Belfast's Tartan Gangs the Focus of New Play

Loyalist paramilitary turned playwright Robert Niblock recalls the youth gangs of 1970s Belfast at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

There is a moment during my interview with 59-year-old playwright and ex-Loyalist paramilitary Robert Niblock, nicknamed Beano, that this intelligent and talkative man doesn't easily find the words.

He doesn't want to talk about the murder of Robert John Thompson nearly 40 years ago, a violent group crime for which Niblock served a lengthy sentence in the Maze/Long Kesh prison. Headlines at the time centred on the multiple stabbings. 'It doesn't seem relevant,' he says after a pause, sitting in one of The MAC arts centre's booths, there to promote his new play, Tartan.

You can see his point of view, even though the Thompson family have understandably pursued answers for his savage murder over the years. In the same way that Niblock describes his drama in footballing terms as 'a game of two halves', his has been a life of two halves. And the first wasn't easy.

Although the name Beano Niblock perhaps conjures up a member of PG Wodehouse's Drones club, Niblock had a very different upbringing. Raised in the east Belfast Unionist heartland, Niblock recalls his early introduction to his family's allegiances that would ultimately lead to membership of the UVF and a conviction for murder.

'I was a member of one of the [tartan] youth gangs. There were some Catholic gangs too, but they were mainly Loyalist. They were seen as sectarian and acted as feeder organisations for the paramilitaries.'

Niblock – a compact, youthful looking man dressed in jeans and shirt when we meet – relates the history for the most part unemotionally. 'My gang consisted of a load of young men who just grew up together. I also belonged to the junior Boys' Brigade. I was an out and out Protestant and would have been part of the band.'

This is the story that is teased out in Tartan. It's set in 1971/72, the 'worst years of the Troubles', according its writer, when everything kicked off, as Protestants felt their side was losing the war and needed to fight back. It's the era of Bloody Friday, and of the first British soldier being killed by the IRA.

Yet, if you remove the weapons and of course the politics, that period of the Troubles is also a kind of rite of passage narrative that crops up in Second World War movies and benign TV shows like Happy Days. The tartan gangs preceded the Troubles, but were also a part of them. We bat to and fro the possible parallels with New York and London gangs, who trade in casual violence but also in loyalty and a group identity.

Niblock says: 'The thing was, we were young. There were boys there who didn't need to shave, who hadn't yet been with a girl.' The transition to manhood in this context meant fights and a conscious coarsening. 'We wouldn't even swear at home, but then you joined the other boys and it was f-ing this and f-ing that.'

It was also an enclosed world, secretive and self-contained. 'We'd never tell anyone else who we were going to fight or what we were going to do. We entered as boys and became men.'

And that's the process that Tartan examines. Having sat in on a rehearsal of the play – an Et Cetera Theatre Company production, which uses music of the period, from The Who to T-Rex, and is choreographed to great effect – it's clear this will be an important production.

The shocking part is that the seven-strong gang of characters – with the young bucks, the fat boy (who's incidentally the best dancer), the show offs, and the followers – look and sound like they've leapt out of an episode of Grange Hill – that is until they start discussing what they want to do to the Catholics.

It's all about their sense of dispossession, of course. They discuss the killing of a British soldier 'in broad f-ing daylight' and it's clear recriminations are near. Then they chant their song, a kind of football tune about the gangs, which ends 'We are the Tartan and we rule'.

Unsurprisingly, Niblock and his mates also belonged to far-right organisations like the notorious Vanguard (Unionist Progressive) Party. Its anti-Sunningdale rallies, with the counterpoint of inflammatory speeches by the likes of Ian Paisley, sounded at the time and still do rather like Hitler's famous mass rallies in Nuremberg and elsewhere in 1930s Germany.

Shockingly, Niblock agrees with me. 'It was exactly like that,' he admits before describing the meetings, the uniforms, the esprit de corps and the seductive speeches. There is a school of thought which argues that charismatic leaders like Ian Paisley never take responsibility for the consequences of their stirring and inflammatory prose. In Niblock's play, there is Aristotelian pity and fear in abundance.

In Long Kesh, where Niblock served time for the killing of John Thompson, he caught up with his education, although he didn't get to degree level. Once outside, he began to rebuild his life. He has four children, now grown up, and one, his daughter, may follow him into writing. His son, Wayne Drummond, is a professional footballer who has played for Millwall.

Niblock discovered that he wanted to write later in life. His first effort, which turned into the successful play, A Reason to Believe, was completed quickly, in three months, but then languished in the bottom drawer. 'I did it quickly,' adds Niblock, 'as it was based on the story of a friend of mine, who was terminally ill.'

That story of the friends meeting and mouthing off and discussing everything from their ailments to memories of fights had a deal of Beckett in it, and even Morecambe and Wise. The critic Ian Hill commented when it was first performed that this affectionate portrait of fellow old lags 'bickering through their last weeks' was full of streetwise, ironic black humour.

Interestingly, Niblock is a man of the theatre and has no ambitions to transmit his ideas to the big screen. 'It has to be theatre,' he says. 'There's something about seeing human beings on the stage acting. You relate to it more and it's real, although you know it's pretence.'

The stage work he's enjoyed recently includes War Horse – 'It was outstanding, and the models were incredible' – and The Road to the Menin Gate by Martin Lynch, a fellow Belfast theatre man (who, conversely, hails from a Republican background), whom he admires. 'I thought the first half was totally brilliant although the second half petered out a bit, but that's just my opinion.'

The conversation flows, and finally I ask if Niblock is irritated by the fact that the media will forever focus on his paramilitary background and involvement in the Thompson murder. 'Of course I am,' he says, flatly, although he understands that there is, perhaps, added interest in his work, given his Loyalist credentials. 'It's usually the ex-Republican prisoners who go down that route.'

Does he have regrets? The former corner boy says he wishes he'd stayed on at school. 'I went to grammar school but left at 16.' If he had stayed on for A levels, would his history – and that of John Thompson – have been materially different? 'Yes, and of course. I wish we hadn't had the Troubles.'

Returning home, I chat to my taxi driver, who recalls growing up in a similar Loyalist part of town to Niblock. He, however, did not join a tartan gang.

In the second half of his life, Niblock has had the chance to put certain records straight and, in a way, to explain what happened to some members of his generation. Of the three career paths for former paramilitaries – cabbying, politics and the arts – he's clearly chosen the right one.

These days he says he has Catholic friends, and that the directors of his two plays have both been from the opposite side of the peace wall. Finding the right words remains important. 'Writing these plays isn't redemptive, that's too big a word. But therapeutic, yes.'

Tartan runs at the Skainos Centre, Newtownards Road on May 1 – 2, An Culturlann, Falls Road on May 4 – 5, Spectrum Centre, Shankill Road, May 7 – 8 and at The MAC from May 10 – 11, part of the 2014 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.