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Two dead, one in hiding, no to deals: Alex Renton meets a republican whose family is a target

Alex Renton
Sunday 19 December 1993 00:02 GMT

WHAT DO you say to a man who, in the last 12 months, has seen his brother and son die because of his beliefs and yet is not convinced that a chance to end the war should be taken? You ask - is it worth it?

Bobby Lavery shrugs and says: 'I'm one of a large family - nine sons, five daughters. There's a war going on - it's an awful thing, but you have to expect it, percentage-wise.

'Others have suffered pain in this war, and that didn't make me change my beliefs. Should I change them now, just because my family and I have suffered pain?'

Bobby Lavery has been an active member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, almost since the present troubles began. He joined in 1970, from the British Army's transport corps. In the same year he married Valerie, his English wife. He joined 'as a reaction to the attacks on nationalist areas'. The following year he received a five-year sentence for possession of ammunition. Was he a member of the IRA? 'IRA people don't store ammunition,' he says.

The years since then have been filled with casual labouring jobs, work in Sinn Fein's community programme and as a local councillor for the Old Park ward of New Lodge, north Belfast. He started a second term as councillor last May. As you walk around the mean and grimy brick streets of New Lodge, not a person goes by without a word for Bobby.

In Donore Court, around the corner from the bullet-scarred Lavery home, is a memorial to the people who 'have lost their lives in the current phase of the struggle for Irish freedom'. There are the names of 17 'volunteers', two Sinn Fein councillors and 80 or so 'civilians'. There is hardly enough room at the bottom for the names of Bobby's brother and son, Martin and Sean Lavery, which are to be added next year.

His family was first touched in 1976 when his brother Kevin was shot and seriously wounded in the street by the UDA - 'because he was a Catholic,' Bobby claims.

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of his brother Martin's death. He was wrapping up Christmas presents with his five-year-old daughter, Danielle. The gunman missed her, but hit 40-year-old Martin, a worker with Belfast's Housing Executive, in the chest. Martin's wife ran after the gunman as he left their house in Belfast's Crumlin Road, and threw a flowerpot at him. He fired back at her. They both missed, but Martin was dead.

Then, last August, Bobby Lavery's son was killed. Twenty-one-year-old Sean, an engineering student at Ulster University, was watching television at home on Antrim Road. Two gunmen fired through the windows from the busy road. Sean was hit twice in the side. His father, who was asleep upstairs, found him collapsed on the landing.

It was enough horror to fill anyone's year. But then, three weeks ago, there was another attack. This time it was his son Neill, 16, who was also watching television in the front room. Some 30 bullets were fired at the house, but luckily most were deflected by the steel shutters Mrs Lavery had installed after Sean's death.

The UVF claimed responsibility for the first killing and the UFF the second. Martin, the loyalist paramilitaries said, was an IRA intelligence officer, but Bobby denies this. 'They always say that. Sean was just a legitimate target, he wasn't a member of anything.'

Bobby, who wears body armour and moves from flat to flat every few days, tells his story calmly, smiling at the occasional appalling irony.

'This is no way to have a life, but what's the alternative?' he asks. 'Every death hurts, a British soldier or an IRA man.' An alternative has been suggested, you point out. But he is not impressed with the Major-Reynolds declaration.

'Sure, it's the first time 'self-determination' has been mentioned. But if self-determination in six counties says we don't want to be reunited, and self-determination in 26 counties says we do, the six counties win. That's not self-determination for Ireland.'

But doesn't he, after what his family have suffered, think any chance of peace must be seized? 'I sincerely hope there's enough in the Downing Street declaration to give us peace. But I don't want peace at any price - if there isn't an offer it would be totally wrong for all those people who have died to get nothing.'

Bobby does not believe he will be hiding for ever. 'Maybe three or four years. I think there'll be progress. Britain has made a move now. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.'

Does he see hope for a solution? 'The Protestant loyalists need to be convinced that they have nothing to fear from republicanism. We have to make them believe that we will not treat them as badly as they treated us. We must convince them that they've been shat on by the British and that their future lies in Ireland.'

(Photograph omitted)

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