Untold stories of the ‘Troubles’

A young boy innocently plays at soldiers in the shadow of an anti-British Army mural in the Bogside in the early 1970s. [Eamon melaugh Collection]
A young boy innocently plays at soldiers in the shadow of an anti-British Army mural in the Bogside in the early 1970s. [Eamon melaugh Collection]

‘Children of the Revolution’ - Bill Rolston’s new book telling the stories of twenty people who had a parent politically active in the North’s recent conflict - is, says local author EAMON BAKER, a “deeply human” and “often moving” account that is, in equal measure, both challenging and disturbing.

It is clear from the sensitive detail shared here that Bill Rolston has managed to develop, to a greater or lesser degree, trusting relationships with each interviewee.

Diverse voices given time and space here include: Fiona Bunting, daughter of Ronnie Bunting, an INLA leader in the late 70s, killed by loyalists in October 1980, and former UDA/UFF leader Billy McQuiston, who became involved in loyalism in 1971 after witnessing the bombing of the Balmoral Furnishing Company by the Provisional IRA. The bomb exploded on a Saturday afternoon in the heart of the Shankill, crowded with shoppers, killing two men and two babies. Billy was then in his mid teens. Other voices include: Mark Ervine, son of the late David Ervine, former member of the UVF and inspirational PUP leader, and Dan McCann’s daughter who gifts the reader with a powerfully open and unexpected interview.

One of the most searing images from these pages is that of the seven-year-old Fiona Bunting stepping over the body of her father Ronnie, gunned down at the top of the stairs after being implored by her mother, Suzanne, also critically wounded, to: “Go and get help.” He was shot several times and her mother had a couple of teeth shot out and she lost a chunk of her tongue, so she found it hard to speak. Ronnie’s friend and political comrade Noel Little was also killed in this attack in the autumn of 1980 in Downfine Gardens, home of the Bunting family. Also present that horrific night were Fiona’s three-year-old sister Deirdre and her baby brother Ronan.

Fiona, in part, speaks of her search for truth about that night: “No-one was ever charged. I’ve also heard rumours – it’s never been verified – that they used some UDR man’s pass to get through a checkpoint” and, in part, reveals how she has sought to cope within her family: “I remember being really angry. I would have lashed out.” and in her relationship with her future husband: “I met my husband a month before my eighteenth birthday. I struggled a wee bit in the relationship because, when you start to feel close to somebody, I felt myself pulling back.”

Counselling, rather than repression, she acknowledges, helped a great deal. And there remains the crux question of her father’s prior dedication to the Republican Socialist agenda over and above his own family commitments: “Why did he continue on? He knew the risks and he continued on. I look at my own kids and think they are my priority and I would never put myself at risk where I would disappear on them.”

Fiona, however, goes on to question her own hindsight wisdom. “He was living in the middle of a different world.”

The belief that the ‘circumstances’ of the times dictated choices recurs throughout these interviews. Billy McQuiston joined the junior wing of the UDA immediately after that bomb in the Balmoral Showrooms and there was family influence as well i.e. his father was UDA commander in the area at the time. He recalls: “The area I came from, the family that I came from and the activity that was going on in that area, I don’t think I really had any other choice.”

Mark Ervine reports that the IRA bombings of Bloody Friday in July 1972 became the catalyst for his father’s involvement within the UVF. Martin Og Meehan describes how, after fifteen-year-old Danny Barrett was shot dead by the British Army as he sat in the front garden wall of his home: “His friends, people I went to school with, were catapulted into the IRA. An awful lot of people joined the IRA in response to Thatcher. The IRA was the only way forward.”

While these belief systems and choices are openly revealed by the interviewees, there is little sense of other choices being considered or explored – why was it that one brother/sister might join the UDA/IRA and another not? And, as must be expected, there is just a little detail on what actions sprang from these beliefs and choices.

Liz Rea, daughter of Gusty Spence, tells us her father was sentenced on her twelfth birthday, 14 October 1966. “It was hard for my mummy. I was the oldest and my brother was only four. So Mummy had to rear the four of us on her own. She had a couple of nervous breakdowns but she had to carry on.” These intimate family details evoke compassion for the Spence family. Nothing, however, is mentioned about the reasons for her father’s sentence.

In his piece, Gearoid Adams talks of his father, Gerry, being “busy a lot of the time especially when I was younger … There were times when he was away for weeks; there were times when he was away for nights. Round Belfast, it was very active at that time so it wasn’t safe for him to be staying in one place too long.”

Dan McCann was a member of the three-person IRA unit all shot dead in Gibraltar in March 1988. Dan McCann’s daughter, who has volunteered an interview here while withholding her name from the publication, both vigorously and poignantly questions her father’s choices and his overriding commitment to republican goals. “My brother Daniel and I never had the choice; we were never asked our opinion. I see the other side, the kind of abandonment of everything else to do this one thing. For God’s sake sit down, look at your own situation and make a choice that actually benefits your own family in the long run.”

She also energetically critiques commemorative events recalling the Gibraltar killings: “Everything’s a hoopla … If your wife or partner was riddled with cancer, was in excruciating pain and was being given morphine around the clock, would you recall that and re-tell it every time her anniversary came up to the children? And yet they’re so shocked, that it’s some kind of betrayal that you are not thirsty for all these little bits of information.”

One place where the parent is explicitly acknowledged as a perpetrator is in this chilling section of the John Lyttle (son of the late Tommy ‘Tucker’ Lyttle, former Brigadier of the West Belfast Brigade of the UDA) interview when he recalls: “My mother was pseudo-corrupted; she was aware of what was going on and pretended not to be. But when your father’s saying things like, ‘So-and-so’s giving me a hard time’ and six weeks later so-and-so just isn’t around to give him a hard time, you hardly need to be Einstein to join up the dots.”

While sharing their long-lived struggles, none of the children go on to attach the label ‘victim’ to themselves. “We had to live in secrecy and children shouldn’t have to live in secrecy. There was massive financial hardship and a huge stress,” says Jeanette Keenan. “My dad went into prison when I was fourteen; he got out when I was twenty-eight.”

Maybe, unsurprisingly, Mark Ervine met a new challenge after his father was released from prison: “I loved my da. I only saw him once a week and that hour...was full of laughter and full of love and hugs and kisses; it was all great. Until he got out of jail, and then he was a disciplinarian.”

John Lyttle remembers “the Christmasses where my father was out playing football with his UDA cronies and wasn’t even there for our Christmas gifts being opened or dinner and then couldn’t understand why my mother was enraged. He would come home loaded.” And, yet, throughout this interview and the others there runs a remarkable resilient survival instinct.

Cathy Nelis tells us: “I remember Brits coming in to the house, doing raids. They’re not horrific memories. I don’t think they traumatised me in any way. I don’t remember being scared. To be honest with you, I remember being really excited.”

John Lyttle eloquently articulates his pro-survival need to deal with the past: “For years I dragged all this behind me like a dinosaur’s tail. It was impossible for me to move at the speed I wanted to. I couldn’t even run from the past. I could barely stagger. It gets better when you drop the baggage; if you want to survive, God, you have to let go.”

Often the love of the child for his/her parent is manifest and touchingly opened up. Fiona Bunting tells how she “used to go into cupboard underneath the stairs; my daddy’s coats were still there. I used to go in to feel his leather coat and feel close to him.”

Some of the interviewees trace that peace-building journey, which involves re-visiting their earlier choices and re-examining long-held core beliefs about the ‘other’ community. Billy McQuiston acknowledges that: “Before I got involved in inter-community stuff, as far as I was concerned, there was a great big monolith on the other side of the road there that wanted to exterminate my people. And, as far as I was concerned, I wanted to exterminate them because they wanted to exterminate me. When I started meeting people from the other side of the wall, I started seeing that this wasn’t the case.”

Bill Rolston – after his introduction outlining the rationale, methodology and ethics underpinning this publication and brief conclusion – remains invisible. This is as it should be.

He has generously created space and given time for these twenty sons and daughters to have their say. I would encourage you to have a read.

‘Children of the Revolution, published by Guildhall Press, will be launched this evening at Sandino’s, Water Street, at 7 p.m.