Kevin Myers: Sex, guns and the IRA

Reporting on the Troubles in the 1970s was a deadly game, as a young reporter called Kevin Myers discovered. And not just because he became privy to the secrets of both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries. The casual relationships that a red-blooded journalist couldn’t turn down were pretty dangerous too

Saturday 08 March 2008 01:00

Belfast city-centre club I frequented was a desperate place. I only went because I needed the company and it had one great redeeming feature: an enchantingly pretty waitress called Danielle. As I left one night I found her at the door and asked if she wanted a lift. She smiled and said yes, and I drove her to her home off the Falls Road.

"What's that?" she asked, pointing at my beeper.

I explained I paid an agency to notify me of messages and warn me of explosions and shootings.

"What do you do?"

"I'm a journalist. I need to know these things." She was silent for a minute. "I'm sorry, but I told my local OC [Officer Commanding] I thought you were a peeler. I gave him your car number and all. Jesus, I'm sorry, but you could be in real trouble here, you know?"

"You gave the IRA my car number? You followed me out of the club?" She nodded. "I did, aye, last week."

It was my turn to be silent. Finally I said: "If you thought I was a police officer, why did you accept a lift from me?"

She looked away. "Because I sort of liked you, if you know what I mean."

No, there's no making sense of that.

The next Sunday she was working at the club again – heavens, she was pretty – and she gave me a wink. "I seen the OC," she said, "and you're dead on, so you are."

"You want a lift again tonight?"

"I do, aye, but not so direct, if you get my drift."

Once we got back to my place I asked her about herself. No, she wasn't in the IRA, but she did what she could for it. Meaning? Oh wee things, like holding open the flaps of letter boxes. What?

She told me the IRA would remove the outer flap on a letter box, but leave the inner one. It would be attached to a piece of string and girls such as Danielle would hold the flap open inside the house from a distance, using the string, while an IRA sniper deep in the hall would wait for a soldier to come into distant view down whatever street the letter box commanded.

A single shot and the girl would release the string and the rest of the foot patrol would see nothing.

"You've actually done this?"

"Aye, a few times. It's very borin', an' all, specially when fuck all happens," she said, grumpily.

"You ever do this when a soldier got shot?"

"Worse luck, no."

"Danielle, if you had, you know you would have been guilty of murder, legally and morally."

"Me? Guilty of murder for holding up a wee letter box? Away and shite."

I explained that as an assistant to murder she would be as guilty as the man who pulled the trigger. She looked wonderingly at me. "You see, that's what we're fighting," she said indignantly. "British injustice like that there."

I told her – as if this was news to her, and it probably was – of what an immense and terrible thing it was to kill anyone. The most appalling thing that had ever happened to me had been the death of my father, which caused me grief for many years.

"That's different. Your da wasn't a British soldier."

"But my uncle was. And British soldiers' families have feelings too, you know."

"Are you going to keep talking shite like this all night or are you going to kiss me?"

Bob, a Protestant taxi driver I was friendly with, called round one night. Did I fancy going up the Shankill with him? I suspect I was possibly the only person at the time who was regularly drinking on both the Falls and the Shankill.

We went to a loyalist club where Bob met an old associate, an Ulster Defence Association man called Sammy Flatface, who was wearing a UDA blazer. (What other terrorist organisation would have its own preposterous regimental blazer, complete with gold badge?) Sammy suggested we go down to a pub in south Belfast where the Guinness was pulled by real barmen, not these clowns. So off we went and as soon as we arrived, who did we happen to run into but Rab Brown, the local UDA commander.

"Is that right, your name's Kevin?" he said to me. "His name's Kevin," he called out to two young male companions, who exchanged glances. "Let me buy you a drink, Kevin. Never bought a drink for a Kevin before. A pint of Guinness, aye?"

"Is your name Kevin for real?" asked one of two muscular young men, looking at me very hard.

"You a Fenian?"

"A Fenian? Me? Ha, ha, ha. No, not a bit of it. Kevin's a common name in England. Me, a Fenian indeed."

"Never thought I'd be drinking in here with a Kevin," said Rab. "What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a freelance journalist," I said.

"A freelance journalist, eh? Freelance means you can work for anyone, is that right?" I nodded.

"So who do you work for at the moment, Kevin?"

"Right at this moment? Well nobody, actually."

"Nobody, actually? Is that right, actually? Which means you're an unemployed freelance journalist. Sounds like a Fenian to me, Kevin."

Everyone roared with laughter, except Bob, who had been looking on anxiously. He spoke up: "It's all right, Rab. He's no Fenian."

"That's right, he's not," said Sammy, who didn't know what I was.

"Look lads, I wouldn't give a fuck if he was. I don't judge a man by his religion. All that sectarian shite. Catholics and Protestants together, that's what I say."

The evening progressed superbly. Sammy headed off home as Rab and I got on better and better.

Late into the evening he asked me what I thought of sectarian assassinations because, speaking personally, he was against them. He just wanted nothing better than to live in peace with Catholics. Excellent, I said, sectarian assassinations were an evil monstrosity and those responsible should fry in hell. "Very true, Kevin," said one of the young men. "Kevin's right, isn't he?"

"Aye, Kevin's dead on, so he is."

Rab and his friends pursed their lips and continued to nod in solemn assent. Sometime after 2am I was at the urinal, musing what a delightful bunch of people I had fallen in with when Bob slid in beside me.

"They're going to nut you," he whispered. "The guns have just arrived. Do as I say or you're dead. Slip out of the side door there. Get behind my car. Do not move until I come out. Now go!"

Instantly sober, my fly still open, I turned and walked out of the side door on to the street, where I hid on the far side of Bob's taxi, gazing through its windows at the pub door. The two young men ran out with revolvers in their hands. They scouted immediately around them, but, just feet away, still missed me.

"He must have gone back inside," spat one, and the two ran back into the pub. Bob emerged from the shadows and like a dark wraith came gliding towards the car. He got in and began to drive away. Crouching alongside the car I ran in a strange little hobble as within Bob leant sideways and opened the door, even as he continued to drive. I scrambled in and he put his foot down on the accelerator.

"Jesus," he said, "did you not see me trying to shut you up? All that ould shite about sectarian assassinations. He's the worst of the lot. I'd never have took you there if I'd known you couldn't keep your trap shut."

Even before I went to the lavatory, Rab had sent out for a couple of guns. Bob had twigged what was going on and risked his life to save me.

"Christ," I whispered, "will this cause you problems?"

"It's one thing to kill an unemployed taig. Quite another to kill a journalist with a posh English accent. No, when he sobers up he'll be grateful to me."

"No chance of popping back for a nightcap, I suppose?"

"Very funny. You could have got us both killed with your blather, you know that?"

That was a Friday night-Saturday morning. I know now that the following Monday a group of Rab Brown's "men" killed a 15-year-old Catholic boy, Peter Watterson, in a drive-by shooting on the Falls Road.

Having got a taste for teenage blood, two nights later they abducted a small, frail, asthmatic 14-year-old called Philip Rafferty, took him to a beauty spot outside Belfast, hooded him, bent his little body at the waist and shot him dead. I had been supping with a devil.

A week before Christmas we received a report of a bomb alert in a pub on the Lisburn Road. With John Slye, a brave and unwaveringly sharp cameraman, I immediately headed off, arriving soon after the bomb had exploded.

Dust was shimmering downwards like dry ice as we got out of the car.

On the street barmen were reeling and gibbering, grey-faced with shock. But the explosion hadn't been inside the pub, it was outside.

We stared around. There were tiny fragments of pink on the ground, mere smears, but hundreds of them, a confetti of human flesh. A weeping barman stood reciting an account of events to himself and to all. The IRA had left the bomb inside and shouted a warning to leave, which the staff had heeded. But then the owner, Jack Lavery, chose to remove it and thereby save his beloved pub.

Which is what, in part, he did. He had just got outside, a large grin of triumph on his face, when the bomb exploded. John had started filming the shattered facade of the pub when a woman drove up and got out of her car.

"Where's Jack?"

We instantly knew that here was a widow, freshly minted.

John stopped filming. I whispered to him to turn on his camera. I wanted to capture this moment, unique in the history of television news, when a woman would learn on film that her husband was dead, and yes, ladies and gentlemen, those are the fragments of his corpse all round her.

John refused to move. I whispered to him again, but to no avail. Mrs Lavery looked at the barmen, at their faces, their horror-stricken eyes and seeing what we all saw, and suddenly knowing what we all knew, she unleashed a wail of grief that rings down the years and fills my heart with shame at how I wanted the world to witness this moment, not just because it should learn of the evil among us, but also because part of that evil had already infected my soul.

But I was not alone. The infection was everywhere.

Two Catholic boys were abducted from the Catholic church-run St Patrick's youth detention centre. They were the twin sons of Daniel Teggart, a father of 10 and one of the victims of the internment-day massacre by paratroopers at Henry Taggart Hall.

Their father dead and their area in permanent tumult, they were soon in trouble and sent by the courts to the detention centre, from where one night in 1973 they were abducted by the IRA on suspicion of being informers. They were 15 years old.

As the IRA car crossed the city, it was stopped by an army patrol. Suspecting something was not right, a soldier asked the boys if they were travelling voluntarily. They said they were. Allowed to continue, the IRA men and their captives went to a house in the north side of the city for interrogation. There, Bernard Teggart admitted to his heinous crime: sometime before, seeing a group of IRA men hijack a lorry, he had shouted: "I'm going to tell on youse."

As the boys were identical twins the IRA were unable to tell which of them had made the "threat".

Determined as ever in its pursuit of justice, the IRA wanted to know which brother had said those words.

Having admitted his "guilt", Bernard pleaded with his abductors not to harm his twin. What further menace this poor lad, with a mental age of eight, might have posed to the IRA it is hard to imagine. After all, he had just saved his captors from a British army patrol.

The IRA none the less made him kneel down and shot him dead; later – in a rather impressive gesture of kindness – they gave his brother 15p for the bus home.

The overwhelming majority of soldiers stoically did their duty within the law. A few did not.

One evening in September 1972 I drove up the Whiterock Road to see my girlfriend, Laura. As I got out of my car some paras emerged from the hedges. A huge moustached Scottish sergeant was in charge. He asked me who I was. I told him I was a reporter with Irish television.

He put his face an inch away from mine and said: "Well, Mr Reporter from Irish television, your television news will be reporting how one of their reporters got shot dead in Belfast for being where he wasn't fucking wanted.

"You've got a minute to get out of this estate before we shoot you dead."

I wasn't being brave when I replied: "Can I tell my girlfriend we're not going out tonight?"

"You can, but your minute's ticking away." A couple of the paratroopers laughed. I walked to Laura's front door, hammered on it and cut her short as she opened it. "The paras have told me to go and I'm leaving."

No further explanation was necessary.

I turned and walked back towards my car. A drunk across the street was walking in the half light towards two soldiers. He was humming to himself. Wordlessly, one of them drew back his rifle butt and smashed the drunk across the head.

He instantly fell into a heap. The two soldiers began to kick him while the Scottish sergeant laughed approvingly.

"Sergeant, you've got to stop that," I said.

"Are you still here? Your minute's nearly up."

He ambled over to the figure on the ground and kicked him very hard.

"This is not right and you know it," I repeated to the sergeant. "I'm taking that man to hospital and if you shoot me, my girlfriend will be my witness about what happened here."

The sergeant looked at me. "Take him wherever you want. But if I ever see your ugly face around here again I personally will shoot you dead. Have you got that?"

The drunk filled my car with blood, which flowed incessantly as I drove him to the Royal Victoria hospital, where I carried him into casualty.

"What happened to him?" asked a nurse.

"Army beat him up."

"Well, if he's going to make a complaint, I'm not admitting him."

"Not admitting him? Look at his head."

Blood was pouring from deep wounds in his scalp. She looked at them cursorily, sniffed and said: "He smells of drink. If soldiers did this to him, he must have deserved it. We'll stitch him up, but we're not admitting him. And he'll have to wait his turn."

Four hours later, John Kelly – for that was his name – emerged from casualty with about 25 stitches. It was long past midnight when I drove him back up the Whiterock Road, on the way giving a lift to a teenage hitchhiker.

As I approached my turning, paratroopers emerged from the shadows and waved me down. "Well, look what we've got here," cried a Scottish voice. "An old friend. A very stupid old friend."

The three of us were taken out of the car at gunpoint and made to lean against the cemetery wall, resting on the tips of our toes and on our fingertips.

The sergeant cocked his gun and put it against my neck. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't blow your brains out? Didn't I warn what would happen if you came back?"

"I've rung my office and they've already told the watchkeeper with 39th Brigade what I'm doing," I improvised frantically, using language I'd overheard army officers use. I sensed that like all true bullies my sergeant was a coward. The words 39th Brigade would have brought a chill to his squalid heart.

"Stay as you are," he whispered in my ear. So I stayed like a hypotenuse against the wall and every time my fingers or toes trembled – as they did a lot – he kicked my ankles. But the seed of doubt was in his mind and eventually he told me I could go.

We met again in Leicestershire in December 1986. I had called a taxi and I recognised the driver. His name and taxi number were displayed on his permit. I chatted with him amicably enough and as we arrived at my destination, I complimented him on his military demeanour.

"Aye, I was in the army for 20 years," he sniffed proudly. "You don't forget some things."

"You've forgotten me, sar'nt," I said, using a military pronunciation.

He blinked in surprise. "I don't forget you and believe me the people of Ballymurphy don't forget you either."

I patted his shoulder encouragingly.

"And better still, now they know where you work, why, they can even ask for you by name and number."

His eyes vanished in terror into the fat of his cowardly face and I bade him goodnight. I trust that even now, if this vile wretch is still alive, he starts awake at every sound at night.

Too close for comfort

Throughout the hot and terrible summer of 1972, I used to go alone to drink in The Old House, just off the Falls Road. One evening I found myself talking to two drunken sisters in their mid-twenties.

When they went to the lavatory together the barman warned me: one of them was married to a senior IRA man who was serious stuff. Don't even think about it.

Not a chance. What do you think I am? Mad? The girls came back, one considerably the worse for wear. Her sister explained she'd earlier had a row with her boyfriend, Sean. When it came time to leave I offered the sisters a lift home.

I drove the girls up to a housing estate and the unmarried sister, who was in the back, got out and went inside. She was very drunk. I looked at the woman beside me and we started kissing.

"This is mad," I said, lust grasping me warmly by the throat while common sense tapped on the window of my brain in vain.

"Come in," she said, "and have a cup of coffee."

"Where's your husband?"

"Shhh. He's gone down the state [the republic] on business. Won't be back till Monday."

"Are you sure?"


We went in and she led me upstairs. The bedroom floor was covered in huge barbells and weights.

"He's a weightlifter! Jesus Christ almighty!" I cried. "I'm getting out of here."

"Shhh. He's a weightlifter, aye, but a weightlifter in Dublin for now. It'll be fine."

And it was – until a car drew up outside, the front door opened, footsteps came pounding up the stairs and reached the landing.

In a single movement I rolled out of the blankets, grabbed a handful of my clothes from the floor and slid under the bed as the door opened.

"This place is a tip," a harsh male voice growled.

"What you doing back? Jesus, ye scared the shite out of me there."

"Scare the shite out ye, did I? Aye, sure I did, with your fancy man under the bed and all." He clearly enjoyed his little joke. My face sideways on the floor, I watched his size 12 feet move around. His shoes and socks came off followed by his pants.

Splendid. Now I was in the company of a nude weightlifter. He also turned out to be a very heavy weightlifter. He sat down hard on the bed directly above me, pressing my head into the floorboards.

After a considerable wait, during which my ears grew approximately half an inch closer together, the woman said: "I'm dying for some tea. Go and make us a wee cup."

"I've been driving all day, you go and make it."

"Go and get me some tea."

"You make it. Here. Why are you nude?"

"Maybe you'll find out if you make me some tea."

And so it proceeded, her nagging and his bluster, until finally he went downstairs. I rolled out from under the bed, scooped the remains of my clothes from the floor and without kissing my girl of the night farewell, hopped into the only other bedroom, where the sister was drunkenly slumbering. I had no choice but to slip in beside her and hope she didn't notice.

Alas, she did. "Sean," she sighed. Ah. Sean: the boyfriend. She snuggled against me and I unsnuggled myself, backing away from her. "Sean," she repeated, taking my hand. Oh dear me.

Soon, content, she fell deeper asleep. Next door, however, they were still arguing. I lay rigid as a roof joist. At long last, silence of a sort descended on this domestic idyll. Not even daring to get dressed, with my clothes in a bundle in my arms, nakedly I stole out of the house, nakedly I got into my car and nakedly I drove home.

Once there I discovered that in addition to removing my clothes I had made off with my involuntary host's underpants, shirt and a single sock. What a baffled morning he must have had, trying to work out what had happened the night before. And as for his sister-in-law...

This extract was taken from 'Watching the Door' by Kevin Myers, published by Atlantic Books, £12.99. To order your copy at a special price, with free p&p, call 08700 798897

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