Anthony McIntyre, left, an ex-IRA man and Billy McCurrie, an ex-UVF man.
CNN  — 

It was a winter’s night outside Victor’s Bar in Belfast, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had identified its target. The victim, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), was working as a doorman outside a pub, chatting with friends. A hijacked car pulled up to the curb and gunshots were fired into the crowd. On February 27, 1976, lying dead at the doorway, Kenneth Lenaghan became another statistic of Northern Irish history.

“I don’t have personal regrets – but I don’t think it had to happen, either,” says Anthony McIntyre, the man who pulled the trigger, in an interview in 2023. “If I could wind the clock back and never join the IRA, I would – but that’s not how life works. At the time I thought I was part of a wider struggle, to unite Ireland and get the Brits out.”

Ex-IRA man Anthony McIntyre is pictured at his home in the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday.

Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after a 30-year period of sectarian conflict known as the Troubles. Decades after the Irish War of Independence led to the island’s partition, the conflict escalated in the late 1960s, amid swelling anger at discrimination towards the province’s Irish Catholics. The IRA, mainly comprising Irish Catholics, sought to liberate the north from British rule and reunite it with the Republic of Ireland. This was opposed by the British Army and loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UDA and UVF, mainly comprising Protestants, who sought to keep Northern Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.

More than 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles, while 50,000 were injured. Momentary acts of terror were inflicted with long-lasting consequences, spreading fear and trauma like wildfire through generations. Bigotry followed and attitudes hardened – until life was perceived through the lens of Catholic and Protestant, Republican and loyalist, freedom fighter and terrorist.

When Northern Ireland voted for peace in a referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in May 1998, it seemed that the accord was a solution to the constitutional question that had divided the two communities for a century. But 25 years later, Northern Ireland is without a functioning power-sharing government, following the collapse of its devolved Assembly last May. And sporadic incidents of violence continue, leading the UK government to last week raise the terrorism threat level in the region to severe once again.

Then-Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, US Senator George Mitchell and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair smile on April 10, 1998, after they signed a historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland.

Billy McCurrie, an ex-UVF man who now lives in England, and McIntyre, an ex-IRA man who is now a writer and researcher in the Republic of Ireland, reflect on the armed struggle and how their minds became colonized by sectarianism, before they spent decades behind bars for murder. Both men have since disavowed violence, but are critical of Northern Ireland’s path to peace.

Killer ‘laughed’ as he was jailed

McIntyre served 18 years for the murder of Kenneth Lenaghan in 1976.

Speaking from his home in the Republic of Ireland, he recounts the seminal moments that led to him joining the IRA. “My earliest memory of sectarianism was getting attacked by Protestants as a kid. I was walking with my friend along the railway tracks – he was a Protestant, and I was a Catholic. We were stopped by a group of kids, and they asked us to sing the British national anthem – my friend could, but I didn’t know the words – so they beat me up.”

After that, McIntyre says, an “X” was daubed on the front door of his family’s home. “It was just after one of the Protestant marches had gone past – it was loyalists marking our house. Even though I had a lot of Protestant friends, I began to form this view that Protestants were bad.”

Years later, McIntyre was convicted of the murder of Lenaghan, a Protestant UVF man. The judge at the trial said of McIntyre, “the actions were deliberate and cold-blooded. The accused set out not for a fight but to kill,” while the Belfast Telegraph reported that McIntyre “laughed in the dock after he was told he would serve at least a 25-year jail sentence.”

An aerial view of the Maze Prison, 10 miles outside Belfast.

‘Any Catholic was a target’

As McIntyre arrived in prison, Billy McCurrie, a Protestant from East Belfast, would receive a 10-year sentence for the murder of Desmond Finney. The pair would serve time in the same prison but never meet.

From McCurrie’s home in England, where he has lived for the past 24 years, he reminisces about life before the Troubles. “Life was peaceful, but we were quite sheltered. My parents talked of moving away, but that never happened. The Troubles started shortly after, initially there was a feeling of excitement. That feeling quickly turned into fear, and later, hatred,” he recalls.

“One summer’s night my dad was out with his mates at a club. They were walking home, and they were starving, so naturally, they wanted something to eat. My dad ran ahead to the house, to stick a fry on for the lads coming back. On his way, he was shot by an IRA sniper. We still don’t know who killed my dad,” says McCurrie.

That night became known as the Battle of St Matthew’s, when a gun skirmish broke out in East Belfast. Republicans claim the violence was started by a mob of loyalists returning from an Orange march who invaded the Short Strand – an Irish Catholic enclave within a majority Protestant part of Belfast. This is disputed by loyalists, who claim they were attacked first.

The following day, a 12-year-old McCurrie woke up to the news his father had been killed.

“From that moment on everything changed,” says McCurrie. “The hatred festered in our family, and it bubbled for years. My mum said she would have joined the UVF – if it wasn’t for my three-month-old kid brother.”

Ex-UVF man Billy McCurrie is pictured Wednesday at his home in England.

McCurrie joined the UVF at age 16. “Joining the UVF was seen as the honorable thing to do at the time. Our politics didn’t really go beyond keeping the Union flag flying over East Belfast and defending our community. But for me, it was primarily about revenge. I would clock into the Harland and Wolff shipyard in the morning, before leaving and going to the pub to make plans about who we could hit. Any Catholic was a target.”

One evening, McCurrie was walking home with his girlfriend when he saw three of his UVF comrades parked outside his house. “They rolled down the window and asked me if I was ready. I’d been waiting for this moment – so I jumped in their car. They told me that if I wanted to ever kill an Irish Catholic, I would first have to kill a Protestant informant – a fellow UVF man. I thought, if I chicken out now, I won’t get my chance to kill a Catholic again.”

The next morning, Desmond Finney woke up, got ready for work and said goodbye to his wife for the last time. A delivery driver for the local butcher’s, he had just arrived for work in his car when McCurrie and an accomplice pulled up beside him. Finney was shot five times in the head and neck. McCurrie now believes that Finney wasn’t an informant at all, just a man in the wrong place, at the wrong time – like his father who had been shot nearly six years earlier.

“When it happened, I had no remorse,” says McCurrie. “I was thinking this is the start of it, and I wanted to go on a killing spree – but thankfully that didn’t happen.” McCurrie was arrested two weeks later. A local UVF informant had told the Northern Irish police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, that he was the killer. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

‘I planned to continue killing’

Both McCurrie and McIntyre were sent to Long Kesh Detention Centre, on the site of a World War II British Air Force camp 10 miles outside Belfast, which would go on to gain worldwide notoriety as the Maze Prison. At first, they were imprisoned in the Compounds, known to the inmates as “The Cages” – a makeshift jail across which the British Army had erected razor wire-topped fencing, creating an area for Catholics, and an area for Protestants. Like the education system, housing allocation and the “Peace Walls” that divided Belfast, McCurrie and McIntyre had been segregated by their religion, as the conflict continued inside the prison walls.

“In the Cages our relationship with loyalists was antagonistic,” says McIntyre. “I was attacked by them one afternoon when I was let out to the yard by a screw (guard), and I got a boot to the face by a loyalist, before I was taken away.” McCurrie also recalls the hostility of the Cages. “We would spend our days marching around in military formation. At night I would read books about guerrilla warfare – given to me by the prison guards. Every day I was becoming more radicalized, and I planned to continue killing.”

McIntyre and McCurrie were both then transferred to the H-Blocks – a new, state of the art, maximum-security wing where loyalists and Republicans were forced to share a prison block – and where 10 IRA hunger strikers led by Bobby Sands would later starve to death in protest at the British decision to end political prisoner status. All prisoners were now common criminals in the eyes of the British state. In an inversion of their segregated reality, the move had given Republicans and loyalists the same objective – to regain their rights as political prisoners.

Seven-year-old Gerard Sands walks beside the coffin of his father, Catholic hunger striker Bobby Sands, as it is escorted to Belfast's Milltown Cemetery by masked IRA men on May 7, 1981.

“The day my political status was revoked I was told to put on a prison uniform, and I told the screws to f**k off,” recounts McIntyre. Inmates who refused to wear prison uniforms were given no other clothes to wear and for years walked around their cold cells draped in blankets. In an effort to win back political status, a minority of loyalist prisoners joined their Republican counterparts on the blanket protest.

“I wouldn’t say there was mutual respect, but there was a suspension of disrespect,” says McIntyre. “I viewed the loyalists as political prisoners as well, and I was thinking, I don’t want to be attacking these guys.”

McCurrie recounts how prison also began to change his view of the conflict. “In prison there was basically an agreement that we wouldn’t kill each other – and I began thinking, if we aren’t killing each other in here, then why are we killing each other out there?” McCurrie later became friends with some of the Republicans inside. “Looking back, some of the IRA lads had good banter and you could’ve become mates with them on the outside, but because of the polarization of the two communities that could never happen. That’s the saddest thing about the Troubles – we were trying to kill each other instead.”

The price of peace

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed 25 years ago, there were celebrations across Northern Ireland; 71% of the population endorsed the accord in the following month’s referendum. Both sides could frame it as a victory. For nationalists, it was a stepping-stone toward a united Ireland. For Unionists, it secured Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.

Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers and firefighters inspect the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

“I began to think armed campaigning was futile. I remember the day of the Omagh bombing and thinking – what an absolute f**king disaster. That was the day that I came to the view that republicanism has no right to be doing this ever,” said McIntyre. The attack in Omagh, four months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, killed 29 people and injured more than 300. It was claimed by the Real IRA, a dissident Republican paramilitary group.

Although disillusioned with guerilla warfare, McIntyre did not join the estimated 93% of Catholics who voted for the peace accord. And while McCurrie became a born-again Christian and left the UVF, he also voted against it.

“I thought the Good Friday Agreement was an appeasement of Republican violence,” says McCurrie. “The peace accord has only kicked the can down the road – the violence could start again – as we saw with Lyra McKee.”

People gather around floral tributes placed at the scene in the Creggan area of Londonderry/Derry in Northern Ireland on April 20, 2019 where journalist Lyra McKee was fatally shot amid rioting.

Four years ago, Lyra McKee was working as a journalist covering riots in the Creggan area of Londonderry/Derry. Violence broke out after police raids on dissident republican homes and young people – born after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – threw petrol bombs, burning two vehicles. A gunman knelt down and fired towards police officers. As the smoke from the shooting settled, McKee, 29, was killed by a single stray bullet, a mile from her home.

Michelle O’Neill, the vice-president of Sinn Féin, said at the time: “The people who brought guns on to the street, and those who organised them do not represent any version of Irish Republicanism.”

Northern Ireland's First Minister-elect and Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill speaks at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., United States on March 16, 2023.

During the Troubles, Sinn Féin was considered the political wing of the IRA - until it endorsed peace, and agreed to share power with Unionists. In the last Northern Ireland Assembly election in May 2022, Sinn Féin gained the most seats – the first time a pro-united Ireland party would be the largest in Northern Ireland.

The DUP, the largest Unionist party, refused to go into government, a move perceived by nationalists as a rejection of the Good Friday Agreement – which the DUP did not support at the outset – and as a throwback to Unionist supremacy in the region. The DUP insists its refusal to share power is a necessary protest at post-Brexit border arrangements which it claims violate the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Rallies protesting the Brexit trading arrangement, attended by the DUP, led to riots in 2021 when bottles, bricks and petrol bombs were thrown at police – while a bus was engulfed in flames. Eight people were arrested, including a 13-year-old boy.

Loyalist paramilitaries are still active and are regularly given a platform on TV and radio, while inflammatory language continues to dominate political discourse. A visit to Belfast last year by the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was disrupted by a bomb threat, while the UVF and UDA withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement in March 2021. In February, a senior police officer was shot in Omagh; he remains in critical condition. At present, rival factions previously linked to the UDA are immersed in a drug feud in which homes have been attacked, police said. In one instance, a pipe bomb was thrown at a property with the occupants, including four children, inside.

These are isolated incidents, but, a quarter of a century after its inception, an uncomfortable reminder that peace is a process. A new generation born after the Troubles – and long after McIntyre and McCurrie served their time in prison – now bears responsibility for choosing a path of conflict, or of reconciliation.