I was maybe 10 or 11 and David Ervine was on the news. I have no idea what he was talking about, I wasn’t paying attention until my uncle said, “He seems like a decent sort, that fella, you know.” The other adults in the room nodded in agreement.
I stopped what I was doing to make sure I’d heard right. David Ervine was a Unionist politician and former member of the UVF. He would later say that if as a young man he had the opportunity to kill Catholics, he would have done so without reservation.
This was the first time I’d ever heard the adults around me speak positively about a Unionist politician. And I think it did something to my brain. The rules were maybe not as hard and fast as they had first seemed.
The first time I’d thought of the politicians in Northern Ireland as actual people was when we drove past a sign with the face of a Nationalist politician on it and someone sarcastically noted, “There’s Joan’s friend.” I queried why my great aunt Joan didn’t like this man – it had been my understanding up until that point that we liked anybody with a green poster – and my mother told me Joan had it in for him ever since some disagreement over something at the shop years previously.
So I understood we could dislike people on the green side. But that we could like someone on the orange side, such as David Ervine, was news to me entirely. And it seems Ervine really was a decent sort.
In her book, Bear In Mind These Dead, Susan McKay recounts some of Jude Whyte’s encounters with Ervine. Whyte, whose mother was killed by the UVF, taught courses on community relations and conflict resolution, and he invited Ervine to come and speak to students. McKay writes, “In one of the early classes, a woman asked Ervine to explain why the UVF murdered her husband in cold blood. ‘He responded like no politician I have ever heard before,’ Jude wrote. ‘He said sorry, nothing more, nothing less. They were terrible times, he said… There were no buts, ifs, maybes or any other mitigation. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.'” Ervine later took Whyte aside unprompted and apologised for the death of his mother.
The older I got the more questions I asked as I tried to make sense of the reality of the world around me beyond the crude boundaries of kerbstones that were painted either green, white and orange, or red, white and blue. One day, when I was 14 or 15 there was talk of days gone by and some of the local young men who’d been ‘involved’ during the Troubles. My brother asked one of the adults, “Do you think any of those boys ever killed anybody?” The response was swift and almost scoffing, “Naw!”
“If you think about though,” I pressed, “some of them must have.” The adult looked off into the middle distance, “Well… I dunno.”
For my parents’ and grandparents’ generation questions were a dangerous thing. Having information was a dangerous thing. And mostly people were just trying to get through everything that was going on.
When my mother was a schoolgirl she occasionally had to sleep on the floor because there was crossfire on the street outside. The next morning her parents sent her on to school as normal. Riots used to break out on the doorstep of my grandfather’s shop. In the summer of 1974 my aunt Mary P wrote in a letter to my mother that there had been “some bother” near the shop the day before. The specifics of the trouble were not outlined, rather the story was about the difficulty in getting to and from the shop with change for the till. My uncle Brian had tried to make the 5-minute drive from the house to the shop but had to turn back when a car in front of him was hijacked. Granda later made the trip himself, bringing the much needed change most likely to my great aunt Joan who would have been manning the shop in the midst of everything.
The generations above were just trying to get through it. I am living in a different time and place. I have the privilege of being able to ask questions.
Both my grannies and my great aunt Joan were from across the border in Donegal. I grew up in a house on the back roads a 2-minute drive from the border. When peace came it brought with it the removal of the massive concrete blocks that obstructed those country roads and we were once again – but for the first time in my lifetime – free to roam across the landscape without being impeded on account of some arbitrary line drawn on a map in 1921.
I’ve spent the 20 years that have followed continuing to ask questions and redrawing the lines of a complicated reality. I grew up believing there was green and orange but it turns out we’re all just shades of grey.