Reflections on the Troubles in Northern Ireland – by John Rowley

[This is an edited version of a letter I wrote to my children, Poppy and Alexander]

I thought you would like to know more about this year’s Lecture and Award which took place in The House of Lords on 30th October.  Father Alec Reid and The Reverend Harold Good [neat name!] are the two priests who were acceptable to both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland and who were asked to oversee the decommissioning of weapons and explosives.  The world knows now that this was the final stage of a vicious war that had actually been raging since Oliver Cromwell invaded in 1649.  In 1966, The Troubles, as they were euphemistically called, erupted into violence once more and the British Army was sent in yet again.  [For a lucid potted history, see]

For 35 years, most of my adult life, the violence was relentless.  However, over here on the mainland, we managed to largely ignore it.  For example, as a rule there had to be more than two killings to get more than two column inches in any newspaper.  We were told it was a ‘war against Terrorists’ when, in fact, it was a full-blown Civil War.  It was simple and complex at the same time: there was a raft of freedom fighters/terrorists and supporters on both sides.  Put simply, the ‘Nationalists’ [largely Catholic and Celtic] saw Ireland as an island nation and wanted to have ‘their’ Six Counties re-integrated into Eire whilst the ‘Unionists’ or ‘Loyalists’ as they liked to be called [largely Protestant and Scottish] wanted ‘their’ Ulster to remain part of the United Kingdom.  The paramilitaries on both sides – Irish Republican Army [and off-shoots] and the Ulster Volunteer Force [and off-shoots] used violence to achieve their visions of the future.  Each side had political parties claiming to have no responsibility for the murders and mayhem and central Governments completely stymied as to what to do.

After a while, when yet another bomb, torture, massacre or assassination was reported, the predominant attitude amongst my class and our media mentors was “Let the buggers get on with it”, “They deserve each other”.   There was the familiar voyeuristic fascination with the details, the blood and gore, the warnings, knee-cappings and summary executions but each was quickly forgotten as we became habituated, putting it into the mental bag called ‘Irish’ and slinging it into memory’s backyard.  So few of us showed any real, pro-active loving-kindness, it is almost criminally shameful.  The whole of the UK knew that the vast majority were innocent, frightened, scarred, angry but we English did little but send in yet more trained killers and set up H-blocks at the notorious Long Kesh prison for the few they caught.  The Irish Government ducked and dived, flapping their hands and shrugging their shoulders: the Catholic Gardai and Protestant Police aiding and abetting their separate agendas.  The millions these politicians and police spent talking to each other came to nought.  And yet over 3000 of our own citizens were slaughtered and thousands more wounded physically and psychologically for life.

When I joined The Gandhi Foundation in 1991, I had an ideal opportunity to do something, to promote Nonviolence, the only possible strategy to bring about peace.  Peter Cadogan tried to drum into my thick head the importance of what was happening ‘over there’ but I decided that neither I [nor we] could make any difference: the violence was too vicious, the prejudices too intractable and a gandhian too alien.  In sum, I gave up hope.  [And here I am on your 20th Birthday, Poppy, the day that will go down in history as the day the man who is giving us all hope stepped up into the White House!]

Only Denise Moll, now the GF Secretary, actually teamed up with Peter.  The GF did invite two of the three Northern Ireland Nobel Peace Prize Laureates [Mairead Maguire in 1998 and John Hume MP in 2002] to give our Annual Lecture but they were ‘trophy talks’ having little impact elsewhere.  Peter, bless him, refused to attend Hume’s Lecture on the grounds that his integrity was by then far from intact!

My own shame is enhanced when I tell you that I had witnessed this war myself even, in a sense, took part.  My first job as a management consultant in 1974 was with Gallaher’s cigarette company in Belfast.  We had a contract to run a project on what was then called Job Enrichment. You make cigarettes with a huge [German] machine which takes the compacted dried leaves at one end and churns out an endless stream of cancer sticks at the other, beautifully packaged in small cellophane-wrapped, gold boxes called Benson & Hedges Gold Cut.  We were charged with making the jobs of those serving this huge machine ‘more interesting’ on the grounds that this would improve productivity and reduce absenteeism.

You have to imagine a vast, square, red-brick building, ten times taller than the surrounding terraced pygmy two-up/two-downs.  The only way in was through 20ft high, black, bomb-proof, metal gates.  HM Customs & Excise had total control over the raw tobacco from the moment it entered British waters until the moment the manufacturer paid the tax.  The reason for this is simple: our Government, like every other, draws a major revenue stream from this the most addictive drug of all drugs.  [Note: nicotine has an addictive potential of 100%, alcohol of 81%, marijuana 21% and ecstasy 20% – does this make our legislators appear shamefully stupid, wilfully ignorant or what?].  In Belfast, the whole complex, warehouse, factory and distribution, is patrolled by men with guns.  Every worker [not us, of course] was searched going in and going out – a veritable fortress of capitalism.

The Chairman of the Board told me over cocktails at the end of our first day on site that an additional security policy ensured that no Catholic was ever promoted higher than first-line foreman!  He also told Keith and me, when the alcohol began to liven things up, how to spot a Catholic [spots on the back of the neck, black hair, surname, address, number of children and their school, of course] and some jokes about their sexual proclivities and the Pope.  This was my first job so I laughed: embarrassed but desperate to be seen ‘on-side’.  Personnel had put us in a ‘Prod’ owned hotel 20 miles up the coast on a cliff-top over-looking a spectacular sea with the Mull of Kintyre on the horizon.

“You wouldn’t be safe in Belfast, you see, with your posh English accents: they’ll take you for off-duty army officers and kill you”.

During our chauffeured drive that first night, we whispered about whether to fly home or not but we didn’t.  Nor did we ever speak out.  We needed the contract.  Can you forgive that?

Our office on the second floor above the gates had half-inch thick chicken wire on the outside, shatter-proof glass and loud instructions on the wall of what to do when the shooting began – basically, get under the desk!  This is exactly what we did when there were shots from the Divis Flats up to the right.  The Divis Flats were Catholic: 20 storeys high, made with cheap, pre-fabricated concrete slabs, tiny windows and staircases open to the elements.  They looked down on the gates.

When the shooting started that first time, I could not resist looking despite the screamed pleadings of the others.  I saw a British Army patrol creeping up the road, a single file line of rifle-armed soldiers, crouching behind an armour-plated vehicle, each in turn popping round its back end to let off a few shots at where they thought the firing was coming from.  It was clear they couldn’t really know as there must have been at least 80 windows to choose from but, like all armies, assumed that everyone was guilty. [“Well, they were harbouring terrorists, weren’t they?” one senior soldier told me over dinner at my Sister’s later that year.]

Over the years there have been many attempts – The Downing Street Declaration [Harold Wilson], The Sunningdale Accord [Ted Heath], The Anglo-Irish Agreement [Thatcher], and The Good Friday Agreement [Tony Blair] – to end the War.  However, it took Senator John Mitchell [US] and General Sir John de Chastelain [Canada] with a little grand-standing from Bill Clinton to get things moving down in the dumps – the weapon dumps, that is.  As it turned out, surprise, surprise, the essential ingredient missing throughout all these was the little matter of Trust.  The politicians, police and soldiers eventually re-discovered that the only way forward was to go to the heart of each community, to the grass-roots, to involve two people who actually lived with and loved the protagonists, who were known and respected by all.  In this religionist culture, they both had to be ‘men of the cloth’.  They found these two men, Rev Harold Good and Fr Alec Reid who were then charged with the task of witnessing the decommissioning of all weapons.  If they could convince each and all that the weapons had been destroyed, gone forever, then the power-sharing could begin, that is, elections could be held with the enemies now behaving ‘civilly’.

Omar, Bhikhu and I met in the Peers’ Entrance where we found Fr Alec and Fr Gerry Reynolds, ‘Alec’s Bodyman’ as he called himself.  I took to them both straight away.  Loquacious is a word perhaps invented for Fr Alec.  His startling blue eyes and the deeply serious lines in his face belie a sparkly almost facetious humour.  When Harold and his entourage arrived, it was clear that the two of them had not seen each other for some time.  There was a lot of love evident between them but I would say that profound mutual respect was the engine of this.

You can read Harold Good’s speech on our website   It will tell you much but not as much as the live delivery full of improvised asides and the rather long interventions of Fr Alec.  Alec always apologised every time he did this which always brought a loving and forgiving chuckle from the packed room.  His most memorable repetition was a moral imperative:

“Make sure you always combine the complementary forces of both female and male, the feminine and the masculine, if you really want to resolve any conflict”.


The dinner afterwards was very moving for me.  I sat next to Bhikhu and opposite Fr Alec.  Alec told me the story of the two British soldiers who had accidentally wandered into a Nationalist crowd mourning the death of two Catholics killed by the British Army.  When the crowd turned on them, beat them and forced them on to the ground, he lay down between them holding both tight.  They were safe for those few minutes but then they were dragged away from him and, instead of being taken to a house to be interrogated and then shot, the usual procedure, they were taken down an alley off the cemetery and shot straight away.  After they had been grabbed, he had sprung up and looked urgently for the IRA Commander he knew would help and told this man to come with him to the house where he expected the soldiers to be taken.  He felt the two of them would have been able to persuade their captors, possibly now in a more measured mood, to simply just interrogate and then release them, given their likely innocence, the cruel retribution likely if they were harmed and the enormous propaganda victory if they were freed.  Fr Alec and the Commander were both deeply unhappy at the summary and, from their point of view which did not accept either British or NI Protestant rules of law, an extra-judiciary execution.  As you would expect, this incident was presented to us over here on the mainland solely from the point of view of the established authorities.  “Two British Soldiers Murdered in Cold Blood by IRA Terrorists!”

I asked Alec whether he knew who did it.  He said no.  I could not ask him whether he could have found out because I did not want to stir it.  My guess is he could have.  We talked then of how ‘men of the cloth’ have to keep the trust of those they minister to.  I know of this more closely, although only second hand, from Fr Joe Collela, a priest of The Order of St Mary, with whom I worked in the 90’s with Bangladeshis of Tower Hamlets.  A man who reminded me once again just how much a Faith can bring a person to full realisation of the who he/she really is [Nietzsche, right?].  Gentle, gentile Christian Joe could go into Muslim houses where women were alone without being escorted because he was a ‘man of God’.  One family, extreme but not unique, was composed of a depressed, illiterate Mother unable to speak English whose husband had gone back to Bangladesh and married a younger woman and brought her back to live close by.  Living with her was her daughter who was ‘on the game’, a middle son who dealt in heroin and a youngest son who never went to school.  Joe did his best to work with the youngest but thought he was achieving little. I always told him I doubted that: how could a man so full of love not make a difference?  I bet he never thought once of going to the police about the other son.

It hardly compares but if Fr Alec had gone to the police with any of the many secrets of murder, torture and robbery that must have been confessed to him, surely the decommissioning would never have happened?

To whom, therefore, do we owe our allegiance? And so, inevitably, to whom do we lie, not tell the whole truth?  Is our integrity defined by those we ally ourselves with?  Can integrity come entirely from within?  Does the idea of God simply help us escape this dilemma?  Should a person of faith ever have to obfuscate the Truth?

The evening of 30th October was a triumph for Omar Hayat and Bhikhu Parekh and so for The Gandhi Foundation but a shame on all the politicians who should have turned up.  Shaun Woodward, the current Minister, did send his apologies but none of the previous Ministers bothered.  Fr Alec was really sorry not to meet Chris Patten [Tory] as he thinks his Report on Policing [1999] is very important although still not fully implemented.  All those Labour NI Ministers – Mandelson, Hain and their PM Blair – who have since taken credit for the successful conclusion of the war should now give the credit due to these two remarkable men, our unsung heroes.

Rev Harold Good had some slides for us beamed on to two large screens at either end of the room.  The predominant one was a sketch of Gandhi.  The most moving were two of Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness.  Paisley was the huge, loud-mouthed leader of The Democratic Unionist Party, very right-wing, inflexible and unforgiving Protestant and tacit supporter of the Prod Terrorists [UVF, UDA, etc]. As a result of The Good Friday Agreement [1998] and the subsequent elections, he became NI First Minister in May 2007.  He was 80 and resigned 18 months later.  McGuinness was IRA Chief of Staff, directly responsible for numerous bombings, tortures and murders [of Catholics and Protestants] and who became after the same elections Deputy First Minister. For 35 years, these two were mortal enemies, hating each other, cursing the worst curses to damn and condemn the other to Hell.  And remember both went to Church at least three times a week.

One picture shows, from the back, McGuinness with his hand gently placed on the much older Paisley’s elbow urging him to be the first through the door into Stormont on that wondrous day in May.  Harold called this The Hand of History: hatred transformed by Trust, the core of any non-violent conflict resolution.

The second picture shows the two men up close sitting next to each other and laughing uproariously, glee in every gesture. There is not a whisker of pretence: you simply know that they are friends.  It brings tears to my eyes even as I write.

POST-SCRIPT.  Unfortunately, I now have to tell you that this rather sentimental ending needs a reality check – my own.  I have just discovered that the Democratic Unionist Party, now led by Peter Robinson, has fallen out with Sinn Fein over what I know not [policing?].  It has meant that the Stormont Parliament has been suspended since May and that, in consequence, all administration is at a standstill and the prospect of yet another descent into violence is beginning to raise its ugly head.  Can they come to their senses?  When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?
P.P.S. Go and see the film “HUNGER”, directed by Steve McQueen.

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One Comment on “Reflections on the Troubles in Northern Ireland – by John Rowley”

  1. John Bradley
    July 22, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    Dear John, it has taken me 8 years,both to be aware of and now to comment on your fascinating letter to your children. I was in the same room as you at the House of Lords when Reverend Good and Father Reid were recognised by the Gandhi Foundation. I can’t help but think how their friendship and friendly banter between these 2 giants of mankind contrasts with the bigoted comments of the small-minded Chairman of Gallagher’s. You may or may not have read my article, stemming from the same event ? . Having lived in England since the late ’70s, I think I have heard every shade of opinion and insight into “The Troubles” (what a cuddly name for a war) from people living in England, but yours has added to my insight. Thank you, John. Best regards, John Bradley


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