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Day Margaret Thatcher's minister saw the raw fury of unionism

Thirty years ago today Secretary of State Tom King, branded a Quisling by the DUP for his part in the 1985 Anglo-Irish accord, was harangued and hounded by angry unionists at City Hall in unforgettable scenes which were beamed around world

By Ivan Little

Published 20/11/2015

Tom King comes under attack
Tom King comes under attack
Police intervene
DUP stalwarts Nigel Dodds, Cedric Wilson and Jim Wells (with Ivan in the background) protest at City Hall over the deal brokered by Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher
Anglo-Irish Agreement

It was the day that Tom King came face-to-face with the Anglo-Irish dis-Agreement.

Thirty years ago today the Secretary of State got his first taste of the raw unionist fury over the Hillsborough deal that was to bedevil Ulster politics for years.

Mr King had gone to the City Hall in Belfast for lunch just five days after Maggie Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald signed the agreement that gave the Republic a formal consultative role in Northern Ireland - but how the stiff-upper lip Tory escaped without a bloody lip or even worse is little short of a miracle.

For Mr King's arrival and departure from the City Hall were surrounded by chaotic, shambolic security lapses which saw his bodyguards fighting hand-to-hand battles with demonstrators who'd got wind of the visit and were lined up at the back gate long before the Ulster supremo arrived.

Most of the protesters were DUP and Ulster Unionist figures who in 1985 weren't quite the readily identifiable figures they are today, including Jeffrey Donaldson, Sammy Wilson, Jim Allister, Jim Wells and Nigel Dodds.

I was there to report on the protest for UTV and saw a finger-wagging Frank Millar, the general secretary of the Ulster Unionist Party, warning the demonstrators to keep their protest peaceful and dignified.

But the DUP's Denny Vitty, who was later to end up in a flowerpot with a policeman, drove his car across the rear entrance to the City Hall in an attempt to keep the Secretary of State out.

The police responded with an attempt to outflank the protesters by trying to smuggle Mr King into the building via another entrance, but the demonstrators dashed to the side door just in time to see the ministerial car pulling up.

Mr King, who appropriately enough had been educated at Rugby School, was soon embroiled in a scrum with the protesters who showered him with verbal abuse - and eggs and flour.

Sober-suited civil servants used their briefcases to bat away the missiles but there was chaos as bodyguards hustled Mr King towards the side door while in the opposite direction a burly loyalist lunged at the Secretary of State, who stumbled backwards into the bodywork of his car before his assailant was pushed to the ground.

Mr King, who singularly failed to maintain his normal unflappable demeanour, was just inches away from safety, but in an unbelievable security gaffe the side doors of the City Hall had just been locked, kicking off another battle just to get the Secretary of State back into his vehicle.

A front headlight was kicked in, but Mr King's head was not, and he was driven hurriedly to the back entrance of the building where he was seen sprinting for sanctuary with his protection officers struggling to keep up.

My interviews with the protesters were heated as they denied my claims based on my own observations that Mr King had been physically attacked.

I told Jim Wells I'd seen punches thrown, but he retorted: "His own men locked him out of the City Hall. And that was the problem. Not us. We did not touch him."

For a while the protest descended into near farce with firebrand Scot George Seawright manically jumping up and down and hammering the back gate shouting abuse, before Vitty wrestled a policeman into the aforementioned ornamental flowerpot.

However, out of sight of the cameras, a number of the protesters had managed to get inside the City Hall.

One of them was Sammy Wilson, and he told me: "Some of us succeeded in getting through the gate after him (Mr King) and followed him to the banqueting hall where the assembled Quislings were sitting waiting to dine with him, and at that point we addressed the diners and the Secretary of State didn't stay in the room, or at least not as far as we could see."

Castlereagh DUP councillor Cedric Wilson was also inside, leaving the 'Ulster Says No' leaflets which he'd designed on the plates of all the guests at the top table, including Mr King.

Mr Wilson, who told me this week that he was headbutted by a police officer outside the City Hall, is one of the few protesters from that day who is no longer involved in politics.

He said: "I walked away because I meant what I said at the time - that I would refuse to sit in any administration with members who were inextricably linked to any terrorist organisation."

Other protesters have gone on to become MPs and ministers in the Stormont Executive along with Sinn Fein, but 30 years ago they were in no mood for any agreement and they waited for several hours for Mr King to come out of the City Hall after his lunch.

The Secretary of State had been a virtual prisoner inside as police tried to resolve the dilemma of extricating him from the building.

One of their first moves was to tow Vitty's locked car away, but it was a diversionary tactic, and a huge number of policemen and bodyguards soon formed a human shield around Mr King to bring him out the side door.

He was again jostled and jeered by the protesters, who called him a "traitor", and there were reports that he was hit on the head by a Union flag.

Seawright leapt on the back of Mr King's car, and he was later jailed for his part in the attack on the Secretary of State, who called the protesters "thugs".

"If they are not capable of rational argument and resort to this method, then it can only hurt their case," he said.

"Such violence and abusive reaction do not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of people."

Ian Paisley, who had arrived at the City Hall, branded Mr King a "white-livered cur".

I asked him if he condoned the physical assaults on the Secretary of State.

Mr Paisley's supporters tried to shout me down but the DUP leader told them that he would answer my questions.

He said: "Mr King today ordered the police to attack the Protestants including the Deputy Lord Mayor of this city. He couldn't do it himself because he is a yellow-bellied coward.

"But when he uses the police to assault people that are entitled to be in the City Hall, then those people are legally entitled to resist that."

Unsurprisingly, my report led the UTV teatime news bulletin and the BBC made a request to share the footage because their camera - the only other one there that day - had had technical problems.

Three days later TV crews from across the world were at the City Hall to cover another, somewhat larger protest with over 100,000 anti-Agreement demonstrators in attendance.

Several months later my report on the Tom King attacks won an award at a prestigious New York TV festival - a double-edged sword for UTV bosses who were embarrassed by all the furore because they had invited Mr King to the lunch in the City Hall in the first place.

Their chagrin eased, however, when they received a request for a copy of the report… from Tom King.

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