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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

Published 04/02/2011

September 2005 Army landrovers burn during serious rioting in a loyalist area of west Belfast on Saturday following the re-routing of an Orange Order march. Automatic gunfire and blast bombs were used against the police and army and three armoured military vehicles were destroyed by the rioters. Picture by Crispin Rodwell
September 2005 Army landrovers burn during serious rioting in a loyalist area of west Belfast on Saturday following the re-routing of an Orange Order march. Automatic gunfire and blast bombs were used against the police and army and three armoured military vehicles were destroyed by the rioters. Picture by Crispin Rodwell
Drumcree by Tony Hendron
December 1971 An ambulance man carries the body of baby Colin Nicholl from the wreckage of the Balmoral Furnishing Company on the Shankill Road in Belfast following a 'no warning' Provisional IRA bomb which killed 2 babies and 2 adults as well as injuring scores of other people on a Saturday afternoon - just before Christmas. Picture by Alan Lewis
Tarred, feathered and tied to a lamppost. Picture by Trevor Dickson
Thomas McMullan's 2001 shot of a British Army robot detonating a van bomb.
Fr Daly waving a bloody handkerchief as he and several others carry the fatally wounded Jackie Duddy, 17, past British soldiers on January 30, 1972, known as Bloody Sunday. Picture by Stanley Matchett
Loyalist murderer Michael stone storms Stormont
August 1994 A young boy and soldier on the Springfield Road in west Belfast Picture by Pacemaker
Picture by Gerry Fitzgerald
April 1977 Gerry Fitt MP showing how he defended his home with a pistol after a mob attacked it. Picture by Charles Cockcroft
Former DUP leader Ian Paisley reacts to questioning from the media outside Castle Buildings
2000 A young girl looks on as Loyalist Paramilataries carry the remains of her father and their commander through the streets of Tigers Bay in north Belfast after he was was killed by Republicans. Picture by Cathal McNaughton
July 2001 An RUC man lies injured during a riot in Ardoyne before an Orange parade returns passed a Nationalist area on the 12th July 2001. Picture by Ann McManus
The Funeral of the Quinn Children Ballymoney. Picture by Alan McMullan
August 1998 A river of blood runs across the road as security forces and emergency services recover bodies from the scene of the Omagh Bomb. The 'Real IRA' carried out the no-warning attack on shoppers in the crowded County Tyrone market town killing 30 people (including unborn 8 month term twins). Picture by Photopress
An impromptu street demonstration in the Ravenhill area of east Belfast celebrates the collapse of the Power Sharing Executive following a loyalist wave of strikes and blockades acroos Northern Ireland. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
December 2002 Six year old twins Sean and Dean Fegan peer through the hole where their letterbox had been following an explosion which rocked their home early this morning in an attack claimed this afternoon by the loyalist Red Hand Defenders who had put a pipe bomb through their letterbox. The blast happened in a Catholic area of Oldpark Road in north Belfast. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
June 1997 Louis Johnston (7), in tears as he follows his dad's coffin from the family church in Lisburn, County Antrim. Constable David Johnston was one of two RUC community officers shot dead by the Provisional IRA in Lurgan, County Armagh just days before the IRA ceasefire was announced. Picture by Alan Lewis
Hundreds of thousands of Unionists crowded Belfast City Centre in a huge "Ulster Says No" rally against power sharing after a call by the Rev Ian Paisley and other Unionist leaders of the time. Picture by Photopress
A youth is arrested at gunpoint by a Paratrooper in Derry on Bloody Sunday Picture by Fred Hoare
July 2002 Children cover their ears and scream as UFF gunmen fire a volleys of shots on the Lower Shankill Road in Belfast as a giant bonfire lights up the area during the traditional celebrations of the eve of the "Twelfth". Picture by Alan Lewis
Parents escort their children to Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School during a Loyalist protest in 2001. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
A mother cries on her son's shoulder as he relays the tale of his cruel beating by loyalist paramilitaries in Antrim. Picture by John Taggart
A man's body is recovered after the Enniskillen Bomb. Picture by Raymond Humphreys
In disguise. Ulster Workers Council Strike: 1974
Farmers from the North Down area form a barricade of tractors across the Belfast-Saintfield Road at Carryduff. Ulster Workers Council Strike 23/05/74
Labour exchange in Great Patrick Street. The queue for unemployment benefit is the biggest seen for a long time. Ulster Workers Council Strike 22/05/74
Faces in the crowd during the Ulster Workers Council Strike. 05/06/74
Newtownards Road Hi-jack. Ulster Workers Council Strike 16/05/04
Farmers celebrations in Hillsborough. Ulster Workers Council Strike 01/06/74
Another blockade during the U.W.C strike. May 1974
Soldiers posted near a petrol station. Ulster Workers Council Strike 1974.
A convoy travels along the road during the U.W.C strike. 1974
A man holds a chick by the foot, during the U.W.C strike. 24/05/74
Soldiers checking cars entering the harbour estate in Belfast after they had taken over the petrol and oil facilities. Ulster Workers Council Strike 27/05/74
Army generators move along the Sydenham By-Pass. Ulster Workers Council Strike 23/05/74
Young Farmers from the North Down area in a convoy of vehicles in support of the U.W.C strike. 1974
A soldier on guard at the Ulster Garages premises during the U.W.C strike. 1974
A U.W.C truck containing a coffin proclaiming the death of the Sunningdale agreement. Ulster Workers Council Strike 1974
Platform party at U.W.C Rally at Stormont. Ulster Workers Council Strike 05/06/74
Soldiers stand guard as a Ministry of Commerce worker serves petrol at one of the Belfast City centre filling stations. Only essential users were being supplied. Ulster Workers Council Strike May 1974
People gathered outside a convenience store. Ulster Workers Council Strike 1974
One of the first trade unionists to get through the picket line at Queen's Quay was the AFU district secretary Jimmy Graham (centre). Ulster Workers Council Strike 1974
Cars queued up waiting to enter the harbour estate at Queens, Belfast, when the Army set up check points at the entrances after taking over the petrol and oil facilities. Ulster Workers Council Strike 27/05/74
Ulster Workers Council Strike 23/05/74
News on the Shankill-the UWC notice board on the Shankill Road recieved a lot of attention from passersby. Ulster Workers Council Strike
Farmers protest march to Stormont. Ulster Workers Council Strike, May 1974
Ulster Workers Council Strike. May 1974
Ulster Workers Council Strike. 28/5/1974
Ulster Workers Council Strike. May 1974
Crowds at Stormont during the Ulster Worker's Council strike. 28/05/74
Crowds during the Ulster Worker's Council strike. 28/05/74
Orangemen On The Garvaghy Road, July 2000
RUC: Police officers at the 12th parades at Portadown 1985.
Portadown March at Drumcree bridge July 2002 Portadown District Orangemen parade down to the barrier at Drumcree before trouble flared
Drumcree, Northern Ireland. A makeshift road block on main road into Portadown town centre
An injured woman is led away, Drumcree July 1997
A petrol bomber on the Garvaghy Road
Orangemen go no further as they reach the barrier at Drumcreee preventing them from marching on the Garvaghy Rd.
Tempers flare as Orangemen are blocked from walking the Garvaghy Rd, Drumcree, July 2000
Orangemen at Drumcree
Drumcree July 2000
Drumcree - July 6th 2002. Soldiers erect a security fence at Drumcree Church in Portadown.
PSNI riot team firing plastic bullets
Drumcree Orange Parade At Portadown July 1998. Portadown Grand Master Harold Gracey gives a speech to the crowds outside Drumcree Church of Ireland.
Orange Order: Drumcree, Portadown
4/7/03 Garvaghy road residents spokesman Brendan MacCoinnaith pictured in Portadown.
Drumcree Orange Order Demonstration Scarfs drapped around the Road Sign of Drumcree near Portadown
Nationalist protesters walk to Garvaghy Road July 1997. Residents Coalition in Drumcree Portadown to voice their anger at Loyalist Parades through their area
Nationalist Protest March At Garvaghy Road March 1998. Brid Rodgers and Brendan McKenna in attendance at Garvaghy Road demonstration, Portadown
Northern Ireland Troubles gallery.....Nationalist Protest March At Garvaghy Road March 1998. Security Forces kept a Loyalist counter demonstration at a safe distance from Nationalist marchers near Oben Street, Portadown
Nationalist Protest March At Garvaghy Road March 1998. A young Loyalist waves the Union Jack at Royal Ulster Constabulary police in riot gear, from the Loyalist side of the town of Portadown, Northern Ireland, as a nationalist-republican protest march, passed by peacefully down the Nationalist Garvaghy road.
Disturbances On Garvaghy Road Portadown May 1998. Rioters hurl stones at RUC riot police on the Garvaghy Road, Portadown, Northern Ireland, during disturbances following an Orange parade in the area.
An RUC officer fires plastic bullets at rioting nationalists on the Garvaghy Road
Garvaghy Road Residents Meet With David Trimble May 99. Brendan McKenna arrives at Craigavon Civic Centre to meet the First Minister David Trimble in an effort to solve the Drumcree stand off.
RIR Support The Orangemen At Drumcree January 2000. Members of the Royal Irish Regiment with a flag supporting Orangemen in Drumcree.
Army Prepare For Drumcree July 2001
A young boy plays against a wall in North Belfast on the eve of the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Picture by Crispin Rodwell

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.

Source Independent

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