Stephen Smith

In the window of the bargain shop there was a photocopy of the front page of the Sun showing a Belfast boy hugging a British soldier. Speech bubbles had been added to it, so that the boy was saying: ‘Why are you going home, Daddy?’ ‘Because the Provies have surrendered,’ the squaddy replies. A few of the Unionists I spoke to sounded this note of triumph at the IRA ceasefire but not many. Most were either sniffing secret deals or talking about waiting and seeing. ‘Peace in our lunchtime,’ one woman laughed.

I thought I would leave it a few minutes before approaching the shop directly. A leather-jacketed stranger walking the Shan-kill Road on Saturday lunchtime, I had caused the clientele to turn interestedly from bins of computer games and collapsible plastic chandeliers merely by passing in front of the premises. It’s not yet a year since the Saturday lunchtime when the IRA used an outsider to deliver explosives to a fish shop on the Shankill. Thomas Begley, who blew up 11 people including himself, had seldom ventured from his Nationalist neighbourhood in his 23 years. And he probably wouldn’t have got as far as he did if he hadn’t been smocked and gloved to look like someone who was in his element among dead fish.

A trestle table had been set up on the pavement outside the bargain shop. The proprietor was laying out cheap shirts on it as if he were dealing cards. I asked him about the ceasefire but he said: ‘That’s the fellow you want to see. He’s what you’d call a Loyalist.’ He meant the man he had just been talking to. Wearing jeans and a sports shirt over a flattish stomach, the man was on his way to a park football match. ‘I’ll talk to you but you can’t use my name,’ he said. His accent was not as heavy as the proprietor’s. ‘Let’s say I would be in a Loyalist organisation.’

He said his involvement went back to the mid-Seventies, when he was jailed for six years after the RUC found him in a car with a gun. ‘An intent charge against me was dropped,’ he added. He was then 19 years old.

‘Do you still, I mean, are you ...?’

‘I’m still active, if that’s what you mean.’

He didn’t demur when I included him in a remark about Loyalist ‘operators’. In The Edge of the Union, Steve Bruce, the self-styled ‘Prods are me’ spokesman of academe, observes that ‘paramilitaries use the term “operators” to distinguish those members who have been or are prepared to be personally involved in illegal violence from the “backroom boys”, “armchair generals” and “politicians”.’ In other words, the man I was talking to was ready if need be to shoot people.

‘I think the ceasefire means the IRA are beaten,’ he told me. ‘I was up at the prison last week and from what they’re saying in there, the Republicans are sick about the long sentences they’re doing – twenty, thirty years. That’s their lifetime. The IRA has been having problems recruiting people.’ He said there was no lack of manpower on his side. ‘They’ve been queueing up to join because of the Shankill bomb.’

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