ON the night of October 5, 1974, when he was supposed to be detonating the pub bombs that killed five young people and inflicted horrific injuries on almost 70 in Guildford, 30 miles south west of London, Paddy Armstrong was mildly stoned and babysitting his English girlfriend’s dog in a squat in the West End.
In Belfast he had been “a politically disengaged teenager”, good looking, a sharp dresser, liked a bet, a bit of a smoke, a drink and was molly-coddled by a household of women.
He would never have been the puritanical hard-man material the IRA wanted.
He works for Protestants and gets on with them; half his father’s family are Protestant, he has met Van Morrison who is not yet famous.
When the threats come from Protestant workmates or IRA robbers, he simply changes jobs — three or four times.
But in 1971 West Belfast has changed into “an angry, bitter and paranoid place”. Paddy is bored with it all. Work is getting scarce.
He does not want to be in the Provos, the only outlet for unemployed young Catholics — and that means the move by the 19-year-old to London, which he loves.
But London changes too for Paddy. He is wrongfully arrested for stealing a TV and spends two months in Brixton Prison. His English landlord gives him an alibi that eventually sees to his release.
It is 1973. He is 23 and he has shed the smart clothes for that of a hippy; regularly stoned, he dreams of going grape-picking in France with his English girlfriend Carole.
He is odd-jobbing, partying for days, and is coming down from a three-day session when the police arrest him for the Guildford bombing and force a confession.
Neither he nor Carole would ever be the same. She, too, would end up in a prison for 15 years, despite having alibis.
Some of the Kafkaesque nightmare the dreamy, drug-taking Armstrong is plunged into is difficult to read.
It is full of stomach-churning detail, the kind that can only be experienced.
And while the treatment by the police and the prison officers was brutish and did, indeed, almost brutalise him, Paddy’s love of music — Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison — as well as the flutter on horses, and an odd bit of hash, sustained him through the 15 years for a conviction the authorities knew to be false from early on.
When the book opens, there is little overt difference between the communities and it is classic Belfast.
“The landscape of my early childhood isn’t burnt-out buildings. It’s chippies and bookies, pubs, and pet shops, drapery shops, and tiny corner shops.
Catholics and Protestants work together in the mills, all getting along, all making a few bob, all glad when the bell rings and the work day ends and they stream out together, heading home.”
Paddy’s early life is “marked by women”. He’s his mammy’s only boy, with sisters older and younger doting on him. The house is full of people.
His Omagh grandmother in whose house they are living on the Falls is a tyrant and refuses to call him anything but “Paaaatrick” and often early in the morning. His dad is a quiet but loving man.
“In 1968 life changes, almost overnight… And now its Catholic against Protestant.” But in the Prelapsarian golden childhood in the crowded Falls Rd, there are elements of the dirge.
The Seamus Heaney poem ‘Mid-Term Break’ comes to mind when six-year-old Paddy has his first experience of death after his two-year-old baby sister Gertie gets knocked down and killed by a bus.
A number of deaths follow — his grandmother and then his father, who is only 51. What’s left of the family moves to the notorious Divis Flats, the target of Protestant B Special, British Army and police attack.
More significantly, politics is always lurking, snake-like in the grass of this early Eden, ready to swallow up life.
The Protestants get the best houses and the best jobs and there is always “gerryman
dering” or vote rigging. Queen’s University is open to Catholics, but isn’t really. Being Catholic and a second class citizen is just part of life.
This is true even for mild-mannered Paddy and as my late mother, no narrow nationalist, liked to say, “scratch me deep enough and the green will come out”.
On his third job, in a Protestant-owned clothing factory as a part-time model, he refuses to don a Union Jack suit for his employer — even as a joke — but he would wear a green, white, and gold one, he tells his boss.
“Mild as I am, there are times when I have to put my foot down. There’s no way I would ever wear a Union Jack suit.”
In the Old Bailey, Paddy envies the political conviction of Paul Hill even if Hill’s irreverent and “sarcastic” attitude at the trial was unhelpful, but he, Paddy, can never be like that — there is a sense Paddy can’t be bound by abstraction or carried away with too many ideals.
He could certainly never carry a gun for them.
Paddy turns 25 in the middle of his trial — he will be almost 40 when he is released, on October 4, 1989, a total surprise to him. He has no clothes except the 1970s flares he arrived in prison in.
While Gerry Conlon is making an eloquent speech to the press out front, Paddy leaves by the backdoor, not because he wants to avoid the limelight, or has nothing to say, but because Carole wants to leave that way and he would like another chance with her.
For Paddy, the individual personal relationship always holds the upper hand.
The institutions do not come out well in this book, nor does the British press.
An IRA activist gives testimony they planted the Guildford bombs but nothing changes and only The Guardian and a local newspaper report the matter.
The Irish Government does nothing either and Armstrong draws irony from Maggie Thatcher applauding the release of Nelson Mandela while he remains in jail for the crime of “being Irish, being Catholic with a Belfast accent”.
Tony Blair’s apology, finally, is churlish and does not mention them by name.
Ironically, it is decent educated English who help, particularly his solicitor Alastair Logan, who works tirelessly and for nothing to get him released and holds his hand long after.
Paddy survives and thrives. After a reckless, wild few years, he meets Caroline, a teacher from Co Laois, who shares his love of music. They have two children and he is a house husband. He makes friends easily and holds them.
Ultimately Life after Life is a redemption song — not that Paddy had anything much to be redeemed from, apart from being Catholic and from Belfast.
But I am left with the feeling that the book, like anything to do with the North, throws up as many questions as it answers, for the British Government as much as for the so-called freedom fighters.
By the time I had finished it — in a few nights, because it is unputdownable — Martin McGuinness, hard man of the IRA, had died. His political conversion redeemed his actions, in the eyes of many.
While Armstrong is not bitter towards the IRA and there is a paragraph which says he understands why some may have been driven to violence, reading between the lines, he is no lover of them either, or the way society was wedged apart for so long.
His friendships are only ever with individual IRA men — not with the movement.
And then there is the refusal of the British to release documents from the inquiry into the false imprisonment of the Guildford Four and other miscarriages of Justice, “embargoed for 30 years… in the hope, no doubt that we would all be dead by then,” Paddy says.