‘I am a child of the Troubles. Ordinary boring government is much better’

Former IRA prisoner turned artist Raymond Watson says of post-conflict Northern Irish society: ‘We’re not normal, but we’re heading towards normality’

Standing by a hand-hewn timber table in his house in the Glens of Antrim, sculptor Raymond Watson is missing a hand. Not just any hand, but the hand of Bill Clinton.

For 20 years, the former IRA prisoner’s project, The Hands of History, has slowly gathered bronze casts of the hands of those who brought about the Belfast Agreement.

Recently, General John De Chastelain agreed to be cast, though Watson must get to Ottawa to meet the ageing Canadian, who for years led efforts to get paramilitaries to decommission.

Watson began with nine of those who were directly involved in the negotiation of the agreement, but the number has grown over the years for the work.

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Gerry Adams’s hand is large – “a cultured hand”, says Watson. The late David Trimble’s is smaller; the hand of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine’s bears the calluses of a working man, “one who did a day’s work for a living”.

Bertie Ahern’s cast, meanwhile, is missing part of the wrist, due to Ahern’s reticence in putting his hand fully into the alginate casting material, more often used to take teeth moulds.

The work’s title was prompted by then British prime minister Tony Blair’s comments on the Tuesday of Easter Week in 1998, when the peace talks looked mired in trouble.

“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do,” he said then, a phrase he claims was spontaneous, rather than planned, though gently mocked then and now.

Watson’s own past is intertwined in that history, with his family forced to flee their home off the Cliftonville Road in North Belfast in 1971.

Later, they moved – bizarrely, it seems to him now – to the staunchly Protestant Newtownards Road in East Belfast, before fleeing south to a bare house in Greenore, Co Louth.

The journey was broken by a stop in Carlingford, where the family ate beans on toast cooked on a Primus stove as they sat on the pier.

“In the beginning, I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ Moving didn’t matter to me. Later, there was a period where I missed Belfast all of the time.”

Decades before, the Louth house had been occupied by the Black and Tans. “There were bars in the window in the bathroom. That had been the cell,” he says.

There, they heard that a Belfast neighbour who had refused to move had been killed. “I heard it with my mother on the radio, and she saying, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so from down the road.’”

Later, like many others, the Watsons moved to Newry, where he joined the IRA before getting a 12-year sentence for a series of explosive offences.

The offences included the bombing of Newry’s bus depot, along with an attempt to kill British soldiers with a car bomb in Patrick Street in the town.

The sentence brought him to Long Kesh, where he joined what became known as the “blanket protest” to oppose London’s denial of political status for IRA prisoners.

“The only contents of the prison cell were a thin foam mattress on the floor and two pisspots on the floor and a Bible,” he wrote in a 2013 memoir, The Cell Was My Canvas.

Today, however, Watson wants to finish with The Hands of History, believing that Northern Ireland is on a path where history can finally recede, if slowly, into the past.

Having begun with nine hands, Watson later added Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern after they left office, along with others.

His brief meeting with Blair still amuses. He arrived at the latter’s offices with a plastic shopping bag holding alginate powder, a food mixer and wooden spoons.

“[His security people] just waved it through, they knew I was coming. You’d wonder sometimes, wouldn’t you?” says Watson, as he pours unpasteurised milk into his tea.

Now that he has secured De Chastelain’s agreement, just one is missing: Bill Clinton, though getting past the phalanx that surrounds the former US president has its challenges.

Last year, Watson attended the Agreement 25 conference, which marked the anniversary of the 1998 pact in Queen’s University Belfast., in the hope of meeting Clinton.

And he did, though Clinton – as always, on a tight schedule – left the building quickly thereafter. So far, Clinton’s people have been helpful, but the hand remains uncast.

The resumption of the Stormont institutions offers hope of a “decade of boring government, and thank God for that”, Watson says.

Every crisis, every walkout, every collapse has played a role: “We know now what peace processes look like. This is what they look like.”

“They went through one issue after the other, and every issue got sorted. That’s the final one. [Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party] have both had their walkouts.

“I can’t see what would bring it down again,” he says, though he quickly reminds himself that “nobody saw Brexit coming when everything was cruising along”.

“Without somebody doing something crazy, like, this is the moment. I am a child of the Troubles. Ordinary boring government is much better,” he goes on.

The older generation that lived through the Troubles have “moved on”, he argues, “They have come to a point where, you know, they realise it’s over.”

Today, his two children live in Britain, enjoying opportunities unavailable to them in Northern Ireland, but they visit frequently.

“They wouldn’t think about things in the way that we do. I’m including you in that. They’re just enjoying life. Borders mean nothing to them.”

Nevertheless, divisions remain in the younger generation’s lives, where they have friends from the other community “but they don’t go for dinner to their houses”.

“They know them in the evening to meet in the pub. They’re very happy to do so. They’ll all be in one company, but there is still a wee bit of division,” he goes on.

Dubbed the “sectarian radar” by the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s Claire Hanna, Northerners’ ability to sound out the background of others remains undimmed.

“They know which pubs to go to. Everybody will know quickly where you come from, and who you are. People know the topics to avoid.

“It’s partly politeness, yes, but they know they’re going to avoid trouble for themselves by not bringing those topics up,” he adds.

For his own children, they still find themselves during visits home in a place where the past has not “totally” gone away. “Maybe, it will be different for my kids’ kids.”

Watson had a Catholic father and a Protestant mother.

“Catholic families were bigger and Protestant families were smaller. That’s generally true, but not always true. My mother’s side had 10, my father’s three.

“Most of my extended relatives are Protestants. I want to say Protestant, but I’m not talking about religion. They’re not religious people. Cultural Protestants, yes.”

The Troubles divided the family. They saw each other frequently up to 1971 in Belfast, but not after: “We didn’t see each other the whole way through the 30 years.”

We’re in this because we just grew up here, and you’re left with very little choice, you know?

So what happened afterwards? “We went to weddings and funerals. You hadn’t seen people since they were skinny nine-year-olds.

“Now, they are middle-aged, some overweight. And it’s, ‘Raymond, how’s it going?’ Like nothing had happened. We all just met again is if nothing happened.”

Today, Northern Ireland’s past is a cause of family humour, with a brother in Newry putting up a Facebook photograph of a nephew in a GAA shirt.

In turn, a Protestant relative will take children in the wider family to the Sham Fight at Scarva in Co Down, which every year commemorates the Battle of the Boyne.

“They both think it’s funny, they’re just playing the game,” says the 65-year-old Watson, who pauses when asked to reflect on what his own story tells of the last 50 years.

“I already look back on the Troubles and just think, you know, why did that happen? You know, why did all that happen? How did it happen?”

Silence fills the kitchen, uncomfortably. “Good Friday could have happened in the 1970s. It could have happened in 1969. It should have happened. It would have saved us all trouble.”

Unlike many former IRA members, Watson does not want to constantly remember the past. “Listen, the whole thing was to me, it’s a tragedy.

“I don’t want to go and stand for songs, or parades. I have nothing to do with anything. The only thing I’m concerned about is working and living a good life, you know?”

However, he will not abandon his own past, either, quickly remembering the launch by the former minister for foreign affairs David Andrews of an exhibition of his in Dublin.

If I’m casting more hands, it means we’ve had more problems. And I hope not

“It was all very nice. But Andrews made this distinction, saying that ‘Raymond and I have two different positions in politics’.

“Like, in my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yes, but you didn’t grow up where I grew up.’ Had he grown up here, he probably wouldn’t have been saying that.

“He had the luxury of growing up in a peaceful society in Dublin, so he could say that. He was lucky he could say that. I would not have wanted him to be in the other position.

“In a way, that’s the story. We’re in this because we just grew up here, and you’re left with very little choice, you know?”

For now, he believes the peace process “is done”. Instead, politics should be about delivering the day to day, the services needed by people.

“I can’t see what else needs to be done. I can’t see what else needs to be addressed. It’s done. We’re not normal, but we’re heading towards normality.

“For me, I didn’t start out to do something like The Hands of History that would take so long to do. For me, it has been a massive achievement.

“But I don’t think I’ll be casting any more hands, bar Clinton’s, hopefully. I hope not. If I’m casting more hands, it means we’ve had more problems. And I hope not.”

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