I was born in Belfast in 1980 and grew up in Rathcoole and Carnmoney, two working class unionist communities on the outskirts of North Belfast. My family and friends were on the front line of the conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards. Some of them served in the security forces, others became involved in political activism, while the vast majority tried to carve out the semblance of a normal life amidst the chaos. All of them bore witness to the nasty little conflict on our doorstep.
There were few of us who were untouched by the murder and mayhem on the streets. Like so many people who knew the Troubles up close and personal, I still find it difficult to talk openly about my own experiences. I was lucky enough, as one loyalist paramilitary told me a few years ago, to have eventually left the place. I left largely because of a lack of job opportunities at home, though I have remained engaged in one way or another with Northern Ireland ever since. Most people who know me well, know that my accent has never softened, even though I have lived in the South East of England since 2008. Indeed, one might even go as far as to say that it should have done because of where I work. My accent and my work as a writer and academic working with the military remind me of where I came from to get to where I am now.
One way that I have tried to come to terms with my experiences of being born into, growing up and living in the abnormal society of Northern Ireland is to study what has happened there in the past, a past that is all too alive for many.
I have been researching and writing about Northern Ireland for 20 years, ever since I completed my BA (Hons.) thesis on the Progressive Unionist Party, under the supervision of the late, great philosopher of history Dr M.C. Lemon at Ulster University 20 years ago. My MA thesis, supervised by Professor Lord Bew at Queen’s University Belfast, explored the nature of the old Unionist regime, which held onto power from 1921 until 1972, and the challenges posed by its grassroots supporters as they drifted towards the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). The NILP, a pro-partitionist left-leaning party, was at one time a major political and electoral force in Ulster politics and formed the focus of my PhD thesis, supervised by Professor Graham Walker at Queen’s in 2006. My thesis explored the NILP’s political fortunes in the period 1945-72 – attempting to explain why Protestants and Catholics collaborated to breathe life into this cross-sectarian party and, ultimately why it failed as an electoral project. Much of my thesis was subsequently published by Manchester University Press as A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism in 2009.
Alongside my PhD, I undertook research into Ulster Loyalism by interviewing key members of the UVF and PUP. Quite a number of these loyalists were connected to me through community ties and so I knew them and their ideas intimately. I had always been interested in the security dimension of the Troubles, which played like a noisy soundtrack to my research and writing. I sometimes found myself walking through the smouldering debris of a night of violence or dodging bricks through windows as I travelled to work on a bus through an interface area. I suppose I’ve often tried to understand why people resort to throwing stones at one another. My starting point for all of my research has been the empirical reality of armed conflict. That it exists and cannot be simply wished away or ignored. It is as real as the air we breathe.
It was in the early 2000s that I also became involved in hands-on peace-building efforts aimed at persuading the UVF and Red Hand Commando to disarm and fully embrace the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Working alongside the former UVF Director of Operations, Billy Mitchell, and a hand-picked group of critical friends, we established the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum. In the absence of a state-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) strategy, those of us who cared deeply about our communities wanted to do whatever we could to quieten tensions. In 2007 the UVF announced it was ending its armed campaign and two years later the group disarmed.
I published the culmination of 16 years of in-depth research on the UVF in 2017. UVF: Behind the Mask asks hard questions about the motivations of those who joined and killed on behalf of this loyalist paramilitary organisation. It brought in some concepts from my academic study of terrorism and political violence in other parts of the world. Although a tough read for many of those who were involved first-hand in the group’s activities, I recall one former UVF life sentence prisoner, a convicted bomber, tell me a few moments prior to the book’s launch in June 2017 that he could now understand the actions of the young man who took the lives of 22 innocent people, including many children, in the Manchester Arena bombing a few weeks earlier. The observation shocked me but reminded me how I have always sought to examine how and why people become involved in violent acts.
One of the aspects of my research into the UVF that I wanted to explore further was the use of what are now termed Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS). It was my close working relationship with several loyalists – one or two of whom were subsequently unmasked as agents of the state – that intrigued me. To the naked eye of the ‘dogs on the street’, they were members of the UVF. Yet beneath the surface they were pursuing largely hidden agendas.
I recall the angst caused by the unmasking of UVF commander Gary Haggarty in 2007. He was the senior loyalist I had worked closely with on the DDR programme in North Belfast and East Antrim. It came as a shock to me, especially since I had grown up with his wife in Rathcoole. It was said that not even she knew of her husband’s betrayal. The very fact that he was prepared to betray his family, friends and fellow UVF members drove me to want to understand his motives and, more importantly, the motives of others who had become agents.
It was in the years after the publication of UVF: Behind the Mask that I switched my focus to those within the republican community who had betrayed their own. That research has culminated in Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA, the product of over a decade of research into the use of human intelligence in Counter-Terrorism.
In all of this research I have been driven to uncover the truth – as far as it is possible – about the complexity of the human element of war and armed conflict.