Northern Ireland: When Liam met Billy

On the last day of this month, the Ulster ceasefire will be one year old. It remains a time of hope, if not of certainty. In the sectarian enclaves of Belfast, the old tensions have not abated. Mire Nic Suibhne tells the story of a rare and courageous friendship. Photographs by David Modell
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"I'm coming down now. You'll be oiling up your orange gun." Liam Maskey speaks with the alert tenseness of a republican ex-prisoner - he served two years internment without trial in the early Seventies. He has been arrested almost 40 times since the troubles began, suffered beatings and, he alleges, sexual assault at the hands of the security services. For most of his life, his home and family have been under constant attack from Protestant paramilitary, many of them his neighbours.

It is a hot August afternoon and Maskey is walking through the Catholic New Lodge area of Belfast, a landscape of decay and wreckage which, almost a year into the ceasefire, is full of threat. Streets and half streets are cordoned off to keep them separated from the Protestant enclave of Duncairn Gardens. The Army still maintains round-the-clock surveillance from the top of a tower block. It is a walk he has made many times, but none the less tense for all that.

He is on his way to see Billy Mitchell, a Protestant whose record includes membership of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and 14 years (of a 25-year sentence) in jail for paramilitary killings.

Mitchell, a shy and nervous man in his mid-fifties banters to diffuse the tension.

"What have you come for you bare faces Shinner?"

Time was when they might almost have murdered each other. Nowadays they are friends and collaborators in the work of reconciliation.

They are meeting to apply for inter-community funding for one of the projects they run together and to discuss a plan to send a dozen A-level students to South Africa for three months to work among politicians and learn from both communities there.

While Belfast is home to many constructive projects these days, such friendships on what remains the front line are rare and frowned upon within their communities. Liam and Billy cannot socialise freely on home ground - bars and clubs are out-of-bounds and Billy does not visit Liam's home a few hundred yards from his office.

Their initiative - the coming together of two ex-prisoners doing social work within their own communities, came months before the ceasefire. Mitchell was running The Link, a Protestant organisation, which, as well as dealing with drugs, deprivation and the usual urban problems, has a remarkable success record in the reintregration and training of ex-prisoners, 70 per cent of whom have found jobs. Maskey's Newington Community Services Association is a similar organisation operating in the Catholic areas of north Belfast. Between them they employ about 70 workers. They were doing similar things with the same purpose in mind, and the condition for much public funding in Northern Ireland is that such projects are inter-community. Collaboration is now increasingly common but the warmth of their feelings for each other is quite another thing - obvious, genuine and rare.

As Billy says, "We were doing similar work so it made sense to talk about it together. Although he was only half a mile away, I wasn't sure how to contact him and I certainly wasn't going to venture into the New Lodge to look for him. I put out feelers and a mutual acquaintance made contact.

"When he walked into the room my gut reaction was, `I can trust him even if he's coming from a completely different background'. Being in prison so long you get to read a person's character."

"It's hard to describe what it is we do together. It's not organised. We do the work and then we just have fun. We both like Chicago Blues - Muddy Waters and so on." So far they have been able to indulge this interest only once, away from the constraints of Belfast. "We had a great time of it when we went to a conference on economic development in Washington last May, going out to the clubs and listening to the blues players until late. But here we just have a bit of crack."

Liam Maskey left school in 1973, aged 15, and joined the merchant navy. While on leave he attended the anti-internment rallies of the early Seventies and was arrested at the age of 17.

"I thought I'd get a good kick up the arse and they'd send me home. Instead I landed in Long Kesh for two years sharing a cage with Gerry Adams. After I got a beating or was bit by a guard dog I was going to blow up the lot of them. It was after one too many beatings and seeing others beaten, I began to move towards pacifism. I thought that anyone suffering wasn't right. And I saw a lot of suffering.

"I believed, and I still believe, in republican politics and objectives - Ireland should be free of England's interference - and it was hard not to join the IRA."

Liam gives his wife, Eithne, much of the credit for holding his resolve to stay out of the IRA after he came of jail, despite the pressure all around him to join and the guilt he felt at not being fully involved in the movement when his community was constantly under siege, often round the clock. "Our doors were painted with red xs to mark the Catholic households to be driven out. I remember my father fighting hand to hand in the kitchen. He swore they'd never shift him. They didn't.

"Living here I understand violence, what makes a person lift up arms, but I don't agree with it. That's why I'm working with Billy."

Billy Mitchell started by going to Paisley's monster rallies in the Sixties and heard the speeches and the slogans, ulster will fight, ulster is right, shoot to kill. "We believed Protestantism was being sold out. I felt a duty to do something. In 1969, I joined what became the UVF. We believed it was right. But the moment we were put in prison, those who had influenced us the most, the politicians, the Orange Order, the religious orders, disowned us. All of a sudden we were the scum of the earth.

"Prison for me set the trend of a new way of thinking. Before you were just reacting to events. In there you had time to think.You realised they were just ordinary people like ourselves.

"I was alienated. I began a search for meaning and purpose in life. Through the writings of Deitrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian, I rediscovered myself and learned I needed an anchor in society."

"Gusty Spence [founder of the Progressive Ulster Party] urged his UVF gunmen to read widely: `Read everything not just from the loyalist end. Read literature. Read history. Read the republican stuff as well.' I left school at 15, prison was my chance of an education. At first there was no structure or plan to my reading. I'd pick up one thing and it would lead me on to another."

Among other improbable changes he became a feminist. "I read Sheila Rosenbaum. I read Germaine Greer. The Pankhursts. It changed my way of thinking towards women. I think of Meena, my wife, as an equal now and I sometimes wonder if it wasn't for prison would we still be together." It is now part of Billy's agenda to influence the women's movement in Northern Ireland, which he sees as far behind its counterpart in Eire.

His friendship with Billy has provided Liam with his first real opportunity to see Unionism at a personal level.

"I got a clearer picture of the loyalist stance and why they've held it. I can now understand that people were being told for years by politicians and the state that they were a privileged race and all Catholics were their enemy, that priests were dangerous. I can also see there is a realisation in some loyalist quarters that life is not as it was painted and they have been led up the garden path. They know now they are not a superior race. They must have suffered a great shock. Many of them want equality. Knowing Billy made me aware of that. He gave me an insight into Protestant thinking. I believe there are more people like him."

Billy believes their relationship is an example to others and proves that those who hold extreme and opposite views can not only work together but form genuine friendships.

"I gradually got to like Liam.The more we talked I knew he was not motivated by funding, or politics but a genuine desire for people to come together, to enrich and enhance the lives of all our people.

"It's given me a real insight into what it is to be a committed nationalist. It's put a human face on nationalism. I understand his brother, Alex [a Sinn Fein councillor and hard-line republican], better.

"There's a battle for the minds of the loyalist people going on now. Those who don't want to trust nationalists, they have the clout, There are those of us who say we've got to trust them. We mightn't like them, but our communities, our future is more important.

"The nationalist's aim for a united Ireland is a stumbling block only if it's the main plank of their agenda. If it's only part of the agenda, the way Unionism is only part of our agenda, I have no problem with that and I don't think the aspiration is all that realistic anyway, The only way the South is ahead of us is in the women's movement."

Liam sees the Unionist position as blinkered in the face of changing history. "I don't know what they're thinking about. The South is a modern state. The North the province of a decaying empire. The South has a strong economy. Look at the UK. The punt is above sterling now.

"I think there will be a constitutional mood change and that in the interests of peace the only way forward is without interference from Britain.

"I believe the ceasefire will hold. The Democratic Unionist Party, the Progressive Ulster Party and Sinn Fein are all committed to it. The only people that aren't are the constitutional politicians. I think Major is afraid of Paisley and Molyneaux. The will is there with everyone else. I couldn't care less about decommissioning, so long as they are not using the guns, so what? Sinn Fein and the Loyalist biggest mandate is the silence of the guns. We've got to build on that. The vast majority of Sinn Fein are just ordinary people who got caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Two weeks ago Liam suffered a heart attack and was taken into intensive care. Billy was constantly at the bedside."It was like a kick in the stomach to me," he says. "I couldn't leave the hospital."

"What is it with you two guys?" asked an Ulster politico. "Are you joined at the hip or what?"