IN his new book Billy Leonard tells how growing up in the divided town of Lurgan helped shape his career in politics and his switch from an Orangeman to a nationalist politician.
In this revealing book Billy recalls how, as a RUC reservist, he used to sneak into Kilwilke to meet the woman who was to become his wife.
Billy Leonard grew up as a Presbyterian and joined the RUC and Orange Order. After leaving his Loyal Order, police and church positions he joined the SDLP before defecting to Sinn Fein, whom he left last year.
The following are extracts from his book entitled ‘Towards a United Ireland: An Uncompleted Journey’ which is available now.
Billy states: “I was born into a Protestant and Unionist family. Both my grandfathers were in the Orange Order although each hailed from very different backgrounds, one a South Armagh farmer, the other a Belfast shopkeeper.
“I remember my mother relating to me her father’s opinion on the partition of Ireland. Given that his farm was in Armagh and he sold cattle in the neighbouring County Monaghan just down the road, he had lived a life which didn’t see any difference between these Ulster counties, yet they ended up in two so-called ‘separate’ states. He told my mother that he considered Ireland much too small in many ways—including socially and economically—to be partitioned!
“My mother became a teacher and met her Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) husband when he was posted to a South Armagh police station in the war years. My father was then transferred to Lurgan, where they settled for the rest of their lives. With a little irony I can share that when my Protestant father first arrived in Lurgan to start his work, an RUC ‘colleague’ refused to meet him at the train and assist with his baggage because with a name like Leonard, he assumed my father would be a Catholic.”
Billy writes: “My upbringing was therefore a Unionist one, with both parents content with the steady, pensionable state employment. They were part of the generation born immediately after partition and were satisfied with that political situation.
“I went regularly to the local Presbyterian Church as expected, and attended a ‘state’ primary school and then the local grammar school. Catholics were as rare as hen’s teeth in these establishments except for the last two ‘A’ level years in grammar school, when a number of Catholic students joined us from other schools.
“Our schools had nothing to do with things Irish, such as St Patrick’s Day for example. However, it would be wrong to think that my earlier years were totally isolated from Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans, as I also had friends from that community, particularly in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of ‘the Troubles’.”
Later in the opening chapter Billy says: “‘The Troubles’ witnessed some of the Unionist and Protestant authority figures displaying their true and often dark colours. I remember standing outside the Presbyterian Church when a local (and very well-thought-of) businessman [...] stood with his Bible under his arm addressing the recent disturbances in Lurgan at the time of the Civil Rights marches. His solution was that the police and army should go down the main nationalist streets with their guns and basically shoot where they liked! That attitude obviously spoke volumes to me as a teenager.”
Billy told of his time with the RUC: “I decided to join the part-time RUC Reserve. As on many other occasions when numbers were needed to supplement the full-time police in troubled times, a part-time force was organised. The RUC Reserve was one leg of the move to replace the infamous ‘B’ Specials; an almost exclusively Protestant-Unionist ‘Special Constabulary’ disbanded in 1970. I thought for quite a time about taking this step.
“A few of my peers had already gone to the paramilitaries. My decision was to go with the law-and-order approach, although it soon became a case of on-the-street learning about the intricacies of the old chestnut question: ‘whose law and order’? I saw the good, the bad and the downright unacceptable of policing in a divided society in those six years as a part-time policeman, and it was definitely important in influencing some of my opinions about the North, and about Ireland as a whole.”
He also told of his early liaisons with his future wife. He wrote: “Valerie was from a Catholic background, but the added ingredient was that she lived in the very staunch Republican estate of Kilwilke in Lurgan. There were therefore certain dangers associated with my part-time police work and Valerie’s home location. Undoubtedly I could have been a target, and we also had to think of Valerie’s position as an isolated local girl ‘going out with one of the enemy’.
“I was told by some I was mad, even advised to marry and emigrate to Australia. Clearly, we had to be very careful as to where and when we met. I didn’t regularly call at Valerie’s home. We met at different times and locations to avoid a routine which would have been a distinct security weakness. On one occasion, I did go to her Kilwilkie home, taking a Tuesday off work, to meet Valerie’s mum Kathleen for the first time and have lunch with her. We regarded a mid-week day and time as being a little safer.
“However, within a few days I got a message from an observant and kindly neighbour via a mutual friend telling me not to take that sort of risk again. We didn’t. In fact on the day we got married Valerie didn’t even leave for the church from her own family home!”