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Northern Ireland news

Troubles author Martin Dillon still haunted by past

Author Martin Dillon
Connla Young

BEST-selling author Martin Dillon has told how he and others who experienced the darkest days of the Troubles are still haunted by what they saw.

The Belfast native was speaking ahead of the launch of his memoir, Martin Dillon: Crossing the Line - My Life on the Edge, which hit the shelves this week.

The journalist has written several landmark books about the Troubles, including The Dirty War and The Shankill Butchers.

His research into aspects of the northern conflict is considered by some to be unrivalled and has often focused on senior paramilitary figures and the shadowy world of British intelligence.

His latest book reveals previously unknown details about his life and offers a unique insight into the pressures faced by journalists who were on the front line during the Troubles.

After growing up in west Belfast and attending the same school as Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, Dillon was sent to an English seminary aged just 12.

But realising that the way of the cloth was not for him, he returned home and eventually found his way into the media.

Pitched into the emerging conflict as an Irish News journalist, he eventually moved to other outlets before ending up at the BBC.

The book reveals that despite his success, he often encountered a bumpy ride with the corporation - whose executives, he claims, held a drinks party in Broadcasting House in the 1970s to celebrate July 12 as loyalist bands marched past the Belfast building.

One of his best known books - The Dirty War - later lifted the lid on the undercover tactics used by all sides during the Troubles.

He said with the passage of time he feels he could have done more to shine a light on the often unseen conflict that raged in the north.

“One of the things I probably regret in some ways was that I didn't follow through with a Dirty War 2 - in many ways I kind of wore myself thin in writing a lot of the books.

“I look back now and say to myself was it really worth it, all the grief I went through?

“Even now I have just finished this book, there are always people going to come out of the woodwork and attack you in one form or another.”

On balance he believes the effort was justified.

“I suppose really to be honest, yes, it was in a sense, that a lot of people over the years told me it was,” he said.

“A lot of people got back to me and asked me for help.

“I tried to help people as much as I could. It's a very emotional job to do because you can't guarantee anything and very often you are going to come up with answers people don't like or are unwilling to believe.

“It's one of those things and a kind of reminder of how sad some of it is.”

Never far from the action, the veteran journalist was often exposed to some traumatic sights as the death toll continued to rise.

He revealed that he discussed the impact with his old friend, RUC detective Jimmy Nesbitt, who led the hunt for the Shankill Butchers.

“We would have talked occasionally about having nightmares and the kind of stresses we were kind of under and never discussed with anyone,” he said.

“Jimmy had faced a lot, he had observed a lot.

“You don't walk into alleyways in the early hours of the morning and look at tortured bodies or look at some kid or elderly person who has got a bullet in the head or has been knifed to death... Those sorts of things stay with you.

“Images that come back and haunt you and they haunt you in your sleep because you can't control it.

“You can control it in your life when you are living because there are so many other things that impact you, and in many ways command the fullest of your attentions and responsibilities.

“And when you are sleeping a lot of this stuff just comes back, just flows back in and can be very hard to deal with some times.”

Meanwhile, Dillon has claimed that friends of British soldier Robert Nairac met with members of the IRA's ‘Army Council' in a bid to locate his body.

The SAS man was kidnapped from a bar in south Armagh in May 1977 and is believed to have been shot dead by republicans a short time later just across the border in Co Louth.

“I know a meeting was set up, I am nearly sure with some army council people,” he said.

“Nothing really came of the meeting.”

In the years after Capt Nairac was killed it was rumoured that his remains had been fed through a mincing machine.

The author believes the body was not destroyed and that republicans know where it was buried.

He said that his belief is based on remarks made to him by former Belfast IRA man Brendan Hughes.

“I always thought they buried him and I think Brendan Hughes was right when he said to me ‘the real men came in and got rid of the body',” he said.

“And I think he is probably buried.”

Dillon described the soldier as a “hero” and believes his memory has been treated badly by the British establishment.

“I think they didn't embrace him because they reckoned that by doing so they would shine too bright a light on the undercover war,” he said.

“He was a part of it but it was much bigger than that.

“I mean he is one of the victims of the Troubles and he would have been considered a hero by his country in any other western nation.

“He is one of the disappeared and he deserves as much respect as anyone else.

“And his family is owed the respect that the other relatives are treated (with).”

Martin Dillon: Crossing the Line - My Life on the Edge is published by Merrion Press.

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