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‘66 Days’ at Galway Festival

July 11, 2016 by  

Flag bearerSpoke at Galway Film Fleadh on Friday night after the showing of 66 Days, the new film about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. I had been interviewed for the film but this was the first time I had seen it and I found it extremely moving and the story brilliantly rendered. Former comrades of Bobby, including Bik McFarlane, Richard O’Rawe, Colm Scullion, Seanna Walsh and Tomboy Loudan, spoke about how Bobby kept up their morale through the dark times and how he inspired them. I took part in the Q&A afterwards with the director of the film, Brendan Byrne, and Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Was later interviewed by Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Senior Lecturer in Political Science & Sociology at Galway University, who chaired the Q&A.

6th July. Interviewed by Matthew Whiting (LSE) who is writing a book on the transformation within Irish republicanism, how electoral participation evolved, how and why republicanism changed its strategy.

1st July. Interviewed by Una Murphy from VIEWdigital, a community journalism online site, about Féile an Phobail, Scribes at the Rock and the Feile Women’s Choir who will be providing the flourish to Scribes on Thursday 11th August in the lounge of the Rock Bar.

Ireland Writers Retreat28th-29th June. Hosted creative writing course for mature students as part of the Ireland Writers Retreat.

27th June. Interviewed by Sean Hillen at Teac Jack’s in Derrybeg as part of the Ireland Writers Retreat week about my life and experiences.

23rd June. Photographed by Bobbie Hanvey for about fifteen hours (okay, an hour) at Neil Shawcross’s studio.

21st June. Interviewed by commentator Jude Collins via Periscope on this Thursday’s Brexit referendum.

17th June. Finished Paris Trout by Pete Dexter about a store owner in Georgia who kills a fourteen-year old black girl, shoots her mother, and then expects to get off lightly because ‘that’s the way it is’.

16th June. Interviewed by Peter Keleghan from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a television documentary on 1916-2016-Emigration which will go out next November or December.

11th June. Spoke in Beechmount at a commemoration in honour of Seando Moore who died six years ago.

7th June. At Brexit debate in St Mary’s University College.

3rd June. Finished re-reading Vol I of my favourite short story writer, Anton Chekhov, beautifully produced in a four volume illustrated collection by The Folio Society, London.

2nd June. Interviewed by Kitty Janvrin, a student from the University of South Carolina currently working on her honors thesis and focusing on how oral histories work to record conflicts like the Troubles, focusing on the Boston College Belfast Tapes project.

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‘Some Will Be Innocent’

July 7, 2016 by  


“I’ll be with you, whatever,” was what Tony Blair told George Bush regarding Bush’s plan to bomb and destroy Iraq. It is a damning indictment contained in the Chilcott Report into the war in Iraq. Millions of people around the world tried to stop the war before it began but were undermined by many politicians and gung ho journalists in support of invading a country which had no connection with the attacks on the USA on 9/11.

‘Some Will Be Innocent’ is a feature I wrote which was published in February 2003, a week after we marched against Blair and Bush’s plans to wage war. Here it is:

A MILLION in London, one point three million in Barcelona. Half a million. A hundred thousand. Four hundred thousand. Staggering numbers of humanity across the world trying to prevent a war.

How long does it take to cast a vote? In the city – around half an hour at the most, maybe? But how long does it take to march through that same city? Or travel to that city for a march? Allow yourself plenty of time to travel if you are coming from outside. Allow yourself the whole day.
That was the commitment of ordinary people expressing their will against an unjust war. And for hundreds of thousands this was their first political demonstration, so strongly do they feel that a war against Iraq is immoral.

I marched in Dublin in one of the biggest demonstrations the capital has ever witnessed. And if I were Taoiseach Bertie Ahern I would take note of the angry mood of the people, including the results of a new opinion poll which show that the majority disapprove of the use of Shannon airport by US forces.

WERE elections available, were the chief war mongers Bush and Blair to run on a manifesto of attacking Iraq, then millions – including, in Tony Blair’s case certainly, many of his erstwhile supporters – would reject them at the ballot box. Six hundred cities! There were marches against Bush and Blair’s proposed war on Iraq in six hundred cities across the world last Saturday, from Belfast to Berlin, from Dublin to Detroit. The last time there were numbers like that on the streets was at the height of the Vietnam War, yet these demonstrations were held even before the first shots of war have been fired, the first photographs of innocent dead have appeared.

The attitude of Tony Blair in his speech to a Labour Party conference in Scotland last Saturday was sickening and patronising. He said: “I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour. But sometimes it is the price of leadership. And the cost of conviction.”

Who the hell does he think he is, that his convictions are more important than the next million persons’? He went on to describe rogue states which have Weapons of Mass Destruction as “answerable to no democratic mandate, so are unrestrained by the will of ordinary people”. Does he not appreciate the irony? Has he a democratic mandate for making war? He is so democratic that he won’t even put the issue to a vote in the House of Commons and, despite the massive size of the march in London, he appears unrestrained by the will of ordinary people. His speech included reminders that Saddam killed a million people in an eight-year war with Iran. He omitted that Saddam used mustard gas laced with nerve agents to kill many of those young Iranian conscripts and that in locating his victims he was guided by USA satellite intelligence, after relations with the USA had been restored. He omitted that the man who restored relations with Iraq back then was Donald Rumsfeld, the current US Secretary of State.

Blair reminded us that Moslem Kurds in northern Iraq had been butchered, and prisoners tortured, but omitted that throughout this period – including when Saddam used gas on thousands of civilians in 1988 – Saddam was a great trading ally of Britain which maintained full diplomatic relations with his murderous regime.

Blair said that 135 out of every 1000 Iraqi children die before the age of five but omitted the numbers of children that had died through disease and malnutrition as a result of sanctions. The one truth that Blair uttered was, “If we remove Saddam by force, people will die and some will be innocent. And we must live with the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones.”

Live he will: die they will.

What is the case against Iraq? Two Brownie photographs taken from outer space which even UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has politely ridiculed, and a plagiarised ten-year-old PhD? The USA and Britain said they had the proof and demanded that the weapons inspectors be allowed in – believing that Saddam would refuse them access and thus hand the USA a causus belli. But the inspectors were allowed in and the USA and Britain haven’t produced the proof, have relied instead on rhetoric and whipping up mass fear which has only raised suspicions that the war is about other issues, perhaps oil or as a deterrent to other rogue states. While Saddam is a cruel dictator he is no different from the normal cruel dictators the USA is routinely allied to. Yes, the Iraqi people are entitled to freedom. Just are the Palestinians who have asked for help, who are being killed and tortured and whose land has been invaded by a foreign power which has weapons of mass destruction and which has ignored US resolutions not for ten years but for thirty-six years.

If Saddam can be overthrown in conjunction with the Iraqi people, and not some exiled businessmen being groomed in Washington but people who are willingly prepared to sacrifice their lives and who wish to replace him with a democratic, secular republic which will eliminate poverty and injustice then the world would not balk at helping them. It is just that we do not believe that this is what it is about and the track records of the USA and Britain are not reassuring. The people who will die in a US/Brit war on Iraq are the innocents, by the hundreds, by the thousands, whose opinions were never sought. So, in Blair’s case, a war for ‘democracy and freedom’ is to be waged on behalf of people who have not asked for help, against those people, by a government which has little support from its own people and is not prepared to consult its own parliament. Brilliant.

And, in Bertie Ahern’s case (who in regard to the North once lectured that no land is worth shedding one drop of innocent blood), instead of giving leadership he will sit on the fence rather than raise his voice on behalf of Irish people against what is clearly an unjust war.


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Time After Time

May 29, 2016 by  

backI’ve just finished reading Ben Elton’s latest novel Time and Time Again (published eighteen months ago). And recently I just finished watching the US TV mini-series 11.22.63. The two stories have plots that are remarkably similar – though about different historical characters.

11.22.63 is based on a novel published in 2011 by Stephen King about a time traveller, a High School teacher, who attempts to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the basis that had Kennedy lived he would have been a force for good.

In Elton’s novel a former SAS soldier travels back to 1914 to kill the assassin Princip Gavrilo and prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so averting not just World War I but also WWII whose roots were in the severe reparations imposed on a defeated Germany post-1918 which gave rise to Nazism, Hitler and the Holocaust.

The repercussions of tinkering with history in both book and film are also remarkably similar. Which presumably must be a bit of embarrassment to Ben Elton whose novel appeared three years after King’s?


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David Beresford

April 28, 2016 by  

I wrote a feature for An Phoblacht in memory of the South African journalist David Beresford who died last week after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. David, who wrote for the Guardian, was also the author of Ten Men Dead. Here is my piece followed by the chapter he wrote for the book of essays I edited in 2006, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike.

I can’t remember when or where I first met David Beresford but it was in the late 1970s after he had been posted by the Guardian to Belfast to replace Anne McHardy, another brilliant and honest journalist of that period.

McHardy was later to write about a government dinner party in the Europa Hotel when she learnt that her phone was being bugged. Next to her a drunk NIO press officer, Tommy Roberts, revealed that he and the then Secretary of State, Roy Mason, had listened to the tapes of a row she had had with her fiancé over which of them had left the freezer unplugged the last time she was in London. Another press officer leaned over and said, “That boyfriend of yours doesn’t like you being here.”

NIO Press Officer Roberts was also a colonel in the UDR. Yes, that was the way things were. A UDR man was the NIO’s press officer. Is it any wonder.

David Beresford, Anne’s replacement, was quietly spoken as if every word he had to say was deliberate and considered. He also had a quiet laugh. But what struck me was his sincerity.

It was Tom Hartley, manager of the Republican Press Centre, who told me I should meet him. Tom had a knack for spotting the more objective, fair-minded, among the press.

So, the three of us went for a drink around teatime one Thursday in Walsh’s Bar at the bottom of Clonard Street, with a fresh edition of Republican News (which had yet to merge with An Phoblacht). David wanted to know what was going on in Belfast, and we wanted to know what was going on in South Africa. It was clear from the outset that he was no fool. No pup could be sold to him. And we appreciated that – because we were certain that the truth alone would exonerate our struggle.

And that was the basis of our relationship. If we could answer his questions, we would. He was at every republican protest and Sinn Féin press conference and covered all the major events throughout 1980 and 1981, particularly the two hunger strikes. The hunger strike period fascinated him, and, in particular, Bobby Sands, whom he once visited.

Later, Tom told me that Beresford was considering writing a book about the hunger strike and that he had been made aware of the ‘comms’ archive.

The Movement agreed to give him access to the comms. He was given the use of a small front bedroom in Iveagh Drive, Belfast, to do the transcriptions. He later wrote:

“There was a bustle at the front door and in walked Danny Morrison from Sinn Féin with shopping bags stuffed full of screwed-up comms. As I began unscrumpling them in an upstairs bedroom I realised I had been given a writer’s goldmine. I had assumed the comms would be little more than military-style reports and commands. But in fact they contained the writers’ most private thoughts, confided to close comrades. Everything seemed to be there, down to a nightmare dreamed by Brendan McFarlane, officer commanding IRA prisoners, the night before, as they waited helplessly for Bobby Sands to die.”

I would call into the house to see what progress he was making and it was apparent that he was greatly moved, was emotionally struggling, and could not comprehend how young men, including two who were married, Bobby and Joe, would die or could die in such a manner over such a prolonged period. At one point I burst into tears and apologised and he stood there, on the landing, silent, his head bowed.

He was in awe of those ten men and he could never come to terms with 1981 – as none of us who were around have, either.

After he had seen them, the comms were then moved to the National Library in Dublin where they are preserved [though have yet to be digitised and made generally available to students, researchers, historians and journalists].

Out of them Beresford produced the classic book about the hunger strike, Ten Men Dead. My future wife, Leslie, was the researcher for the book.

His publisher, Grafton, told him they would print 10,000 copies. He said they would need to print 50,000. Then, he discovered they only printed 5,000. Then they had to keep re-printing it! He tells the story of his writing of the book and its production in an essay he wrote for Hunger Strike – Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike, published by Brandon in 2006.

He also wrote of how the book became ‘an underground classic’ and of how proud he was that it had never been out of print in the past thirty years.

David Beresford, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease for two decades, died last week in South Africa.

IN 2006 the Bobby Sands Trust sponsored a book, Hunger Strike – Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike, which included almost fifty essays, poems and commentary by a variety of activists and writers, and included Edna O’Brien, Nell McCafferty, Ulick O’Connor, Jude Collins, Ronan Bennett and Christy Moore, Gabriel Rosenstock, Roy Greenslade, Ken Loach, Peter Sheridan and Anne Cadwallader among others. The following is the chapter written by David Beresford at a time when he was struggling with his illness.


Writing Ten Men Dead
– David Beresford, journalist

“There is no need to fasten a bell to a fool,” goes a Danish proverb. And, thinking back to it, I dropped enough clangers to let them know I was coming.

It must have been in 1976 that I had my first taste of Ireland. It was love at first sight. Like falling in love with a gypsy woman, I suppose. I did not begin to understand her, but the passion could not be denied. I was a South African foreign correspondent, working for what was then the biggest newspaper group in the southern hemisphere (before Tony O’Reilly got his claws into it). I’d flown to Dublin, planning to take a train ride north to Belfast the next day.

But the next morning I was told there was a bomb on the railway line and trains to Belfast were cancelled. Not to worry, I was reassured, this often happened and all I had to do was take a bus to Derry then I could catch a train from there to Belfast. So that was what I did, finding Derry railway station looking like bombed-out Berlin at the end of the war. But it seemed that life continued as normal there. And my train to Belfast would be departing in about an hour as scheduled.

Determined to play the foreign correspondent without further ado, I inquired of a gnarled old porter sweeping the platform as to where I could find the nearest working telephone.

“Who do you want to phone?” he asked.

“A taxi,” I said.

“Where do you want to go to?”

I waved my hand in a vague sort of way, “Oh, around.”

He led me to a phone booth and offered to make the call. I thought that most gentlemanly and handed him some coins. After several calls and muttered conversations he turned to me and said, “Sorry. Taxis are all taken.”

“Here. Let me speak to them,” I said, reaching for the phone which he reluctantly surrendered. Adopting a plummy, pommy accent, which white South Africans in those times used to mistake for the voice of authority, I made a short speech declaring the need of the good people of Derry to get their public relations in order if they wanted the world to know the truth of their fair city.

“Hello,” I said, assuming the silence was a tribute to my blarney.

“Wait outside. We’ll pick you up in five minutes,” said a voice.

“They’re coming,” I announced triumphantly to the big-eyed porter, placing the phone back on the cradle with proud aplomb.

As I waited outside I pondered momentarily as to why taxi drivers in this part of the world used the collective pronoun. I didn’t have to wait long.

An unmarked Sedan pulled up.

“Where d’ya want to go?” asked the driver.

“Derry?” I hazarded.

“The Bogside?”

“Is it nearby?” I asked, envisaging a town some distance away and worried about my train.

“Right under the city wall,” he assured me, cheerily.

Driving around the Bogside it quickly became apparent that my driver knew his way, giving a running commentary on who had been shot on that street corner last Thursday, who had been hit by a sniper up there on the wall on Friday and the wee young girl killed just there by a rubber bullet.

Warned by people in Dublin never to ask a man his religion in the North, I asked cunningly, “Do you feel safe around here?”

“Oh, aye. I live here,” he said, waving nonchalantly to a group of men on a sidewalk. They waved back enthusiastically.

The car pulled up.

“See the soldier looking at you?” said the driver. I stared back in horror. It was the first time anyone had pointed a firearm at me! The soldier was obviously trying to identify me with his telescopic sight, but that seemed no excuse for the breach of bushveld lore drummed into me from childhood: “Don’t point guns.”

As we pulled up at the skeletal Derry railway station I asked the driver how much I owed him.

“Nothing,” he chuckled. “This isn’t a taxi, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“We get a bit worried when a man with an English accent phones up and wants a tour of Derry.” With a wave he accelerated away.

A couple of years later I was back in Ireland, this time as The Guardian’s Belfast correspondent.

“What’s a South African doing in Ulster?” asked the Unionist Euro MP, John Taylor, when I was introduced to him at a Fortnight party.

“Oh, I feel at home here.”

“What do you mean?” he demanded.

“Well, you’ve got partition and we’ve got Bantustans.”

It wasn’t the way to make friends, particularly unionist friends, and to some it might seem over simplistic, but ‘the joy’ of the Irish conflict to me, as a writer, a reporter and a commentator was that it was so simple and the parallels with South Africa so obvious. The Irish border was a gerrymander in just the same way as the ‘historic’ borders of the Bantustans. To me both of them were nothing more than wishful thinking by politicians who had found themselves on the wrong side of history.

I could feel a twinge of sympathy for the unionists, fighting for their lost cause just as I did for the Voortrekkers who had fled British imperialism and, when cornered, fought the British army to a standstill. But that feat of arms no more justified apartheid than Lambeg Drums justified Protestant rule.

Some of the parallels were eye-openers even to me, when I discovered them.

In South Africa, for example, we (the liberal, opposition Press) often used to cite the example of the unarmed British bobby as the epitome of civilised policing. It was startling to realise that their equivalent in Northern Ireland, the RUC, was carrying out roadside executions (shoot-to-kill) comparable in their cynicism, if not in viciousness, to the political murders of the South African security services.

Such perspectives were, of course, anathema in the eyes of most British newspapers. But I was blessed in my employment by The Guardian, a newspaper which was, at times, quite prepared to run an editorial taking one position on Ireland and a piece by me on the opposite page arguing the contrary.

So, I felt I was well-positioned when the major story of my Irish posting broke, with the hunger strikes. Again we had to deal with some wishful thinking on the part of politicians, notably from Mrs Thatcher, such as her claims that the hunger strikers had been ‘ordered’ to die and that there was an IRA plot to burn down the Short Strand in Belfast.

Tim PatBut, ludicrous though such claims might be, there were endless, unanswered questions surrounding the hunger strike by the time it ended. And it was with eagerness that I waited for the emergence of a book answering them, a book that some Irish writer, assuredly, must be busy finishing. Somebody like Tim Pat Coogan, whose On The Blanket, an account of the run-up to the hunger strike had been an Irish best-seller.

Eagerness changed to impatience. “Why can’t I do it?” I asked myself as the months passed without sign of such a book. I had never written a book, but one has to start somewhere. Eventually I decided to go for it, making an approach to Sinn Féin, asking for help in getting cooperation from the IRA which I assumed would be my main obstacle.

My pitch was a simple one: unless Thatcher was right and the IRA had ordered the hunger strikers to their death, which was clearly ludicrous, they had nothing to lose and lots to gain from such a book. I said I was prepared to submit the final manuscript to them, for checks on possible inaccuracies, and they could make representations to me as to any objections they had. But the final decisions were mine and they would have no veto.

To my surprise I was promptly given a go-ahead.

“If you’re going to do a book on the hunger strike you’ll need the comms,” Tom Hartley of Sinn Féin observed one day. I knew what a ‘comm’ was – a message written by prisoners on a cigarette paper and smuggled out on visits – because one or two reports in the local papers had described how the prisoners used them to communicate with the external leadership. But I had not appreciated the extraordinary number of them, or that the IRA had kept them. So I duly sent a message asking for access to the comms.

Bobby's writing

I remember the day clearly. It was winter and freezing cold, with slushy snow and ice on the pavements. I had been told to wait in a West Belfast safe house. I had an Epson PX8 with me, one of the early laptop computers, with a screen of about 12 lines and a built-in mini-cassette recorder as a primitive hard drive.

There was a bustle at the front door and in walked Danny Morrison from Sinn Féin with shopping bags stuffed full of screwed-up comms. As I began unscrumpling them in an upstairs bedroom I realised I had been given a writer’s goldmine. I had assumed the comms would be little more than military-style reports and commands. But in fact they contained the writers’ most private thoughts, confided to close comrades. Everything seemed to be there, down to a nightmare dreamed by Brendan McFarlane, officer commanding IRA prisoners, the night before, as they waited helplessly for Bobby Sands to die.

I had been warned that I could only have a limited time with the material. I was then a fast touch typist and my half-frozen fingers started flying over the little PX8 keyboard as I tried frantically to get it all down, verbatim.

As I read them, I realised there were a couple of holes. I had been told, quite frankly, that some comms would probably be kept from me, as being “just too sensitive”. By placing what I did have in chronological order I quickly found out where the sensitive areas lay: the collapse of the first hunger strike at the end of 1980, and the initiative of the (Catholic) Irish Commission for Justice and Peace during the second.

By the time the book was published I had the details of the missing areas, showing Mrs Thatcher had lied when she had made her often-repeated statement that her government “does not talk to terrorists”.

My publisher was Grafton (a subsidiary of Harper Collins) which is now defunct. I had received only a nominal advance and now, inspired by my good fortune, I decided I needed some more money to cover costs. The Guardian had asked me to open a bureau in Johannesburg. South Africa was beginning to burn and the posting was one I could not turn down. The editor, Peter Preston, had given me two months’ paid leave to finish the book. Now I just needed a couple of hundred pounds so I could buy a second-hand jalopy to rush around Northern Ireland in search of the interviews I would need.

Highly excited at my good fortune with the comms I could hardly wait to boast of it to my young editor at Grafton. I phoned and made an appointment, little realising that my biggest problem with the book would be more with Grafton – the very people who would share my good fortune – than with The Guardian or, for that matter, the IRA.

My young editor did not turn up for the meeting. Instead there were two senior editors, looking grave. After the introductions I excitedly told them what I had got, showing them some of the transcripts. They just looked at me po-faced. I could not understand their lack of enthusiasm. After all, this was the ‘age of terrorism’. The IRA was the oldest and most sophisticated ‘terrorist organisation’ in the world. The book was not only the story of what was probably the most serious crisis in that organisation’s history, but the comms, which stood no comparison in the annals of prison literature, gave an unprecedented insight into their thinking during that crisis. And here were these men looking at me po-faced!

The enthusiasm was lacking, but at least the money was not. I bought an old Peugeot and wrote the book, beginning it in London and finishing it in South Africa.

I was having a celebratory glass of champagne with my cousin, Robert Nugent, in the garden of his Johannesburg home when the courier arrived to take the completed manuscript. Bob was a barrister (he is now a judge of appeal) and he had earlier cast a professional eye over my contract with Grafton, suggesting I include a clause by which if the book was ever put of print for more than three months the copyright would revert to me.

Newspapers are, of course, part of the publishing industry. As a journalist and something of a long-time book-worm I had strong opinions as to how a book should be marketed, at least in its packaging, and had conveyed those opinions to both my London agent and to Grafton. Most of it was self-evident. The biggest marketing problem we faced was that the Irish hunger strike had been given saturation coverage by the media at the time. The public was sure to be tired of the subject – even though publication of the book was coming five years after the event.

There should be nothing on the front and back covers to evoke press coverage of the hunger strike, I begged them. No text describing it as the story of the 1981 hunger strike. No clichéd press photographs as the cover design, no aerial shot of the prison, no picture of alienated youths tossing petrol bombs at army or police forts.

Ten Men DeadI spent hours crafting a short blurb for the back cover, stressing the unique nature of the comms. And Ten Men Dead, which I feared was reminiscent of the childhood rhyme, was a working title only, I stressed. I would come up with a better one.

No prizes for guessing what the published book looked like. “It’s too late,” came the answer when I offered a new title. Dead Faces Laugh was my choice, the last line from a Yeats’ play about a hunger strike.

The front cover was an aerial shot of the H-blocks. Slashed across it were ’the story of the 1981 hunger strike’. The blurb on the back might have been designed to persuade would-be buyers that they had read it all before.

Shortly before publication I had been told the print run would be 10,000. I had protested strongly that the book would sell at least five times that.

“It’s a question of warehouse space,” said Grafton, reassuring me that a new run could be printed in a matter of days.

The Guardian, as ever, did me proud, taking out a full-page advert in The Observer to launch the book and running a four-part serialisation, kicking off with the disclosure that Mrs Thatcher’s government had engaged in negotiations with the IRA during both the 1980 and the 1981 hunger strikes.

The book leapt into the London and Irish best-seller lists and was sold out in three days. Grafton, it transpired, had printed only 5,000. It took several months for them to do a re-print. Subsequently I was invited to a Grafton board-room lunch so the publishing house could ‘apologise’ to me. During the lunch I challenged the managing director. I could forgive the title and everything else on the front cover, but I just could not understand why they had ignored my carefully wrought blurb for the back, in favour of the boring, platitudinous rubbish they had used.

“Ah yes, the blurb,” he said. “It was written by a committee.” He refused to say anymore on the subject.

He did, however, make another remark which I was to recall years later.

”There are some books,” he said, “which become underground classics and do unexpectedly well, continuing to sell for years after publication. This book could turn out to be one of them.” He had got at least one thing right. Twenty five years after the hunger strike Ten Men Dead is still in print and selling strongly.

But my frustration in the early years of the book’s life was intense, in the face of what I saw as the complete failure by Grafton to market the book. A hundred copies did make it to South Africa, but the marketing manager of the local distributors locked them away in his safe on the grounds it was about the IRA and therefore ‘subversive’.

Although I was by now based in South Africa I used to spend as much of my spare time as I could in London, where my girlfriend, Ellen, and our baby son, Joris, lived in Fulham. Just around the corner there was a local branch of WH Smith. The manager of the shop had tired of my persistent complaint that they did not stock Ten Men Dead and one day he announced he was bringing in three copies, “just to see how it sells.”

Every morning I would pop around to buy The Guardian and to check how the sales of my book were doing. The sales attendants insisted on placing them in the ‘history’ section, on the bottom section. So I would re-place them on the ‘best-selling’ shelf at eye level, usually on top of the latest Jilly Cooper block-buster, featuring a woman’s backside, erotically clad in the tightest possible jodhpurs.

Two of the copies of Ten Men Dead had sold and they were down to one when I walked into the shop one morning and did my usual job of re-arranging before standing in the queue, clutching my copy of the morning newspaper. Suddenly, to my astonishment, I heard two hefty and dusty Irish navvies in vests, obviously from some nearby building site, ask the manager for a copy of Ten Men Dead.

“You’re in luck, we’ve got just one copy left,” said the manager, reaching down to the history section.

“Stuuuuh… I’m sorry, it looks like we’re sold out.”

“No, no,” I cried. “There it is, there it is,” pointing to where the book stood proudly on the best-seller section.

“That’s it!” said one of them, grabbing it. As they paid and headed for the exit my pride of authorship became too much for me.

“Do you like that book?” I asked. They looked at me as if I was bats.

“You know, I wrote it,” I said with a big smile. The two of them hurried out the door throwing anxious looks over their shoulders as they went.

Watching through WH Smith’s plate-glass window as they walked up the street, I thought: “Hell, it was worth it.”

I hesitate in my writing, recognising the ambiguity. Was what worth it?

I met Bobby Sands. He was the only one of the hunger strikers I did meet. I went in on a visit on the third day of his fast. Being a journalist and having an eye on an ‘intro’ my first question was: “Do you think you will die on this fast?” I had been asked to take in some cigarettes for him and he was lighting one. He paused, said “Yes, I think I will,” and took a pull on his cigarette. I’m not sure who started it, but we both chuckled at the incongruity of the answer as the cigarette smoke spiralled upwards.

I did see him again, but then he was dead in his coffin at the house in Twinbrook Estate. As I looked at his waxen face I was struck again by the incongruity.

I love Ireland, my memories of it, but I am not an Irishman, an Irish nationalist, or an Irish republican. I guess I just don’t hold to man-made borders and divisions whether they are in Ireland, or South Africa. So I cannot assess whether it was “worth it” in terms of the “five demands”, or even constitutional change. Instead I am driven to use the words of W.B. Yeats with which I concluded ‘Ten Men Dead’:

When I and these are dead
We should be carried to some windy hill
To lie there with uncovered face a while
That mankind and that leper there may know
Dead Faces Laugh. King ! King ! Dead faces laugh.

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Melancholy Whores

April 3, 2016 by  

Just finished Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s strange and disappointing Memories of My Melancholy Whores, told in the first person, which is about a 90-year-old bachelor’s infatuation with an underage virgin and refers to the Spanish song La Delgadina, about a father’s incestuous desire for his daughter.

On the day of his 90th birthday the narrator goes into the newspaper offices he works for as a reviewer.

“The secretaries presented me with three pairs of silk undershorts printed with kisses, and a card in which they offered to remove them for me. It occurred to me that among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission.”

The narrator later concludes: “I became aware that the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love.”

While I was in Toronto I also finished a great little first novel Ru by Kim Thúy, a semi-autobiographical quite intimate and lyrical novel, about a young Vietnamese woman whose wealthy family are impoverished after the collapse of South Vietnam, join the ‘boat people’, end up in a Malaysian refugee camp and eventually reach and settle in Quebec.

I also read Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion and Burning Secret & Other Short Stories which were wonderful, especially The Invisible Collection (about a deceived blind man which reminded me of the final scene in the film Smoke) and Buchmandel (about an old bibliophile whose life is destroyed by fascist police).

Toronto Easter Sunday 2Every time I go to Toronto I visit a second-hand book store on Yonge Street, owned by an old Serbian whom when I first met him showed me multiple scars from bullet wounds in his leg which he received during the civil war and break-up of Yugoslavia. Diplomatically, the discussion stopped there. However, this time I couldn’t find his place so went into the ABC bookshop which also has a brilliant collection of literature. The manager there told me that the other shop had closed down sometime after 2011 and he thought it was now a Burrito bar. I bought Gertrude by Hermann Hesse; The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago; the Márquez novella; and Confessions of Felix Krull, a hilarious novel by Thomas Mann which I first read in 1989, I think.

1st April. Took part in studio discussion on Talkback with William Crawley and Alex Kane on Alex’s Belfast Telegraph feature that unionists need to examine their past re the UVF in 1912 and need to concede that for fifty years nationalists were treated as second-class citizens.

27th March. Was guest speaker at Friends of Sinn Féin breakfast in the Sheraton Hotel, Toronto.

13th March. Took part in the Toronto St Patrick’s Day Parade as one of the guests of parade chair, Alan Louth.

3rd March. Took part in a public discussion in the Market House, Ballynahinch, with Phillip Orr, historian, author and playwright, on the subject, ‘What The 1916 Proclamation Means To Me’.

29th February. Interviewed by Annabelle De Heus, Doctoral Researcher, Faculty of Social Sciences, Nottingham University, on republican community politics and republican dissidents.

28th February. Interviewed by Seamus McKee on ‘The Sunday News’, BBC Radio Ulster, along with commentator Alex Kane, about the general election results in the South of Ireland.

27th February. Gave a talk in the Short Strand Community Centre on the history of Irish hunger striking.

25th February. Read from West Belfast in Central Library, Galway, as part of the Over The Edge festival, along with John Valters Paintner and Scotty Ishmael, chaired by Susan Millar DuMars.

24th February. Did studio interview in studio on Radio Ulster’s Talkback with Nelson McCausland re new graphic novel called Bobby Sands – Freedom Fighter.

Did Nolan Live on television, again with Nelson McCausland, on the Bobby Sands’ graphic novel. Really hot and heavy. McCausland did himself no favours by smirking.

15th February & 22nd February. Interviewed by Fearghal Enright on the history of Féile an Phobail.

9th February. Interviewed by Sharon O’Neill on UTV re Truth Recovery.

Interviewed on Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra re Arlene Foster’s comments about the difficulty of working with Martin McGuinness who gave the oration at Seamus McElwaine’s funeral in 1987.

5th February. Spoke in St Mary’s University College as a panellist about the case of imprisoned native American patriot Leonard Peltier.

3rd February. Interviewed by Kaitlin Ball re community policing.

1st February/2nd February. Went to QFT to see the screen adaptation of David Park’s novel The Truth Commissioner, then reviewed it for Tuesday’ Good Morning Ulster, Radio Ulster. It was a very uneven production and don’t thinked it tapped into the anger and emotional power of the novel.

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No 10’s Murderer – Scap

January 30, 2016 by  

FRONTCaptureNews of my compensation over the Sandy Lynch & Freddie Scappaticci affair was published in the media last year, specifically in the Irish News, but has now featured as a front page story in today’s London Times.

I, and my co-accused, who were arrested in 1990, were awarded interim compensation in 2015, after every legal obstacle placed in our way by the British government (including failure to disclose information, and ex parte meetings with the appeal court judges from which we were excluded), which cost the taxpayer millions, was eventually overcome. The compensation reflected the circumstances of our arrest, that our case and trial was a malicious prosecution, and that we served, collectively, over 45 years in jail, because we were set up for arrest by British Intelligence through their agent, ‘Stakeknife’, who is Freddie Scappaticci.

In 1990 I was the Sinn Féin Director of Publicity. I organised all major press conferences, and often presented to the media, people who had been recruited as informers and supergrasses and who subsequently repudiated their deals with the Brits.

Through a third party, whom I named from the witness box during my trial as ‘Patrick’, an IRA contact whom I trusted (a senior, veteran West Belfast republican and ex-internee), I was asked to go to a house in Lenadoon to meet an IRA Volunteer, Sandy Lynch, who was prepared to divulge publicly, at a press conference, an incredible story.

That story was this. Lynch was an informer in the IRA in North Belfast who had been picked up by the IRA and admitted he was an informer. One of the things he told Scappaticci was that he had informed on an IRA operation two months earlier which had gone wrong and resulted in an undercover RUC officer, Ian Johnston, being killed by his own colleagues. Johnston’s colleagues in Special Branch (whose names I was going to be given) were forcing Lynch to set up for assassination two prominent North Belfast republicans, Kevin Mulgrew and Sean Maguire.

When I arrived at the house in Lenadoon, ‘Scap’ wasn’t there. But the British army and RUC, who had the house in Carrigart Avenue under surveillance, arrived within seconds.

I was charged with the abduction of Sandy Lynch (whom I never met and who never gave evidence against me), conspiracy to murder him, and IRA membership.

During the trial every charge fell.

The case was collapsing.

The trial judge was Lord Chief Justice Hutton, who had defended the Paras at the Widgery Tribunal into Bloody Sunday, and who, later, was picked by Tony Blair to carry out the investigation into the questionable death-by-suicide of Dr David Kelly.

Hutton, who I found hostile, picked his nose throughout our trial, which I noted in my book, Then The Walls Came Down.

And, in that idiosyncratic way Hutton has, to the dismay and anger of my lawyer Dessie Boal, who had legally demolished every road Hutton had gone down, Hutton re-arraigned me in the middle of proceedings, which secured my imprisonment on an eight year sentence, which I served in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

Earlier, on remand in Crumlin Road Jail, I had learnt, via a message from Patrick, that it was Freddie Scappaticci who had specified that I should come to Lenadoon and meet Lynch. In the Crum I was also told (inter alia) by the IRA that Scappaticci, after my arrest, was ‘stood down’ along with others involved in the Lynch affair, and that to avoid arrest they had all fled to Dundalk and Dublin.

To this day I believe the IRA’s version of events.

Given current claims about Scappaticci, it is thus extremely important to make this statement.

BBC’s Spotlight, and other programmes, talk about Scappaticci’s activities in the 1990s and his alleged involvement in the arrest and interrogations of suspected informers, or telling relatives about the killings of their loved ones.

I do not believe this to be true. The IRA told me that Scappaticci was redundant after 7th January 1990.

I do not expect the investigations by the Police Ombudsman and the PSNI to go anywhere quickly, despite the resources announced this week. The whole policy of the British government is to slow down inquiries, massively rely on redactions and Public Interest Immunity Certificates, ensure former soldiers/handlers have anonymity, or are advised to make no comment, and deprive families of meaningful inquests or disclosures.

They will protect Freddie Scappaticci as long as and as far as it goes.

Why is this?

Because those in 10 Downing Street knew about Freddie Scappaticci and every other informer. He was discussed over dinner, with cigars and the Chablis. Scappaticci was the Prime Minister’s man murdering weak and troubled and insecure and compromised IRA Volunteers, and civilian supporters, in order to perversely elevate his reputation as an IRA spy catcher.

And it was all for nothing.

For nothing.


It never deflected the course of Irish history, but deflected the course of ordinary lives, gave rise to ordinary suffering and long-lasting grief.

Various dates have appeared in the mainstream media about when Scap became an informer. (‘Investigative’ journalism is long dead, believe you me.)

Given the IRA killing of Lord Mountbatten, eighteen soldiers at Narrow Water, the great escape from the H-Blocks in 1983, the Brighton Bombing, given everything major the IRA did, including landing massive arms shipments from Libya (and, presumably, elsewhere), and given that the IRA got away with all these things before the 7th January 1990, the question has to be asked: what actually did Freddie Scappaticci stop? Who did he save?

Read the books which scrutinise British imperialism: the books about India, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, et al.

It was all about the vainglory of specific, egotistic, cream-of-this-world, particularly English (at the expense of sounding racist) manipulators, drawing-room militarists, upper-class toffs and their wannabees and acolytes, about their egos, their little war games, even though they might occasionally lose a good chap to assassination or on active service in the Raj, or Khartoum, or Nicosia, or Crossmaglen.

In the North, they moved an IRA or UVF or UDA gun from here to there, waiting on the outcome of an assassination or a bombing, thrilled at their results, sitting pretty, protected, immune, until law becomes real law and law ferrets out the frauds and murderers.

Watch what will happen.

As soon as the paper trail irrefutably leads to 10 Downing Street there will suddenly, magnanimously, be an amnesty for all combatants.

Of course, the British army hierarchy, on cue, and the DUP and UUP, will act, will complain, about the equivalence being made between Her Majesty’s Forces and the ‘terrorist’ IRA: and the presenters of the BBC, writers in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times will, with gravitas, with their po faces, explain  how difficult a decision this has been and make their apologias for the British murder machine.

But on the ground, the poor people and the wretched of this earth, wherever the sun sets, will know the score about these champions of ‘freedom’ and their dirty war… and will know the sweet scent of justice and freedom and liberation wrought through sacrifice and sheer, sheer, sheer determination…


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Don’t Mention The War

January 28, 2016 by  

The murdered Baha Mousa, an innocent Basra civilian. Hooded, manacled, denied food and water. Ninety-three injuries. Beaten by British soldiers in 2003. Was subject to several practices banned under British law and the Geneva Convention. Legal case against government continually thwarted by authorities. One soldier eventually sentenced to one year in military custody

The murdered Baha Mousa, an innocent Basra civilian. Hooded, manacled, denied food and water. Ninety-three injuries. Beaten by British soldiers in 2003. Was subject to several practices banned under British law and the Geneva Convention. Legal case against government continually thwarted by authorities. One soldier eventually sentenced to one year in military custody

Did interview on The Nolan Show this morning about the comments of former British army Colonel Tim Collins who criticised ongoing inquiries into British army behaviour in Iraq and in the North. He denounced investigations into British Paras in Derry in 1972 and referred to “The Bloody Sunday farce… a political stunt and cannot be taken seriously.”

So I was having a serious, meaningful discussion with Doug Beattie (now an Ulster Unionist and also a former soldier) when Stephen Nolan indulged particular callers whose only interest was to deflect the conversation away from the subject and bog it down in what the IRA did/didn’t do and ad hominem comments about myself.

Thus, we didn’t get properly discussing David Cameron’s denigration of legal firms representing former tortured and murdered Kenyan and Iraqi prisoners, or Collins’ call for such law firms to be punished, struck off and their firms closed. Cameron’s call is aimed at intimidating lawyers from taking on cases that are domestically controversial or nationally shameful (and in Ireland such denigration led to the murders of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson). To call such law firms as ‘ambulance chasers’ is a total misrepresentation. For example, the London firm Tandem Law which took the case against the British government over the torture, castration and rapes of Kenyan detainees, took it on a ‘no win/no fee’ basis, thus carrying the greatest financial risk had Britain not eventually conceded.

20th January. Attended meeting in Derry of Towards Understanding and Healing where former soldier and member of the Veterans for Peace, Glenn Bradley, gave riveting testimony about his journey from conflict to peace-building.

18th January. Interviewed on Talkback with Lance Price (former British Labour Party media advisor) and Adam Dean (the Quilliam Foundation) about the value of talking to IS/ISIS.

14th January. I interviewed Jamie Bryson in the Linenhall Library regarding his decision to manage the campaign for former DUP Councillor Ruth Patterson in May’s Assembly election. To be published in the Andersonstown News on 28th January.

Interviewed on Periscope by Jude Collins about 1916 and the 2016 centenary commemorations and the general election in the South in February and the assembly elections in the North on 5th May.

13th January. Interviewed on Talkback with Malachi O’Doherty regarding 1916 and Partition.

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David Bowie

January 11, 2016 by  

SchubertHeard about the death of David Bowie. Came as a shock as I had considered him almost immortal. What a unique musician and person. Space Oddity from 1969 is so evocative of that late summer and autumn; Drive In Saturday of winter in Long Kesh; Rebel, Rebel, early 1974, working in the Celebrity Club as a barman to save for my wedding. He seems to have always been around.
9th January. My 63rd birthday. Leslie getting me a new bike! Wonderful meal in Mourne Seafood Restaurant. Learnt today about the death of my friend and comrade Colm Scullion’s father, Kevin.
Did interview on Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show with Alex Kane and Malachi O’Doherty re Arlene Foster becoming First Minister today and her attitudes to nationalists and republicans.
8th January. Interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback along with Mike Nesbitt (UUP leader) and historian Eamon Phoenix, about future First Minister Arlene Foster’s pronouncement that she will not take part in any commemoration of 1916.
7th January. In Dublin’s Mansion House for the launch of Sinn Féin’s 1916 Centenary Events. Brilliant speech by James Connolly-Heron (great grandson of James Connolly).
Finished novel Upstream by John McMillan, part of a series of semi-autobiographical fiction, bringing the story of his life up to the birth of the character Jim Mitchell’s two children and the family moving to Somerset. Wonderful imagery drawn from detailed memories.
4th January. Interviewed in studio on Good Morning Ulster about my opinion of RTE’s drama series on 1916, Rebellion. I was middling in terms of liking it but certainly didn’t like the stereotypical portrayal of Countess Markievicz.
25th December. Great presents for Christmas! Schubert’s Winter Journey – Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge; The German War – A Nation Under Arms, 1939-45 by Nicholas Stargardt; The Press Gang edited by David Kenny (about the Irish Press); Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market; Reel History – The World According to the Movies; cigars; champagne; and linen handkerchiefs!Front

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December 12, 2015 by  

back endHave just started John McMillan’s latest novel Upstream. It’s the story of a married couple living in the West Country (south west England) told from the perspective of the husband Jim Mitchell, a struggling author. Thoroughly enjoyed his other books The Soul of the City and Summer In The Heat. John is from Armagh but has lived in England since 1970. There’s still a little time left to purchase a copy of Upstream as a Christmas present! Go to

I have been struggling with My Antonia by Willa Cather. I am on page 205 and should have finished it a week ago. When I start a book I normally commit to it but reading this ponderous novel provokes the thought, so what, I don’t care what happens next. So, it’s Bye, Bye Willa and Hello, John!

6th December. Spoke in Enniskillen at the official launch of County Fermanagh’s book about 1916, Fearless But Few. Theme of my speech was a refrain from an old republican song:
“Who fears to speak of Easter Week?
Who dares its fate deplore?”

21st November. Spoke at the Women’s Garden of Remembrance, Roddy McCorley Club, Glen Road, at a commemoration for IRA Volunteer Paul Fox and Cumann na mBan Volunteer Laura Crawford, who died on active service forty years ago, on 1st December, 1975. Speech will be published in the January edition of An Phoblacht, then here.

17th November. Did reading from West Belfast in Dundalk’s beautiful library. All books sold!

16th November. Interviewed on LMFM in the Drogheda studio about West Belfast.

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Hillsborough Agreement, 1985

November 13, 2015 by  

Garret and MaggieInterviewed this afternoon by BBC television journalist Mark Simpson about my reflections on the Anglo-Irish Agreement which was signed this day thirty years ago. My opinion hasn’t changed: Thatcher’s aim was to secure increased cross-border security cooperation, and Fitzgerald’s motive was to help the SDLP and halt the electoral rise of Sinn Féin .
11th November. Interviewed on the Nolan Show along with Gregory Campbell MP (DUP) about the first arrest of a former British soldier in connection with the killings on Bloody Sunday.
ConalSpoke at the launch of my dear friend Conal Creedon’s book, The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary for which I wrote the introduction.
10th November. Interviewed by Amanda Morrow from Radio France International’s English service about the arrest of a former British paratrooper in relation to the Bloody Sunday massacre.
5th November. Interviewed on the Nolan Show about a poll on attitudes north and south to reunification and devolution commissioned jointly by RTE and the BBC.
26th October. Discussion with academic Caitlin Ball about community restorative justice. Unrecorded.
24th October. Spoke at event in Roddy McCorley Club, a tribute night to the late theatre director, Pam Brighton.
23rd October. Interviewed by Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster on the supposed status of the IRA Army Council and current talks to resolve differences on welfare cuts.
22nd October. Interviewed by Alex Gibney for US documentary on collusion.
10th October. Took part in a massive protest march though Berlin against the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). Finished reading The Last Jews in Berlin.
6th October. Went to hear former Greek Economic Minister, Yanis Varoufakis speak on a panel discussion at the Volksbühne Theater on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz on the topic, PLAN B FÜR EUROPA?
4th October. Staying at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, at Wannsee, having successfully won an award for a two-week residential. Aim to return to Belfast with at least 25,000 words of my long-delayed manuscript of Band On The Run.


Sozialwerk Nazareth e.V, Norddeich

3rd October. Met with refugees at Sozialwerk Nazareth e.V, Norddeich, including a young singer from Angola who performed a brilliant rendition of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours, and also met with English Literature and music teachers from Dame Allan’s Schools, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
1st October. Addressing students on the cross-over literary devices, techniques, allusions and imagery employed in public speaking from Winston Churchill to Barack Obama, with quotations from literature and the Bible.Gave the opening speech at the conference of Relais de la Memoire, an organisation aimed at young people and promoting reconciliation and understanding in Europe and beyond. Spoke of my life as a writer, the novels I had written which dealt with conflict, and other novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and the writings of former Wehrmacht soldier and novelist, Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll (whose Achill Island house is now a writers retreat), and repeated an earlier address to students about literature and conflict. The delegation included students of A-Level age from Marseilles, Paris, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Vienna and Norden. This was followed by a Q & A.
Later met with 92-year-old Erna de Vries, a German Jew, who survived the Holocaust, and whose mother was murdered by the Nazis.
30th September. My first class at Ulrichsgymnasium, Norden. Spoke to senior pupils about the short story. On their course is My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi and I broke them into four groups, listened to their analysis and explained various points to them about the story. Later in the morning, I addressed 200 English language and literature students in the Assembly Hall on my journey as a writer; spoke about the inspiration and German connection between my novel Rudi and Hermann Hesse; spoke about peace walls in Belfast and the coming-down twenty-five years ago of the Berlin Wall, and how Irish writers responded to continued division, conflict and partition, and then did a Q & A.
In the afternoon, I took a class of 20 students on the issue of ‘migration’ and ‘translation’. The students had read Rudi and enacted/dramatized three scenes from the book dealing with alienation. Followed by a Q & A.
29th September. Arrive in Germany for speaking tour.
25th September. Interviewed on the Nolan Show with Liam Clarke about my tweet that ‘Peter Robinson is finished’.
24th September. Interviewed in studio on BBC’s Talkback with Winston Irvine about republican/loyalist murals.

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