Growing up in Cookstown in County Tyrone, I would occasionally wonder what it would be like to be Martin McGuinness’s son. He was infamous for being Sinn Féin’s number two, and for being the officer commanding of the Derry brigade of the IRA, a position he assumed, as he recently admitted, in February 1972. He was born the same year as my mother, and my parents used to live in Londonderry. If instead of meeting my dad at a dance in Dublin, she had met a young butcher called Martin from the Bogside, maybe I would be Martin Jr. There was an Oedipal twist to my unlikely fantasy, because I also used to imagine killing him. And it wasn’t just me. At lunch in the school canteen, between telling stories about armalites or girls, exit wounds or telly programmes, we’d all go on about how much we’d love to fucking kill McGuinness. To blow him up. To gun him down. To do to him what his crowd had done, and was doing, to other people, to people we knew. Then, in the 1997 general election, after I had left home and gone to university in England, Martin McGuinness became our MP.

He never could have been my father, of course. Even the words I use betray my upbringing: Derry or Londonderry? Full disclosure might be proper, though it is unusual in writing about Northern Ireland. My father, schooled in Dublin, is a member of the Church of Ireland and is from Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. I think he has voted Unionist in the past though he is an SDLP voter now. My mother was raised a Covenanter – a Reformed Presbyterian sect that doesn’t allow music in churches – but joined the Church of Ireland when she married. Both have always had Irish and British passports, though my father, because he was born in Donegal, is designated a ‘British subject’ and my mother, who is from South Armagh, is a ‘British citizen’. She votes SDLP. If someone calls us British we rankle slightly. If someone calls us Irish we do the same. We are both and neither. It’s not quite as simple as making a choice and sticking to it regardless. Our nationality is always qualified. We live in County Tyrone, specifically in the townland of Orritor outside Cookstown. Tyrone is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, which itself makes up two-thirds of Ulster, one of Ireland’s four provinces. I could go on, like a bored child writing his address on his schoolbook: Ireland, the British Isles, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way. I have always looked to the poet John Hewitt’s manifesto in order to salvage a coherent identity. He wrote:

I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and as far as I’m concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.

You would know he was an Ulsterman by that needless bristle at the end, a prickly little warning.

Northern Ireland (for which you may of course read the ‘North of Ireland’) has 18 seats at Westminster, and has recently seen two events with significant political ramifications: the robbery of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast on 20 December, and on 30 January the murder of Robert McCartney in Magennis’s Bar. A few months ago it had seemed that the IRA might be on the brink of disbanding. One IRA source was quoted in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post: he said that he had been visited by a member of the IRA leadership, ‘and told that the whole movement was going to be dismantled – the structures, the lot. I was asked if there was anything I wanted, anything they could do for me. There would be just a small team left to protect the core leadership from assassination.’ It looked as though Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Féin were about to do a deal on decommissioning, and that Stormont, the Northern Irish Assembly, would be resumed.

In October 2002 four Sinn Féin government officials (one of them the party’s chief administrator at Stormont, the former IRA prisoner Denis Donaldson) had been arrested for allegedly stealing and copying hundreds of official documents ‘useful to terrorists in carrying out acts of violence’. The incident had made the Assembly unworkable, and on 14 October it was suspended, for the fourth time in its brief history, to prevent the resignation of the first minister, David Trimble. Just over a year later, on 26 November 2003, the much postponed Assembly election took place, with the DUP and Sinn Féin emerging as the largest parties, gaining ground from moderate unionists and nationalists. A review of the working of the Good Friday Agreement involving all the political parties began at Stormont on 4 February 2004. After several rounds of talks and much stalling, the parties appeared to be close to agreement late last year. There was a sticking point, however: Paisley insisted on seeing photographic evidence of weapons being decommissioned, and gave his now infamous speech in Ballymena, demanding that the IRA, having sinned publicly, repent publicly and ‘wear sackcloth and ashes’. Sinn Féin refused to allow photographs, and the talks fell apart.

The English media delighted – again – in representing the disagreement as being somehow indicative of the Northern Irish, of their childish inability to see a major triumph behind a minor concession. In the Guardian, David Aaronovitch wrote an article suggesting that the photographs issue had something to do with castration anxiety. This all showed an enormous underestimation of the canniness of the operators involved. They didn’t agree because they didn’t want to agree. If the issue seemed like a red herring, that’s because it was one.

On Saturday evening, at ten to six, listening to a programme about Jimmy Cagney on Radio 4, I drive into Cookstown from Orritor. It is a long straight dipping road and the sun is sinking behind me. The fields are in shadow but, out in front, is a little shining city on a hill. All the west-facing glass catches the light. I am on my way to meet the Ulster Unionist chairman of the local council, who lives next door to my friend Steve. The chairman is a gaunt man with a heavy moustache that gives him a doleful, hangdog look. He lives in a neat, detached, over-decorated home on a small estate. We go into the living-room. On the occasional table where I set up my tape recorder there are Hummel ornaments and photographs of children from the local high school, wearing my old uniform. The piano has a book of 101 Disney tunes open on it. I ask him what he thought about the deal that was almost done before Christmas.

‘As an Ulster Unionist I couldn’t believe the stuff the DUP were agreeing to. I mean, they had promised to “smash Sinn Féin”. That was their slogan, and to do away with all-Ireland bodies, but here they were agreeing to sit down with them. The sad reality is that a lot of people left the Ulster Unionists and joined the DUP because they couldn’t take the peace process. Round this neck of the woods, which has seen massive IRA activity over the years, people now have to see the terrorists lording it about, all in high and mighty places. They’re in negotiating teams. They’re mayors of local councils, and these people carried out the most hideous crimes. Sickening crimes. It hit home when McGuinness became minister of education, and Alex Maskey, who was convicted of robbing a bank, got made lord mayor of Belfast. I mean how do you take that? And now the process is dead. I can’t see it getting back up again – no one believes Tony Blair anymore in the Unionist community – and I can’t see that anyone in the two Unionist parties could go back into government with Sinn Féin, after the bank robbery and now this McCartney murder. Both Blair and Ahern have been left with severe egg on their faces. That robbery had been in planning for 12 months.’

I write ‘severe egg’ in my notebook and ask whether he thinks Sinn Féin’s vote will drop in May.

‘Well, you look at the Westminster election last time. Four out of five nationalists voted for McGuinness. In a town like Cookstown four out of five nationalists voted for a murderer, a gunman. Your next-door neighbour, who you always took to be a moderate, might have voted for him.’

I say the argument would be that he’s not been convicted of anything.

‘Well, he’s admitted that he’s been in the IRA, that he was the OC of Derry, and he wouldn’t answer questions at the Bloody Sunday inquiry because of a code of honour. I mean, the dogs in the street know he’s on the army council.’

I ask him about Sinn Féin’s election campaign.

‘What people don’t realise is that the marked registers are available after an election to political parties, showing whether you’ve voted or not, and those registers are being used by the Sinn Féin political machine. I’ve heard they would go to people’s houses and say: I realise you didn’t vote at the last election. It’s a very thin line between canvassing and threatening. They’ve been exposed now, but McGuinness’ll be returned, though it’ll be interesting to see which way his vote goes.’

I ask about his own party.

‘There has been a demise of the Ulster Unionist party. I’ve been in the party almost thirty years and I’ve never seen morale as low. We have a situation where there are meetings which might once have had forty or fifty people, and now have twelve or so. The seeds were sown when the Ulster Unionists changed their policy from no guns, no government. I voted against the Good Friday Agreement. A lot of my friends were murdered by the IRA and I voted against it because under its terms the people who had murdered them were going to be released. I couldn’t hack that, so I voted against it. The DUP avoided taking all the flak by walking out on the agreement, yet now they are making more concessions than the Ulster Unionists did. There have been more barracks and police stations closed, more troop reductions, and the DUP have backtracked on their position on the Maze.’

I ask him which issues he thinks local people are concerned about.

‘To be honest, the biggest thing on people’s minds is water charges. It’s going to work out at £400 per year, and they’re talking about charging your water rates according to the value of your house – even if you live alone. It’s crazy. The council are totally against water charges.’

I wanted to come to this piece, to this place, with an open mind, but my mind, to borrow from Larkin, is open like a drawer of knives. To avoid the usual problem with writing about Northern Ireland, to avoid the unspoken agenda, I wanted just to put people’s words down on paper. But people here are notoriously reticent until they know who you are, and, more important, what you are. Whatever you say, say nothing. I have made some phone calls and found people to talk to from, as they say in my town, all walks of life. This means both Catholic (read, if you like, ‘Roman Catholic’) and Protestant, and both working-class and middle-class.

Mid-Ulster has a fifty-fifty religious split, and was for a long time extremely poor. Its unemployment was the worst in the province, at a time when the province’s unemployment was the worst in Western Europe. Our MP in the early 1970s was the Republican Bernadette Devlin. A leader of People’s Democracy, a group instrumental in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, she was the youngest ever female MP when she was elected in 1969 at the age of 21. The Reverend William McCrea of the DUP was elected in 1983, seeing Sinn Féin off by just 78 votes. He was renowned for being one of Westminster’s most absent MPs: he spent his time in Nashville recording religious country and western songs. A minister of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church, he has recorded nearly thirty gospel albums. In 1997 he lost his seat to McGuinness by 1883 votes.

People sometimes call it long hungry Cookstown. On Sunday afternoon, when I drive down the wide main street that runs in a straight line through the town, the cars parked outside the shops are occupied by teenagers looking out at the traffic, watching and waiting for something to happen. I am on my way to meet an SDLP councillor. Although from different sides of the divide, the two councillors are friends and play golf together. The SDLP councillor lives on the same housing estate as a fat man I know called Slim, who I once spent a warm July digging a riverbed with. On Radio 4 there is a programme about Vietnam Vets, grief and survivor guilt.

The councillor is compact and wiry, and sits in his living-room smoking Benson & Hedges. Throughout the interview he watches the Australian Steve Irwin wrestling crocodiles on the television, agreeing to mute it only when I explain that his voice won’t come through on the tape recorder. I ask him about the Northern Bank robbery.

‘McGuinness wants to see the evidence. Well, how can they produce the evidence without jeopardising the court case? My own view is that I have no doubt that the IRA are very much involved – and it wasn’t an overnight scenario. Even the dogs in the street know who did it.’

I write ‘the dogs again’ in my notebook.

‘I think the McCartney disaster is more important than the bank robbery. It is an awful terrible thing. There were 72 witnesses in that bar. And it was basically gutting a pig. I heard they ripped McCartney from the bottom of his stomach to his throat.’

We talk about why Sinn Féin has overtaken the SDLP as the largest nationalist party.

‘You have all these 18 to 25 year olds who are new to the political scene, and they think that Adams and McGuinness are doing a good job. It doesn’t seem to matter what Sinn Féin do, their vote stays. What can the SDLP do now? We don’t need guns, we’re not robbing banks. We don’t have millions of pounds behind us. We don’t wear three-piece suits. Through thick and thin we’ve always said that we will get a united Ireland through a democratic process – and not through blood. I think the public will realise what they are voting for when they vote for Sinn Féin. For criminality. They intimidate. They have an element of fear. The young generation don’t believe what went on. They weren’t there to see the trauma – but it will work itself round again. Sinn Féin have peaked. Their vote will decrease.’

I ask him about the local area.

‘The town’s thriving in every way. There’s been a new town centre forum set up. There’s a new arts centre, the Burnavon, and a new sports arena out at Loughry, by the new police academy. We’re the centre of mid-Ulster, only 45 minutes from anywhere.’

I thank him for agreeing to be interviewed.

‘I wasn’t doing anything today anyway, just sitting about waiting for the rugby to start.’ Ireland is playing England. ‘I think we’ve a shot but you should never underestimate the English. They’re dangerous when you think you have them beat.’

On 30 January 2005, Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old father of two, was with his friend Brendan Devine in Magennis’s Bar, a crowded gastropub in Belfast city centre. Devine and McCartney, who according to his sisters voted Sinn Féin because he thought they could deliver peace, got involved in an argument. According to his family, an IRA member asked McCartney to apologise for making a rude gesture to a woman in his group. ‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked. McCartney, though aware of the man’s reputation, said he had done nothing wrong. The argument turned violent. The two friends were attacked and then dragged outside. A knife from the pub kitchen was used to cut Devine’s throat. McCartney was stabbed, beaten and battered with sewer rods, and his head was stamped on. His family say they have been told that the IRA men then went back into the pub, locked the doors, cleaned up, removed footage from the CCTV cameras and prevented other customers from calling an ambulance. McCartney was picked up by a police patrol and died in hospital that night. Devine, his throat slit from ear to ear and his stomach from navel to chest, survived.

The papers reported that the killers had earlier that day been on ‘security duty’ for senior Sinn Féin members at the Bloody Sunday commemorative march in Derry. None of the 72 people in Magennis’s Bar, saw anything. Everyone was apparently in the toilet or on their mobile phone. Three Sinn Féin election candidates who were in the bar that night have now made statements to solicitors saying they didn’t see anything, though a taxi driver who picked up one of them, a former Sinn Féin Assembly candidate called Cora Groogan, told a Sunday newspaper that Groogan had said that ‘Magennis’s had erupted and there were glasses and bottles flying everywhere.’

Under enormous political pressure, the IRA expelled three men and Sinn Féin suspended seven, though as the SDLP deputy leader, Alasdair McDonnell, recently commented, ‘Sinn Féin refuses to answer the key questions. They won’t say how many of their members were in the bar. They won’t say how many were election workers for Alex Maskey … And it is clear that at least some of the men supposedly expelled from the IRA are back in again.’ The IRA also revealed that they had told the McCartney sisters they would shoot the men responsible for their brother’s murder. This offer was declined. It’s thought that 12 members of the IRA were involved in the murder and the clean-up, one of them a former bodyguard to Adams. The violent records of these ‘untouchables’ helps explain why no one will speak out. The man who is thought to have been responsible for the fatal stab wound to McCartney – severing an artery to his heart – has a history of violent assaults. One of the three expelled by the IRA is the former officer commanding of the Belfast brigade. This man, who the McCartney family claim gave the order for the assault, has been an IRA member for more than twenty years. According to the Observer, he has killed on behalf of the organisation since the ceasefire. He was an important figure in the IRA’s purge of petty drug-dealers from nationalist areas of Belfast, and the same report alleges that he shot one drug-dealer, Mickey ‘Moneybags’ Mooney, himself.

On Sunday 17 April, the McCartney sisters held a vigil for their brother outside Magennis’s Bar. On that day, unlike the day of his funeral, the bar was closed. Paula McCartney has said that there have been attempts to intimidate the family: relatives of the Sinn Féin members suspended over her brother’s killing have made midnight visits to her terraced house and threatened that her family would be ‘put out’ of the area. She was warned against distributing leaflets to publicise the vigil, and on one street a dozen men and women shouted obscenities at the sisters. McCartney’s fiancée, Bridgeen Hagans, says she has also been threatened and told to leave the area with their sons, aged two and four. No one has been charged with the murder.

Thanks to the Northern Bank robbery and McCartney’s murder, there is no possibility of talks being resumed. Paramilitary activity is now openly discussed, and most people seem to feel that the idea of paramilitaries, and the IRA in particular, abandoning criminal behaviour is laughable. The peace process made the British and Irish governments, and the media, reluctant to admit to the level of violence which still prevails in Northern Ireland. According to Henry McDonald, a former BBC correspondent, ‘large sections of the media here have acquiesced to do their duty to keep the Agreement alive even if it means ignoring uncomfortable facts.’

These ‘uncomfortable facts’ are paramilitary crimes, from armed robberies to punishment beatings. Harry McCartan, a serial joy-rider whose ankles the IRA had smashed with hammers 18 months before, was found crucified and semi-conscious on 2 November 2002. He was taken to hospital with his hands still impaled on the fence he had been nailed to. The beating he received – from, he believes, a loyalist gang – left him so disfigured that his father recognised him only by his tattoos. To attempt to deal with crimes carried out by paramilitaries, the Independent Monitoring Commission was set up on 7 January 2004.

The IMC’s report of 10 February 2005 stated that the Provisional IRA was responsible not only for the Northern Bank robbery, but also for three other major robberies last year. It’s no longer the bullet and the bomb that have the province in their grip: it’s organised crime. Since the Good Friday Agreement, there have been more than four hundred armed attacks on cash-delivery vehicles. Gallaghers, the tobacco manufacturers, recently had a million pounds’ worth of cigarettes stolen after a family was taken hostage at gunpoint, and another million pounds’ worth when a lorry was held up near the border. They now send their consignments from the North of Ireland to the South by sea, via Liverpool. There are 85 top-level gangs in Northern Ireland, both republican and loyalist, though the IRA is the most sophisticated and the wealthiest. Sinn Féin is said to be not only the richest party in Ireland, but one of the best funded in Europe. Gerry Adams insists that the money comes from America and legitimate membership activities.

The IMC went on to state that ‘Sinn Féin’s senior members, who are also senior members of PIRA, were involved in sanctioning the series of robberies. Sinn Féin cannot be regarded as committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means so long as its links to PIRA remain as they are and PIRA continues to be engaged in violence or other crime.’ Had the Assembly been sitting the IMC would have recommended that Sinn Féin members be excluded from office. In the event, the only sanctions open to the secretary of state were financial, and as punishment for the IRA’s theft of £26.5m, Paul Murphy announced on 10 March that Sinn Féin would be stripped of parliamentary allowances for Westminster worth £400,000.

The next evening I drive to Moortown, a Republican area outside Cookstown, on the west side of Lough Neagh. There are pockets of support for both sides around here, outposts of partiality. Coagh, with its red, white and blue kerbstones, has a Union Jack with ‘No Surrender’ emblazoned on it on the side of the public toilets, but a mile or two further on Irish tricolours fly from telephone poles with Sinn Féin election posters nailed to them. Mickey has a builder’s rough hands and a young face. He is wearing a T-shirt for an American football team. His wife, Bernie, a small sturdy blonde, works for the council. They have a tiny flushed two-year-old girl, Ciara. Mickey and Bernie have just returned from a weekend in London, and Ciara, excited to see them back, is refusing to go to bed. She’s all ‘through herself’, as Bernie puts it. They are selling their neat bungalow on a new estate – Mickey tells me incredulously that they bought it for £50,000 a few years ago and they’ve just had it valued at £150,000 – and are hoping to build on a plot owned by Bernie’s father.

Both seem keen to tell me that they sit on the fence, that they aren’t political, that they aren’t committed either way, but both also imply that they have voted Sinn Féin in the past, and tie it in to stories of being dragged out of their cars by the RUC, and the UDR, and given hidings, and made to stand in the rain. They speak of growing up with constant searches and harassment. They assign opinions to each other.

‘Mickey thinks that the robbery was a conspiracy.’

‘Well, I said it might be. A conspiracy between the British and Irish governments in order to frame the IRA. I mean they found that bag of money in a country club used by police. And even if the IRA did do the robbery, Sinn Féin wouldn’t have known about it. If they come on the television making claims about who’s responsible then they should back them up.’

He picks Ciara up, and continues: ‘I don’t care about the politics, so long as this wee blade is safe and well and happy.’

I ask them about a way forward.

‘The only way forward is total integration,’ Bernie says. ‘Integration of the schools, and particularly the primary schools. I was at Jordanstown University and it was 90 per cent Catholic, and growing up I never met a Protestant.’

Mrs x is proud of the view from her house. She lives on the south-western edge of the town and her living-room looks over a river valley. Mist lies in the low parts of the fields. Her garden furniture is wet and very white against the grass. Her husband, a solicitor, puts his head round the door to say goodbye. ‘Don’t believe a word she says,’ he jokes. It is Monday morning and he is late for work. Mrs X is about fifty and a little nervous. She is a Catholic middle-class housewife. We start talking about the Assembly and its future.

‘I certainly hope the Assembly comes back. We need local politics, and in ten years’ time I would hope that we would have normal politics here, with left-wing and right-wing parties. I do a bit of hillwalking and I went up the Sperrins with my husband yesterday. We started up near Sperrin Village, between Draperstown and Plumbridge, and walked up the Glenelly Valley. You can see the Mournes from up there and out to the hills of Donegal, down towards Sligo. You can nearly see the whole of Northern Ireland and you think it’s such a wee place, what on earth are we all fighting about?’

I ask her about the election.

‘I often wondered why people do vote Sinn Féin, though at the last election their electoral machine was incredible. McGuinness arrived at the front door one day with his minders. I told him he wouldn’t be getting my vote, but they looked very impressive, all in their suits. There will be a time when they will lose their pre-eminence. Losing John Hume was problematic for the SDLP, and I think Durkan’ – Mark Durkan, the current SDLP leader – ‘lacks charisma. In a situation like this it’s very difficult to be middle of the road. It’s much easier to be negative, to be extreme. When I was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was very interested in politics. I wanted to form a Labour party in Northern Ireland – I think they should have candidates from the main parties here – but now I’m totally sick of it. When the news comes on I’m much more inclined just to switch the radio off. We’ve got an acceptable level of violence, I suppose. If you’re middle class you can get on with it, but if you live in the border areas or in sections of Belfast then maybe it does impinge on your life. But the McCartney murder has changed things.’

On Tuesday afternoon I have an appointment with a Free Presbyterian minister. I drive past his church, a modern building with a glass pyramid sitting on top of it. After passing the cement works, I come to a 1970s pebbledashed house on top of a small hill. A neat, portly man in a grey suit, the minister answers the door himself, pen in hand. His hair is slick with pomade and swept to the side. You can still see the tracks of the comb in it. He’s a born preacher and speaks in a rhetorical drum roll. The house, which he had built, has a living-room with views on every side. On a clear day, he tells me, it’s possible to see the Mournes from one window, the Belfast mountains from another, and the Sperrins behind us. I get a feeling that he is in the middle of his kingdom. I ask him about the Northern Bank robbery.

‘It’s a natural culmination of living in a place without the rule of law. People may join groups for genuine motives – some of those who joined loyalist militias would have had a genuine interest in saving Ulster – but things change and people get a taste of easy money. What happens then is that men are let loose to vent their own corrupt natures in society. Man has such an innate corruption that he must be controlled by law.’

I quite like this Augustinian argument. At least it’s even-handed.

‘God gave us law for the good of society after the great flood, when Noah had died. I laugh at these politicians who think it immoral for society to take life for the good of society. What? Do they think God’s immoral? Do they think they have more morals than God has? A strange arrogant breed is man. The Lord knows man better than we know man, and man needs control.’

I ask him what needs to happen.

‘We need a dictator or something to come in. I cannot see democracy pulling it back. To think that people actually voted for Sinn Féin, after what they have done to this country, the murders, the breaking up of homes and families. If you had any moral standing how could you vote for a man who’d killed another man? Laws should be made for moral benefit, not, as now, for political or social or financial benefits. The only way to make moral laws is to use the moral absolute of the Scriptures. We’re told today that we must not believe in absolutes. We are in that position today where the mind of man is the standard. You can see that in the acceptance of homosexuality: even though the Bible says it’s an abomination, man today says it’s OK. I’d say there’ll come a day where you won’t be able to preach against homosexuality – there was a Swedish pastor recently who was arrested because he condemned homosexuality – he got off, now I saw that, but that day is coming, and if the nation goes on in the ungodly way in which it is going, then I can certainly see laws being put down which frame mischief. We mustn’t offend certain people, but it’s OK to offend God and offend Christians.’

He’s offending me, so I move him onto decommissioning, and ask about Ian Paisley’s insistence on photographs of the decommissioned weapons.

‘We don’t know how many guns were decommissioned the last time. Why not show them? Here’s proof that these people are sincere. Adams has a right cheek. Is it humiliating? What’s humiliating? They only decommission for show anyway. They’ll hold on to some to do their bank robberies. Where does Adams get the money from for his big house in Donegal? Tell me that. Everyone knows Sinn Féin and the IRA are indivisible: the dogs in the street know it.’

In my notebook I write: ‘interview the dogs in the street.’

‘If they decommission completely, then Paisley, being a democrat, would have to sit down with them. This is why you need photographs. You can never know they’ve decommissioned completely. I mean after the ceasefire they were bringing more guns into Donegal. It’s a well-known fact. The only relationship between the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church is the Reverend Paisley. They are completely separate. I’m not in the DUP, and I won’t allow political meetings to be mentioned in my church. There’s three things we fight over in this country: football, religion and politics.’

He starts talking about civil war, the dangers of a united Ireland, and the liberties Protestants might lose. I ask him what liberties he thinks would be in danger.

‘Well, I think the liberty that everyone is free to practise their own religion. You don’t get that in Roman Catholic countries usually. I know under the Common Market, under the European market, that certain countries have that – but there’s persecution in France and Spain of the Protestant religion.’

I ask how that manifests itself.

‘It manifests itself … children were taken from a Protestant family by the French authorities. I don’t know the details. I can’t remember the details. And anti-semitism is also growing in those countries.’

As I’m leaving, I notice a black and white photograph of a man in an Irish football shirt propped up on his table. It turns out to be the minister’s father, who played for the Irish football team in 1932. He was centre-forward in the team that lost 3-2 to Scotland, and he scored one of the goals. I want to ask about the shamrock on his father’s shirt. I’m sure if I press in the right place an irony will slide out – like a secret drawer – but the minister talks me all the way to the doorstep: ‘Do you play yourself? I was a very good footballer, you know, and my father was very disappointed that I gave it up. But I hadn’t the time to keep playing. Only seven days a week in which to serve the Lord. Make me another day, I said, and I’ll play football on it.’

On 6 April, Gerry Adams made a statement which seemed to be addressed directly to IRA members:

In the past I have defended the right of the IRA to engage in armed struggle. I did so because there was no alternative for those who would not bend the knee, or turn a blind eye to oppression, or for those who wanted a national republic. Now there is an alternative … the way forward is by building political support for republican and democratic objectives.

He appealed to the IRA ‘to fully embrace and accept this alternative’. Though the IRA has so far said only that it will give ‘his appeal due consideration’, it is inconceivable that Adams would have asked for de facto disbandment if he were not already sure of the answer.

I meet the vice-chairman of the council in the empty car-park of a community centre in Ardboe a few days later. Ardboe, a small town near the loughshore, is famous for its republicanism and for its high cross, one of the best examples in Ireland, which stands outside the ruins of a sixth-century monastery. As we walk across the car-park, the councillor points out a memorial stone to ‘fallen volunteers’: local IRA men killed on active duty. He is one of six Sinn Féin representatives on the council. The first Sinn Féin councillor I rang told me that he wouldn’t be able to speak to me but that this man would.

He is short, overweight, with a grey thatch of hair and is wearing a tracksuit. He has tired blue eyes behind wire-framed spectacles and tells me he has the flu. In his living-room an enormous, brightly decorated harp sits behind the television, and a smaller wooden harp sits on the fireplace. It’s a Long Kesh Harp, carved by IRA prisoners in the Maze – formerly Long Kesh – prison. His speech is hesitant and circumspect.

‘One of the issues here in this area would be education cuts. I was a member of the Southern Education Library Board and I resigned a month ago due to the cuts in education. You’re talking about a shortfall of £7.2 million, and therefore cuts in maintenance, libraries, and cuts in out-of-school transport – an issue in this area.’

He also worried about the water rates.

‘People are opposed to that, and our party has made it clear that we are too. There is another issue, about the A29 road. Traffic really comes to a standstill there.’

I ask whether he thinks the Northern Bank robbery or the Robert McCartney murder will reduce the Sinn Féin vote.

‘Well, people see the McCartney thing as a crime, and I suppose they’d like to see any crime solved. But it’s getting so much prominence because there were members of the Republican movement involved, and our political opponents and sections of the media see it as a stick to beat us with. I don’t know about Belfast, but the way people look at it round here is that you don’t want to create a hierarchy of victims. You saw the memorial outside there, there were eight volunteers dead, and they’ve been killed by the UDR, the RUC, the British army, loyalist death squads, and for any of those there, there’s been nobody brought to justice, nobody charged, and there have been other victims. Even during the ceasefire there have been Catholics shot by loyalists and they haven’t got the same prominence. No matter who you’re a victim of, you still feel the same way. You still want justice, irrespective of who perpetrated the incident.’

I suggest that the prominence given to the murder is due to the McCartney sisters’ response.

‘If that killing had been carried out by someone else then the sisters wouldn’t have been getting any prominence. If loyalists had shot him, they wouldn’t have been getting the same support from political parties, from the media. It’s the fact that the killing was carried out by members of the IRA in a personal capacity. But I can’t see it having any effect in this area on the vote. The local issues are roads, and DHSS issues, things like that. People would see this statement from Gerry Adams as being significant. It’s more or less saying to the IRA, or asking the IRA, to work politically to reach their objectives. He supported their armed struggle in the past but now he sees a political road forward.’

I ask whether that isn’t the way it’s supposed to have been since the ceasefire in 1994.

‘The IRA have been on ceasefire, but this is more or less asking them to step aside. He’s asking them now to see a political way, to join the political process, and for the volunteers to get involved, because he sees an alternative to armed struggle.’

But hasn’t he seen that for some time, since the ceasefire?

‘Yes, he has himself, but he’s now asking the IRA. The IRA weren’t involved in the negotiations about the Good Friday Agreement. That was Sinn Féin.’

He starts talking about the local council.

‘This is the Ballinderry ward. There’s me and another Sinn Féin councillor, and two SDLP and two Unionists, all for Ballinderry. There’s six for this ward. There’s 16 in the council altogether. When I was elected in 1985, I’d just been released from prison. I got out in 1984, September ’84.’

I ask him what he was inside for.

‘I was a political … my offence was … at that time it was a political offence.’

I ask him what the political offence was.

‘It was 1973. It was … no, it was … I’m trying to think … what do you call it? It was … attempted murder. But then it was … I got 15 years. That was 1977. My charge was 1973, but I got 15 years in 1977. So I did over seven and a half. You do half. At that time there was political status. I was in the cages at that time, before the blocks were built at Long Kesh. Some people called them compounds, we called them cages. I was one of the last to get political status because my charge was in 1973, and it was in 1976 that the British government tried to bring in a criminalisation policy, and anyone that was charged after that went to the H-blocks, so that was where the protest developed, in the H-blocks.’

I ask about the offence again.

‘Attempted murder, of a police officer. And political status because I was a member of the IRA. During that period the criminalisation policy came in and people went on dirty protests and stuff like that. During the hunger strike time I was OC of the political prisoners in Long Kesh.’

I ask him how he became a councillor.

‘I mean, you don’t have to be … The majority of people in Sinn Féin aren’t in the IRA. When I came out, I became a councillor. We were the minority then, the Unionists had the majority by 9-7, but it’s now 10-6 to the nationalists. There’s six Sinn Féin and four SDLP. The Unionists used to run the council as committees, and to exclude us from them. When the nationalists got control in 1997 we introduced the d’Hondt principles: say there was a seven-man committee, there’d be four nationalists and three Unionists. And the chairs would be rotated. It wasn’t a case of doing unto them what they did to us.’

I ask him about the differences in policy between the SDLP and Sinn Féin, and why someone should vote for Sinn Féin.

‘People will see us as having been a stronger voice on Irish unity. The SDLP have been a post-nationalist party. They are now claiming that they are the true republican party, that Sinn Féin is now a criminal party. But Maggie Thatcher tried that and it didn’t work then and it won’t now. Because people don’t see the people who died as criminals, people who fought against British rule and the British occupation and who died. Not too many criminals lay down their lives for things like that, you know.’

I say that we’re not talking about that now, but about the robberies of the Northern Bank and Gallagher’s cigarettes.

‘But you see these are all allegations, there’s no proof.’

I ask him if he is saying that the IRA isn’t involved in any illegal activities.

‘We don’t see operations, or we didn’t see operations, against the British occupation as criminal activities. If people were doing it outside the organisation, then we’d be opposed to that. In the context of armed struggle we didn’t see bank robberies for funds as being criminal. If members of the IRA were involved in any crimes as individuals, if individuals were doing bank robberies for themselves, then we’d see that as being a criminal offence.’

I ask him if he means that if the IRA are doing robberies now as the IRA then it isn’t a criminal offence.

‘I don’t see any IRA operation as a criminal offence. What I’m saying is that we don’t see the need for the IRA to be doing that now. But I don’t believe the IRA are involved in any robberies. There’s been no proof that the IRA has been involved in the Northern Bank robbery. These things seem to crop up every time we seem to be coming towards an agreement.’

So you think that any IRA operation carried out is legal? Even in the last year?

‘But I don’t believe that the IRA has been involved in robberies, and that’s hypothetical then, so I can’t answer it.’

But if it was involved, it wouldn’t be illegal?

‘I can’t answer something hypothetical. If it was proved that the IRA was involved in something for themselves, I would consider that would be illegal. But if it was for IRA funds that would be OK.’

The day before I leave I walk through the town and down the Burn Road to the Sinn Féin office. Grilles cover its high windows and a plaque saying ‘Martin McGuinness, MP for Mid-Ulster’ has been partly chipped off its front wall. It’s locked up, and with its security cameras and graffiti, reminds me of an Orange Hall near my parents’ home, which I cycle past later on that afternoon, mooching about on the bike as if I was 12 again. Out on the back roads I pass a small primary school, one doing so well that it can’t take all the children that apply to go there.

A car’s headlights lift and dip as it comes along the hilly road from the town. A flatbed lorry pulls out of the lane that leads to the quarry. I want to remember these things. It is about six o’clock and the town is spotlit again like a little shining city on a hill. I remember what people said about the dogs in the street. Everyone knows this, everyone knows that. And mostly they know different things. In the field behind the house the sheep move off in a panic to the far corner.

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