25 after 21.
England were playing Germany in a World Cup semi-final. Turin Italy 4th July 1990. England had a half decent team for a change. Platt, Lineker, Waddle, Pearce. A solid team. But it was Gazza the clown prince. The flawed genius, him that was daft as a brush that would live long in my memory. I had just been released from my life sentence. Terrorist. Paramilitary. Killer. Some of the repeatable terms I have been called through my life. Now I was embarking on a new chapter in my life. And here I was in someone’s house watching this great match on a huge colour TV. Sort of engrossed in the match but making pleasant conversation with our hosts. It’s hard to image that this memory is over 25 years old and coincides with my release. It prompted a mini stocktake. What has happened to me in those speeding years? Is it really a quarter of a century?
I’ve never been in trouble since my release . Quiet the contrary. I worked every day since release and at times had two jobs. I’ve been a volunteer again, this time helping with children, the homeless and those with addictions. I’ve lost two friends through suicide. I was married quickly, maybe too quickly, which ended in a messy divorce. But I did have a great son and two young people who make me proud when they call me dad. There was lots of new friends and travel. Amazing new places, new customs, languages and food. Meeting people of every describable culture, religion and beliefs. I’ve been watching events around the world unfold, the Gulf wars, Ebola, 9/11, economic collapse, the rise of the internet, the ‘95 ceasefires , the GFA in ‘98. I went to the Somme twice. But the most moving place still has to be Auschwitz. A place where hate and blind prejudice saw one group of people try to destroy another group of people in the most horrible way possible.
The highs and lows have been intense but there had been a never ending chain of funerals of both family and friends from Compound 21. I chatted many times with Billy Mitchell, Gusty and Davy Irvine but sadly, all too quickly, I would be walking behind their coffins. The Gannet, Shakey, Swanner, Freddie S, Tommy the Burgermeister, Grouty, Frankie, and many more, all gone.
I lost a doting mother that travelled week in, week out, without fail to that place just outside of Lisburn. I lost an aunt, then another. I watch my elderly father, a hard working man all his life, come to terms with old age, illness and the loss of his wife of over 50 years. I meet and talk with the enemy – Provo ex-prisoners . Lifers. Finally seeing at close quarters, the people we regarded as the ultimate enemy.
I meet victims and their relatives. I speak to many young people from “both sides”- about where violence can lead. I ask them to think first and make up their own minds. The gutter press print the twisted truth and hurt my family. I’ve been sent to Coventry in certain jobs when people find out what I did as a teenager. I have been barred from jobs once the great and the good find out what I am- someone who was involved in “The Troubles”- like thousands of others in those mad days. I have been humbled and amazed by ordinary people who have accepted me as I am now. I try to copy their forgiveness and understanding. I have never taken an illegal drug in my life. I feel like weeping when I see the damage wreaked by drugs and alcohol in so many young people.
I Have shaken hands with both the First and Deputy Ministers. I have met the President of Ireland. I visit Dublin. Enemy capital at one time.
And now the 7th decade of my life rushes on. I thank God that I have my freedom, my health and that we live in relative peace. I do think of my victims and their families and the devastation inflicted on them. But I also recall all too well the dark days of the early ‘70s and what was done to friends. I think we live in a good place with some bad people. Of all sorts and types. I still see some of the men from Compound 21. Nearly all have settled down, raised families, have jobs– and all the worries of free people. Paying bills, the children’s welfare –grandchildren too, too much weight being put on— is my job safe, etc.
I really felt for Gazza that night. If England had won, he had been booked twice and was going to miss the final. I heard him speak recently about the course his life has taken since that night. We don’t have much in common except maybe one thing. We’ll both remember 1990 as a life changing year.