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child of terror Ex-IRA man John Clarke on a mission to stop kids falling through the cracks like he did

Clarke says he finds it very difficult to shake off his past wrongs

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John Clarke, who served jail time for republican  activity claims to have moved away from his Violent past and his sole aim is to bring the youth from both sides of the community together through his charity Rehabilitate Youth

John Clarke, who served jail time for republican activity claims to have moved away from his Violent past and his sole aim is to bring the youth from both sides of the community together through his charity Rehabilitate Youth

John Clarke, who served jail time for republican activity claims to have moved away from his Violent past and his sole aim is to bring the youth from both sides of the community together through his charity Rehabilitate Youth

John Clarke knows just how easy it is for young people in working-class communities to fall between the cracks.

At the age of 12, the Ardoyne man held his first gun after joining the youth wing of the Provisional IRA.

In the years that followed the 44-year-old was not only arrested and jailed multiple times but was also subjected to the paramilitary gang's perverse version of justice.

During his teen years he estimates to have been abducted, interrogated and severely beaten by the Provisional IRA "between 15 and 20 times".

One violent assault, which ­involved a grown man kicking him between the legs over a dozen times, left him in hospital.

By his mid-20s, he was in prison.

Labelled a dissident republican, blackmailer and more recently a conspiracy theorist, the Belfast man says he doesn't believe he deserves the bad press he receives.

But he admits his past is hard to shake.

"I am still capable of what I did in my past," he tells the

"But it's what you choose to do going forward that counts."

Eight years after being released from prison for his part in what was described as a Continuity IRA extortion plot, he now claims to have left criminality completely behind him.

Today he's director of youth organisation Rehabilitate Youth Ireland where he's using his own experiences of falling into ­paramilitarism to discourage other children from doing the same.

"Racing motorbikes about the streets, causing hassle for themselves.

"And I spoke to them and asked, what are you here for? Why are you on the streets? And they looked at me with suspicion ­because of my name and what I have been associated with.

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"And they said, there's nothing to do. Well, what is it you like doing and why are you not doing it?

"Why are you not boxing? 'Can't afford it,' they said. Why are you racing a motorbike around the streets? 'Because I like racing'.

"So, the question was how do we help these kids do what they want, without getting in trouble.

"The only other answer for people in those communities who were getting into trouble was getting a bullet in their leg.

"So when I came out of Maghaberry the last time, I had about four different projects in my head that I wanted to do and that led to Rehabilitate Youth Ireland being set up.

"I saw him with other kids in the wee groups he was involved in and getting caught up in the community element of it - and the good impact it had on people.

"Watching what they were achieving in a tiny wee room in a community centre, I just thought, imagine what they could achieve if they had a proper dance studio.

"Kids here would struggle to pay to enter competitions and the fundraising inspired me. Their mummies were out knocking on doors every night."

Despite the success of Clarke's group, it is often his past that grabs the headlines.

"I come from Ardoyne and growing up there at that time was a very surreal place, especially as a child not understanding what was going on.

"In 1987 my uncle Francie Notarantonio was shot dead. It affected me emotionally to the point where I was destined for going into what I did."

Clarke said he did not come from a "republican family".

"I never heard my mummy or my daddy talk republican in their lives," he said.

"When I was a teenager, my da caught me coming into the house with 14 balaclavas stuffed up my coat. It was the worst beating I'd ever got."

The dad of four said it was joining a flute band aged 12 in Ardoyne that catapulted him into militant republicanism.

"We learned to play in the Unity Flats in north Belfast and I remember one Monday we were invited down to Carrick Hill to play. I went down on the Wednesday and never came back.

"I got involved with a big republican youth element, the people in charge would have been in their early 20s and I think I was the youngest who came on board.

"We were involved in stuff that grown men wouldn't have even been involved in, house takeovers... I was very hands-on from the very start.

"The strange thing about it was, by the time I was a 13/14 years old, they (the IRA) actually listened to me. I became very influential in that whole circle which was very strange.

"I was able to talk to grown-ups, to older IRA men on the same level. I didn't even see myself as a child, that was my mindset.

"Looking back, had I been born a Protestant, I would have joined the army.

"I always had that calling in me and I tried to join the Irish Army but there was a five-year waiting list."

The youth group director's first arrest was at the age of 13 for breach of the peace, after standing on the street waving a tricolour.

It was that type of defiance that led to him being loved and hated by elements within the Provos.

"I started rubbing people up the wrong way, my name was getting thrown in all the time about stuff and I was constantly getting called to the Sinn Féin centre.

"So that's how the confrontation started with them and that's probably why I stayed away from them, because they were out to get me from the ages of 14 to 16."

"This guy was a punishment beater, that's what his role was. It was just one clash after another, and he took a bad umbrage against me.

"I remember my daddy phoned me and said the IRA want you.

"I was accused of stuff. So, I was questioned by my daddy's friend.

"One of the things they would have taught you was to black out what you were hearing, find a spot of interest in the room, whether it's a tile on the wall or a spot on the roof, occupy your mind.

"So, during the IRA interview with this senior man I slipped out of his conversation, I was focusing on the posters on the wall behind him and he just stopped dead. He looked at me, looked at what I was focusing on and said, 'what are you doing?'

"My dad didn't have a clue; he didn't understand why I was being shouted at. The IRA man said to me, 'where did you learn that?'

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John Clarke speaking to reporter Patricia Devlin

John Clarke speaking to reporter Patricia Devlin

John Clarke speaking to reporter Patricia Devlin

"He turned round to my dad and said, Brendan, he's using anti-interrogation tactics against me.

"A couple of weeks later, that same IRA man sent for me. I went with my da to the Sinn Féin centre and they sent him away.

"I was taken to a house, up an entry, 13 doors on the left-hand side and they brought me in and terrorised me.

"I think that guy's thinking was, let's see how well you do under interrogation. And he hurt me, physically. Terribly.

"They said I was involved in stealing a car... I didn't steal cars. It was a load of nonsense; it was any excuse to get me in. They put a gun behind my ear and constantly released the slider, so it slammed into the side of my head.

"One man had placed a bar stool on my toes and constantly pushed down on it. It went on for hours.

"I learnt a lot about myself during that, including your body's ability to handle pain.

"After a short space of time, it didn't hurt anymore. They eventually let me go and at 15 years of age, with my older brother, I had to go to hospital and get my private bits stitched closed."

"I never lost respect for the army. I lost respect for gobshites," he said. "But they'd (IRA) done too much on me for me to be still with them."

After being kneecapped at 17 for "criminal activity", it is understood Clarke became involved with the INLA, although he denies ever being a member.

"Unlawful imprisonment, house takeovers and car ­jackings," he said. "That was all in one night. "We went into a house to take over control of the car to use in an operation which was a robbery.

"We were on our way to do an off-licence. I can't go in to too much detail of why I did it, but back then there would have been days where you woke up, someone came to your door with a piece of paper and you had to do what you were told.

"I was never convicted of membership, but I am probably the only person ever in this state to be charged with being a member of both the INLA and Óglaigh na hÉireann at the same time, which is just impossible. The judge threw those charges out."

He added: "In 1998 I found myself on the IRA wing in Long Kesh with senior IRA men including Bobby Storey and Padraic Wilson.

"Whenever I came in, they were just talking about the Good Friday Agreement, and I had a front seat. They analysed everything, documents had to be drafted up by prisoners, there were some intelligent guys in there. That was a turning point in my life.

"I went in as a 21-year-old and came out in 2000 and I was a man. It gave me a different focus."

In 2004, he was subjected to another punishment shooting, this time by the INLA.

"It was just one bullet in the calf," Clarke recalled. He refused to say why he was shot.

Had it just been his involvement in paramilitaries 20 years ago, Clarke may well have a point about his past being allowed to be forgotten about.

But in 2014 he appeared in court with two other men for what was described as a Continuity IRA blackmail plot against a young Belfast businessman.

The trial had heard how Clarke and another individual went to Witness A's place of work and demanded he hand over £8,500 as the pair knew he had been involved with a man who had been shot in the legs three days earlier.

He added: "I have never been involved with a dissident republican group and I'm not involved with republican paramilitaries anymore."

More recently, Clarke was at the centre of anti-lockdown protests.

Asked if he felt it was irresponsible, he replied: "No." He added: "What is a conspiracy theorist? Someone who looks between the lines and asks questions.

"I have my own views and I am allowed to express them, just like everyone else."

p.devlin@sundayworld.com

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