There’s been a wealth of fiction coming from Northern Ireland of late, and much of it focuses on the troubles. We’ve heard the story of terrorists; of victims; and of people whose normal lives have been impacted on in a myriad of ways. But what of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who found themselves dealing with terrorist atrocities?
Nights in Armour – a debut novel from Samuel Thompson explores the lives of a team of RUC officers. It’s the time of the Hunger Strike – and there’s a raft of shootings and car bombs. How will Carson Clarke, Jim Reid and their colleagues deal with their job, when they’re a target for the IRA, yet have to appear to have no allegiances to either side?
This fast paced roller-coaster with its high body count shows the reader how the tension of constant danger can cause nightmares and burnout. Hearing of the team’s domestic lives – and the difficulties of having a relationship gives it more power. There’s an authenticity to the tale, and that’s because the author served in the RUC throughout the time he describes.
“Bobby Sand’s hunger strike was a very emotive time,” says Sam, who took the train to Dublin for this interview. “There was great stress, but because you lived with it every day, you didn’t notice it until you went on holiday and felt this sudden wave of relaxation.”
Why would anyone choose to join the RUC?
“Some officers, like Reid in the book, see it as a higher cause; others, like Clarke, see it as a means of making money. For me, it was probably a mixture of both. Northern Ireland seemed to be falling to pieces around me, and the police seemed to be the only ones doing anything about it.”
He did realise that they weren’t perfect.
“I came close to getting beaten up by the police because a guy I was with shouted something nasty at them. They pulled us over and stuff. But we had accountability. We could have made a complaint through the courts or got some redress. When it comes to paramilitaries, there is none.”
There was also a sense of adventure seeking.
“You’re 17 and there’s a war on your doorstep – there’s a temptation to see what it’s like. University didn’t appeal. Industries were dying, so there’s no normal employment, and the RUC gives you financial security.”
His mother, who suffered with her nerves, was dead against it; this was 1979, the height of the troubles; but for the first while, Samuel was in Armagh city – a town he describes as a backwater, seemingly well out of the way of danger.
“We were trained in taking statements; in dealing with shoplifters and traffic accidents, and you’re sent to a country town where there isn’t a lot of crime going on.
“There’re probably four or five times the number of police you’d have in peace time, and you end up running around doing a lot of road stops, asking young guys for their names and details and searching them. A lot of the time you are chasing shadows.”
The novel opens with just such a roadblock.
It reads, ‘Reid was tired of hanging around deserted roads, waiting for that elusive moment of glory when a terrorist would cruise up and stop with rifles stashed conveniently in the boot. It all seemed as likely as winning the pools.’
When such a car does turn up, a gunfight ensues. Did Sam ever have to use his rifle?
“It came out of its holster a couple of times, but I never had to use it, and I’m happy for that. It’s not a burden I would want to be living with.
“Northern Ireland is not like America, where the police use guns to make arrests. They’re there for self-protection. There are certain places that you would not have dreamt of going to without being armed.”
Sam later served in West and Central Belfast, and in Dungannon, before moving to headquarters. Much of the background to the book comes from his own life; certainly, he remembers the constant tiredness, stress and the nightmares.
“I dreamt of that grisly post-mortem that I write about; and in a recurring dream I’m being confronted with people firing at me, and when I try to fire back my gun won’t work.”
He served with people, like Diane, who, being ghoulish, loved the sight of dead bodies, and felt sorry for officers like Montgomery, who was sent back to the streets from headquarters as an older man.
Other incidents were recounted to him by others, and a few were embellished for the sake of fiction.
“We had training days and you’d chat and exchange stories over lunch and tea breaks. And during shifts you could be in a car with someone for 16 or 18 hours, so you end up talking about everything under the sun. Authors are basically thieves. We steal parts of people’s lives.”
At the close of the novel, the traumatised team are asking themselves why they chose to join the RUC; a job that requires limitless patience and dedication.
“That would be a common gripe,” says Sam. “You hear people say, ‘the police should have done this or the other.’ Yeah, they should, but equally they are humans in a situation where they are working to the point of exhaustion.
“A lot of people made the assumption that you would be biased or bigoted. I could show you pictures of myself at 19 with bigger bags under my eyes than I have now. It came from constantly being provoked; constantly being accused of being x, y or z, and the reality is, some people are going to react badly to that.”
And the real strength of this wonderful, atmospheric debut, is that it demonstrates, clearly, the ambiguity of it all. And that isn’t black and white. Bad people can do good things and good people bad.
The hardest time, for Sam, came after the ceasefire.
“That was when I came the closest to self-diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While it is all going on you have adrenaline to keep you going, but once peace, or what passes for it, arrives, you start to evaluate and think, what was all that about? It was a tough time for a lot of people who had to reassess their lives. It was a total readjustment.”
Always passionate about the written word, Sam wrote a version of the novel in the nineties. It was published, in a small way, by David Trimble, before he became leader of the Ulster Unionist party.
“I was delighted,” says Sam, “because although it may sound grandiose, my greatest hope was that someone in a position of authority would read it and do something about it. The novel obviously made an impression on him.”
Since this latest edition came out with Mercier Press, reaction has been positive.
“Most fiction is set from the IRA standpoint, or some from the army. I think a lot of people are curious, because they haven’t seen events from the perspective of the RUC.”
If Sam was seventeen now, would he join the PSNI – Police Service of Northern Ireland?
“Probably not. There are so many better options now. And if someone asked my advice, I would give them a reality check. I’d say, ‘there’s a strong change you’ll be assaulted; you might be seriously injured; you might have to shoot someone.
“’The hours are bad; a lot of old friends won’t want to associate with you, and you can only socialise in certain places.’ I’d have the conversation, and if they still wanted to do it, fine!”
Nights in Armour by Samuel Thompson. Mercier Press: €15. Kindle: €4.86.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 3rd August 2019
© Sue J Leonard. 2019