2007 - 2021

The Ghost of the Troubles

Rob Brown puts the recent bomb scares in both Glasgow and Edinburgh and the move to prosecute a soldier over the Bloody Sunday killings in context.

Switching on the TV news to learn that the bomb squad had been called in to deal with a ‘suspicious package’ at Glasgow University’s mail-room, I immediately saw a callow undergad out for an early morning jog. Suddenly he is stopped in his tracks when he witnesses a wee boy being casually pushed off the cast iron Kelvinbridge. And the man responsible just gives him a menacing wink.

The TV adaption of Frederic Lindsay’s intelligent political thriller Brond – which featured John Hannah in his first starring role – opened with that spine-chilling scene. Maybe because I myself studied on Gilmorehill and walked a thousand times along that stretch of Gibson Street, it has always stayed with me.

Glasgow-born Lindsay’s stroke of literary genius was to weave together in his serpentine plot Ireland, Scotland and the secret British State. Ostensibly, Brond (marvellously portrayed by Stratford Johns) is out to snare a dangerous IRA terrorist. But we are left thinking he’s on a double mission.

“This is a useful piece of real estate,” booms a professor as he lays into Scottish nationalism at a campus cheese-and-wine party, attended only a few hours after the shocking murder by both the murky undercover agent and the still dazed student.

The novel is even more resonant today with Brexit raising profound questions about the survivability of the UK on both sides of the North Channel. Is it merely coincidental that a whole series of ‘suspicious packages’, linked immediately to dissident Irish republicans, turned up at a whole list of high-profile institutions – including RBS’s headquarters at Gogarburn – barely a week before this week’s crucial Commons votes?

While the explosive device denotated at Glasgow Uni was neither deadly nor sophisticated, it was unsettling that Scotland featured at all on the address list. That ‘wee parcel’ may have contained a dark warning that, if political violence does re-erupt on a serious scale across the North Channel, Scotland might not necessarily be protected from the bombs and bullets next time.

We seem to be dealing with a new breed of IRA terrorist now. Fringe fanatics who don’t seem to have the cunning combination of ruthlessness and restraint Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness displayed when they were the front-men for physical force Irish republicanism.

Throughout the three decades of The Troubles (1968-1998), Scottish cities were spared the atrocities visited upon London, Birmingham and Manchester. The standard explanation for which was that the Provisional IRA took a principled decision to confine its ‘armed struggle’ to the originator of the empire – England.

In 1972 its military council made an announcement that “[the PIRA] stands with our Celtic brothers and other subjected nations of Europe”. This was followed up at Sinn Féin’s 1976 Ard Fheis (national convention) by a motion supporting the formation of a Pan-Celtic organisation akin to the Nordic Council.

Both these policies are believed to have been instigated by the IRA’s then chief-of-staff Sean MacStiofain. Born John Stephenson in Leytonstone in east London to a Belfast mother, he was not just a hardline republican but a committed pan-Celt.

Still, it is hard to believe that Celtic connections adequately explain why Scotland was insulated from the Semtex and the shrapnel. A far more plausible theory is that the Provos didn’t dare open the gates of hell in Glasgow.

Even without bringing the west of Scotland into its ‘theatre of war’, there was sporadic Loyalist gun-running from Ayrshire to Antrim. A single IRA atrocity in Glasgow – or anywhere else in the central belt – would have had incalculable consequences.

As it was, sectarian violence was volcanic in Northern Ireland but merely vicarious across the water. Watching a war unfold so near, yet still at a safe distance, led to a blasé belligerence within both of Scotland’s sectarian tribes. ‘The violence thrilled us,’ Liam McIlvanney observed in his penetrating debut thriller All the Colours of the Town.

‘All the northern carnage. Bombs and executions just out of earshot. Army choppers shot down over hills that looked like Ayrshire. We were close to this slaughter. We understood it. More at least than the English did. People were fighting and dying in the name of those acronyms that littered our walls. It was our war too. Only it couldn’t touch us.’

Even more provocatively, McIlvanney posits: ‘Across the West of Scotland, in the clubs and lodges, the stadiums and bars, people missed the Troubles. They mightn’t admit it, but they rued a little the ceasefires’ durability, the Armalite’s silence.’

Like a spectre from our all too recent past, an unidentified Scottish soldier appeared on our plasma screens recently to defend his role in what even a former chief-in-staff of the British army Lord (Richard) Dannatt now accepts was the worst atrocity committed by the British Army – Bloody Sunday.

Despite the Savile Inquiry’s verdict that all 13 of the civilians gunned down on the streets of Derry were entirely innocent, ‘Sergeant O’ (his face pixelated apart from his lips) appeared on camera to tell the veteran BBC reporter Peter Taylor – in a calm, clear Scottish accent – that he still considered the paras’ berserk rampage a “job well done”.

I doubt that this sad old man’s unrepentant outlook is representative of the hundreds of Scots who enrolled in their naïve youth to fight the Provos in the back lanes of Belfast and Derry or down in ‘Bandit Country’. Most of them, I reckon, are simply anxious in their dotage to try to forget a dirty war, from which none of the belligerents emerged with any justified pride or honour.

For all the IRA leadership’s talk about Celtic brotherhood, no mercy was shown to Scottish squaddies cornered or captured by the Provos. The first British soldiers cold-bloodedly executed by the IRA while off duty were in fact three unarmed members of the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers – teenage brothers John and Joseph McCaig from Ayr and Dougald McCaughey from Glasgow.

In March 1971 this trio were befriended in a city-centre bar in Belfast and persuaded to share a lift to a party. Driven to a remote location, they were shot while relieving themselves by the roadside. Their bodies were discovered the next day by children out playing.

Their ghosts have also returned to haunt us in the form of the Three Scottish Soldiers’ Campaign for Justice, which pulled in almost £13,000 from 465 individual donors in an initial crowdfunding effort and is backed by Maurice Corry, a Scottish Conservative and Unionist MSP.

That ‘unionist’ tag, it is often forgotten, refers to the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland not the Anglo-Scottish treaty of 1707. For some, of course, the Scottish Question is now becoming totally entangled with the Irish Question – especially online. To many ‘Yoon’ trolls, ‘Sep’ is synonymous with Weegie or Dundonian Fenian. For them, Alex Salmond’s conversion of previously wary Catholics to the separatist cause was all too skilful and successful.

Conflating these two constitutional battles is unconscionably reckless and irresponsible as things do seem to be kicking off again across the water. On a busy Saturday night at the end of January, a car bomb planted by militant republicans was detonated outside a courthouse in Derry city centre – close to a group of youngsters. Vans have also been hijacked by masked gunmen.

The PSNI’s soon-to-retire chief constable has warned that any armed checkpoints or security installations along the Border with the Republic resulting from a hard Brexit could be viewed as legitimate targets by such fanatics, who seem bent on wreaking carnage amid the current chaos at Westminster and the prolonged suspension of power-sharing at Stormont.

“The remnants of the IRA will try to revive the murder and mayhem,” the acclaimed Glasgow-born novelist Eugene McCabe told the Irish Times in a recent interview. The author of Death and Nightingales – adapted by the BBC into a compelling three-part drama series starring Jaime Dornan – moved with his parents at the age of nine to Co. Monaghan, where he managed to combine writing his one-off literary masterpiece with farming.

In a celebration of his work, published by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies, Andy Pollack observed: “McCabe – perhaps uniquely among Irish Catholic writers – is able to see the wounded humanity of both communities and evoke sympathy with the most unlikely people, people driven demented by religion and politics and death and drink and bigotry.”

With several of these toxic ingredients of the Troubles apparently resurfacing, the challenge for supporters of Scottish independence will be to summon Eugene McCable-like empathy in order to stop orange against green enmity poisoning the Scottish body politic again.

The key to maintaining the hard-won harmony that has prevailed for the last two decades could be sweet commerce. On a first ministerial visit across the water Nicola Sturgeon spoke of creating a “Celtic corridor” through closer business dealings between Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Hopefully, active steps are being taken to make that vision a concrete reality.

Amid all the Brexit bourach, it has been notable how the most effective pressure being exerted on the DUP to cease their shenanigans and support a soft Brexit has been coming from Northern Ireland’s business community and farmers – Protestants as much as Catholics.

Obviously, it’s going to be a rough ferry ride as we navigate the treacherous political waters created by the most serious political crisis to beset these islands since the Second World War. But the vast majority of people in both Northern Ireland and Scotland simply want to get on with their lives in peace and prosperity.

They certainly don’t want children being slain again in the name of Irish freedom or Ulster’s liberty. So, whatever murderous or Machiavellian plots may be brewing, pan-Celtic statesmanship in Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh can ensure that nightmare never returns – pre- or post-independence.





Comments (21)

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  1. Willie says:

    Wouldn’t it just suit the British military establishment well to foment resentment here in Scotland against separists.

    Would certainly win certain loyalist hearts and minds to resist independence minded groups. They didn’t call the Troubles the Dirty War for nothing, and the strategy of developing counter gangs is standard British military practice.

    In fact Rob after over thirty years of the Troubles with no IRA activity whatsoever in Scotland ( or Wales ) what advantage would there be now in dissident republicans attacking Scotland. Can’t think of any.

    Additionally, do you really think that the IRA with all resources at its peak was scared of Scotland ( or Wales ) whereas now it isn’t.

    No I prefer the possibility of British military intelligence involvement or some other such shadowy group. It’s what they do.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Firstly, a bit of pedantry: the incident in Brond took place on the bridge over the Kelvin on Gibson St, the next bridge downstream from Kelvinbridge.

    Secondly, I am not really convinced of the speculation – and it is speculation – about the origin of the package recently detonated at Glasgow University mailroom and the assertion that it could only be Irish republicans. This leads into a description of the sectarian attitudes of many in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, which were held by a minority of people at the time and which are held by an even smaller minority today. The assertion is backed up by quotes from a debut novel, a work of FICTION, which is being quoted as quasi authority.

    Undoubtedly some unionist websites in Scotland contain pretty baleful stuff and some of the people who adhere to such opinions are making alliances with British nationalist groups in England and NI (I don’t know about Wales). However, I think this is still pretty much a tiny fringe. Of course, such groups are capable of atrocity, but it is just as likely that some other fanatic for another cause or someone mentally ill can commit a random act. In an open society, this has always been a risk. Why have you not speculated on such as this as being the origin of the GU package?

    Now, I think that Brexit and the attitude of the DUP and the contempt being shown by many in the British establishment towards Ireland (including Protestants in the north) does, indeed, have the potential to reactivate the simmering resentments and the suspicions of the different ‘communities’ in the north of Ireland. This is amplified by the absence of the Stormont Assembly. However both the Protestant and Catholic communities in the north are not monolithic. Like groups anywhere else, the great majority are people trying to get on with their lives and are enjoying the peace and the prosperity that the EU has brought. They voted by a good majority to Remain.

    The FM is, of course, right to seek to develop good trading and cultural relations with Ireland as a whole, and, these have existed since long before Columcille sailed to Iona, more than a thousand years ago.

    Having been in both the north and south last summer I got the strong impression that people cherished peace and will seek to sustain it. It might well be by a border poll which brings reunification. Many ‘loyalists’ have hedged their bets by taking, as is their right, Irish passports.

    This is not to say that there will not be some murderous acts in the north and, perhaps, the creation of a two county laager, in the way Sir Edward Carson did a century ago. Perfidious Albion will have it’s fingers in this because the history of decolonisation is that BRITAIN, acted in wilfully spiteful ways to let these ‘wogs’ or ‘paddies’ or whatever know that you cannot ‘wrong’ Britannia. The package at GU as, perhaps obliquely, you imply could be a signal from British Intelligence Services as a warning to ‘The Whingeing Jocks’.

    I think the UK is in decay, but I think that some kind of England/Britain will remain as a pustule today boil off the coast of Europe, but, to which we in Scotland, sadly, remain connected. However, I know that England is a multicultural society of mainly decent, humane people. An awareness of the distinction between England and Britain is emerging and it is these people, if they can find vehicles (not Labour or Tories) to express and develop views of what a better England can be.

    In conclusion, I think your journalistic training has led you to a pretty jaundiced view of society and to write fear-inducing pieces, because ‘good news does not sell papers’. I am disappointed.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Just on the first factual point, Alasdair: it has been widely reported that the suspicious package sent to the University of Glasgow was intended for a British Army recruitment officer in the same building as the mailroom and that a group calling itself the IRA has claimed responsibility.
      A joint statement from Police Scotland and the Met said: “The claim was received on Monday 11 March by a media outlet in Northern Ireland using a recognised codeword.”
      Having covered the last decade of The Troubles intermittently for several Scottish quality newspapers and immersed myself in almost every major book and documentary produced since the peace process, my view is that it is of course impossible for anyone to ever know the full story about such a clandestine conflict. Truth-seekers should handle all statements – wherever they emanate from – with some scepticism.
      But that doesn’t mean we should just give up and not even try to help our fellow citizens interpret what might be going in relation to a still uneasy peace just 12 miles away from Scotland at the closest geographical point.
      As for my article being “fear-inducing”, I suggest you re-read my quite positive and optimistic conclusion.

      1. Rob Brown says:

        No problem with your pedantry, btw. I’m always eager to learn and will refer in future to Gibson Street rather than Great Western Road – which I’ve also walked down a thousand times – if I establish you’re factually correct on this.

        1. Willie says:

          Here Rob, no spitting the dummy out at Alistair for his attention to detail.

          But unless I am utterly mistaken the picture above with Stratford John and the chap behind him disappearing over the bridge parapet, show Gibson Street and not Great Western Road.

          Indeed, look up past Mr Stratford Johns and you’ll see the new building attached to the Glasgow Union building. But no bother old chap, easy to mistake Gibson Street from Great Western Road. I often get the days mixed up.

          What university did you say you went to again?

          1. Hi – yes you are quite right it’s Gibson Street, updated now.

          2. Richard Easson says:

            And just for the sake of a bit more detail, the boy being pushed was called Ruraidh Murray, son of a friend.

      2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Mr Brown,

        Thank you for the reply.

        I did, indeed, note your optimistic conclusion, and echoed it in my own comment, but, on re-reading, I ought to have made my agreement explicit.

        It was a long piece, and, with the agreement of the editor, it is now part one of two pieces derived from an original. I think that was a wise decision. However, I reassert my view that it was ‘fear-inducing’ in large part. There is a lot of fairly heavy stuff before the more upbeat conclusion is reached. It is a very common approach by newspaper editors to go heavily upon the impression they wish to create, before, as a nod to ‘balance’ to put the qualifying information towards the end, knowing that many readers give up before then.

        I think that you are, indeed, sincere in your attitude to independence for Scotland and that those of us who support that cause confront difficult issues. In Jean Martin’s post, for example, she is quite explicit about the balefulness and nastiness of some Scottish members of the British forces. Scotland, being a disproportionately high supplier of manpower to British forces to the imperial forces since 1707, has contributed to atrocities, as Hamish Henderson indicated in the ‘Freedom come all ye’. I accept that and our heavy involvement in the slave trade. However, these shameful episodes do not detract from the case for independence. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘Let us NOT compare atrocities’.

        In that context, I think that my impression of much of the article being ‘fear-inducing’ is fair comment.

    2. Hi – yes you are quite right its Gibson Street, updated now.

      (I don’t think its a fear-inducing piece at all)

  3. Willie says:

    And yes Rob, the concept of a United Ireland and Independent Scotland with a pan Celtic corridor through to Europe must be an absolute anathema to the British state. And it could happen, and quicker than we think, given the Brexit chaos.

    But maybe, just maybe, the British state wouldn’t dare setting up fake news propaganda outputs in Scotland and or other even more perfidious acts.

  4. Jean Martin says:

    As a young Republican woman trying to get on with what we called a normal life in Derry in the 70’s, I can remember the particular viciousness that the Scottish regiments inflicted on ‘ the other side’. Along with the Anglian (hope this spelling is correct) and the Paras the Scots were the most hated. They were well known for their hatred of ‘taigs’ and made no effort to hide it. I remember before female searchers where hired being submitted to a particularly intrusive body search, in public and the laughing Scottish soldier, he knew he could do what he wanted with no come back from anyone. This just breeded more hatred I know but being humiliated in public like this only hardened us against our torturers. These sort of actions were supported from higher up and we know it but it was the squadies that mostly paid the price. They were as much victims as we were.

    On the other haand during one of the ‘official raids’ ( during an official raid you got a receipt, yes that’s right a receipt, telling you all the details of the search and any damage done, we could claim from the local council for any damage done to their property) the officer in charge handed you the receipt, and then just walked out the door, all in a day’s work! )on my home (there were countless ‘unofficial raids’, I wasn’t alone in this treatment, many of my friends and neighbours suffered this with no redress, while Scottish soldiers destroyed what little I had at the time). During one raid I was confined to my sitting room while my house was once again ransacked. I found myself alone with, what I can only describe as a wean. His uniform looked far too big for him, his rifle was nearly the same size as himself, the poor creature was shaking, with fear no doubt. Where I lived people took this sort of activity in their stride, almost as normal, this may have been the first time he experienced. I lifted my cigarettes and found I had only two left in the packet so I lit one and offered the other to this poor young fella, he was very glad of it. I warned him however never to mention that I ‘relented’ and actually felt a certain amount of sympathy for this boy that I did indeed feel very sorry for ( while his comrades ransacked my meagre belongings upstairs)he was some mothers son after all, as the saying went at the time. I still have my 26 receipts in a box somewhere in my attic, in my head i don’t need a bit of paper to tell me about the damage done during my many unofficial raids. I came home from the town one day and found every window in my house broken, even mirrors. On another occasion I had a coffin with my initials engraved on it. There was urine and excrement left as a calling card too on one ‘raid’.

    I often wonder about that boy and if he remembered this simple act between two suffering people and the ‘connection ‘ that we made, I certainly never forgot him. Even on Bloody Sunday as I watched wee Jackie Duddy being shot in the back as he ran away I still try to keep the image of that poor wee fella in my head. Many British soldiers were sadistic mad men but many weren’t. I’m nearly 70 now and I’ll admit for the very first time that I courted an English soldier by the name of Gallagher, who’s parents came from somewhere over the border. That of course was when they first came to the north and we, naively thought they were here to protect us!

    1. David Allan says:

      Jean just a word to say I appreciate and thankyou for taking the time to share these personal experiences .

    2. John Cawley says:

      Jean, I could do with reading more of your writing. I’m sure I’m not alone.

      1. David Allan says:

        There must be hundreds like Jean who had been on the receiving end of similar treatment the extent of which we on the mainland were never aware of .

        Historically it’s vital these stories are collated and published . Future generations should /must have access to material which tells the story of the troubles through the eye’s of it’s victims. Perhaps Rob might be aware of such a project if so please provide it some publicity.

        I can’t shake the vision of a young Jean (likely ages with my own daughter now ) about to receive a body search from a Male Squaddie! Yet Jean now is forgiving, her piece is well written and speaks volumes about her compassion and strength of character.

        1. Jean Martin says:

          I have two years of ‘love letters’ between my ex husband and myself, in a box in the attic beside my ‘receipts. He was a remand prisoner in Crimlin Road Prision in Belfast. He survived the riots in there the time the Kesh aka Long Kesh, burned down. He was so badly beaten that I walked past him in the visiting hut. The screws and RUC hammered nails into their batons, for optimumal effect! The visiting hut was like A&E on a really bad Saturday night! There is a living history in them as I started composing his letters from when I got up in the morning and wrote throughout the day everything that was happening. The other boys on the wing used to rid him about the size of the letters I sent him. The prisoners only got an A4 piece of paper three times a week to reply.

          I’m rambling on a bit here, glad you like my reminiscences. We all had almost daily experiences and when myself and auld neighbours/friends get together we, believe it or not, have a good laugh at some of the things we got up to and the stories we can tell.

          BTW, the ex got off, yes it did happen every so often.

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          I agree.

          Jean has given us moving accounts of her experiences. They exemplify the brutalisation of communities. Over the weekend, I watched DVDs of ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Michael Collins’ both of which deal with an earlier period of ‘Troubles’ c1916 -1922, and the issue of this brutalisation of all sides comes across clearly. Both films are clearly Irish republican in sympathies, but they do not shirk confronting the atrocities committed by the various forces on the Irish side, as well as the ‘legal’ brutality of the British. Some of the agents on the British side in the films speak with clear West of Scotland and Irish accents, as well as various regional ones from England. These soldiers and police officers were clearly brutalised by their participation on the British side.

          It is up to us to acknowledge that people like us were complicit, but, this does not mean that the idea of self determination is not an honourable and decent one. I subscribe to Alex Salmond’s concept of ‘civic nationalism’ – any person who has her or his home in Scotland is a Scot, irrespective of place of origin. Scotland has benefited from the efforts of people of English, Irish, Italian, Polish, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Lithuanian, etc origin. They are welcome and valued compatriots.

  5. David Martin says:

    Hi Rob, a minor correction; the first scene in Brond you allude to is on Gibson Street, not Great Western Road, as shown in the image used at the top of your article. You can see the GUU and the Stevie building at the end of the road.

    1. Hi – yes you are quite right its Gibson Street, updated now.

  6. Richard Easson says:

    I saw a news report on these suspicious packages which stated ( no doubt to prove their provenance) that the carried a return address in Dublin .
    Who on earth would put a return address on a bomb?

    1. Jim Bennett says:

      Who’d put a return address on a letter bomb? Mmm… Maybe the UK Brexit Secretary who proposes a motion then votes against it!

  7. Jean Martin says:

    Thank you David, that means a great deal. Sometimes the replies in the comments section are a bit over my head but I still read and support Belle everyday and have been since indiref1. I was heart broken when the final result came in. I feel asleep watching the results and it was about 6 in the morning when I woke and it was obvious we had lost. I was just so down I didn’t even want to talk about it, I was so sure we would have had a positive result. But we live to fight another day and Honeywell will have learned from our mistakes of the first time around. A ‘leave’ result next time will have a very positive effect on us here in the north of Ireland and visa versa if it comes to that.

    I forgot to say in my first comment and want to make it very clear that I don’t and never have felt any anomosity towards the Scots for our experiences with one or two of the Scots regiments, in fact quite the opposite. I had friends, now deceased, in Glasgow and I visited them every chance I got, they also visited me here in Derry and I took them to Donegal, the place of their ancestors. I simply love Glaswegians, I always said they were just like Derry people with a different accent!

    My thoughts are drifting a bit but I just wanted to make clear my feeling. Thanks again for you encouraging words. Jean.

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