I recently had occasion to return (after an absence of ten years) to Belfast, where I was born and bred, and was so moved by the change of events that I felt compelled to record some of the more bizarre happenings that occurred during the week of my stay, i.e., 27th January until 3rd February in 1984.

I flew home in an ancient Fokker Friendship, operated by Midland Airways and due to be withdrawn from service that very week. It was a fitting herald to the archaic politics in which I was soon to be immersed.

Our little plane was flung around by the buffeting winds and so on retrieving my luggage on arrival, duly sealed by Gatwick security, I retired to the airport lounge where a couple of Guinness soon settled my butterflies.

My lingering meant I had to wait another hour for a taxi as I had missed the coach into town. When we finally set off we got no more than a mile or so before we encountered a herd of snow ploughs. They were scratching away at a ten-foot bank of snow, which, we were told, would take at least three hours to clear. Eventually after a skillful drive in reverse we were able, via the taxi radio, to venture a new path into town.

In my exile I had forgotten the stark beauty of Ireland; the mountain crested in a crust of snow, the sun glinting off the Gothic towers of the many fine churches, which sprang up at every corner, as if to rival the proliferation of public houses. Open spaces abound here, a heritage of the titled Planters whose palatial mansions were surrounded by ponds and woodlands. It thrilled me to see again the open beauty of the place, as I watched the multitudes of birds clutch grimly to branches as they were bounced around by the wind. Ulster seems to be always windy, and it’s the only place I’ve ever been where it can rain and shine at the same time, giving rise to spectacular displays of double rainbows.

On entering the City, slowly, for concrete road ramps abound in an effort to curtail speeding cars that have been known to foray into ‘the other side’ with a vengeance. It should be explained that Belfast is akin to Berlin in that it shares a ‘dividing wall’ which segregates the two communities of Catholic and Protestant, at what are now known as ‘Interfaces’ This wall may, in fact, be just a series of metal barriers swung closed at dusk to inhibit traffic, or an actual brick divide joining the gables of the last houses at the end of a street, but it stretches many miles and currently has been in place longer than the Berlin Wall.

These partitions will of course be covered with the inevitable mural, which will dogmatically proclaim the magnanimity of King Billy (William of Orange) or even the desired whereabouts of the Pope. They are so tastefully executed that their skill and colour is only surpassed by the subtlety of the local Graffiti which on the Catholic sides are often written in Gaelic, e.g., “SASANACH AMACH” –(Brits Out) or “TIOCFAD AN LÁ” – (Our Day Will Come”)

It is distinctly unhealthy to get trapped on the wrong side of the ‘line’ during the hours of darkness, as hooded vigilantes lurk on both sides. The vast majority of sectarian killings, which sadly still persist, occur near this borderline, the victims remains being found on the wrong side, where they should not have ventured. Fortunately symbols and warnings abound. On entering a Protestant area a multitude of Union Jacks are hoisted on every lamppost, as territorial markers, and often the very lampposts and curbstones areas painted Red, White and Blue to signify loyalty, whereas the Catholic kerbs are coloured Green, White and Gold to emulate the Irish flag. On large roundabouts in Catholic areas the traffic is blessed by statues of the Virgin Mary, one of which was actually procured and placed on top of a Protestant bonfire on the 12th July. This is the date Protestants commemorate the landing of Prince William of Orange, who bought an army from Holland to fight King James at the battle of the Boyne River, which is actually in the Irish Republic.

So many public transport buses have been torched, to act as barricades in riots that many enterprising individuals went to England and purchased old London Taxis, which nowadays are used to ferry the masses to spots other vehicles fear to trod. They will pickup and drop off almost anywhere and just keep collecting passengers until full, so like a bus you are immersed in a group of strangers. There are cabs that will only do the ‘Falls’ and others that cater for the ‘Shankill’
I was venturing up the Falls in one and got in at the city centre, with a bunch of strangers but when we headed up Divis Street, to go straight on up the Falls the driver stopped at the red light, with his indicator on to turn right. Then he cried out, “All set for the Shankill, then? ”
You could hear the muffled intake of breath as everyone thought they had taken the wrong cab, and would end up in a hostile area, with maybe no way of getting home. But, as the lights changed the cabbie chortled, “Got you all going there, so I did.”

On my short visit I noticed my mother always put a clean white handkerchief in my breast pocket. I never realized why until I stumbled across a riot. The army and police were on one side of the road, and on the hillock opposite were rioters flinging whatever they could get their hands on. Standing beside me was a small contingent of three or four people, waiting to pass up the road.
Just after a salvo of rubber bullets were fired this small group that I joined took out white handkerchiefs and started waving them, when a brief interlude then arose, giving us time to foray between the rival factions. It was just surreal as the slates and stones and baton rounds paused to let us pilgrims walk between them. As soon as we passed the stones and bricks and bullets continued.
Just up the road people opened their front doors, and ushered us in, where we stood together, strangers united in an effort of survival. As soon as there was a lull in the fighting I ventured forth to continue walking away up the street, and had to fight my panic as I heard a Saracen roar up behind me and bang open its metal doors loosing a horde of Squaddies who proceeded to run up the street towards me. I could hear their cobbled boots closing the gap but just kept my head down and prayed they would run past and not batter me. They must have had bigger fish to fry, for they careered on, straight past me.

One day as I watched an army patrol move into hiding on the driveway of the house opposite the owner drove home and strolled up the path with his briefcase completely ignoring, and being ignored by, the armed squatters who had taken up residence in his garden. I also remember being woken up one night by the sound of a shot and a sudden cry, followed by an army patrol barking orders, but not shooting back. I fell asleep thinking of the poor soul who was shot and was probably lying dead somewhere. I never did discover whose side he was on, but he was a human being, just the same.
The city hosts a multitude of murals and some Graffiti dictates abject sectarianism, like KAT (Kill All Teagues) in other words, Catholics, but I have also seen KAP, from the other side. Some graffiti may be useful to the communities like the one below, posted on the Falls Road by the Oglaigh Na H-Eireann (Irish Republican Army)
There is also a physical ugliness to the city in the shape of massive British Army Forts, which are kept shrouded by very tall reinforced netting designed to alleviate bomb attacks. These premises have machine gun emplacements mounted high up, and are embellished by bevies of T.V. cameras and radio antennae, which keep the foot patrols in constant communication with their headquarters.

One cannot, on reflection, but question the wisdom of placing huge rocks next to shops and bars in the city. Apparently they weigh over a ton each and are sprinkled in gay abandon over pavements in the hope of deterring any cars from parking, with intent to bomb the premises. These huge boulders are also placed outside shops because of the tendency of terrorists to drive straight through the storefront in their enquiries as to the owner’s financial status.

Most shops sport a metal mesh framework encasing the front entrance, and most bars, all of which in Belfast have been bombed at one time or another are doubly secured by turnstiles or security doors. The only premises, which seemed immune to attacks, were a pub in the heart of town, where ‘ladies of the night’ plied their trade, and the ‘Crown’ bar, opposite the ‘Europa’ hotel. This hotel was not so fortunate as it has acquired the dubious reputation of the most bombed hotel in the world.

Armoured jeeps scurry briskly about with soldiers mounted front and rear, their automatic rifles pointing purposely at passers-by; the six wheeled Saracen Armoured Cars are only paraded at ‘Tension Times’ like the mass exodus from school of the student population in Andersonstown, which glories in having the densest gathering of schools anywhere in Europe. Life indeed, some would claim, would be far too tame without such daily confrontations, which seldom escalate beyond the bottle throwing to the plastic bullet stage. These are called baton rounds now, and dozens of people every year, with broken bones, can testify to their efficacy. On rare occasions they have been lethal.

Helicopters stutter overhead flying just out of rifle range, their staccato casting a superior note of warning, garnished at night by the sudden sharp focus of a massive searchlight as it suddenly sweeps through your bedroom in the early hours, with a dazzling intensity that makes you jump out of bed. The Army uses these spotlights to plot movements on the ground as they hover steadily in the darkness above. Even more intimidating is the sudden appearance of an army spotter plane. These usually glide over the nearest roof-top, perhaps as you’re emptying the ashes from the fire, when it will suddenly rev up, to hedge hop over the next street in line, with a snarling cacophony guaranteed to scatter, in a moment, not only your ashes but your peace of mind.

As I wandered round town I was tempted to visit again the Pound Loney where as a callow youth I earned my living delivering Barney’s Baps, at the crack of dawn. As I approached the area, around Albert Street, I was stunned to see whole streets had disappeared in the troubles. What landmarks remained were occupied by squatters and I was fascinated to learn that Belfast City Council, while refusing to acknowledge their existence, furnishes them with a ‘Squatters Rent Book’ and as long as the bills for electricity, which demands a deposit of £75, and gas – currently 30 per cent higher than England – are paid promptly, they are left in peace. Some claimed that such a lifestyle, if pursued with diligence, could eventually acquire one a premises of one’s own.

But not for them the luxuries of Craigavon; a ‘new town’ built with massive and beautiful landscaping including even trout lakes and an artificially constructed beach. The recreational facilities alone, which include swimming pools, cost millions. Unfortunately, being in the middle of no-where it tends to appeal little to the parochialism of the working class community for which it was designed. Personal transport is also a non-affordable prerequisite for such clientele, so now this sparkling white elephant resides in breeze-blocked luxury as the doors and windows of the hundreds of new houses are perennially boarded up.
In the Province rioting and looting are commonplace. In court this week in Donemana, 50 people are charged with looting a whole street. Apparently when police arrived on the scene the crowd sent a spokesman to say they would disperse quietly if only they could just remove the larger bits of furniture from number 80, Allen Park. To their chagrin they were refused so promptly proceeded to stone the Police.

The R.U.C. Chief Inspector said in court that he’s never seen anything like it in all his life, and that two rounds of plastic bullets had to be fired before order was restored. Rubber and plastic bullets have killed seventeen people of late, and half were children. They are huge heavy solid missiles as can be seen below, which could knock you out if merely thrown hard. I have seen samples of these where screws had been inserted into the heads, rendering them even more lethal.
Today in Whitehall, it seems, astonishment reigns over the protest of the Southern Irish Premier, Garrett Fitzgerald. It concerns the visit this week by Prince Philip to the notorious Drumadd Army Barracks in Armagh where eight members of the Ulster Defense Regiment, stationed there, are charged with the murder of Catholics. The S.D.L.P. party and the Primate of Ireland Cardinal O’Fiaich were incensed, and the Cardinal claimed because the Home Office was clearly notified of Ireland’s displeasure at Christmas to a similar visit by Mrs. Thatcher to Drumadd, that this visit was a “calculated insult to the Catholic community.” The official Royal Ulster Constabulary view is that “Officer ranks in the U.D.R. appear to have lost control as individual patrols are seen to be completely autonomous”. (Quote) Needless to report the U.D.R. is, and always has been, a predominantly Protestant Regiment.

Sad to relate there are also perhaps a score of incidents where British troops have been charged with murdering civilians, but more prevalent are the small incidents like that reported in court on the 2nd February when Private Dennis Rutter broke the nose of a car driver he had stopped at a checkpoint, by butting him in the face with his head. In court Rutter was found guilty and fined £300.

The squalid war of the teenage unemployed also surfaced in court today with the trial of five teenagers charged with armed bank robbery. As I write news is coming in of three armed robberies, which tonight took place in different parts of the city. The three separate incidents all took place in space of an hour.

The prisons, needless to say, are full, with some people having sentences to serve of nearly a thousand years (sic) for murder and torture. Even long sentences do not seem to dampen the ardour of some for the bullet and the bomb, for in Magilligan Prison on Wednesday night Republican prisoners blew up a bathhouse whilst fellow inmates (Loyalists of course) were having showers. While most had a lucky escape six ended up in hospital.

In nineteen-seventy-six Republican prisoners, in the Maze prison camp, at Long Kesh refused to wear prison uniforms, in an effort to gain ‘Special Category Status’. This instigated the ‘blanket protests’ where prisoners wore blankets instead of uniforms, but in March, nineteen-seventy-eight, some prisoners refused to leave their cells to ‘slop out’ because of attacks by certain prison officers.

They were then provided with hand-basins to wash, but wanted showers installed in their cells, as well. At the end of April a fight occurred between a prisoner and a guard in H block 6. News then spread that the prisoner had been badly beaten when he was taken to solitary, and the rest of the group then smashed the furniture in their cells, so the authorities removed all the furniture. The prisoners were then left with just blankets and mattresses, and so refused to leave their cells for any reason.

This resulted in the ‘dirty protest’, where prisoners went naked, or fashioned garments out of the blankets, which soon got infested with lice, maggots and scabies, because excrement and food slops were then smeared on the walls. The officers had to suit up and hose the cells down, but they failed to realize that although one can live and breathe, surrounded by one’s own toxins, it is gut-wrenching to digest the smell of another’s’. It seems that hundreds of men partook, over time, in the dirty protest and quite a few women as well.

In the greatest mass escape in recent penal history, 37 terrorists escaped from the Maze Prison, last November, and one Gerry Kelly shot a prison officer, John Adams, at point blank range through the head. The bullet went in just above the eyes, and exited through the neck. Kelly was later to hold a major political position, as an M.L.A. (Member of the Legislative Authority) and is currently a member of the Northern Ireland Policing board. (Sic) Armed with six handguns they escaped past 28 alarm systems and forty wardens. Apparently the guns were smuggled in and passed over during ‘sex sessions’ (sic) that the authorities had permitted on the pretext of retaining a vestige of control over the inmates. Sir James concludes his report, ‘We have serious reservations about the use which the rooms in C Block were put to, prior to September 25th.’

The Hennessey Report found that prisoners took advantage of a work protest, which occurred when the Northern Ireland Office decided political prisoners should carry out physical or menial tasks, but the Republicans insisted instead on educational pursuits, primarily instruction in the Irish language (sic). This protest was the catalyst which engineered the supply of the handguns into the prison, one of which fantastically, had already been used in the 1981 Crumlin Prison escape.

I spoke to a prison officer at the Maze ‘H’ blocks, where ten hunger strikers starved themselves to death. He informed me that many efforts were made to tempt the hunger-strikers into eating again, and one method was to stalk the corridors with freshly fried onions and mince, hoping the smell would break their resolve. I was also told the authorities ordered special bottled water, fortified with iron and vitamins, to be distributed to the strikers in an attempt to keep them alive, but which the officers themselves ended up drinking.

Apparently the first hunger strike, in October 1980, was started and participated in by Brendan Hughes, against the wishes of the IRA army council. Hughes, who was ‘Officer Commanding’ at the time in Long Kesh called off the strike after fifty-three days for he believed a compromise had been reached with the British Government, but who later reneged on parts of this deal. Meanwhile Bobby Sands had become ‘OC’ in the camp when Hughes started his hunger strike, so when the second strike was announced in March 1981 he was elected to be number one in line for sacrifice, although Hughes himself was actually opposed to a second hunger strike. Sadly Bobby Sands also decided others should join him at regular intervals to maximize publicity, and ten volunteers starved themselves to death, over a total period of seven months.

More serious and something which affects us all are wanton acts of slaughter, mostly on innocents, daily fostered by a callous barbarism, reflecting savage indifference to the sanctity of life. Brendan Hughes had organized the atrocity of ‘Bloody Friday’ when in July 1972 twenty-two bombs exploded all over Belfast, leaving nine dead including a mother of seven, two soldiers, two teenagers and also 130 injured.

On the 1st February a 1,000 lb. (sic) bomb blew two young policemen to pieces as they drove over it in an unmarked car. The blast tore a 15 ft. crater in the road and blew windows out a mile away. One of the young men, Constable Bingham had planned to hold his wedding party that night (5th February) Instead his fiancée had to attend his funeral. Catholic Cardinal O’Fiaich proclaimed this as a foul and indefensible crime.

A ‘keg bomb’, a beer barrel filled with explosives, was this week detonated in Newry after a four-minute warning. It damaged 47 houses and put 13 people in hospital. Most explosions carry insufficient warnings like the recent Harrods atrocity. I was living in London at the time and was stunned to find people defending that action, claiming the 25-minute Harrods ‘warning’ was more than ample. I cannot describe the reactions I got from landlords in London, when I was looking for a room to rent, just after the Horse Guards atrocity, in Hyde Park.

I was also amazed to see in my local newspaper, the Irish News, an ‘apologist’ letter from one Jeffrey Dudgeon, who had the effrontery to claim that the Harrods bomb ‘did more for Irish Unity than a decade of car bombs in Ulster – because it had such a destabilizing effect in Westminster’. I have no doubt Mr. Dudgeon’s mentality, or lack of it, would also permit him to condone the Mountbatten slaughter.

The one thing not planned for in the Harrods atrocity, was the killing of a young American tourist. Most people over here were unaware of this and countered with such comments as ‘What a fuss over such a little bomb’. Wait until they see the financial repercussions for ‘Nor-Aid’ (Stateside funding) over their ‘little bomb.’

There was much more fuss and outrage in Belfast by the recent death of a man called Marron who, as a passenger in a stolen car, tried to run down a soldier at a Zebra Checkpoint. At the car changed gear and accelerated towards him the soldier fired a single shot which went through the window and killed Marron. Local feeling ran high even though Marron had been ‘disciplined’ in the past by his own I.R.A., (usually entailing legs being broken, or kneecapped) for similar offences. These punishment beatings are commonplace, and if arms and legs are broken together this is termed a ‘four-pack’.

Marron, incidentally, was due to appear in court the morning of his funeral for a similar charge of car theft. Not many were aware that on the same road, the previous day, two children had been knocked down on the pavement and killed by a hit-and-run driver in a stolen car. Owning a car in Ulster is a problem. Almost every family, at some stage, gets their car stolen for things like robberies, bombings, shootings or just transporting weapons.

The most dreaded scenario to this is where you are stopped while driving with a passenger, perhaps your wife. She is held at gunpoint while a deadly bomb is placed in the trunk of your car. You are then ordered to park outside somewhere like a courthouse and abandon the vehicle, without warning anyone. If the bomb detonates as scheduled you will get your wife back. If not you may still get her back, but not in one piece. The ultimate dilemma.

Low slung sports cars are taboo here, because the exhausts get damaged over the ubiquitous humps and ramps and no ‘squaddie’’ is going to hesitate in deciding if he’s being shot at, or if it was simply a car backfire that he just heard. If you break down or have a puncture in a lonely spot you should abandon your car because to hang about too long is an invitation for trouble. Sooner or later some ‘Samaritan’ will happen along with an offer of help. You will disappear and probably never be seen again. This is called getting ‘scooped’ or ‘bagged’ and has happened to scores of people. It is an experience few live to tell about.

Amazingly a flourishing tourist trade still continues between the North and South of Ireland. Weekend breaks and such provided £70 million for the Exchequer up North and day-trippers who visit Ulster to purchase food and drink provided another £70 million. Cattle also bring the North another £50 million in revenue. The Irish Punt is very weak at the moment, running at about three quarter face value of Sterling, but unemployment is a lot worse up North. The overall figure is about 20 per cent while towns like Strabane or Cookstown run at twice that. The figures for the male labour force out of work can be much higher. For example, 70 per cent in Londonderry, and 75 per cent in Ballymurphy. The Loyalists here claim that Catholics are all for the half crown but not for the Crown, and that they scrounge all they can from a State they wish to destroy, in claiming benefits. The other side of the coin is many prominent Loyalists, even heads of Paramilitary organizations, also possess an Irish as well as a British Passport.

A Catholic cousin of mine used to joke that when Saturday morning came round, and his family allowance was due, it was a race between him and the I.R.A. to see who lifted the money from the Post Office first. It does happen that many Post Offices get ‘hit’ over and over again and the same spots tend to be bombed over and over again, and the current vehicle of choice is a Ford Cortina. Tonight, Friday 3rd, a large photographic shop downtown was bombed. It was their ninth bomb in recent history.

In Channel Four’s “A Protestant View of Ulster” (screened 9th February), Lord Brooke claims that before the English Plantation of Ulster the high spot of Irish Culture was a spot of cattle thieving. He claims belief in a sophisticated native culture was nothing but a figment of the Gaelic imagination, but since the ‘Brit Purge’ a massive revival of Gaelic Language and Culture taken place. Many years ago when I attended St. Malachys College, Irish was dropped from the curriculum as a dead language. Nowadays you cannot get a job in a government position in Southern Ireland unless you can speak fluent Irish, and even ‘Up North’ Gaelic language schools abound across the province, attended by both Protestants and Catholics.

In Northern Ireland today a good education is no longer a guarantee of a job, for in 1978 there was a five per cent level of unemployment in Graduates. The figure recently has risen to 15 per cent. In Dublin there are now more car thefts and wanton vandalism than in Belfast, and the drug problem in Dublin is the worst of any city in Europe. There were constant collections on the streets of Belfast to prevent the import of this side of Irish Culture into the North of Ireland. Sadly it is now just as indigenous. One thing, also freely imported, is the network of R.T.E. television channels from the South enabling Ulster to pick and choose between six colour programs. The most controversial series on television was the recent screening of “The Thorn Birds”. According to the British Audience Research Bureau the second episode topped the overall popularity poll. But after a slating from the pulpit, concerning its ‘Priestly immorality’ it faded into oblivion. Officially, that is.

Blended into this political pot-pourri of heritage and heretics are thrust as colourful a bunch of characters as would do justice to a Barnum and Bailey Circus Act. The Reverend Ian Paisley who is probably the best Public Relations Officer the I.R.A. ever had, has just suggested the deployment of a three hundred mile long electric fence across the border between the North and the South. This ranks second only to General Westmorland’s plan for a Radioactive Gamma Belt between North and South Vietnam. Let’s hope the two great men never meet.

Gerry Adams, whose recent book “Falls Memories” provoked some poignant ones of my own upbringing on the Falls, has imported talent like Ken Livingstone, while lovely Selina Scott contributes a weekly column of prosaic banality where she recently told of her battle with fellow newscasters to say ‘Britain’ and not ‘England’ while reading the news. This, because the Loyalists, while claiming to be British, will often sport the “Wearing of the Green”, (a sprig of shamrock) on St. Patrick’s Day. All this ambivalence no doubt confounds our own Enoch Powell, sheltering here in a political backwater, where he can still muster in more local limelight than the English Press can afford him.

Ian Paisley is currently organizing massive rallies and protest marches in the full regalia of the Orange Order, to be accompanied by massed bands, all because the City Council of Londonderry voted this week to change its name to Derry Council, dropping the London prefix. The Rev. Paisley claims this is the last straw. The fact that an Act of Parliament would be required to alter the name of the actual city itself seemed irrelevant to his mass of glinty eyed fanatics, who revel in such Popish Plots. On the 1st February local I.R.A. Supergrass Robert Quigley, who has just implicated 16 men on 34 charges, said in cross-examination that he considered himself ‘a sensitive honourable man’

The leader of the moderate S.D.L.P. Party recently declared his view that the Irish Tricolour was more fitting a flag to fly on the Belfast City Hall as it represented the Green and Orange peoples of Ireland and the Union Jack, currently flying, represented one side only. The fact that the Irish flag is actually Green, White and Gold seems to have escaped his notice. But watch this space.

The Ulster Bishop Dr. Daly recently stated that the I.R.A.’s claim to be fighting “a war on behalf of the Irish People” just defined Ulster’s’ one million Protestants as non-people. He said they were merely invoking the principles of all Fascist Dictators in claiming the end justifies the means.
No matter how many Priests, or Bishops or Cardinals or Popes cry from the pulpit that “murder is murder” the I.R.A. and its minions, will always produce some patriot who will empirically prove, through aspiring 17th century politics, that Protestants and Catholics are basically not the same, not all God’s children with the same fears and hungers, and that to suffer this concept is to labour under a delusion, fostered only by faith and sustained by hope.

Radical Rooney ©