
chaos greeted us. A few hours earlier a bomb had exploded in the bus
station behind the hotel. Hotel workers were busy cleaning the lobby
and the rooms affected by the explosion, one of which, to my unhappiness,
was mine. Like many rooms at the Europa, the room was small with a narrow
bed against the far wall. When I entered the room, and turned on the
lights, I saw reflections from dozens of shards of glass embedded in
the headboard. It was a strangely beautiful sight. The bomb shattered
the room's window, now covered by thick wood panels. I got a pliers
from my soundman, retreated to my room, found a glass, opened a bottle
of The Glen Livit, poured two fingers worth, and started sipping as
I removed each piece of glass from the headboard before I could go to
sleep. Before dinner I also waited for a phone call from a man I looked
forward to meeting after months of delicate negotiations.
An hour later, my local reporter in Belfast, native and himself Catholic,
calls me. He says the meeting is set. We meet in the lobby and drive
to a street deep in a Catholic neighborhood. I get out of the car on
a dark corner and wait. A lone man emerges from the shadows, walks to
some ten feet from me and beckons that I follow him.
He is a member of the IRA, a guerrilla, a terrorist, a man known for
his ability to go undetected, especially on streets crowded with squads
of khaki-clad, dull-faced, mostly teenaged British soldiers. They patrol
with their soft, almost hairless, cheeks smeared in black shoe polish
to match the tone of the neighborhood in a feeble attempt to hide the
hatred they feel from everyone around them.
In his twenties, he is an IRA captain, the leader of a death squad,
a young man who has killed and maimed often. He is a revolutionary.
Catholic in his soul. Catholic to his heart. He would never desert his
cause, except in his own death, and then he would probably end a martyr,
a victory well beyond his recognition and nothing he ever thought about,
His lank, black hair is long and dirty. His denims, worn and faded,
are the only pair he owns. He is a lithe young man, more skinny than
lean but he exudes enormous strength. He speaks quietly, the lilt of
Belfast's Lower Falls in his hoarse voice. When he talks, he is calm,
not shrill, sending his words by whispers, forcing me to concentrate
on what he is saying. He never stops smoking, the thumb and forefinger
of his right hand, including the nails, stained deep ochre.
"The children, you see, they keep us honest, especially on our
own patch. We use them, but they love it and they love us. Once I might
have gone into the priesthood, become holy and all that. It's something
my mother wanted but I couldn't handle it. I liked the girls too much.
I liked me freedom too much. Now with the shipyards practically gone,
the Protestants still in control and no chance for work there, I needed
my manhood, not a starched white collar making pimples around my raw
neck. I had no work. I was hanging out in pubs, drinking beer but I
did poorly at darts. It was boring so we talked politics. It was 1968.
Then along came 1969 and the riots and demos and the Brits came in and
the Prods and whole streets burned to the ground and suddenly I had
something to do with my life. I had a calling. I had my own priesthood.
Blood was on my hands early, you see, so for me the IRA is my solution.
It is my salvation."
"It's getting to be too much. Too many of our own are getting it
the way they should not. I've known at least seven in the last weeks
killed because what they carried went off too soon or too quickly. Those
are mistakes made out of anxiety. Mistakes that are careless made by
frightened people. It's important to have believers but they have to
do everything with calm. However you look at it they are dead. We will
miss them. They were mostly very young, younger than me, and that, too,
is their tragedy, our ultimate tragedy. Ireland's tragedy. Their families'.
You heard about the four who blew themselves to pieces and the house
they were staying in the Ardoyne. They had a lot of stuff, stolen stuff
mostly, from poorly guarded British army bases in England near Birmingham
and near Liverpool. Heavy stuff it was, and when it went off it made
an awful hole in the ground and a terrible noise in the air. All killed
in a way most horrible.
Many houses badly damaged in the neighborhood. Foundations buckled.
Walls cracked. Floors collapsed. The three men and the one woman, bless
her deep soul, were blown to pieces and scattered over everything. Identification
was near impossible. We knew who they were but we had to make sure.
We were finally able to figure something out from a bit of head that
was left. A bit of the top of the head, I should say. It had some hair.
The hair had two colors. The roots were red, the rest of the hair, black.
Well, one of ours was on the run for weeks. He'd dyed his rusty hair
black. That was all was left of him, a bit of red hair dyed black. Not
much for a coffin, more like enough for an empty box of sweets. There
was no coffin. There was no funeral. Why should there have been, though
they died like heroes. No use, really. Why should there be a parade
for our own? Why show them off needlessly? There will always be others
to weep for them. We have public funerals when we call them but this
we wanted to keep to ourselves. We need things for ourselves."
Without looking behind him he turns quickly into the grim looking pub
across from an empty lot that used to be a duplicate of this saloon
before it was blown to pieces and burned to the ground by Protestant
loyalists. Now, with only one drinking house for the two corners, this
one is always full. The drinkers in the malt-stinking saloon look at
me, undress me with their eyes, and frisk me with noses that undulate
like so many curious bloodhounds. I am uncomfortable and glad that I
am their guest, not their enemy. There are no women in the room at this
time of day. They are too busy taking care of their meager, Spartan
homes. They do the shopping and the wash. They talk to each other over
fences, in doorways, on street corners, and keep the flow of information
churning endlessly. Their hands on their hips, always on their hips
as if to hold their early-aged bodies together to prevent them from
falling apart, from sagging in the middle. The men in the pub are either
young or old. Middle-aged men do not seem to exist. Their clothing is
a curious mixture of thick tweed, slick vinyl and nylon, hard wool,
cracked corduroy and cheap polyester. Their clothing is old, soaked
with the odor of sweat helped by the damp northern air, laden with the
permanence of old sheep fat, cooking lard, and poverty. After work some
middle-aged men will appear later in the day seeking solace in a glass
of stout. Those who live on the government dole are also its victims.
They will arrive upon waking up from their long day's rest. They enter
the pub gingerly after sleeping off their heavy drinking from the previous
A sparse few of these old men were small boys in the Easter Rising of
1916. Others took part in the Troubles of the early 1920's, fighting
the Black and Tan's and the B-Specials. A few were in the fight against
the British in the 1930s. Many went to war for Queen and country in
the 1940's and fewer returned to a life hardly described as good or
promising. Some took part in the brief flurry of terror in the 1950's.
Now they sit and watch the latest round of young men trying to fight
their way out of a morass they never made nor wanted. All the young
men to a man have some hand in the latest round of fighting against
the British government and against the Protestants, and, to a man, they
are proud of what they do, even if it is only "agro" and demos
against the Brits in the streets surrounding their homes. Some have
lumps on their bodies where they were beaten by wooden batons filled
with lead. Others have black and blue marks from rubber bullets fired
at close range. All of them have the stench of tear gas permanently
burned in their noses and on their tongues. Their lives are like lives
lived on a runaway train.
We settle into a corner booth and order two pints of best bitter, strong,
dark, heavy beer. He starts talking again slowly with emphasis, with
unbridled hatred and with obvious love for the hatred he lives.
"Why is it we hear nothing about the atrocious acts of the Loyalists,
the Prods, the Protestants to you? We prefer calling them Loyalists
because it's what they believe they are. They happen to be Prods because
of an accident of birth and they are loyal to the Queen because they
are in the majority, although we are starting to creep up on their numbers.
Lately they've been coming out of their shells, exposing themselves
more, committing overt acts, but they are underground, hard to find
in their warrens, in their rat holes. They have their killers and they've
learned to do their jobs very well, very well. We call them sectarian
murderers. They kill the innocent deliberately. We sometimes make mistakes.
God only knows that sometimes people do not heed our warnings. That
is their problem. But we aim to kill only the combatants, those in the
military or the paramilitary, the ones fighting us on orders from the
The Ulster Defense Regiment, equivalent to your National Guard and the
Royal Ulster Constabulary, the national police for Ulster, is a thoroughly
politicized Protestant-dominated organization. We try to kill them.
We often succeed. We gave fair warning. We give time for people to get
out of a pub or a shop. Lately the people act drugged and they don't
get out of a place fast enough. We think the Prods are keeping them
inside, telling them there is no danger. We destroyed a Loyalist pub
the other day in the heart of a fiercely enemy neighborhood. Too many
were hurt because they thought the warning a hoax. Their blood showed
it wasn't, so maybe the next time they'll learn. It was in retaliation
for their crimes against our innocent loved ones. To tell you who they
murder, that is what I'm getting to and that is what I'll tell you now.
"Recently in Derry, a terrible horror happened to a widow woman
and her son. They were Catholic, living on a fringe block, one surrounded
by Protestants. People mostly let her alone, her with her problems of
having to make ends meet and having a crippled boy, 14 years old who
could not walk, could not even get out of bed to relieve himself. Had
to use the bottle and the pan all the time. So there she is left to
herself and the occasional neighbor who would help her out and sometimes
help her son. One night they came. Jesus only knows why they came, but
come they did. Four of them. They knock at her door. They are wearing
masks, woolen hats pulled low over their faces with eyeholes cut so
they could see. She didn't want them to come in but they forced their
way into her small house. She had no choice. The hour is not late. She
is in the tiny sitting room doing some sewing. Every house must have
a sitting room and a dining room no matter how small. Otherwise, it
is no house at all. She earned extra money doing repairs on clothing
for her neighbors. Her son is asleep upstairs. It is going on ten o'clock.
The four come in and they say nothing. She is too full of fear to speak.
She knows something dreadful is going to happen. They tell her she is
a holder, a keeper of guns and ammunition, and that she is working for
the IRA, for us. She shakes her head vigorously, denying their lies.
They take her upstairs to her son, her crippled son who cannot walk.
He can only drag himself even when he uses crutches. They ask the son
to name his church, knowing he is Catholic. They ask him where he keeps
his Holy Bible. He is half asleep but as he awakens, he is too frightened
to resist. Anyway, he cannot resist. He reaches over for the Bible at
his side and tells them where he wants to go to church but that he seldom
does because of his legs. So they shoot him, shoot him twice in the
kneecaps. They shoot him in legs he cannot use anyway, but they shoot
him all the same, saying perhaps, see how cruel and vicious we can be.
The boy passes out. Of course he does. His mother is too shocked to
even scream. The sound of small bullets exploding through the thin walls
of the house and into the night is not very loud. In an area where guns
fire all the time the shots are nothing more than sharp cracks exploding
in the dank air.
People have also learned to stay inside in certain areas after certain
hours. It's safer. To cap it all, they then rape the boy's mother. They
rape her twice, each of them. Twice four men rape her. Just imagine
it. She is in a fearful stupor from watching her already crippled son
shot and they rape her repeatedly. Her son keeps bleeding from wounds
that never seem to clot. She is almost forty and a recent widow, a hard
working woman who keeps to herself, who lives daily in fear of this
happening to her. She wonders whom she can tell this to, who will believe
her in her pain and rage and shame. All the time they are ravaging her,
her mind keeps denying that she works for us. It is the truth. She did
not work for us then. Nor did her son. Now she does and now he does,
and they will continue doing it until someone kills them doing it or
until the British leave us alone. That is the way it is for too many
of our people in Ulster."
During the telling of his tale the booth filled with men nodding approval.
The story is not new to them. There is no embroidery. It is so sparse,
so lacking in refinement, so elemental in its bare truth. We then leave
the tobacco and hop-steeped pub and step out into the permanent haze
of twilight that envelops Belfast at the height of summer. It is so
far north that in July and August the sky stays decently light until
almost midnight. This daylight inhibits relaxed passage between neighborhoods
and limits the movement of arms, gelignite and the men and women to
carry them until full dark sets in. People, especially the young, wander
the streets close to their homes rather than going to sleep early in
the overcrowded, bandbox houses they feel damned to spend the rest of
their lives in, and inevitably, for many, to die in.
We made our way to a "safe" house, one of many found everywhere
in Northern Ireland, particularly among the Catholics who need them
most. The house we visit is five minutes from the pub. An old man and
his wife occupy the house as its "cover." They have one son
in "the Kesh," Long Kesh prison, the main holding block for
IRA rebels. He was "lifted" by a British patrol, caught carrying
a loaded gun to a destination that is still his secret. Their grandson,
son of their daughter, is also in "the Kesh," but in a different
cell block, for stealing cars they ferried to Liverpool and sold to
get money for guns and powder. As the offenses were committed for the
IRA, both men, according to the code, remained silent during their brief
hearing and sentencing before a Crown Magistrate in Belfast.
We eagerly accept the tea offered us, myself more, because of my tension.
I have never been to a safe house during all the years I have covered
Northern Ireland. We go upstairs to a room that faces a moderately busy
street which gives us a commanding view of all the movement taking place
beneath us. The old couple watch the backyard, and the side alley from
their small, closet-like kitchen. They are my guides main escape routes
should he ever have to flee for his life. The room upstairs has a few
chairs, a desk and a mattress on the floor. There are no slogans or
posters on the walls. There is a small portable radio, but no television.
Nothing in the room says it is a crash pad for revolutionaries, or terrorists,
depending on your point of view. Revolution is a serious business for
these people. In their privacy, their slogans, right or wrong, lie forever
in their hearts, implanted in their minds. They do not need rock stars
to praise their cause.
My guide watches the British army patrol move down the sidewalk. The
men, heavily armed and protected by flak jackets, march in a long checkerboard
line on alternate sides of the dirt-strewn, cobble-stoned street to
lessen their chance of being wounded or killed together if they walk
into an ambush.
He is speaking in a lilting, clear whisper and I lean close to him to
catch his carefully composed words. "It's their fault because of
their clumsiness. These soldiers are supposed to help keep order but
they often intimidate us in all sorts of vicious ways. At night they
run their rifle butts against the steel railings making a fearsome noise
that prevents sleep and daring us to come out and fight. They roll around
in their vehicles, grinding up the streets and shouting obscenities.
When they detain someone, man or woman, they carefully run their hands
over their bodies, getting a strange joy from it, from the touch of
a buttock, the rough hand on a breast. You would think they are drinking,
but they are not, except there is a power that comes with the wearing
of that uniform. We are not daft, you know. Sometimes we send the children
out to rile them with stones and bottles and bricks, but mostly we stay
indoors, sniping at them instead. Never from here, though. This place
has to stay safe. The good Lord may have given us too much a share of
hard luck but he did not make us fools. Then they go after our girls
and some of our girls go after them. The girls, they sometimes like
the glamour, the feel of the rough wool uniform, the strength, though
tainted, that seems inside it. For the life of me I don't know why they
do it. Those uniforms always have the stink of the English and their
sweat. Our girls. Oh my. Our girls. They have a misguided sense of sympathy.
They see what looks to be the sweetness, the dewy sweetness of some
of those freshly shaved faces and they act as if thunder has struck
Everyone who does not know condemns us for reviving tar and feathers
for wrongdoers, for those among us who have betrayed the love and trust
of their own. Let me tell you, tar and feathers are never dead. When
a young girl falls for a British soldier, she can say goodbye to our
people. When a young girl is found consorting with a British "squadie"
we take justice into our own hands. You see, we cannot take a chance
that the girl, because of a love stupor, may become an unwitting tool
of the British. We tar and feather to hold the woman up as an example
of what can happen if there are mistakes. And we do it publicly, tying
them to lamp posts in populated areas. Most of the time if they do not
flee the country, which is rare, they are too embarrassed to show their
faces for a long time. A very long time. Then it blows over. They find
a nice lad. Sometimes he is one of ours, and they marry. We are the
only law, moral or otherwise. If we did not set standards, who would?
We have no choice. We will become weak if we cannot always show our
strength. Once our support starts to corrode, our organization starts
to collapse. Our organization can crumble. If we cannot control our
own, we cannot control anything, and someday we will control everything.
Rough justice is not our ideal, but rough justice must prevail."
With that, he sucks in his breath very gently and holds it for a long
time. He peers off into the cold infinity of Belfast's never-ending
dusk. I look at his pockmarked, prematurely lined face and see flickering
shadows behind his eyes. In the loneliness of the usually empty bedroom,
he slowly sips his strong, heavily sugared, dark tea and for the moment
As it turns out, though I learned much, perhaps more than I bargained
for, he never gave me an interview on camera. I continued to travel
to and cover Northern Ireland for another year and never again ran into
my friend in the IRA.
© Ron Steinman
Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside
Television's First War