Rough Justice
From a Reporters Notebook

September 2003

by Ron Steinman

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 government.

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 War.

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 did.

"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, ever.

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 night.

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 British Soldiers.

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 them.

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 is silent.

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

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