He sits across from me in the quiet pub. He has a soft and friendly face. After only a few minutes chatting I can tell he’s the sort of fella with whom, in normal circumstances, you’d quite happily shoot the breeze as you drink a pint. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I actually l liked him, but the truth is I got on famously with him. We connected with each other. We could have been friends in other circumstances.
But these weren’t normal circumstances.
The man facing me was far from being a normal person. He was actually a leading member of the Real IRA and he was telling me why he was fighting his war. And all the time, when he’s explaining to me why it’s necessary to take the war to the British, why the Sinn Fein leadership can’t call themselves republicans, why they are the real IRA and why he’ll keep on at it as long as is necessary, there’s one thought swirling through my head. As I listen to him I just keep thinking `how can this guy be so, well, normal?’ He should have two heads or something.
It had taken me months to get to meet him.
It was early 2003 and my friend John Mooney and I were working on our book, Black Operations, the secret war against the Real IRA, at the time. We could have taken the relatively easy way out and relied on the police on either side of the border for our information. We, especially John, had gotten a lot out of the good guys, but we both knew we needed more. We knew there was no point writing about the Real IRA unless we spoke to them.
I’d long had a professional interest in them. After the Omagh bomb in August 1998, they rang me to declare firstly their responsibility for the atrocity and then, a few hours later, a ceasefire. I can still hear the tinny voice – caused by a distorter – as the anonymous caller gave me the statement. When I started to ask him questions, the cheeky fucker simply said: “Michael, we picked you because we thought you wouldn’t ask us anything.” Thanks a bunch.
But receiving a phone call from a paramilitary organisation is one thing: getting to meet a representative face to face is another. How could we get them to talk? There was no secret formula; all we could do was work and work and work until someone agreed to meet us. We went at them from the outside. We spoke to one person who came to trust us. He let another person know we were sound. Finally, after months, he told me to expect a call from someone else.
The call eventually came late on a Thursday, I recall.
It was a private number and he told me his name. It actually wasn’t his name, but the name I had been waiting for. “I understand you want to meet.” “Yes.” “Okay, I’ll see you at 10.30am on Saturday. Be outside XXXXX.” “Grand. How will I know who to meet?” “I’ll know you.” The phone then went dead.
I arrived 10 minutes early. I stood waiting outside the pub in Dublin, nervously scanning the street to see if anyone coming towards me looked like a terrorist. Then I noticed movement to my left. Stupidly, I hadn’t checked the pub itself. He came out of it, quietly called my name and beckoned me in.
As I sat opposite him, I quickly sized him up. Jesus, I thought, he looks like a regular head.
What he was saying, however, was miles away from regular. In a quite well known suburban pub, we spoke about the creation of the organisation, why they split from the Provos in late 1997. He told me of Garda Special Branch bursting in on him and getting him to the ground at gunpoint, his arms behind his back. He spoke somewhat unkindly of one cop I knew –although naturally I didn’t let him know I knew the detective: he really didn’t like him.
He was an extremely articulate man. He told me that, for more than a decade, the IRA had not been killing for the Republic. He and others had seen the writing on the wall for that long. They knew the Provos were shaping up for a settlement well short of a United Ireland. What, he asked, was the point in killing for anything less than a 32 county republic?
He really did believe he was a soldier. More, he believed he was a senior commander of the only, real, army in Ireland. I clearly remember him saying that the strategy was changing from bombs (like Omagh) to killing a soldier. “We’re an army fighting an army,” he said. “We should be taking them on. How better to show that we don’t accept them being here than to go after them?”
The years passed and the meeting – and another I had with him – faded in the memory. Once the book was done, I moved on. Sure, the RIRA were largely a spent force. I concentrated on reporting in drugs, paedophilia and husbands killing their wives. I merely cast an occasional glance at them. I thought, stupidly, they were finished as a force.
All that changed on Saturday night.
John Mooney, who has kept up a professional interest in the RIRA, rang me late in the evening to tell me what had happened in Antrim. I was shocked. He wasn’t. Coincidentally, a few hours earlier he had filed a piece for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times warning the dissidents were intent on shooting members of the security forces. And then the memory of my meeting with the senior man came back to me – especially his belief, hope even, that British soldiers should be targeted.
Most people in Ireland will have been horrified by what happened on Saturday night. But some, maybe even him, will probably be celebrating in a pub tonight.