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Troubles in Northern Ireland teach us children could be pushed to war again

Many key figures in the Troubles were simply boys out to impress, writes Malachi O’Doherty

I was 18 when I first heard heavy gunfire in the Belfast night air. That was in August 1969 when a year of civil rights protesting had culminated in armed chaos.

This was essentially the start of the Northern Ireland Troubles, which would continue for three decades and which still stutter on in the form of occasional rioting and attempts to kill police officers.

I was 21 at the start of what I call the Year of Chaos in my new book. This period opened with a massive escalation in violence by both republicans of the IRA and loyalist groups. The trigger was an escalation by the state, a decision to intern terrorist suspects without trial and launch army swoops on private homes across Northern Ireland.

The first raids took 337 men from their beds and dragged them off to improvised prison camps. Most of them were taunted and beaten by ill-disciplined soldiers. A select few were taken to secret interrogation centres and subjected to more sophisticated disorientation techniques.

One of the immediate effects of internment was that the job of continuing the paramilitary campaigns fell to younger teenagers, under 17, who could not be legally interned.

When I sought out former members of the IRA and the loyalist groups who were active at that time in organising riots and planting bombs I was struck by how young they were, many only 15 years old.

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I didn’t join the IRA because I saw no sense in it

This is true of many of the big-name terrorists you will have heard of, including Bobby Sands, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly. Which means they were only 12 years old when the first shooting started.

That is to say, they had no adult memory, such as I had, of a time in Northern Ireland when there were no soldiers on the street, when there was no danger of being caught in a bomb blast while drinking in a pub.

They remembered how they felt when they heard the shooting in 1969.

Former UDA (Ulster Defence Association) member Tommy Andrews said he cried and hardly knew why. His home life was disrupted as his family left for a safer area among other Protestants.

Eddie Kinner of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), who served a life sentence for killing a woman with a bomb, told me he only learned from talking to others in prison that the heavy machine gun fire he had heard in August 1969 had been the police firing into Catholic areas, not the IRA firing at him and his neighbours.

Youngsters who could hardly comprehend the politics or strategies of the time became dangerous and violent terrorists, bringing Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war.

I didn’t join the IRA because I saw no sense in it. I lived close to safe houses where men who had escaped from the prison ship Maidstone were billeted and from where they organised bomb attacks on the centre of Belfast.

I worked in the city as a young journalist and travelled home to a barricaded no-go area from which IRA units operated.

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There were older men planning campaigns, importing weapons and explosives, and evading the law.

And there were also young and reckless soldiers in the British army who enjoyed the rioting too, and who also stimulated the whole enthusiasm for war. They had been allowed to beat up internees, many of whom would never be charged with any criminal offence.

And there were older, more deadly soldiers, particularly in the Parachute regiment, who disgraced their country in Derry and Ballymurphy by shooting innocent civilians, for which future prime ministers would apologise.

When we look back on the trouble in Northern Ireland and see how much of it was resolved through an intelligent and balanced negotiated settlement in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, it seems reasonable to conclude that the violence grew out of grievances that were well understood by politically motivated terrorists.

In fact, much of it was generated by youngsters with little sense of political realities, reacting to events on the streets. But they were apprenticed in terrorism, and found meaning and direction in militant careers.

Many went on to defend their youthful violence and to see it within a historic pattern. Most gained that education in prison. Others put it behind them, becoming teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, academics and writers.

It is easy to mock the young rioters who took to the streets of Belfast with petrol bombs to protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement. What do they understand of international trade barriers?

Not much more, perhaps, than Eddie Kinner and Tommy Andrews and Bobby Sands understood when they first went out to riot.

The history of Northern Ireland shows one generation of armed militants is able to pass on its skills and passions to younger ones and pit children at war with the state.

It could happen again.

The Year of Chaos: Northern Ireland on the Brink of Civil War, 1971-72 by Malachi O’Doherty is out on September 2 (Atlantic Books, £20)

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