INTERVIEW / When Irish eyes aren't smiling: Tabitha Troughton meets the controversial writer and unflinching student of violence in Northern Ireland, Martin Dillon

MARTIN DILLON is one of Ireland's best-selling authors. His books are always controversial and often bitterly resented. He has made the conflict in Northern Ireland into a literary raison d'etre, investigating and exposing the atrocities of the struggle in books such as the The Shankill Butchers (1989) and The Dirty War (1990).

His latest book, Stone Cold (Hutchinson pounds 16.99) looks set to generate more than the usual level of hysteria. It examines the rise, rise and eventual fall of the Irish loyalist killer Michael Stone, and includes the first detailed investigation into loyalist paramilitaries. Indeed its contents are rumoured to have forced the recent government ban of the Ulster Defence Association.

Dillon's books are toughly controlled catalogues of violence, but they offer insights into the minds and motivations of men involved in terrorism which go beyond straightforward reporting. The combination has earnt him impressive accolades. 'He's been very important,' says Conor Cruise O'Brien. 'Nobody else has done what he has done. It requires great personal courage and I think he's been living on his nerves for some time now'.

Until now, Dillon has kept his own life very much out of the limelight. He and his family moved to England from Belfast a year ago, after the threats from paramilitaries had finally become too persistent to ignore, and he still prefers to keep his exact address unknown. The inoffensive village where he now lives could hardly be further removed from the violence in his books, just as Dillon is actually nothing like the rather thuggish character who glares out from the photo on his dust-jackets. He has considerable charm; it becomes obvious how he managed to gain the confidence of everyone from the IRA to the RUC. And listening to a string of wicked anecdotes in his kitchen, it is easy to forget the danger he's been living with for the last 20 years.

Dillon is hardly a shy man, but he exhibits a magnificent disregard for situations which would have most journalists gibbering under a table. He was once hooded by paramilitaries before an interview and made to lie down in the back of a car. He was in the middle of investigating a series of murders that began with exactly that tactic, but he says only that it was 'quite scary'. This could seem like mere bravado, except that Dillon has made a habit, ever since he worked for the Belfast Telegraph during the early 1970s, of taking on situations that few other people would touch. His experiences inspired what he agrees is more or less a personal crusade. 'It was then that I began to realise the true nature of violence. And I wanted to challenge the tacit acceptance of it.'

Soon afterwards, he co-wrote his first book, Political Murders in Northern Ireland (1973), still seen as the authoritative work on the subject. For Dillon, then in his early twenties, this was a tough time. Older, wiser and more stoical now, he still hesitates when describing his experiences. 'There was a body in an alleyway in Belfast. It was a young man . . . he had been branded and burnt with a poker. I remember ringing my paper and saying, this person has been tortured and here's the extent of the torture. It was the first time that sort of thing was admitted; perhaps the RUC were determined not to inflame passions. But I thought it was in the public interest for people to know.'

It's the old cry of the journalist, but Dillon is reluctant to count himself as one. He has been a BBC radio and TV producer, playwright and Channel 4 News analyst, but he describes himself simply as a writer. His books have been compared to non-fiction Le Carre, and he admits to a stylistic complicity with such parallels. 'I wrote in a kind of fictional style, not a journalistic one. I wanted to make it easier for people to read - I think a lot of non-fiction is very dry, very stilted and I wanted to give a sense of what violence is about, to let people know what's going on.'

Other journalists have leapt on this with glee, accusing Dillon, particularly in his last book, Killer In Clowntown (1991), of everything from egotism to unprofessionalism. Dillon himself is philosophical. 'They're my worst critics. All journalists think there's a book in them somewhere but never really get round to writing it.' He can understand that, too: there was a gap of 16 years between writing Political Murders and The Shankill Butchers.

'I was trying to get away from conflict,' he recalls. 'I joined the BBC as an arts producer and felt free, free from covering it.' But he was irresistibly drawn back; arts programming became current affairs, which then became an investigation into one of the most horrifying series of murders in Northern Ireland: the story of the Shankill Butchers.

Dillon is entirely matter-of-fact about his choice of subject. 'People always say, why write about conflicts, but it's the centre of human life. Before people were writing about it they were painting it on cave walls. I suppose as a writer you've got a mission to explain the things around you. And what surrounded me was death and destruction.'

The move to England has done more than change the setting. He admits that he is now more free to express himself. But he's also finally found the freedom to move on - the publication of Stone Cold will, he claims, mark the end of his work on Ireland. He is now writing a novel - the subject is under wraps - called The Year of Dreams. Dillon has described the 'year of dreams' elsewhere: it was 1968, when protest movements around the world generated a mood of dynamic optimism.

Dillon and his family are now equally optimistic. But in Ireland that mood was swept away by a tide of violence, resulting in a legacy which Dillon admits is unavoidable. 'I don't think anyone who leaves the place can escape it. I don't think even Beckett did.' And there is still a residual sense of loss, the bittersweet taste of exile. For a writer who 'just wanted to explain', Dillon, now contemplating a move to France, has perhaps been as much a victim of the Troubles as the people he writes about. He shrugs, not denying it, but deflecting any sympathy elsewhere. 'We all have. That's the real thing to understand'.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone