In the name of my father

Tucker Lyttle was a hard man, acting for the UDA, shaped by The Troubles. He was also the father of John (above), a teenager growing up gay and in revolt against his surroundings. That boy, now a journalist with The Independent, remembers life with DaDa

The woman on the other end of the phone is very, very sorry. And very, very drunk.

Barely a week has passed since my father's death - "Imagine - a bloody heart attack," the mystery woman moans - and she hasn't spoken to anyone in Bath about her feelings because they wouldn't understand her pain, as they wouldn't understand her past, her small part in the Irish Troubles. Why, she wouldn't even be living in Bath these 19 years, safe from a mortal danger she avoids giving a name or face to, if it wasn't for Tucker Lyttle, the UDA spokesman, the Inner Council member, the political strategist who refused to turn his back: "They say he was a hard man, but he got me out of Belfast, off the Shankill Road, love. I was having a bad time of it, I was, and your Daddy helped me. He didn't ask for anything. He did it because it was the right thing to do."

There's a long silence, and I'm sure the line is dead. But she's back, and sniffling: "Sorry, love. It's just that I wouldn't be alive today... He was a good man." More sobbing: "You know what your Daddy was?"

No. I don't know what my Daddy was.

"Your Daddy was an angel."

Angel sightings: the winter of 1989, Crumlin Road Courthouse, Belfast. A bail hearing. My father grins at me from across the huge room: cynical, relaxed, amused, wings retracted.

I grin back from the benches, bunched up against my mother and my sister Linda, and the other warmly and cheaply dressed working-class women who have come to stand by their men, these proud freedom fighters for the Protestant cause. I grin again; I can't help it. My father can do that. Turn everything into a shared black joke, a conspiracy against the dunces.

Policemen with machine guns haunt the back of the court as the prosecution rehearses the reasons bail should be denied to this "dangerous man". The inquiry, being conducted by Chief Detective Inspector John Stevens into RUC and loyalist paramilitary collusion in the murder of suspected IRA terrorists, is still proceeding. Mr Lyttle, m'lud, has been accused of receiving and passing on classified security force intelligence files ("Fuckin' MI5 - they set it up, got cornered and ran," my father will later laugh), which is a serious charge. Quite as serious, it seems, as Mr Lyttle's likely attempts to interfere with potential witnesses.

The barrister drily offers evidence for his assertions: "Mr Lyttle, as UDA Brigadier of West Belfast, has already attempted intimidation in a racketeering trial." A letter is read out. One line sticks (it will make two of my father's obituaries): "Do you want to spend the rest of your lives looking over your shoulders?" The prosecution, backed by handwriting experts, insists that my father penned the unsigned words.

I, for one, am convinced. The letter is low-key and direct, no huffing and puffing - what my father would probably consider a friendly warning. Fear was a tool of last resort, but it was one my father preferred, acquaintances claim, to "lazy bloodshed - bloodshed was failure."

Maybe. As Tucker once flatly informed a bunch of reporters from across a barricade - I can picture the shrug, hear the weary impatience with journalistic naivety: "You may call it intimidation, but intimidation without violence is important."

Or maybe not. A former colleague answers questions with ill-concealed resentment. "I knew Tucker at the beginning, when he was skinny. [Laughs.] Ach, he changed."

How so?

"The Tucker I knew could never... Your Daddy walked around a room and talked a bunch of grown men into killing someone, a Mr X. Tucker had a point, now. X was a dumb bastard. He was a loose cannon. He refused to follow procedure, he was skimming off money and living high, like. Swaggering, like. Mouthy. Big cars and bad women, know what I'm saying?"

Sure. My father wouldn't approve. If this really happened.

"Ah, it happened. Your Da talked for, ah, half-an-hour. Your Da could talk. Good talker. Then he said there would be no more discussion. There'd be a vote. And, you know, they voted to do it. There were friends of X in that room and they voted along with the ones who hated him."

Did my father hate him?

"Your Da said X was more trouble than he was worth."

I don't believe you.

"Now, you're his son. Fine, fine, all right. You don't have to believe me. But, see, you did ask."

One more question. Which way did you vote?

There's no hesitation, no shame: "I'll tell you - the way your Da wanted."

My father turns, looks across from his table. The prosecutor has finished his litany. Our eyes connect, and I have the eerie sensation that we're sharing the same insanely calm, considered thought: Sloppy. Shouldn't have been caught on something so minor.

And, on the callused heels of that musing, swiftly arrives my hollow mantra for visits home: "How did I get here?" Which is the wrong thought. The right thought, I now realise, was - is - "How did he get here?"

My sister Linda offers a clue: "There was an IRA bomb on the Shankill and my Ma and Elaine nearly got blown up. That started me Da off." She hesitates, then says something that makes perfect sense. "Two kids were killed. The first time kids were killed. Me Da took it... personally. Don't you remember?" I don't remember. I have forgotten, or buried, much, a mountain of clippings, snapshots and unforgiven images: the gunman with the high-velocity rifle who aimed for someone else and nearly got my Da, the kidnapping that landed him on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph, a pistol to his head, midnight raids by police, various peaks and troughs as palace revolutions repetitively rocked the Ulster Defence Association. Old guard vs young turks, hardliners vs soft centres - they fall out, kill, regroup, splinter, my father somehow surviving each coup. But I instinctively know that what Linda says is true.

At first my father had no abiding interest in politics - it wasn't a job requirement for machinists at Mackie's foundry in the late Sixties - but his family was something he was fiercely protective of. The one he came from: three sisters, one brother, his adored mother and father, and the one he created and was dead centre of, as only an Irish patriarch can be: three sons, two daughters. My father and mother entered wedlock young - he was 18, Elizabeth Baird was 19 - customary at our end of the social scale. My siblings and I arrived more or less every two years - also customary.

Whatever plans he nurtured - "Your Daddy was smart, very smart," my Aunt Lily tells me at his three-day wake, echoing formal academic record and general consensus - were derailed by fate (my grandmother couldn't pay the extras to make his scholarship to grammar school feasible) and by his children. Big brother Bill in the first year of marriage, then me, then Thomas, the best possible choice to bear my father's name, as he most resembled him in appearance and temperament, following him into the UDA, and, finally, into a joint trial. (On remand, Thomas, alias "Tosh", would gleefully remind Thomas, alias "Tucker", that he had been charged on 16 counts while Tucker, the senior partner in crime, could only muster 12: "Da, you're just not trying"). We sons would often experience him at his most unruly. His daughters were more likely to get him unwound and unmasked. Linda can remember a gentle back-of-the-limo offer to write off the cost of her wedding if she were having belated third thoughts. She had already cancelled the nuptials once.

Of course, he also promised to kill the bridegroom if he ever mistreated her.

But all of us were treated with a tenderness that, in retrospect, given the circumstances, transformations and tragedies to come, seems extraordinary. Returning from the night shift, my father would routinely wake us, wash us, dress us, feed us Weetabix, wind our watches and tie our shoelaces. (Not until I left home at 15 would I finally conquer my own footwear. Even now I knot big, floppy, elementary bows.) Homework would be thoroughly checked, for education was a solemn business; and we would then be kissed and hugged and sent on our ways, our Da's concern a palpable thing. It was, perhaps, the happiest period of my life.

Then The Troubles came. Tear gas, rubber bullets, petrol bombs, burning buses, broken glass, screaming sirens, the army everywhere, even overhead, for "the welfare of both communities". Suddenly, we were living inside the reports we saw on the television news, which had the odd, almost Brechtian effect of distancing you from things you might have actually participated in: a riot, for example. The result was a kind of documentary unreality. That, and a sort of vicious glamour which would increasingly loosen moral constraints and permit previously unimaginable behaviour. Men who traditionally read only thrillers, spy novels, war books and James Bond - like my father - and whose cinematic tastes ran to gangster flicks (The Godfather is, instructively, an epic of power and loyalty worshipped by Protestant and Papist paramilitary alike) and the rough justice of the Western, now had a chance to star in their own home-grown, patriotic versions of heroic fantasies.

They took their chance.

At first, it was a matter of the men of the street - Wigton Street, Belfast 13 - patrolling their turf. We are not, after all, that far from the Catholic stronghold of the Falls Road.

"A stone's throw away," my father jokes to newly acquired cronies, which gets a laugh. I stand holding his hand. It is dark and cold and they carry flashlights. My father - who is becoming less and less my father and more and more "Tucker" - is at the centre of this group of vigilantes, and I sense the excitement, and, too late now, the play-acting.

At the time, I simply feel pride, the type I imagine my father feels for me, because I'm clever and edgy. He is not above setting me on some unsuspecting adult, to wither them with a few well chosen words. My brothers receive Action Man and Thunderbirds for Christmas; I ask for, and get, a microscope and a chemistry set. Beyond the confines of my home front, I am considered odd, but my father casually basks in the difference. School reports are zealously analysed, for excellence translates into potential escape. If my father was trapped, we will not be.

I have never seen my father so alive. He gives orders, organises rotas, berates laggards, and argues, always argues. His powers of persuasion stand him in good stead. Before long, he will garner international headlines by travelling to Libya in 1974 with Glenn Barr, a Vanguard Assemblyman from Londonderry, to talk to Colonel Gaddafi about arms, money, support and the IRA. With Barr and Andy Tyrie, then chairman of the UDA (but whom my father would later help oust), he will establish the New Ulster Political Research Group: objective - peace. There will be meetings with John Hume and Gerry Fitt, with Eire PM Liam Cosgrove; television and radio work; newspaper interviews; and confidence builds with each appearance. My father proves adept at handling the press, even getting Loyalist papers to promote his message that Republicans have genuine grievances that need to be addressed. A decade and more before the phrase "peace process" becomes a creed, he preaches the doctrine in a policy paper entitled Common Sense, supports Protestant clergy's calls for dialogue with the Provos, losing his post as UDA spokesman, and attempts to win a seat in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. He polls a pathetic 560 votes, but remains philosophical: "It's not such a bad result for someone whose day job is a bookie."

A bookie is what my smart, very smart father was no longer content to be. The Troubles had, well, liberated him - made him somebody he wouldn't have been otherwise. He had found a way out.

"It presented an arena for him," says Ed Maloney, a journalist who knew my father well. "He wasn't the only one. There was Glenn Barr and Andy Tyrie. They were personalities thrown up by The Troubles. The Troubles allowed them to express their talents, unlike their successors, who are so inarticulate they can hardly string a sentence together.

"Your father enjoyed the cut and thrust. He was good at it. It was a game. I don't mean that the way it sounds. The game was about being on the inside, knowing what the stories and deals on the TV were really about, what was really happening, knowing what other people didn't know. Your father enjoyed secrets. He was starved of it in prison. He missed his secrets. He loved knowing secrets."

Secrets: I'm nine or ten. The wee small hours of the morning. I come downstairs. I want a drink of water. In the front room a man is tied to a chair. He's battered and bruised. My father is there with how many others? Three? Four? I stare until I'm noticed. "What do you want?" my father asks. "A drink of water." "Get him a drink of water." I continue to stare until my water is brought. I drink it on the spot. "Not so fast," my father cautions. I hand the glass back and tread quietly back upstairs and climb into bed beside my brother Bill. By daylight, I'm certain it's a dream. It must be: I've dreamt of it ever since.

Secrets: Slightly older. We've moved to Boundary Way. I'm searching through the pockets of my father's overcoat for loose change. We kids are not supposed to, but we do. I plunge my hand in and feel this wet, wringing wet. I drag it out. It's a handkerchief. With an embroidered "T". The linen is as red as the red hand of Ulster, soaked with blood, saturated with blood, dripping with blood. I squeeze, though I shouldn't. The red trickles through my fingers. I watch, repelled and exhilarated. My father is in the front room. I hear football match results. He isn't injured, hasn't said anything about a nosebleed, a fall. He hasn't mentioned a friend's accident. I return the handkerchief, go to the bathroom, wash my hands.

Secrets: 13, 14. The house is empty. I'm searching through the drawers in my parents bedroom. For pornography. My father's stash. I can't find it. I hunt in the wardrobe. I find it: Three for the Show. I pick it up and underneath is a gun. Sex and violence. I lift the gun. It's small and heavy. I hold it and carefully replace it. I put the pornography on top. I'm not in the mood. Elaine says the gun is in the house, and my father mostly out of it, because of IRA death threats.

Secret: 15. I'm gay. It can't be. I'm Tucker Lyttle's son. We're playing football at the caravan, at the foot of the Mourne mountains. We're here on holiday. We hardly ever catch a glimpse of my father these days; he is an absence, not a presence, in our daily lives. He rises early, comes home late, says his prayers and can be heard snoring the rest of the night. The telephone never stops ringing. There's always someone after him. I hate the phone almost as much as I hate football. My father is making me play. He tackles me. Thud. I'm winded. I stagger up, and it happens again. Thud. Again. Thud. Again. My father is big, beefy, hairy, and when he makes impact I am crushed.

I get up, give up, limp off, attempting to contain the tears, when my father speaks my mind. Shouts the word, actually: "Sissy."

Tucker Lyttle, Hard Man.

October last year.At the funeral, I'm shouldering the coffin, shuffling along. Photographers and camera crews film from the pavement as we walk down the Shankill Road. There are no military trappings. The Stevens Inquiry, subsequent trial, media publicity and seven-year sentence finally isolated my father from those successors who could barely string a sentence together. Still, they tried: "Tommy Lyttle is no longer a member of this organisation. He kept certain decisions to himself. Read into that what you will."

The angel fell to earth.

Flashback to 1991. I visit my father in prison. A flying visit, because, I convince myself, I'm busy fulfilling one of his ambitions. The man who admired and despised the fourth estate in equal measure now has a journalist for a son. I tell him: "I'm gaining a reputation." His eyebrows jump: "I'm sure you are." I laugh: one reinvented man talking to another. I can afford the amusement. He's more centred, more thoughtful than he's been in years: they stopped his world and he got off. Just as I've got out. Not that that entirely explains the distance that has existed since that moment when he sat on my bed, weeping. I had just reiterated the fact of my sexuality, and my reward was deep and sore sobbing. I'd crashed past the manufactured man to the man who tied my shoes, and I was vindictively triumphant. For a split second, I was aware of my all-encompassing rage and resentment for the years spent in his shadow, wanting to conform just for him, while waiting, in terror, for him to be brought low by bullet, bomb, or booby trap. Years wasted as I waited for him to die.

Six days before his unexpectedly natural death, BBC Northern Ireland aired a half-hour documentary about my life, my father's life - our lives. The gay son and the forgotten hard man. it very nearly never got made. Telephone wires burn. Linda and Tosh, citing my father's bad heart, ask me not to proceed. My old anger bubbles up. I ring my Da. He says I have a right to do what I want. I ring Linda back. She says it will kill him. Not from shame, not from embarrassment, but from attention. Released from jail, he avoids the limelight, wants to be left alone. And I think, alone with what? His guilt? His redemption? His past? My past? I have to review and renew that for the programme, and these last few days I have been amazed at where I came from, and who I came from. And, no matter what, I realise, sitting in the dark, holding the phone, that I love my father. That he is, when I come to think of it, the first man I ever loved.

Belfast, the last day of production. My father, my family and I have dinner. We leave the restaurant, and as we wait for taxis, my father turns the tables. I am hugged and kissed. My father hasn't done that in decades. Not since I was a child, holding his hand, amongst his friends, as they prepared to patrol and protect their streets, back at the very beginning. I could feel his pride then, and I feel it again now. I hope, where ever he is, he knows the feeling is reciprocated. The angel passes

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