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Today they are nailing this terrorist

Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell is the latest writer to contribute to the Irish Times / Amnesty International series marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

His hard-hitting piece of original fiction was published on Saturday and I'm reproducing it below in case the online version goes offline in a few days.

Mitchell knows plenty about paramilitarism, having grown up in hardline loyalist estate Rathcoole on the outskirts of north Belfast. He has written eloquently about this strain of domestic terrorism and divided loyalties in a number of works. Indeed, his writing has been so powerful that he and his family were forced out of their home in Rathcoole after threats from local paramilitaries.

In this latest piece (inspired by article 14 of the UDHR, the right to seek asylum) he reflects on terrorism, domestic and international, the death penalty, torture and the right to refuge.

Four of the other writers from the series, Carlo Gébler, Glenn Patterson, Éilis Ní Dhuibhne and Kevin Barry wil be reading their work and debating the role of the writer in explaining, examining and ultimately protecting human rights at an Amnesty event during the Belfast Festival at Queen's: Human Rights: Poetic Redress.  The event will be chaired by writer and broadcaster Fionola Meredith. It should be great. Tickets available from the Belfast Festival box office.

 Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here's Gary's piece (please excuse the added asterisks in a couple of places as the blog software won't let some words past its censorious filter):


'YOU CAN'T NAIL a man to a wire fence."

"No talking, no questions just bring the hammer and nails." I didn't know why Blooter was angry with me, I was just trying to help. He didn't let the door close behind him so I knew he wanted to leave immediately.

"I've been thinking about it all day," I stalled. "Even if you hammer the nail through his palm and tap it until it's bent around the wire, you would still have to hammer it back into his hand through the fence again because nails need something to hold them." I didn't get to offer my idea about the piece of wood because Blooter interrupted me.

"Didn't I say shut the f*ck up?"

"No. You said no talking."

"Well, do it then."

I didn't speak on the way out of the house. I just lifted the hammer and pushed some nails into my pocket. I paused to try to think of a better way of carrying nails but Blooter was glaring at me and I could smell the alcohol. Blooter's a nasty drunk.

I didn't speak on the way to the car, or in the car, or when we arrived at the alleyway. I just breathed in the fumes and wondered if anybody had ever got drunk just by sitting next to someone who had drink on their breath.

That was probably the longest I had been silent since the day I left school a couple of years ago. When I left that day I was afraid to speak in case I woke myself up and discovered I was still in primary school and had to do it all over again but of course things like that can't really happen.

I was holding the hammer, still speechless, when they dragged the "guilty" man out through the back doors of the van. Clumsily, one of the men lost his grip and allowed the guilty man's left shoulder to hit the ground. It was even clumsier of the man carrying him by the leg to step on him and then kick him. It was then that I started to wish I could wake up, even if it did mean I had to go through secondary school again.

"Why are we nailing this man to the fence?"

"He's a terrorist. Not one of our terrorists. Worse. Like those people who crash planes into buildings or one of those terrorists who runs into crowds of innocent people and blow themselves up. He's one of them."

"If he did them things how come he's not dead?"

"You ask too many questions. Remember this, you're a soldier, you don't ask questions, you follow orders."

"If I'm a soldier give me a gun and I'll shoot the bast*rd."

"You're not that kind of soldier."

I watched Blooter smile and look away from me. I followed his eyes and we watched them drag the man I had to nail into the alleyway. I noticed a small wooden fence at the entrance and thought for a moment if I could nail his hands to that or if it would be too near to the ground.

Why can't someone print a guidebook for things like this? I mean, if you had to hang a person then it would be obvious there is a height requirement so that the man being hanged has enough room to fall the length of the rope without his feet reaching the ground so that the rope can strangle him properly, but when you are nailing a person to a fence, is it wrong if his legs are touching the ground or even sitting on the ground?

I thought about asking Blooter this question but then I remembered the last time Blooter was pissed off with me asking too many questions and how he reacted so badly.

The guilty man started screaming and moaning and begging for mercy and all this was accompanied by thuds and smacks and grunts. I tried to block out whatever was happening to him and think of something else. Blooter took his cigarettes out and handed me one. I wasn't sure if this was giving me permission to speak again or not. I took the cigarette but when I opened my mouth to put it in words just suddenly began to jump out.

"If I have to nail this man to a fence then I have the right to ask a few questions, so I do."

That wiped the smile off Blooter's face; a fact highlighted by the way he lit his cigarette and kept the lighter lit so close to his mouth. Then he motioned it toward me and the light went out. I took the lighter and he grabbed my hand, not in a gay way but in a father to son sort of way. Where the father is a member of a vigilante-style paramilitary cell who vouched for his son to gain access even though he wasn't related to him at all. There was nothing fatherly about it actually except maybe the fact that he was a lot stronger and taller and held my arm easily and long enough to whisper his entire explanation as though warning a small child.

"This is all you need to know. This bast*rd left his country and came to our country because his country has the death penalty and he would be killed but here in our country we don't have the death penalty so he won't be killed. Instead he will be able to settle down here and claim all the benefits of the day. Well, today, you and I are going to explain to him why he shouldn't do a thing like that."

"Why did he pick our country?"

"I told you. We don't have the death penalty."

"I know but," I don't know why I paused but I seemed to become more nervous by the second. "How stupid would you have to be to run away from your country and end up in Northern Ireland?"

"Hey, we're ready for you," a voice insisted from the alleyway where the screaming had stopped. I watched Blooter finish his cigarette and throw it on the ground. He stamped on it angrily but his eyes never left mine.

"Don't let me down here wee man. I'm counting on you."

"You haven't answered all my questions yet."

An angry man appeared at the entrance to the alleyway and signalled to us that we should hurry up. Blooter sighed heavily and used his arm to steer me away from the car in the direction of the alleyway. "Let me tell you this. Today they are nailing this terrorist bast*rd. Tomorrow they might start nailing people who ask too many questions about it."

I made a mental note to myself not to turn up tomorrow.

Blooter began to force his arm into my back making me walk faster and before I could think of my next question we were there in the alleyway. I know it was wrong but I couldn't help but smile when I saw the man was already nailed to the fence. I didn't smile because I was amused; I smiled because it meant I didn't have to nail him up.

I looked at him hanging there for a moment and tried to work out why I had this terrible aching pain in my stomach. Was I feeling sorry for this man? Empathy? Sympathy? He was a different colour. He wore very different clothes and shoes and I could hear him mumbling in a very different language. I thought I was going to be sick.

"Where is it?" The four men searched me up and down.

"Where's what?"

"The sign!"

Blooter's head dropped and I thought I could hear him making a wish. I didn't know what they were talking about so I just gave them my most confident look and allowed myself a question. "What sign?"

"Blooter, tell me this guy hasn't come all the way down here without his sign."

I don't know how it happened but words just began to spill nervously out of my mouth, "Why was I to bring a sign? What kind of sign? What was the sign supposed to say? What way was I supposed to make one?"

I felt Blooter's hand squeezing my arm but I couldn't help myself. "Maybe tomorrow you should start nailing people up who don't tell other people to bring the sign."

The punch connected with my nose and sent a shocking pain straight to my head but as I fell backwards towards the cold, wet concrete I saw the man they had nailed to the fence and he had a look of concern on his face. His blood poured from fresh wounds and began to mix with hardened blood from wounds inflicted earlier. Maybe I was seeing things but I thought he looked like he was really worried about me.

"Why didn't you stay in your own country?"



Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.


This is one of a series of 30 stories and essays by leading writers marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The series was created by Sean Love for Amnesty International and continues next Saturday

© 2008 The Irish Times

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