By Daniel Magennis. PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
I meet Ricky O’Rawe in the lobby of a hotel close to Queen’s University in Belfast. It is an uncommonly warm and sunny afternoon for an Irish autumn. The university is preparing for the arrival of Hilary Clinton, who has been awarded an honorary degree. As I wait, foreign voices – tourists – drift across the space. People seem calm and happy. Belfast is not what it once was.
O’Rawe arrives. He has a pleasing lilt that marks him out as someone from the West of the city. His previous works, all nonfiction, have dealt with divisive and emotive issues such as the 1981 IRA Hunger Strikes and a biography of Gerry Conlon, whom O’Rawe had known since childhood. He tells me that, unlike his earlier books, he found Northern Heist, a work of fiction, liberating.
“Fiction can be whatever you want it to be … There’s nothing sacrosanct. There’s no sacred principle you have to stand behind and that’s the beauty of fiction – you can take it anywhere you want.
“Compared to my other works, I found dealing with Mr Ructions [Northern Heist’s honourable thief protagonist] … incredible. I enjoyed him, I enjoyed writing about him and I enjoyed shaping him and shaping his world… love the freedom of fiction.” It may be a form that permits greater imagination, but it is one that requires its own sort of rigour. “That’s not to say it was easier to write as opposed, let’s say, to the Gerry Conlon book. There, there was a narrative from A to Z … so I knew where the book was starting, and I knew basically where it was going to end.”
Northern Heist has long been a labour of love for O’Rawe. The novel, in one form or another, has been gestating for many years.
“I had a whole different ending prior to starting the Gerry Conlon book. I’ve been footering with Northern Heist for about eight years. I had other major projects that I was doing… so in the end I had to set it aside. But I always sort of drifted back to it.”
A substantial revision saw O’Rawe rewrite the second half of the book entirely and his maverick protagonist, Ructions, did not survive his momentous heist.
“In the first edition, Tiny kills Ructions, up on the farm and it was a dramatic ending, but it was the wrong ending. And now we have Ructions alive – and everybody likes him, everybody I’ve spoken to loves him. And not only that, but it leaves it open for a sequel. There’s a tremendous sequel in there. It’s in my head and all..”
In the end it was O’Rawe’s daughter Bernadette who had proposed a solution. ”You know what – you can’t kill Ructions” – and so Ructions was saved. At least, that is, for the moment…
‘I’m hanging up my guns, I’m going to burn my balaclava.’ But, all of a sudden, he might have to knit a new balaclava. And he’s to get the guns down again.
“But that’s the question – will he get away with it in the sequel? Because everybody comes out of this alive. Tiny is still alive at the end of it, the cop’s still alive at the end of it – the chief inspector – Ructions is still alive. There’s a variety of interests there and Tiny is a force to be reckoned with, he’s far from gone… he [Ructions] wouldn’t be the first criminal to say, ‘I’m hanging up my guns, I’m going to burn my balaclava.’ But, all of a sudden, he might have to knit a new balaclava. And he’s to get the guns down again.”
What was it about the Northern Bank robbery of 2004, on which Northern Heist is based, that sparked O’Rawe’s imagination?
“It was actually three robberies. There were three robberies that caught my attention. There was the Makro robbery …and there was a huge robbery down at the docks where £1 million of cigarettes was taken and then there was the Northern Bank robbery. So even at the time, before I was thinking of writing this, I looked at this and said to myself, ‘this is the work of a certain gang of guys, this is not different gangs running around doing different tiger kidnappings. These things are too well thought-out. It’s either the work of some genius thief, or it’s the work of the IRA. In which case, again, it would be a small cabal of people.’
“So that was my original thoughts on it and then when the Northern Bank robbery occurred you had different people saying different things. You had the two governments saying it was the IRA. The Garda commissioner, the Chief Constable said it was the IRA, and you had the IRA saying, ‘It wasn’t us.’ And therein lay the contradiction for the writer and the writer in me said ‘you know what, I’ll tell you who done it – Ructions.’
“So that leaves a question mark; and in steps Ructions and Ructions does it. So that’s how the Northern Bank etc. came into play. And the thing about the Northern Bank was, it was a very interesting tiger kidnapping… It was timed so precisely. If it hadn’t been done on the day that it was done, it would never have been done because the next day all the keys were being taken off all of the keyholders.”
Northern Ireland is a place where you can certainly write thrillers… It’s just a matter of imagination.
The robbery in question, the December 2004 Northern Bank robbery at the bank’s Belfast city centre headquarters, threatened the then fragile peace process. Over the years, the Troubles in Northern Ireland have provided material for hundreds of novels. “I think Northern Ireland is a place where you can certainly write thrillers… It’s just a matter of imagination and looking for it.”
O’Rawe’s past may have afforded him a sense of how the Irish underworld works and it is perhaps unsurprising that many of Northern Heist’s characters are inspired by real life.
“I had certain characters in my head, who I envisaged, who were real-life characters to a point… I had a vision and I always try to pick someone with an interesting face and, say, ‘this is who it was and this is his traits, and what makes this guy unique?’ … I always try to do that, so the reader has an idea of the type of person you’re talking about. But a lot of the stuff that’s in Northern Heist… it’s a wee bit real life. The characters are not far away from real people.”
I ask him about the distinctive gangland speech of many of the characters of Northern Heist; “I think that sort of subterranean world, that underworld, where moves are made and if you don’t play the game you’ll get shot very easily. I think they do have a lingo of their own. They talk about moves, they talk about clipping people. They talk in a sort of vernacular that is virtually unique – but they also speak the same way in Dublin. If you watch Nidge [the lead character in the RTÉ drama ‘Love/Hate’] – gangsters in Dublin have the same way. They have the same sort of way of communicating. If you fuckin’ mess about you will get shot and they need to know it. A guy needs to say it to you and you need to listen to him. Don’t open your mouth or he’ll take a needle and he will prick you and that’s the sort of stuff that comes across in the book. But that’s natural in that sort of world.”
It is a world that O’Rawe’s honourable thief manages to navigate remarkably unscathed to pull off Ireland’s largest ever Bank heist. While the reader may find themselves admiring, even liking, Ructions, there is of course a darker edge to him. “The thing about Ructions is this; you never know whether or not he would have carried out his threat to hurt the families…”
Nevertheless, O’Rawe does not see Northern Heist as part of Northern Ireland’s prime literary export of recent years; Noir.
“I don’t class myself as a noir writer. I actually don’t particularly like that stuff. That’s not a reflection on any of the writers. I like stories to be… sort of vibrant, and light, and enjoyable. I don’t really get it with three guys and they’ve just emerged from some fuckin’ pathway to hell, and they’re up to be a scourge on the world. That doesn’t work for me – just me personally.
“I’m not running anybody down – there’s a huge market for it – I just think that, sometimes, what you write reflects your personality. Not all the time, but sometimes, and I’ve a fairly… upbeat personality, if I do say so myself [he laughs]”
Reluctant to be pigeonholed as an author of Noir, O’Rawe is equally keen to avoid the broader classification of crime fiction author.
“I don’t want to get into detective stories, where the detective always catches the bad guy. Bad guys rarely ever get caught. Cops only clear up about 6% of all crimes. So I have a penchant for the underdog, for Ructions. Not that I particularly want to get into crime… I have other stuff I want to get on with. I’ve a number of projects… But I don’t necessarily want to be in that genre. And I don’t really want to be known as someone who writes about cop stories. Do you know what I mean? And I like the unpredictability of the likes of Ructions, using him as an example. But I don’t like reading a book where I know what the end is. And the ending, invariably, in all of these things is that the cop catches the bad guy. I like stories to be absolutely different.
The wages of sin is death” and he’s saying “Fuck – I don’t get any of that. The wages of sin is great.
“I’m at my happiest when I’m writing well. I like humour, I like writing anecdotes in the middle of something very serious. Like, for example, Ambrose was coming out of the street and him and Billy and they’ve eight million quid in the back of the truck and the preacher is standing there with the bible and he’s saying “The wages of sin is death” and he’s saying “Fuck – I don’t get any of that. The wages of sin is great. I love sinning. I love that sort of craic in the middle of it. That’s just me.”
At one stage in Northern Heist, Ructions says to his boss and uncle, Panzer, ‘… after this, we’re all out. Nothing will be the same again. It’s over. Our day has come and gone – and I’m glad’ (p. 99). I ask O’Rawe if his book describes a world where the old ways are being left behind; that is quickly changing?
“Yes. The thing is for Ructions and Panzer, they pulled off what all criminals want – the big Pay Day. The payday that means they don’t have to do it anymore. They don’t have to take the risk. So for them’uns it’s the end of an era; Panzer’s bowing out anyway. But he has achieved his lifetime ambition, of pulling off the massive heist that they’ve always dreamed of.
“But in relative terms, the Northern Bank heist was actually at a point in time when things changed. There wasn’t too many tiger kidnappings and banks [being robbed] afterwards. The banks adjusted; brought in security firms … there’s no bank robberies at all now, bank robberies are done on the stock market.”
O’Rawe’s own life has seen pages of history turn. Having been the IRA’s second in command in HMP Maze/Long Kesh during the Hunger Strikes in 1981, his 2005 book Blanketmen, saw him present a very different version of events from that of Sinn Fein’s.
“As you know, I was an IRA volunteer. I would say that I am a pacifist now. I have absolutely no time for armed struggle. In any shape or form. I actually look back on all that and I see it as a huge negative. An awful loss of life, dreadful loss of life and I don’t think the outcome, the political outcome in terms of Republicanism, was worth one life or worth one minute in prison. So I’m very disillusioned with the whole thing.
“Demonstrably, those who were advocating a different way were right. You, politically, ended up in the same place with the Good Friday Agreement as we were in 1974 with the Sunningdale Agreement, the only difference is 2,000 people died and tens of thousands of people done years in jail.”
Does violence work? Not in Ireland. Never has.
A cliché it may well be, but is the pen mightier than the sword?
“The pen is mightier than the sword. The other way of asking that question is, does violence work? Not in Ireland. Never has.”
O’Rawe’s journey has seen him go from militant Republican to self-professed pacifist. He has since been strongly and publicly critical of Republican political leadership. Does he feel he has a duty to write about the events he witnessed and had a part in?
“From my point of view, I had a duty to write about the Hunger Strike. I felt I had. But that’s because I was a player. I was very involved in it. Ordinary writers have no imperative to write about anything other than what they want to.”
Responding, during a recent radio interview, to the calls of some that he should not be writing – and profiting – at all from his past, O’Rawe notes, “Those who would shout at their radios are the very same people who would love to censor writers. I will not be censored by no one. I am a free thinker and a free writer, and I will not be censored by no one … the same question was put to me [during an interview on American radio] and I said “those who would scream at radios are the same people who would burn books. Once you go down this road of saying “this writer’s alright and that writer’s not alright” then you’re in real deep trouble.”