Northern Ireland - a cursed and charmed land
As a young reporter, Robert Chesshyre was sent to Belfast to cover the Troubles: he arrived as the first British soldier was killed. This week, he returned to discover what has changed
Forty years ago this week, I first flew to Belfast as a reporter. The "Troubles" had begun two years earlier, in 1969, but the violence that was to claim more than 3,000 lives was about to crank up massively. My opening report included the death of the first British soldier to die – Gunner Robert "Geordie" Curtis – machine-gunned in the New Lodge Road area in the early hours of 6 February.
For two-and-a-half years, I covered bombs, murders, shootings, (endless) riots, barricades, burning buses, tear gas, Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, stone-throwing, assassinations, and ethnic cleansing (though the term had yet to be coined). I was there when internment was (disastrously) introduced; when Stormont was sent packing; when the Bloody Sunday killings further twisted the spiral of grief and sectarian hatred.
Last week, I returned to an Ulster at genuine (if occasionally rudely interrupted) peace to revisit old haunts; stir past memories; and see what Belfast – rebranded, with justification, as "renaissance city" – is like, now that its people can go about their lives much as those who live on the mainland do.
I found a huge physical transformation – millions of pounds spent by way of "peace dividend" – possibly unparalleled outside the great Chinese building boom – and a constitutional settlement that is solid and set fair. But I found also that the mindset of fear and bigotry among many in the frontline communities remains almost as firmly rooted as 40 years ago. There are more sections of "peace wall" now than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, and both sides, protecting their windows with steel cages, want them to stay.
I lunched with Ian Paisley (now Lord Bannside), an impossibility for me 40 years ago as then he had no (or little) truck with those who wrote, as I then did, for ungodly "Sabbath" papers. When I reminded him of this, he laughed that was "a religious thing", as if religion had nothing to do with what went on in those years.
There was one Saturday when he made an exception. We met amid the carnage of a bombing that killed four people, including a baby and a child, on the Protestant Shankill Road; he made a thunderous denunciation of the inept Stormont government and told me to report it. I reminded him that his words would be read by The Observer's Sunday audience. "But, Mr Chesshyre," he said swiftly, "this is an emergency." He retains that sense of humour.
We met at the Europa Hotel – in the 1970s, the battered media HQ (no one else was foolish enough to stay in central Belfast) which bore the proud, if dubious, title of "the world's most bombed hotel". Then, Paisley would have scorched me with verbal fire and brimstone, but he (like his province) is greatly altered. He is still well protected by a security team, entering the lobby wearing a dark slouch hat and a coat reaching almost down to the marble floor.
But the "big man" has shrunk. Meeting him now is like strolling on the grassy slopes of an extinct volcano. It is pleasant and safe, but less exhilarating than when Paisley erupted with that fierce Biblical oratory that carried unamplified the length of a football field. He made the point that struck me within a few days of arriving in 1971. The London powers-that-were totally "failed to understand the minds of the Protestants or the Roman Catholics".
There was a huge (and fatal) gulf between what could rapidly be learnt on the ground and the information fed to decision-makers. A journalist has access to all areas; this included the paramilitaries. It was clear that the Troubles would be of long duration and that the violence would very shortly escalate bloodily.
Yet my early pieces from Belfast reported "briefings" (from the Army and Stormont government) asserting that the Provisional IRA (then just hitting its straps) was a beaten bunch fast losing support. Ted Heath was Prime Minister and Reginald Maudling, as Home Secretary, was ultimately "in charge"' of Northern Ireland. One had to pinch oneself at the delusional nonsense they were fed when they visited.
It was as if Noah had been told he was wasting his time building an ark as the rain would prove merely a passing shower. Heath was reassured that "Ulster Catholics, granted civil rights by last year's reforms, want to return to peace and normality". Did Heath accept what he was told? I suspect so.
I have remembered that disconnection between what was really happening and the information on which policy was formulated. I cannot hear a general or politician pontificating about Iraq or Afghanistan without thinking, "Have they – now as then – been fed an over-optimistic and/or erroneous brief?"
Denial was the constant default position, for example the refusal to accept that a "loyalist" backlash had started and would lead – in pockets, at least – to near civil war. In early 1972, I was taken (cloak-and-dagger fashion) to see loyalist weapons, by then not yet used in anger. There were just two rifles, but I was made well-aware that there were plenty more where those came from.
Not long afterwards, I learnt the truth of this at first-hand. A loyalist strike shut Belfast down, and I and a colleague went (foolishly) to meet a leader of the sinister-sounding Red Hand Commandos in east Belfast. The streets were deserted when, suddenly, two high-velocity shots whistled past my right ear.
A woman watching from her front door shouted a belated warning. By luck, there was a set-back shop doorway to our left offering protection. We crouched for 40 minutes. Eventually, the army arrived and engaged with our gunman. He was among the first loyalist paramilitaries to be shot dead, and I have often wondered whether the rifle he fired was one I had been taken to see.
Last week, I tried to find the doorway that saved my life, but the area has been redeveloped and I was lost. Belfast at peace looks different.
Shortly afterwards, I was shot at in Ardoyne, a republican stronghold, where I was driving with a contact. Two cracks of a rifle (presumably fired by Provisional gunmen) and two holes in the car boot. We leapt out, abandoned the car and completed our journey via a back alley.
I was there when Stormont – working on out-of-date lists – ordered the detention without trial of supposed IRA terrorists. Fires burned across the city to the raucous accompaniment of thousands of beaten dustbin lids – a cacophony of defiance. Stormont was finished, and soon, Westminster rule was introduced.
The task of a Sunday newspaper writer was to identify a story behind the chaos that would be read by people who had followed events carefully all week. My daily colleagues set out wearing crash helmets each night to cover the nail bombs, the bursts of gunfire, the burning vehicles, the police stations under siege. Making sense of this was lonely (and often scary), and I would find myself in places where no prudent outsider would trespass.
One night, I was asked by some youths, "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" "Neither, I'm a reporter," I replied. "Yes, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic reporter?" They were fortunately prepared – just – to accept that it was possible to be a secular (or perhaps a heathen) journalist.
Allegations of brutality were made against the British Army. I met a distinguished surgeon returning his Second World War medals to the Ministry of Defence. Writing to Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Defence, he said: "With regret and a deep sense of shame and disgust, I wish to sever any connection I have with the British Army...' Even this was not the lowest ebb – five months later, British paratroopers shot dead 13 civil rights marchers in Londonderry.
In the early hours of what was to become Bloody Sunday, I was in the bar at the Europa Hotel, discussing with colleagues whether I should stay. Having reported a civil rights march that day, we were somewhat frayed (the smell of tear gas clung to our clothes) and it seemed likely that the Derry demonstration would be similar, even if larger. I made the wrong call and went home to London.
I was back in double-quick time, a small part of me relieved that I hadn't been in Derry to be shot at – a friend claimed that a soldier took aim at him, though he didn't explain why the soldier missed – and the braver part of me cursing that I had missed one of the defining moments of the Troubles.
Eighteen months later, I quit Belfast. One evening, I was with Henry Kelly, of The Irish Times and The Observer (later a broadcaster in London), watching buses blazing, youths throwing stones, and rubber bullets zinging about. "You know," Kelly said, "we could still be here doing this in 20 years."
It wasn't all muck and bullets, however – there were laughs and high jinks. The Europa, when it wasn't being attacked, became a raucous, hedonistic evening sanctuary for reporters – the prospect of dreary years ahead, allied to my pessimism over government policy, made the thought of becoming attached to the Troubles unappealing.
Years later, Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Observer's editor-in-chief, asked me to go back. My main stint in Belfast had been while David Astor edited the paper. He often subbed my copy and always trusted what his reporters wrote. I didn't want to return on a long leash with O'Brien – who had firm Unionist opinions – holding the other end.
Last week, to make this returning reporter feel at home, there was a major bomb alert in north Belfast. A main road was closed; shops were shut; residents were forced to sleep on the floor of a church hall. The warning – from an IRA "continuity" group – had been vague and it had taken the police a day to find the device; had it exploded, the casualties might have been horrific.
The logic behind this bomb was the logic that underpinned much of the Troubles. After all the bloodshed and the destruction, Ireland remains divided. The violence of continuity groups today is the violence of the IRA yesterday. And now, many from the one-time IRA are part of the government.
So I asked those I met – including Paisley, Arlene Foster, an Assembly minister, and Joe Hendron, the only person to have defeated Gerry Adams in an election (in 1992, when he won the West Belfast Westminster seat for the Social Democratic and Labour Party) – why they are so sure that peace is permanent.
The answer is not war-weariness (for that can be forgotten), but the arrangements that give both communities a lock on policy and equality as citizens. Some 30 per cent of the Northern Ireland Policing Board are now Catholics, up from 8 per cent. "You don't destroy what you yourself have a stake in," a man in the Falls Road said. Catholic Irish culture is recognised and encouraged, and cross-border institutions bolster the security of what is (almost) now "one state, two systems".
Nationalist columnist Brian Feeney made the comparison with other countries where antagonistic communities have been unwillingly yoked together. A modus vivendi is arrived at, since the alternative does not bear thinking about. Belgium springs to mind. It is possible to live in harmony even when one doesn't love one's neighbour. Northern Ireland finally tolerates its historic tribal variety.
Gazing down from the 10th floor of the refurbished Europa at the refurbished city, I tried to reorient myself in these once-bomb-blasted and-road-blocked streets, and was largely defeated. Offices hummed; workers scurried for lunchtime sandwiches; at night, the city's youth flocked to its nightclubs.
Yet a few miles away, the people of the Falls and Shankill, certainly no longer killing one another and happily sharing the city centre, lurk behind their peace walls. The past here has never been another country: memories are too long. It is Ireland's charm and Ireland's curse.