Jesse Ventura, the Vietnam veteran, wrestler, action film hero, and Minnesota governor once said, “Never trust a politician who doesn’t make his rounds.”
hen I arrive at Tipler’s Bar in Portadown, Doug is buying Beattie a round for his team of newly minted recruiters. The chatter and banter stops when I arrive at their table. I say, “You’re the youngest unionists I’ve ever seen.” Big laugh. We’re running.
One of the group says, “Me and my dad used to watch you on TV.” I say, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” More laughter. A Guinness comes for me, and Doug introduces me to the group one at a time. After a few minutes he thanks them for their work that morning, excuses himself and leads me to a corner table.
The photographer asks Doug if he can take some photos at the front door of the pub. “It’s very loyalist here, best not,” he says.
I tell him he runs the risk of giving unionism a good name. He enjoys that. I say I love their slogan “Union of People”.
Q: “Did you think of that?
A: [Laughs] “I kind of did.”
Q: “you did it somehow Or have you somehow not?”
A [More laughter] “I will say yes.”
Q.”I’m not sure that would stand up in court.”
A. “No, probably not.”
Here, as always when it comes to people, he is passionate. He states that he is interested in bringing people together, regardless of religion, origin, sexual orientation or aspirations.
Q “Is that the slogan?”
A “Yes, of course it is. Unionism must be far more expansive than the narrow-minded sectarianism of the past. Everything I do is for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. I am sad to be part of this failure of democracy. We need to start working together properly and honestly.”
He abhors sectarianism and constantly returns to the subject. He attributes this to his father, who “taught us that religion was irrelevant.”
His story begins with his father, Color Sergeant William Edward Beattie, of the Royal Ulster Rifles. As a child, Doug traveled the world with him. When they returned to Portadown, 10-year-old Doug soon fell into the shock of the Troubles. On April 25, 1975, his uncle Samuel Johnston, a UDR soldier, was walking home from a night out with his girlfriend when he was gunned down by the IRA on the footpath.
“It was 400 meters from where we were seated, Joe. Samuel was my favorite uncle. I remember the knock on the door. I was at the top of the stairs. Mum answered and I heard a man’s voice tell her her younger brother had been murdered.”
He pauses and shakes his head. “My mother fell to her knees screaming. I can still hear it.”
We sit in silence for a moment. I order another round.
Not long after his uncle’s death, his mother, Constance Evelyn Johnston (Doug tastes her name as he says it), whom he adored, was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of two long years, she died an agonizing death. Douglas, as his mother called him, was only 15 years old. His older siblings had moved away from home. He was left home alone with his father. Color Sergeant Beattie, unable to bear the loss, turned to whiskey, beginning a somber routine for the teenager.
“Life has been exhausting for me. Stressful. I would come home from school, light the fire and make dinner. He got home from work, ate his dinner and started drinking. I took care of him, sober or in a coma. Every night at 2am he would wake me up and take me downstairs. He put on the records he and my mother used to listen to and got me to listen with him.”
Q: “Each night?”
A: “Each night. He would say, “Let’s listen to this, it was your mother’s favorite song”. Every night he played the same song by Millican & Nesbitt, Keep a light on the window.”
Q: “Has he ever been violent?”
A: “No. He was just lonely. I have to say it still affects me to this day. The song is still in my head.”
Q: “Were you around?”
A: “no We were very distant. strangers, really.”
He is passionate about a better, modern education system that treats work and science equally. He despises the exam system that “stigmatizes children.” He left school at 16, “disenfranchised from learning by a system that had nothing for me.”
Q: “So where does your confidence come from?”
A: “There is no trust. I’m not what people think. I think I’m a failure and I’ve carried that sense of failure through my life.”
Q: “I saw you earlier with the group. Funny, sociable, popular. They clearly have great affection and respect for you. How could you be a failure?
A: “I am.”
He felt trapped and saw the army as the only way out. When he was 16, he took the papers to his father to sign. His father never spoke. Just signed them. And with that, Private Douglas Beattie made his way out into the world.
He unexpectedly discovered that he had an ability for violence. He was awarded the Military Cross for his heroism in the Battle of Garmsir in Afghanistan. With orders to hold the city, he managed to cobble together a ragtag force of 100 Afghan police and soldiers plus a handful of British and Estonian soldiers.
They were quickly besieged by a force of 2,000 Taliban. Their orders were to last 24 hours before a larger force would reinforce them. The reinforcements never materialized. For 13 days he fought, eventually hand in hand, when the Taliban broke through the border like the Zulu dawn. By the seventh day there were only three British soldiers and 50 Afghans. He slept in a half-dug grave in the cemetery to avoid the missiles. He stripped corn from the fields to eat.
Q: “How bad was the fight?”
A: “Where I’m looking at you now. So close. I’ll look you in the eyes and kill you with a bayonet. They broke through everywhere.”
Q: “How many men did you kill?”
A: “I don’t know. A lot. It’s not a number I want to think about.”
Q: “How did you survive?”
A: “I do not know. I’m with my joint tactical air controller and I call out B1 bomber raids on the enemy positions and they reply, “You’re in danger; we need confirmation from your commanding officer. “Danger nearby” means within 750 meters of the target. We were 200 meters. I was the commanding officer and had no choice. That was it or certain death.”
He formed an extraordinary friendship with Major Sher-Wali, the Afghan police chief, who once saved his life during the fighting. They talked to each other through an interpreter. He was shot on the last day of the siege.
“I think about him every day. His death is all around me.”
Doug stops. He’s worried. We sit in silence again.
Q: “are you alright
A: “no no I’m not. Watching a man die on the end of my bayonet, watching his life pass him by, I could justify because I had no choice, but when I got home I could no longer justify it. It had a huge impact on my mental health. It is always with me.”
When they were finally relieved, he was wheeled back to headquarters covered in blood and excrement. The blood, he explains, came from the punctured arteries of the dead.
His proudest award is the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, a small oak leaf presented to him by Queen Elizabeth for his heroism in rescuing two of Saddam’s soldiers at the start of the Iraq War. He was walking in Al Madina when he saw three men spread-legged on the ground surrounded by a screaming crowd of thousands bent on executing them. As he ran toward them, a tribal leader threw a huge rock at the first man’s head, crushing him instantly. The crowd went mad, chanting and screaming.
Q: “What did you do?”
A: “I decided I couldn’t allow these two people to be murdered. I charged into the crowd, pushing them out of the way until I was standing over the men.
A: “I was like, ‘Oh shit’. My squad was nowhere to be seen. I fired a shot in the air.”
Q: “Has the crowd dispersed?”
A: “made no difference. In Iraq at the time, everyone was shooting in the air.”
We both burst out laughing.
A: “I was on my side. Standing over the two men, I aimed my rifle at the crowd and thought to myself, ‘F**k it’. Then a phalanx of my soldiers broke through and we were saved.”
Silence reigns again.
Q: “Do you want an election consultation?”
A: “Go on.”
Q: “You tell the wrong stories.”
He laughs heartily again and takes a long gulp of his pint. Tears welled up in his eyes as he described holding a dying child in his arms in Helmand in 2008.
“She was so beautiful. She had stab wounds from a mortar. Her grandfather ran to me in a panic and handed her to me to save her. He just kept saying, “Help! Help!’ She asked me for water, but I knew I couldn’t give it to her. There was nothing to be done. She was too badly wounded. Her name was Shabia. She showed me how completely useless war is.”
Q: “What do you think?”
A: “That I was part of the problem.”
Q: “Explain that.”
A: “In 2008 we were on patrol in the Upper Gereshk Valley when my paramedic stepped on a land mine. He was blown over a cliff and got stuck halfway up. One of my men climbed down to him and held his hand for 20 minutes as he died. Then he had to push him off the cliff so we could retrieve his body below. So pointless.”
I ask him about the scars around his nose and face. He says matter-of-factly: “It was a role-playing game [rocket-propelled grenade] which exploded next to me.”
Q: “You suffer?”
A: “I do.”
Q: “How come you?”
A: “In sights and smells and sounds. Maybe said something in conversation. Or a crying child. Everything is tainted by the past.”
I tell him he’s the first unionist I can remember saying yes. He laughs. His vision is a progressive society with an imaginative approach to education and a democratic political system, not “the sectarian workforce we currently have”.
Q: “Have you gotten to the point where you see yourself as a good person making a significant contribution?”
A: “No. My sense of failure hasn’t changed.”
Q: “Is the evidence irrelevant?”
A: “It is.”
He describes poverty and increasing inequality as the most important issues in society. He bemoans the DUP’s opportunism and sectarianism, calling it “short-sighted” and “doomed”.
He promotes free thinking in his party. As he points out, he’s pro-choice, but his deputy, Robbie Butler (both are tough as thieves), is pro-life.
When I get home I find Millican & Nesbitt’s Keep a light on the window. As I listen, I think of an exhausted 15-year-old boy and his lost father sitting in the living room at four in the morning. I think of a grown man crying as an Iraqi child dies in his arms. And I think of this fragile, brave, decent man who will change Northern society enormously. If only he could see that for himself.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/to-watch-a-man-die-at-the-end-of-my-bayonet-has-had-a-huge-effect-on-my-mental-health-41538369.html “Seeing a man die at the end of my bayonet has a huge impact on my mental health”