When Brendan Rice called to my home, it was the first
time I had met him. He and a relative had made the
journey from Newcastle, County Down. It is only an
hours drive from Belfast and the road between
the two has been well covered by holidaymakers for
as long as people care to remember. Hardly surprising
that Newcastle deservedly makes the news as a tourist
attraction and not as a town at the hub of political
controversy and violence. Throughout my time in prison,
the amount of Newcastle men I met could just about
be counted on the fingers of one foot. Well, there
was one, possibly two.
had previously spoken to one of the men, who now sat
at my kitchen table, on the phone. Earlier, an approach
had been made via a third party. I took the number
and made a mental note to ring but it went clean out
of my head. Within days the third party was back on
the phone pressing me to contact the Rice family.
The matter was urgent and it had escaped me. Perhaps
it was because the type of incident that was to be
raised had been dealt with so many times before that
it had sort of become routine. Brendan
Moore, Kevin Perry,
and on it goes. Totally unfair to those in search
of help when those they seek it from file away their
concerns as if it were yesterdays newspaper.
I thought of other situations, much worse than our
own sordid and squalid bickering which we continue
to dignify with the term conflict and
which we are in struggle trying
to resolve. I recalled Jacabo Timerman, meeting families
of loved ones hauled off by the Argentinean military
while he was a newspaper editor before he too was
hauled off and tortured for championing the cause
of the disappeared. I wondered if he ever grew complacent.
A momentary lapse in Buenos Aires could mean the difference
between life and death; a roll on effect beginning
with a call not made, an official paper authorising
continued detention or release not signed, a helicopter
journey for some drugged and tortured victim to a
watery grave not aborted.
task here is immeasurably easier. While we do our
utmost to protect those republicans under threat from
pro-state factions, there is no real comparison that
can be drawn between the repression those republicans
experience and that undergone by Argentinean leftists.
Since the ceasefires there have been at most two physical
force republicans murdered by forces loyal to the
Stormont regime. We dont live in constant fear
of Sinn Fein coming round to spirit us away in the
middle of the night and ghost us off to an unmarked
grave. When asked by people do I think the Sinn Fein
leadership will ever order the murder of any of The
Blankets writers, I invariably respond,
rang the number passed on to me and after a short
conversation arranged a meeting. When they arrived
I was struck by the sense of anger they exuded. It
was the anger of impotence in the face of abusive
power. I had seen it before, felt it traverse through
my veins while trying to prevent my face from making
contact with the urine stained black floor of a H-Block
corridor in the 1970s and 80s; during the mirror
search while on blanket protest when solitariness,
nakedness and silence come face to face with organised
teams, uniforms and harsh commands.
Rices story was simple. I could have narrated
it myself by now. The experience is the same, only
the names and locations are different. Around 10pm
on a Saturday evening a number of weeks ago he was
about to enter his home when a group of men approached
him and began to attack him. They used their
fists and feet and threatened to shoot me if I did
not stop resisting them. Although they told
Brendan they were armed they did not produce any weapons.
Once he was subdued they stated that they were members
of the Provisional IRA and told him that he was under
arrest. With or without their PSNI uniforms?
I enquired of him, sarcasm lacing my words.
his captors secured him by binding his wrists and
ankles with plastic straps, he was kicked in the face
and sustained a broken nose. The image of H-Block
4s Senior Officer letting me have his soft black
boot full throttle in the face in September 1978 as
I lay on the floor with my hands pinioned behind my
back flooded my mind. Power loves to kick in the face
when its victim is sprawling and defenceless. It is
enamoured of the notion that its target can actually
see the boot coming but is helpless to deflect it.
Rice was then bundled into a van, trussed up and blindfolded,
and driven for some distance. He was taken out of
the vehicle and then put in an outbuilding for approximately
15 minutes before being transported to a car and then
to the roads once again. At the end of this second
journey he was taken to another outbuilding and was
questioned throughout the night by three men taking
it in turns to be his interrogator. The allegations
they levelled at him were that he was involved in
extortion. Did you answer them? I asked,
hoping that his reply would have been that he told
them his name, address and that he was over 21. Thats
what we always told cops and nothing could induce
us to volunteer anything more than was required by
law. Why treat Sinn Feins cops any differently?
couldn't answer questions I knew nothing about.
Yet they continued to beat me about the head with
their fists and they kicked me also. They threatened
to shoot me or put me in a barrel of water and hold
me under until I told them what they wanted to hear.
They then asked if I was a member of the Real IRA.
They said if I was I was only a small fish. They
made allegations against other people including
members of my family and said they 'would get them.'
They also tried to frighten me by suggesting I could
be disappeared; that I was a single fella - who
would know what had happened to me? After a while
they told me they knew I was not involved in extortion
and that they believed I had a drink problem. I
would be released. After securing a promise from
me not to attack them they cut me free.
was then put into a car, all the time blindfolded.
The car was driven for a while before drawing to a
halt. He was then taken put and put face down on the
ground where his blindfold was removed.
they started to give me a third kicking. All of
this happened after they told me I had a drink problem
and was not involved in extortion of any kind. I
was pointed in the direction of what they said was
a phone box and told to get on my way. I did as
they ordered and eventually I met a woman who made
a call for me. A relative came and picked me up.
relative of Brendan Rice who sat with him throughout
the interview for The Blanket said that he
felt the kidnapping of Brendan was in response to
work a family member had done in support of republican
prisoners in Maghaberry. He claimed that it was not
the first time a member of the Rice family had been
kidnapped. In 1975 a brother of Brendan, Frankie,
was abducted and murdered by loyalists.
took place on a Saturday night. Throughout Sunday
morning the family had to sit undergoing terrible
anxiety before they finally learned that Frankie
was dead. Now on this occasion the family had to
go through a similar experience. Thankfully, Brendan
returned home but these people who did this to him
have the cheek to call themselves republicans and
claim to be protecting us.
Brendan's ordeal other family members went to a Sinn
Fein councillor to see if he could secure Brendan's
he went off to find out what he could he stressed
that he believed it might have been the work of
dissident republicans. This was nonsense and he
must have realised it himself. The question that
the Rice family now ask is this: Are the people
who carried this out behaving with the approval
of the Provisional republican leadership? If not
then does that leadership accept that the community
can now regard the kidnappers as common criminals?
Our family has been heavily involved with the Republican
Movement over three decades. Our door was always
open. Now we find that those who call themselves
republican are stooping to the levels of loyalists,
kidnapping, terrorising, threatening and beating
other republicans they dont like.
asked: 'Are people willing to vote for these thugs?
Is this the vision of the new police force they have
been promising to achieve for years? Do we really
need a police force that is worse than the RUC ever
left my home to make their way back to Newcastle.
The path they beat to and from my front door had been
well trodden by others who came here to put on public
record their experiences at the hands of Stormont
republicanism. Later in the day as I reflected on
our exchange, it struck me that in the discourse of
those they seek to repress, Provisional IRA volunteers
feature ever more frequently as some sort of right
wing militia eager to defend whatever reactionary
position the leadership adopts in its lurch for respectability.
Some observers try to explain it away in terms of
the ranks being populated by former joy riders and
ex-hoods determined never to be caught in possession
of a political idea and who see value in having some
political cover for their otherwise self-serving activities.
Other commentators have noticed that a common refrain
in working class nationalist areas is 'big house,
big car and big wallet.' Although from what I can
see, those on the ground who fought the war seem to
have little in the way of material assets to show
for it. Many eke out enough just to get by on the
margins of the economy, struggle daily with poverty,
live frugally, are not revellers on the junket circuit
and do not own the latest model jeep or 'houses on
the hill' - a form of destitution that cannot be said
to extend to their leaders. Perhaps there are some
around grassroots level who do feel that if the leadership's
idea of knitting both parts of Ireland together is
for leaders to own houses on each side of the border,
then they too should have a slice of the cake. But
they, like the former hoods and joy riders, are a
minority amongst volunteers and can hardly be considered
the primary determinant governing the strong arm behaviour
and political thought policing that IRA activists
are increasingly associated with.
more sustainable explanation is that the Sinn Fein
leadership, which admires alternative ideas as a vampire
does sunrises, is determined to muffle if not effectively
silence those who oppose its writ. The merest hint
of dissent infuriates it by publicly reminding it,
in spite of its narcissism, of how little it actually
achieved in return for all the people it both put
to and sent to their deaths. As JK Galbraith said
'nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.'
The realpolitik of the peace process, however, means
that the leadership cannot murder 'the opposition'
at will, but like a bully will operate on the principle
of instilling fear in those considered less powerful
- an insidious activity which both British and Irish
governments pretend not to see - who was the last
cop to face a punishment attack? IRA volunteers, who
today support the opposite of what they supported
yesterday, would have little internal difficulty persuading
themselves that if the Sinn Fein leadership want somebody
roughed up or worse then there must be a good reason
for it. And in their hopelessly apolitical way they
are willing to serve as the cutting edge: an Irish
version of the Ton Ton Macoute determined to protect
the venal power structure that sponsors it. As I persistently
remind a black friend, gays and blacks living in these
communities may hope the Sinn Fein leadership does
not come to view them as they do guns - something
to be got rid off in the hope of increasing the vote.
On past form, who in the ranks of the IRA would say
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