Friday, December 10, 2010

‘The most abused and pilloried community in the world’ by Ian Walker

As promised, another Ian Walker essay from Paul Barker's edited collection, The Other Britain.

This essay dates from July 1981 and, alongside his 'Anarchy in the UK' article, it's my favorite piece of his from the book.

I'll post his final essay from the collection, 'A quiet day out at the match', in the next day or two.

‘The most abused and pilloried community in the world’

by Ian Walker

He is 42, but looks much older. He sits in the front room chain-smoking, head turning from the television to the window whenever a car or a pedestrian passes by this two-up two-down terrace in east Belfast. Bill Baxter is in the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. He's done time in Crumlin Road jail for gun-running, and there have been three attempts on his life.

His wife, Judith, a Catholic from the Falls Road, is in the kitchen making bacon and eggs for tea. Their son, aged 10, is out collecting firewood for the Protestant bonfires that will be lit the night before 12 July, the day of the Orange procession.

Bill is a semi-skilled engineer at Harland-Wolff shipyard. He was a shop steward up till a year ago. But he's taken the last three weeks off to work in the UDA headquarters on the Newtownards Road. The Ulster news is over. He turns off the television.

It was some years ago that he received the framed scroll, black and white except for an orange blob at the bottom corner, which hangs on the wall. When he became master of his Orange Lodge he was still living in Suffolk, a Protestant enclave off Andersonstown in west Belfast. Before internment in 1971, about 5,000 Protestants were living on that estate. Now there are about 500.

'Can you tell me what this means, troops out?' he says, jumping up from his seat and brushing the cigarette ash from his old brown suit. 'Did people ever want the troops out in two world wars? Ulster lost 50,000 men in the battle of the Somme. Five out of seven generals in the last war were Ulstermen.'

His face is all lined and taut with despair, till he wipes the grey hair out of his eyes, relaxes the muscles, and tells a story which, he says, probably isn't true, but seems to get truer as the years go by:

'The story is that the Pope, as Italy sort of gets more communist, wants eventually to come here to Ireland . . . I don’t know. l'm not a good Protestant to be truthful with you. I'm more anti-communistic.'

Judith walks in with the bacon and egg. She is 39. Her hair falls long down her back like a schoolgirl’s. Her face, like Bill’s, shows signs of the travails. It is thin and pinched.

She grew up behind a police barracks on the Lower Falls, and learned to shoot by watching the local cop giving firearm training to his sons. She's worked in factories, a draper’s, a shoe shop. After her family went to London, for a spell, to work in a hotel, she was a chambermaid. She met Bill in a cinema queue on the Falls Road.

No one told Judith, when she was a teenager, that her mother was dying of cancer. She later discovered her father had been having an affair with another woman throughout her mother's illness. As soon as she died, the father re-married. He now lives in west Belfast with his two teenage children. Judith hasn't seen him in twelve years.

‘I was never that good a Catholic, so I wasn't,' she says, pouring out the tea. After her mother died, she ran away with Bill to London. They got married in Stoke Newington registry office.

Robert walks in. He only got one chair for the bonfire. This afternoon he brought home his school report: he came seventeenth out of a class of 32. Bill says that there are other things that are important, apart from academic ability.

The Protestant working class has been used to its boys taking up apprenticeships at 16. Education, before the current recession anyway, wasn't a priority.

When Robert, their only child, has finished playing his latest single - Embarrassment by Madness - Bill rises from his chair. He has a single he wants to play, too, by Johnny Johnson.

To the tune of Amazing Grace, and with a choir of schoolgirls doing the chorus, it is a spoken lament for the abolition of Stormont, the disarming of the police, and other Westminster betrayals, together with a call for Ulstermen to fight back.

'This sort of sums up how I feel about things,' Bill says, sucking the smoke past his few remaining yellow teeth.

The Baxter dog, a dalmatian which is kept outside for protection 24 hours a day, starts barking. Bill always answers the door. He gets up, his face screwed up, pulling at his clothes, coughing. ‘He doesn't know who it is at the door,’ says Judith.

The stranger knows someone Bill knows. He is let in to use the telephone. When he's gone, Bill washes his face in the kitchen sink. There‘s no wash basin in the house, just a shower that Bill built out into the backyard.

His hair combed, Bill is waiting now for Louis to show up. ‘Did you know Louis was coloured?' he says. ‘Out of between thirty and forty thousand members of the UDA, there’s just two that's coloured - Louis and one other.'

Born in St Lucia, Louis came to Belfast when he was six, he says, as we drive down to a bar called the Oakley. He used to hang out with Prods and Fenians, and played in a Catholic football team till he was 14. 'But in Belfast you can't sit on the fence.’ At 16, Louis was intemed in Long Kesh for 18 months. He parks the car in a narrow alley and walks into the bar.

Photographs of bulldogs, and one of the Queen, hang on the walls. There are eight men drinking (one of them in the Royal Ulster Constabulary), and one woman serving, now that the whisky-drinking barman has gone to the other side of the counter. She pours the barman another. ‘The only problem with Ulster,’ he says in a drunken slur, ‘is the Roman Catholic church. . . . There are one million Protestants being forced into a corner. The sooner we get rid of the army the better.'

He goes on to describe how the Prods will finish off the Taigs (the Catholics), no trouble. Bill goes off for a game of pool. Underneath the UDA coat of arms by the bar is the motto QUIS SEPARABIT.

George Best used to live just round the corner from this bar. 'Great tradition of footballers in east Belfast,' says Louis, who used to play for the Manchester United youth team in his holidays, and went on to represent Northern Ireland schoolboys. He later developed a lung disease which has made him fat. He is now, at 23, a quantity surveyor for the council.

Back in the car, Louis drives past swastikas and National Front graffiti on the corrugated iron fringing some waste ground. His destination is a pub called the King Richard, which has stone alcoves, murals of palm trees and, in one comer, a Dean Martin crooner. The publican here, who runs bars all over east Belfast, is reputed to a millionaire. He owns a pet lion.

'He's a good man,' Bill Says. 'lf you come in here with your electric bill he'll pay it for you, if he knows you, like. If I come round here collecting for loyalist prisoners, he'll write me a cheque for a hundred pound.'

Louis raises his hand in greeting to the man who's just walked - Jim, who's only been out of prison for six months. Jim says he can't find work, because of his prison record. This began when he was 17, jailed for hijacking cars in the Ulster Workers’ Council general strike of May 1974, which destroyed power-sharing. The second time Jim was put away, the charge was attempted murder.

'I was stopped by the peelers [the RUC] when I was carrying guns,' he says. He tried to shoot his way out.

He is now 24. He keeps pretending he has a gun inside his black car-coat, plunging his hand in there and pulling it back out, gun-shaped, and firing it off with his own sound effects, like a small boy.

'It's the only country in the world where you get locked up for fighting for your Crown' he says, turning to spit on the floor.

When he was younger, Jim used to run around in a tartan gang, fighting other Prod tartan gangs, and sometimes going 200-strong up the Catholic Lower Falls district. 'We used to fight anyone' he says, and then looks at Louis, ‘including niggers.'

Louis smiles and says, yes, they’ve been on opposing sides of a fight many a time. But that it's all forgotten now.

Driving to the Ulster Arms, Louis points along a narrow street. Half the terraces down there are boarded up. The whole street is being demolished to make way for a supermarket.

Bill sits in the back. 'We know we can’t go back to the old days,' he says; ‘to Stormont, when the Catholics were tramped on. . . . ln the UDA we're talking about getting rid of the Republicans, and then just all the ordinary Catholics and Protestants living together.' He rakes a hand through his hair. Protestants have their backs to the wall.

On the dim-lit street, an old man can just be made out, staggering away from the Ulster Arms. 'Did you hear?’ he shouts to Louis and Bill: ‘Billy Archibald's dead.'

Archibald used to be one of the main men in the UDA. He died this aftemoon of a heart attack. ‘lt'll be a big funeral,' Bill says, staring past his vodka and Coke.

‘It won't be like Bobby Sands,’ Louis says. ‘Because we don't believe in our people losing a day's pay for a funeral. Things are bad enough as they are.'

The pub is quiet. Two other men sit in a corner watching A Town Like Alice on the television. The Ulster Arms was bombed ten years ago. ‘No one's got any money any more,’ Louis says.

The only growth industries in Northern Ireland are security and policing: there were 4,556 men and women in the RUC in 1974, 6,659 in 1979. The Protestants still march through their town on 12 July. But every year, there are fewer and fewer bands.

'Prods are a very private people,’ Louis says over his last vodka. 'They aren’t like the Catholics. And they never forget; they are like elephants. They never sink down roots, either. If Ulster becomes part of the Republic, then they'll fight hard, to the end, and then probably they’ll go off to some other island or country and settle there, until the same thing happens again: they'll fight and leave.'

He drains his glass. Bill follows him out. The Ulstermen return to their wives.

After Judith has made Bill tea and sandwiches, she sits down, and starts talking about Robert. She remembers a time when Robert and a friend found a gun in the river, and took it along to the police interrogation centre on Landas Road.

'The boy who went along with him, his father was doing 25 years for murder. And me, with my record. So You can imagine how we felt when they came back and said,' Bill says, looking at Judith. Both of them laugh at the memory.

Next morning, Judith is in the front room reading the Star. She's already looked at the Sun. The death of Billy Archibald, an old friend, has made her think of those old days. She can’t concentrate on the newspapers.

After Bill was arrested, with a machine-gun in his suitcase at Aldergrove airport in 1971, the police came round to the house, and found an arsenal of six handguns. It was lucky, Judith says, that she wasn't carrying her own gun when they came round. She'd put it in the sideboard.

She claims she was the first woman in Belfast to be ’lifted'. In the police station, she invented a story about Robert, a baby then, needing medicine every hour. It meant that when she called her friend, on the hour, she could try and get news of Bill. In the end, it was through a detective, who was in the UDA, that she discovered Bill was up on eight charges.

His lawyer predicted that Bill would get ten years. But six of the eight counts were thrown out of court, and he got away with six months. After Ian Paisley had got her out of the police station, she moved house. She went first to Sandy Row, where Bill was raised. But she was being watched by someone, from a car that was always parked down the street, and the neighbours panicked. So she moved into a squat in Ballybean, where Billy Archibald and his sons guarded her round the clock.

When she went to visit Bill in Crumlin Road jail one day, he told her that he'd received a death threat, and that she would have to make arrangements for the three of them to disappear. She did. The Baxters fled to London the day Bill finished his sentence.

'I was never much bothered about Catholics and Protestants,' she says. 'lt was just when they [the IRA] threatened to shoot my son, I sort of got involved.' That was when they were all still living in Suffolk. She told Bill then she wanted to start carrying a gun. He said she didn't know how to use one, but Judith explained that she’d watched a policeman, from her backyard, teaching his sons to shoot. She'd had six miscarriages, she says, and she wasn’t going to stand by and watch her son killed.

'l don’t much care if they do come and kill me now,' she says, sitting on the sofa, rolling another cigarette. ‘At least I've raised Robert up to a decent age. Nothing much bothers me now.'

The only member of her own family she still sees is a brother in London. 'I’m getting the children ready for mass and my sister-in-law says, “What about you?" I say, "Don't worry about me." Some people think I'm strange. But I don't worry about much.'

She laughs. When she's in Belfast she does the toast, Belfast-style, just on one side. When she's in London she does the toast both sides. 'You just adapt to wherever you are.'

The next-door-neighbour, a good friend, walks in and then does a U-turn when she sees Judith isn’t alone. Prods are a very private people. This neighbour is, in Judith's phrase for ascetic,‘good livin''. She is also a devout member of Paisley's Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, on the Ravenhill Road, five minutes away.

It was on the Ravenhill Road, in 1946, that Paisley began his ministry. And in 1951 it became the headquarters of the first Free Presbyterian Church. He started that church with 66 members. Its first year's income was £360. By 1969, he had a congregation of 3,400, and the church's annual income was £60,826.

Yesterday, Judith says, her neighbour told her that Paisley had gone to the European parliament. ‘She said, "The big man's away in Europe this week. . . . And you’re to pray for him." I said, "I will not pray for him." And she said, "Oh, you shouldn't say that." So I had to say, "Oh, maybe while I'm praying for myself, I'll do one for him too.'"

Robert returns from school with a friend. Judith asks if his mother knows he's not going straight home? He says his mother never worries about him. Judith looks disapproving. She says she always makes Robert check in straight after school, so that she knows he’s safe.

The friend has a SKINHEAD MADNESS badge on the arm of his black jacket. In his school, he says, there are three Teds and three mods. The rest are all rude boys and skinheads.

‘What’s our Robert, then?' Judith asks.

‘Rude boy,' he says.

‘I can never keep up,' Judith says. The skinhead and the rude boy go out to collect firewood.

Bill must have had a bad day at the UDA. He rubs at all the loose skin folded round his lantern jaw, pacing the front room, fulminating against the Provisionals and the press, the priests and the traitorous English, people like Pat Arrowsmith, Lord Longford, Vanessa Redgrave. ‘To my way of thinking, they're all just anarchists.'

His condition doesn't improve over tea, which tonight is chops and roast potatoes and kidney beans. The IRA, Bill is convinced, do their recruiting through the Gaelic Sports Association. 'You go to one of their games,’ he says. 'You look up. You’ll see the tricolour there. Not the Union ]ack.'

The raging goes on. It is desperate, rearguard, the laager consciousness incamate. No one understands us. Perhaps it is also the redneck running scared in the southern Bible Belt. Paisley got an honorary degree from the Bob Jones University, South Carolina. ]udith is trying to watch Crossroads.

Television news makes things worse: dustbin lids beaten for Prince Charles in New York; eight Republican prisoners who've escaped from Crumlin Road jail are safe in hiding south of the border. Bill watches the enemy winning another phase of the propaganda war. His eyes go wild.

'They abolished our parliament and disarrned our police. I've been paying taxes to Britain for 25 years. What happens if they just pull the troops out of Ulster?'

The official line of the UDA, as set out by its political arm, the New Ulster Political Research Group, is that there should be a phased withdrawal of troops, with the aim of setting up an independent Ulster state. But that official line has no resonance down here, in the loyalist heartlands. Bill needs a drink.

He walks out, this cold and rainy summer, past the London bar, a hang-out of the Ulster Volunteer Force, another Protestant paramilitary group. A boy is out trying to sweep the rubbish down the pavement, away from his front door; but the wind just keeps blowing it back.

Past a sweetshop that used to be owned by an RUC reservist, who was shot dead one night locking up, and on past a Free Presbyterian Sunday school, Bill walks down towards the mouth of the river Lagan.

The owner of the Oakley bar, Wilfie, has a kind of GI haircut. In the second war, about 2,000 Gls were stationed in temporary barracks nearby, at the old Bushmills distillery. Wilfie worked for eight years as a boilermaker and two years at Harland-Wolff. ‘Then,' he says, 'I robbed a bank and opened a pub.'

Wilfie now lives in a five-bedroomed detached house in east Belfast. He built a small bungalow on to the house for his mother, who went there from her slum clearance parlour house. But she couldn't abide the central heating, and she missed her fire. She stayed in the bungalow a week, then returned to the ghetto.

Wilfie stands about five foot eight, his big hands clenched either side of his Bacardi and Coke. 'lf there’s one thing I hate more than a Provo, it's an Englishman,' he says. ‘This is the most abused and pilloried community in the world. . . . I’m standing here in a forty pound suit, getting drunk, but I’m staying. I get drunk, hung over, dry out, get drunk again. It's okay. But l’m fucking staying here.'

Wilfie is one of the top men in the local UDA. He calls himself an atheist and a hoodlum. ‘But everyone's a hoodlum, and the higher up you get, the bigger hoodlums they are,’ he says. ‘I'm finding that out.’

He ran summer camps for local children for seven years, but finally got fed up with all the hassle from the 'powers that be'. It had to be 50-50, inter-denominational. lt had to be kids of certain ages. lt had to be either boys or girls. 'What kind of holiday is that?'

'Haughey. Paisley, Pitt. Devlin. Hume.' He spits out their names. ‘The powers that be. . . . It’ll be solved eventually by the people on the ground, Prods and Taigs, getting together.'

Prods and Taigs - there's no real difference, he says. Same houses, same culture. He comes himself from a family of ten. 'Good as the Taigs can manage,’ he says, making a quick circle with his finger at the barmaid, who lines up the fourth round in 40 minutes.

‘You spend all night talking and plotting. How you're going to smash everything, assassinate everyone, the lot. You go to bed feeling like King Kong! Wilfie tightens his neck muscles, and beats his fists on his chest. ‘Then you wake up in the morning. And you wonder what the fuck that was all about last night?’

Bill walks up to say that the army have swamped the Short Strand, the nearby Catholic enclave, that there are two Saracens and two pigs (armoured cars) down there, and that everyone’s house is getting searched. Only soldiers wearing uniforms, Wilfie says, can get into the ghettoes.

‘Can you imagine any SAS man getting into the Short Strand? He'd be spotted a mile off. I can see immediately any stranger who comes into this area. How do they get people into those areas? The answer is they don't. That's the truth. That Captain Nairac [the SAS undercover man who was killed by the IRA in 1977], everyone knew who he was, first fucking minute he came into the bar. They said he had perfected a Belfast accent.' Wilfie laughs. 'Every night they were all looking at the bulge to find out what kind of gun he was carrying tonight.'

On both sides of the peace lines in Belfast they tell the same stories about Nairac. They see him as a symbol of British arrogance.

The Oakley was blown up a few years ago by the Provos, Bill says. ’Wilfie built it up with his bare hands.' Bill splays out his work-calloused hands, and holds them up to his face, showing the tattoes on both forearms.

'I'll have a glass of stout, Bill,’ says an old man called Tom, who just has ten minutes before a tenants' meeting to discuss the next phase of the rehabilitation plans for the old ‘parlour houses' (two up, two down) in this area. Most of his life Tom was a dustbin-man; but for the last few years, he's been doing paperwork for the Royal Ancient Institute of Buffaloes, which he says is a non-sectarian organisation.

Tom remembers the old Lagan village: the white cottages, the old timber yard, the bakery where you could get loaves a bit cheaper than they were in the shops. He remembers, too, Paisley coming round these parts in the fifties. 'He didn't have the arse in his trousers.'

Shouting across the bar is Wilfie: ‘We don't know fucking anything. We’re all idiots. Here's to idiots.‘ He raises his glass. A land surveyor who's supposed to be the spitting image of Stewart Granger holds his glass up for the toast.

This surveyor, a good friend of Wilfie’s, was in the Young Communist League twelve years ago. He voted for Paisley in the last general election. He says he wouldn’t mind living in a united Ireland if it meant he’d be better off.

A young drunk, with a dirty bandage unravelling round his right hand, leans forward and retches up right at the bar. 'Go to the toilet if you want to be sick,’ the barmaid says, handing him a mop.

After last orders, at 11.30, Bill walks back home. Before going to bed he plays again the single by Johnny Johnson, the pathetic lament for the Orange state.

Up in Robert's tiny bedroom, two pennants hang on the bionic-man wallpaper. 'Arsenal 1971, double winners', says one; ‘Ulster 1690', the other. Out of his window, beyond the backyard, the view is of a convent. Barbed wire runs along its walls.

'Do you find it interesting here in Belfast?' Robert asks, next morning.


‘Aye. Plenty of things to do.'

His mother is downstairs, listening to the radio. The widow of an RUC man is being interviewed. She’s started a new organisation called Widow's Mite.

Over at the UDA headquarters on the Newtownards Road, Judith's best friend from the old days in Suffolk, a 42-year-old woman called Laura, is rushing round organising the food and drink for Archibald's funeral this afternoon. She wears a black leather jacket and black PVC trousers.

Laura went to live in the Suffolk enclave in 1967, because the council had said that she and her husband would get a house within the year if they were prepared to go to west Belfast. For four years there was no trouble with the Catholics round about.

'The people were really cracker, you know. Everything was great. Until the day they introduced internment) she says. ‘And then people stopped speaking to me.'

Laura used to feed the soldiers soup, and let them sleep in her back garden after the night patrols. One night she was kidnapped at gunpoint outside the newsagent’s, and left in the mud at the bottom of a hill. Another night she came home to find 49 families piling belongings on to open lorries. There had been a rumour that the Provos were coming up.

'It was raining. And they were all going so quietly, like the Jews in the war. I always wondered from the war and that, why the Jews didn't stay and fight, you know. And now here we were, they were, doing the same thing. I just sat and cried as hard as it was raining.'

She says that, before the troubles started, she had supported the civil rights marches. She had never had anything to do with Orange orders, any of that; but she couldn't understand any more what was going on.

'Suffolk was just like what was happening in Ulster,’ she says. ‘We were supposed to be the majority. What was happening? I mean l'rn Irish. I'm not one of those who says, "Oh, no, I'm from Ulster." I am Irish, but in a way I’rn British, too. The education was British. The television, the things you were into, were British. The royal family. Britain is part of our culture.'

Laura left Suffolk in 1978. She went to live in Scotland for a while, but got homesick. She lives now in east Belfast, where her mother always wanted her to live. It's very quiet. 'Dead as a dodo,' she says.

Before tea tonight Bill gets his stamp collection out of the attic. He reckons he must have spent more than £1,000 on stamps over the years. He specialises in British stamps. He says it was only two months ago that Eire had its first stamp with a Protestant on it, Harry Ferguson, the man who developed the modern-style tractor.

Judith is upstairs getting ready for parents' night at the school. Robert is hunting the streets for firewood. Bill paces the front room, lights up his fortieth cigarette of the day, and says that though most of the men who've tried to kill him are now dead, there’s still a bullet with his name on it. He stands now in the corner of the room, by the bronze-effect wallpaper. ‘Come doomsday’, he says, he'll fight.

29 July 1981

No comments: