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'Nobody had time to sit and ask: Why are these killings taking place? Why are they cutting people up?'

Journalist and author Martin Dillon – who wrote a number of definitive books on the Troubles – talks to us about his autobiography.

crossing the line cover HIGH (1)

JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR Martin Dillon has had a fascinating career. He’s interviewed paramilitary members, been invited to Downing Street, and reported on the Troubles as a fledgling journalist.

He’s known for writing about others in his books on topics like the Shankill Butchers to Michael Stone, but now he’s turned the spotlight on himself.

In his new autobiography Crossing The Line, Belfast-born Dillon details a life that’s involved many incredible moments: witnessing the horrors of the Troubles; encounters with major political figures and paramilitaries; rubbing shoulders with Irish literary greats; a successful broadcasting career, but one where he butted heads with BBC management; and having to leave Northern Ireland because of death threats.

In person, Dillon is affable, with a wry sense of humour. It’s not a surprise that he was able to achieve what many couldn’t: being able to gain the respect – or at least be tolerated by – paramilitaries on both sides of the Northern Irish conflict.

But he was also a man who has ruffled feathers. He hasn’t shied away from writing about sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland that others have wanted covered up.

Penning his own autobiography was difficult, he tells TheJournal.ie, though he’s written many books about the conflict, including The Dirty War, The Troubles, and The Shankill Butchers.

unnamed (22) Martin Dillon

The book is readable and pacy, detailing Dillon’s life growing up in Belfast under the shadow of church spires in the Lower Falls area. He has a fascinating family, which includes the artist Gerard Dillon (Martin Dillon goes into some detail about what happened with his uncle’s estate, which won’t please some). But at a few points in the book it’s mentioned that Dillon and his family (he and his twin are the eldest of 10 siblings) don’t all get on.

That’s the risk when you write about your life – you have to tackle the difficult times. “I had to just be honest about it,” says Dillon when asked about the rift. “I try to be as kind as possible. I thought: If I’m going to be reasonably kind to myself, I better be reasonably kind to them.”

He grew up in a Catholic household, surrounded by “a lot of very strong women”, including his mother, his grandmother Clarke, and his mother’s elderly aunts, Sarah and Bridget. These women were all very devout, so Dillon says it was “inevitable” that he would enter the seminary at just 12 years of age.

The book details, too, how Dillon and three friends were abused as children, by a man who would take them for lifts in his car.

As a child growing up in the Lower Falls area, the seminary – Montfort College in Hampshire, England – “resembled a wonderland”, Dillon writes. “When you get a brochure like that and you’re living in working-class west Belfast – drab streets, 19th century streets – and you get this brochure with these cricket, football pitches and the boys in uniforms, it looks really very enticing to someone who is 11 years old,” he says.

But it was a traumatic experience. “Because I’d never been away from home, and I was going to England where all the kids were making fun of my accent and making fun of Ireland,” says Dillon. “So it wasn’t easy. But in many ways it was also defining because it took me out of Belfast. You definitely see another world, different people, people with different accents, different attitudes, different codes of behaviour.”

Northern Ireland - The Troubles - Cupar Street - Belfast British troops check a car in Cupar Street in the Falls Road area of Belfast during the Troubles. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

It took a significant period of readjustment when he returned after just a few years at Montfort. His Catholic faith, he says has “withered on the vine” over time, “because of so many other things that were happening in the church”.

Dillon is interested in and intrigued by people’s devotion to religion. In Northern Ireland, he says “the churches sort of walked away from [the violence] – I think they were frightened”.

“My cousin who was a priest … he worked in west Belfast and north Belfast and he was critical of the paramilitaries and he received threats, and he had a very, very stressful time. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

‘Why are these killings taking place?’

Northern Ireland - The Troubles - Argyle Street - Belfast An Army bulldozer clearing debris in Argyle Street, Belfast, 1969. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

It was in the early 1970s that Dillon came of age as a journalist. He noticed that most reporters were focusing on the day-to-day violence of the Troubles, but he wanted to look beyond that.

“There was so much happening that nobody had time to sit and say ‘why are all these killings taking place? Why are people being so sadistic? Why are they cutting people up? Why are they taking them in and burning them with hot pokers? What is this? What is it in our society that is generating this?’” he says.

He describes a “bitterness bubbling under the surface” in the north. “It was there for a long time and no one had really confronted it and everything really came into place to make it happen,” he says. A civil rights march in Derry that 1968 kicked off what is considered to be the official start of the Troubles.

Dillon witnessed the aftermath of some horrific killings during his time as a young reporter for the Irish News in Belfast.

He was particularly haunted by the story of Shankill Butchers victim Stephen McCann, a Catholic who was 21 when he had his throat slit while walking home with his girlfriend.

“I used to have this nightmare and the nightmare was that I’m running after the two of them trying to shout, but no words would come out of my mouth. And I’m trying to shout at them to tell them ‘listen, these guys are waiting up there’,” says Dillon. “But each time I get close to them, they seem to [get] further away from me. Until eventually I scream and I wake up and scream.”

It goes without saying that the psychological impact of being so close to violence and depravity must have a huge impact on a person. “I used to find if I talked about the Shankill Butchers, a week later I would end up having nightmares again,” says Dillon. “It’s like it’s a trigger.”

He asked his friend, RUC detective Jimmy Nesbitt, about this before he died. “I said to Jimmy: Do you have this thing? He said ‘yeah, yeah I know what you mean’.” Nesbitt himself lived with the constant fear of being murdered.

Dillon says that the whole society in Northern Ireland “was at one stage totally dysfunctional” during the Troubles, with people “living on the edge all the time – there were bombs going off, bomb scares, people being shot, dreadful headlines”.

Everybody knew somebody who was killed or hurt by it all. So therefore the society was always veering off the cliff. That was a fact of life.

Northern Ireland - The Troubles - British Soldiers - Belfast - 1969 British troops in 1969. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

While he says that the US approach of sending counsellors in after school shootings is often a way of “throwing money at [the situation]“, he recognises how necessary it can be. “It provides a sounding board for kids to understand what’s going on, to talk. Nobody ever did that in Northern Ireland,” he says.

“Can you imagine the stress on the families of the members of the security forces, who were going out every day, with a chance they wouldn’t come home. My mother worried about my father and my sisters, my brother, all families lived with a sense of fear. So there was level of stress which was never addressed and nobody’s ever really examined it.”

‘There’s still an undercurrent of mistrust’

Dillon has met many a politician over the years. “I joked with someone that I’ve been thanked by two British Prime Ministers and tossed out of a house by a third,” he laughs. That third was Edward Heath, who Dillon describes as “a pompous asshole”.

Though Northern Ireland’s Troubles period came to a close with the peace process, anyone following the news will know that power-sharing has been a massive issue for the country this past year.

“It’s difficult to get past everything – there’s still this undercurrent of mistrust, part of the problem is you go through a long period of violence like that, and bitterness, and people expect it to change overnight,” says Dillon.

He describes power-sharing as “the only way”. Asked about the difficulties with power-sharing, Dillon says he “didn’t think it was ever going to look any different”.

“I always thought it was going to be hard work, and it’s going to continue to be hard work,” he says. “I don’t think I ever expected that suddenly overnight everything would change, it would be a glorious new dawn – there is no glorious new dawn, the only thing is I think people are a lot more realistic.”

He says the only way to have a better future “is to start getting rid of a lot of the elements of the past”, and schooling plays a role in this.

I think also the people of Northern Ireland are a lot more open about the past and a lot more willing to discuss it and I think that’s important… everybody is going to have a voice, and people are going to have to accept that everybody has to have a voice. But it’s got to be an honest voice.

Dillon is dismissive of arguments over things like flags, and also has strong words for institutions like the Orange Order, who he says “really should just take a good look at the world – we’re not living in the past, we’ve got to move forward”.

When it comes to the “decades of separation”, Dillon says that children have to be brought together earlier than their school days. ”So they realise that what they share is more important than what is different about their past about their history of their parents,” he says.

“You have to remind people about the past – the past is important, the past helps you understand the mistakes that were made,” says Dillon.

Northern Ireland - The Troubles - Falls Road - Belfast A soldier at a barbed wire barrier amid devastation in Falls Road, Belfast. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

There is some dark humour in the book – like the episode where Dillon was meeting an IRA member and received a message on his pager that read: “Your chicken wings are cold in the Arcana.”

The IRA feared it was code – Dillon was actually the butt of a joke from a BBC researcher.

“But I know some loyalists who if that would have happened with, someone might have taken out a gun and shot me,” says Dillon. He met some “particularly frightening” people, and other scary and quixotic personalities.

He was subject to death threats, too. And it was this that led to him leaving Northern Ireland.

“Eventually it all gathered momentum, I just really had enough of it. Looking under your car and wondering; having a shotgun by your bed. And I chose a shotgun because I reckoned, well, I would clear the staircase with it if they came at night,” he recalls. “When you start to think like that you have to think, well, what sort of world am I living in. And then I was disillusioned with the BBC anyway.”

And so Dillon left Northern Ireland. He’s now settled with his third wife in California, living a life very different to his days in his home country. But he’s never lost the connection with his home.

He believes that there will be more positive change ahead for the North.

“Maybe it will be a generational thing, maybe it will take another generation or more before people say ‘OK, we know where everybody’s been, and that’s not where we want to go. What we want to do is we want to revitalise society, change it, turn it upside down into something much more interesting, much more amenable to everyone’. I don’t know, it’s hard, it’s a hard one.”

Crossing The Line, published by Merrion Press, is out now.

Read: ‘Behind the masks’: New digital archive documents Northern Ireland’s history>

Read: This stretch of border shows why Brexit will be an enormous headache to manage – we went to talk to locals>

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