To outside eyes, Brendan Hughes and David Ervine seem like two men cut from the same cloth. Both were born and brought up in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. Both of them grew up in staunchly working class families. They were similar ages, Hughes was born in 1948, Ervine five years later in 1953. Both held strong socialist views. For those with no background information, it would be hard to imagine any great division between the two men.
Yet there was one key difference between the two men. A distinction that meant little elsewhere in Britain but everything in 1960s Northern Ireland (and arguably today). One that defined your entire identity from where you lived to your employment. A difference that would lead both men to take up arms for ruthless paramilitary groups responsible for hundreds of deaths on the streets of Belfast and beyond to London and Dublin.
That difference was that Brendan Hughes was a catholic. David Ervine was a protestant.
Whether the conflict in Northern Ireland is really defined by religion or nationality is contentious. The fact is though that most Catholics identify themselves as Republicans, in favour of a united Ireland. Meanwhile, most Protestants see themselves as British and are determined to remain part of the union.
It was this clash of identities that came to shape the paths of the two young men in Ed Moloney’s book Voices From The Grave. The book takes the testimony of two men who played key roles on different sides of the conflict. The interviews were given on the condition that it was not released until both had dies. Hughes died in 2008, Ervine in 2007.
Hughes grew up in a majority Protestant area. He recalls most of his friends were Protestants. And yet he also remembers unmasked bigotry, both institutional and personal. He remembers job advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph frequently appearing with the line “Catholics need not apply.” An old woman on his own street used to spit at him as he walked by.
“I remember one time having to fight this person three times in one day – he was the local Protestant hard man and his mother could just not accept the fact he had been beaten by a Taig* and kept sending him back
*a derogatory name for Catholics
On the other side of the city, David Ervine, did not grow up in the hard-line loyalist household that might be expected. His father was a well read man who had no time for bigotry. When Ian Paisley, a firebrand Protestant preacher well known for his rabble rousing speeches and anti-Catholicism visited the Ervine house he was told to “fuck off.”
Despite his father’s liberalism, Ervine was not immune to the Belfast Protestant community’s unease with their Catholic neighbours.
“When the disturbances in Derry moved to Belfast, my reaction was very simple: ‘you’re either one of them or one of us’ and I was one of us…It was our community being attacked…it became something other than civil rights, it became a conflagration between our two communities.”
In August 1969 the tension boiled over. Protestant mobs burned down entire Catholic streets. The British Army was deployed to keep the peace. The Provisional IRA, the infamous “Provos” were formed. The Troubles had begun.
Hughes became a member of the IRA shortly after the riots. He quickly became one of the Belfast Brigade’s leading members.
“Most of us at that time didn’t have a great deal of political ideology…We were motivated by the fact that Catholic homes and streets had been burned down.”
The two men’s paths would cross over in those bloody early years on Friday, 21 July, 1972. On that day, later christened “Bloody Friday,” the Provos detonated between 19 and 21 bombs in central Belfast. Nine died, over a hundred were wounded.
Hughes played a key role in organising the bombing.
“I was the operational commander of the ‘Bloody Friday’ operation. I remember when the bombs started to go off…I thought, ‘there’s too much here…It was a major, major operation but we never intended to kill people”
The same day, his 19th birthday, as he watched smoke rise across the city, David Ervine decided to join the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist armed group. The UVF would be responsible for some of the most horrific, most senseless violence of the troubles.
“I wanted to hit back, I wanted to hit back with an absolute ruthlessness and I perceived the UVF was the vehicle I was most likely to do that with.”
Moloney’s book gives a detailed and personal account of both men’s experience of the conflict. It is a fascinating, if disturbing insight. Suddenly the masked killers, the anonymous bombers, the men who waged war on British soil for three decades are given a voice.
It is a strange thing. Both Hughes and Ervine seem like reasonable, affable men. The sort of people you imagine you might meet in any pub in Belfast. Yet they were heavily involved in bombings, shootings, as part of organisations that killed hundreds, many innocent civilians.
Hughes was a senior IRA figure during the bloodiest years of the Troubles in the early 70s, rising to Officer Commanding of the Belfast Brigade. Along with Bloody Friday he organised and participated in many other bomb attacks, both in NI and the UK, assassinations and bank robberies. Hughes remained a senior member of the IRA up until he quit in protest in 1994 over the direction of the Republican movement.
Ervine meanwhile comes across as a friendly, intelligent man. Yet he went to prison in 1974 after he was caught in a stolen car filled with explosives. During his time as a member, the UVF specialised in killing random catholic civilians. Often it planted “no warning” bombs in Catholic bars to maximise the loss of life. The ‘Shankill Butchers,’ a group that specialised in abducting people off the street and killing them with knives, were all UVF members.
This contradiction is perhaps the most troubling part of the book. How ordinary young men from normal, working class communities in a first world country could sign up to paramilitary groups such as the IRA and the UVF.
Hughes eventually broke with the IRA. He became increasingly embittered at the course of modern Republicanism. He clearly harboured a great deal of resentment towards Sinn Fein’s (NI’s leading Republican party) current president Gerry Adams. Hughes claimed that Adams betrayed the movement and used it for political power.
“What the IRA and Sinn Feinn have done is just become another middle class party and dropped all the important things we fought and died for, which was mainly the enhancement and the betterment of the working class people in Ireland.”
Adams has always maintained that he was never a member of the IRA. Hughes alleged this was untrue and saw Adams’s attempt to distance himself from his role in The Troubles as disrespectful. Adams denies the claims made in the book.
Ervine on the other hand moved into politics. He became a prominent member of the PUP, the UVF’s political wing. He was a keen advocate of the peace process and has been credited with helping to bring the loyalist gunmen to the negotiating table. Below is a clip of Ervine describing his horror at a UVF attack on a bar in Loughinisland that killed six civilians:
The UVF declared a ceasefire in 1994. Ervine was involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement which formally brought The Troubles to an end. He came to achieve a degree of respect amongst his nationalist enemies. Gerry Adams, once one of the UVF’s most hated targets, attended Ervine’s funeral.
Voices From The Grave is an amazing account of a dark chapter in Britain and Ireland’s recent history. Northern Ireland is trying to move on from the past but perhaps this book is important in helping people understand what drives people to take up violence and how it can be prevented in the future.
I would highly recommend that anyone interested in The Troubles read this book.
A documentary accompanying the book can be seen below: