1987 and the day the RUC saved me from the Lancashire hot pot boys…

There was so much violence back then. That year alone saw 98 people lose their lives. Like the violence itself, the people who died came from all perceived sides in the conflict. However, almost half those who died were recorded as ‘civilians’.

I was a 15 year old civilian in the summer of 1987. Despite the violence that raged around me, my life went on as normal- as normal as it could have been. Each evening, now that school was over, I met up with friends and we ‘dandered’ or walked around the district. We tried our best to bump into girls we knew (or even better, girls we didn’t know yet) and sometimes sat on walls or stopping off points to laugh and play music on big ‘ghetto blaster’ radio cassette players. One such stopping off point was at the top of the street where I lived. There was a big bakery there. During the day it buzzed with activity as the bakers made bread, buns and cakes. Delivery vans came and went and the waft of fresh produce filled the air. The bakers worked right through the night in shifts, but evenings were quieter than the days. We often gathered outside the big building, standing or sitting next to its long grey cement wall. This wall would double as a handball court and football net. “Meet you at the bakery” was a common arrangement made in those days.

The bakery wall was adorned with all sorts of graffiti. My memory is that we (my friends and I) were responsible for very little of it. It was the usual mix of names, political slogans and innuendo. But in 1987, new graffiti began to appear. Every now and then a symbol was carefully sprayed onto the wall. Usually a shape in a solid colour, we didn’t at first know what these meant. However, we came to realise that they were drawings from the insignia of the regiment of British soldiers who happened to be stationed at any particular time in the barracks a quarter of a mile down the road at Andersonstown Police Station. They were announcing their arrival I guess. We didn’t give it much thought, mostly.

During early summer 1987 another one of these symbols appeared. It was a solid gold diamond shape. I can still see it so clearly in my mind. Someone had taken time spraying it on the wall. It was big and well filled in. Big enough for us to notice and connect it to the newly arrived soldiers. We saw it on the top of their jacket sleeves as they walked around the district in the following days. They were from the Lancashire Regiment. At some stage, they must have returned with the spray can, because writing appeared underneath the symbol. It read,

“Lancashire hot pot boys”

It had a confidence about it. It was almost jubilant. All was to change for the newly arrived regiment. On 4th June 1987, a 21 year old man (6 years older than I was at the time and just a boy to the man I am now) was shot dead. He was shot in the neck and bled to death on the road side about two miles from my house. His friends tried to save him. They crowded round him and tried to stem his wound. But to no avail He died. His name was Joseph Leach. He was a private in the Lancashire Regiment.

Private Leach was not the only soldier to die that year. He was one of many. Others died too. There were IRA men killed as well. There were shootings by the SAS as well as the UFF, UVF, UDA in that year too. A report was delivered earlier that year about the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, where police and army personnel allegedly killed people when arresting them would have been both possible and legally the right thing to do. It was a bad year in the middle of very bad years.

But the death of Private Leach was close to home for me- literally.

A few days after he died, someone scrawled over the graffiti on the bakery wall. They changed the text under the gold diamond shape. It now read,

“Lancashire hot shot boys. Leach stuck his neck out”

Sick. No matter what political persuasion, laughing at anyone who has been killed is wrong. I didn’t like to see the graffiti. It made me sad and worried me too. It brought the violence of the place I lived in, even closer. And it led to a series of events that have stuck in my mind ever since.

Later in June 1987 four of us friends were standing near the bakery wall talking. Round the corner came a patrol of soldiers. We saw their gold diamond shaped insignia and knew they were from the Lancashire Regiment. They came straight towards us, guns raised and voices booming.

“Up against the wall. Up against the wall”.

They roughly pushed us to the wall and stood us, spread-eagled, against it. They were agitated, worked up and ready for action. We were boys. Not involved in anything untoward. And speaking for myself, I was petrified. There was a nervous energy in their voices that was unfamiliar to me. The nearest I could equate it to was the sound of a football team in the dressing room before a big grudge match. They were the football team. And the grudge seemed to be against me and my friends.

“Search them”

One of the soldiers began to pat us down. He went from one to another. When he came to the boy next to me, he patted him down and then took a hurried step back.

“He’s got a magazine.”

I remember those words like they have just been shouted in my ear. He’s got a magazine. I knew, as did, my friends, that the type of magazine the soldier was referring to was a gun magazine- bullets. My friend shouted,

“No. It’s a tape cassette. It’s a tape”

The soldiers began to shout to and at each other and us. I couldn’t catch what they were saying. If I hadn’t been leaning so heavily against the wall, I’d have fallen over. The world seemed to be spinning. All air left my lungs and I felt like I was choking. I knew in that moment that these soldiers were going to shoot us in revenge for the death of their friend. They were going to use the excuse that they thought the tape cassette my friend had in his inside pocket was actually a gun magazine. They were going to shoot us.

My friend continued to tell them it was a tape cassette. Then there came the strangest thing I think I have ever heard. One of the soldiers shouted,

“Run! It’s the RUC”

It took a minute to take in what was happening. I heard soldiers’ boots as they ran away and turned from the wall to see two RUC men coming round the corner towards us, flanked by another patrol of soldiers. The soldiers had seen the police and decided it was better for them to discontinue their plans- whatever they were.

One of the two RUC men was a police man we had come to know by the nickname ‘Plug’. We called him that because he had big ears and a big nose, much like a cartoon character of the time. The cartoon character was called Plug, and so the cop became known as Plug. He was also a decent man. He had made an impression on us young fellas in the months leading up to that night as a man who would stop and say hello to us. He didn’t seem too interested in hassling us or taking our names (again) like so many of his colleagues who we would not have held in great esteem I have to say.

And that night, as he rounded the corner scaring the soldiers away, he became for one moment our hero. He saw that we were shook up and came over to us. After asking us if we were ok, he told us to go on home. And home we went.

1987 was a messed up year. So much death all around us. Even our conversations about Plug at that time betray the traumatic way we were living. I remember having the debate with my friends about whether or not we would go to his funeral if he was shot dead. Saying that we would was our way of saying that we liked him; that he was a decent man. Sad that we had no other way to think back then. Plug stayed for a while in Andersonstown. Then he moved on. I hope he was ok wherever he went.

I wonder what would have happened if Plug had not come round that corner that night. I haven’t dwelt too much on that over the years. But I have always remembered the name of Joseph Leach and the fact that he died. Not only him, of course. Our streets have run red with the blood of many men and women over the years. Some dying as combatants of all persuasions. Many dying as civilians, in the midst of war. So much death.

1987 is three decades ago. My own children are around the age I was on that night. I can’t imagine them going through such an experience. And I must acknowledge that my experience that night was tame in comparison to so many other people’s experiences during that time. I can’t imagine them dealing with the death of a friend, shot in front of them. Or of a parent taken away and never seen again. Or a brother or sister caught up in a bombing. Thank God that, if they read this story, they will probably find it hard to identify with the times I am writing about.

I pray that continues to be the case for my (and all) children. And I pray that those who have been directly or indirectly caught up in our conflict find the space in their lives to heal. Perhaps sharing our stories of that time could be a way for the healing to begin. I told my parents this story today as I wrote it. They were unaware of the events. I didn’t share them with them at the time. Why not? Well, it was just one more night in the middle of the mayhem. Sharing it today helped us to connect to the horror of the time and to the need for those times never to be repeated.

Jim Deeds is a husband and a father from Belfast. During his 44 years, Jim has worked as a busker; a film maker; a play write; a bar man; a glass washer; a social worker; a therapist; a manager of a children’s home; and an NHS manager. He is currently a pastoral worker for the Diocese of Down and Connor and an author. It is this variety in life experience and his observations that Jim brings to bear in his writing, always looking for the spiritual amongst the ordinary day to day. His book of spiritual reflections and poetry is available at http://shanway.com/product/surfing-lifes-waves/ priced £7