Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

We were attacked, and in some cases with deadly intent

Belfast-born NIO minister Brian Mawhinney faced down unionist violence and intimidation in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement

The second half of my ministerial service in Northern Ireland focused on trying to re-establish 'normal' political dialogue, which had collapsed following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Unionists were genuinely angry with an agreement that had been negotiated over their heads and, on the day it was signed, Hillsborough was 'invaded' by unionists.

Amid the protesters' noise, the Rev Ian Paisley's booming voice stood out. He had not seen the agreement, but was irrevocably opposed to it, anyway.

Years later, Margaret Thatcher made clear her reservations about the agreement. Apparently, she thought it owed its existence more to Foreign Office influence than it did to No 10. Still, she signed it.

Unionist MPs projected their anger against the agreement by refusing contact with Northern Ireland ministers and by resigning their parliamentary seats, thereby forcing a popular judgment on the hated agreement.

But some rank-and-file so-called unionists were out of control. We were attacked physically, as well as verbally – in some cases with what appeared to be deadly intent.

I do not exaggerate. An attack on Tom King finished up as a court case. The only reason others did not was ministerial restraint and forbearance.

The worst attack on me occurred at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle. I had been invited to attend a teachers' union annual conference to give the keynote address.

But my proposed presence was leaked and a large and aggressive crowd gathered round the gate to welcome me.

As we walked the last 50 yards to the door, they broke through a police cordon and charged up the drive to get me, armed with pieces of wood, hockey sticks and, bizarrely for unionists, hurling sticks.

I absolutely refused to run for the shelter of the hotel door. So TV viewers saw what to them should have been the alarming sight of armed men and women intent on braining a Government minister. It was very ugly and, truth to tell, frightening.

For many months after the signing of the agreement, ministers' travel around the province was difficult and dangerous. On occasions, the police advised us not to cross protest lines.

Sometimes we took their advice. More often we insisted on fulfilling our engagements. One particular incident illustrates this attitude.

It was not the most dangerous evening in the protest, but, because it involved my family, it was the nastiest. My contempt for those involved remains undiluted.

One Friday evening, after I had completed ministerial business, my wife, our children, my elderly widowed mother and I went to see a musical at a theatre in Belfast.

During the interval, my Special Branch officers warned me that a few members of the audience had recognised me and were planning a demonstration.

No sooner had they done so than a couple of 'upright' citizens came over and offensively remonstrated with me about the agreement. When we returned to our seats, a few people stood up and, in loud voices, denounced me and the agreement and shouted that I should leave. I ignored them.

Towards the end of the show, my minders warned me that, during the interval, someone in the audience had rung a local radio station, told them where I was and was encouraging unionists to come down to demonstrate; to tell me I was not welcome in my home country. As if I would be cowed by their intimidation.

The Special Branch officers suggested that we leave the theatre early. I refused. I knew the family were enjoying the show. More important, I was not willing to create the public impression of running in the face of bullying.

However, in a compromise to ease the pressure on the family and the police, I did agree that we should move as soon as the audience stood to applaud the actors.

Outside there was quite a large howling and jeering mob being held back by police. Their language was at times foul, though fitting for the mindset of people who would threaten an old-age pensioner and young children.

Normal police procedure was that minders ensured the safety of their 'principal' by getting the minister into the car first. For the only time in my six-plus years in Northern Ireland, I broke that rule.

I saw my wife and one of the children into our car, then escorted the other two children plus my mother to theirs. In this small way I showed my contempt for the crowd.

Not all the pressure on ministers was of the mob variety, however. Sometimes, the offensive protest was personally delivered.

My diary for my third day in the province provided the unionist leadership with its first opportunity for an attack against the agreement – this time for the benefit of TV cameras.

I was scheduled to speak at a European Union event at Queen's University. Initially, everything was calm and those present were welcoming.

Then the Rev Ian Paisley and John Taylor made their grand entrance. They had been invited, as this was a European event and they were both MEPs.

The drama of the moment required confrontation, so eventually they headed in my direction. John left most of the talking to Ian – not that he had much choice.

Ian berated me for agreeing to join this terrible government and for betraying my fellow countrymen. He told me that I was worse than all the other ministers because, being from the province, I should have known better.

I determined to present a contrast to Ian, so I smiled warmly into the TV camera and said simply, "It is good to be home." That was all.

But the effect was electric and the response of the guests enthusiastic. That short sentence did me – and the government – more good than would have been generated by the winning of months of argument.

It was the first high-profile clash between a minister and the re-elected leaders of unionism.

And it set the tone for all-too-many months of useless confrontation.

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