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An era of MADness

By Henry McDonald

Wags have reacted to the sale of Northern Ireland's only nuclear bunker by pointing out that, even if the 235 VIPs selected were to be placed inside the underground shelter before the Soviet SS20s and intercontinental ballistic missiles hit our soil, they would still only find themselves in Ballymena when they finally ventured outside.

The price tag of £575,000 for the Cold War relic and the all-mod-cons estate agent's pitch for the subterranean escape hole from nuclear holocaust, however, not only made us all laugh, but it also conjured up memories, good and bad, from the era when the USA faced off the USSR in the final confrontation between capitalism and communism.

Already, Eighties' nostalgia is big business, with the current Cold War German drama Deutschland '83 getting an outing on Channel 4, while ITV are planning to show another series of The Americans - both shows based on the same premise of communist spy-sleepers implanted in the heart of the capitalist West.

That cultural harking back to an era when the planet was divided by binary ideologies which avoided all-out full scale war due to the doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" will certainly do estate agents Lambert Smith Hampton estate agents no harm in helping them to flog off their nuke fallout shelter.

Yet, for those who actually lived through that decade, the Cold War was a mixture of existential anxiety and political exhilaration.

There were genuine fears that the hawkish approach of Ronald Reagan to the Soviet bloc, combined with his legendary buffoonery (think of his "joke" on an American radio station during which he pretended to his fellow citizens that the US was about to bomb Russia in five minutes) might push the USSR into reacting the wrong way and initiate a missile strike, sparking thermonuclear war

Alongside Reagan's "Star Wars" programme of creating a space-based anti-missile shield that would, allegedly of course, protect the USA from Soviet attack, the sabre-rattling rhetoric of Ronnie and his hawks had not just the Russians on the edge, but even some of the Western European allies of the US.

Even in the Troubles-blighted Eighties, there were widely held fears here that we might all be vaporised by nuclear weapons, as opposed to being caught up in an IRA bomb in Belfast city centre. This writer recalls being woken up in the early hours of the morning in the early half of the Eighties, around the time of the A-Level exams, hearing an unusual roaring sound in the sky and later seeing something bright and burning soaring through the clouds, and thinking, for just a few seconds, that maybe this was it, that someone had pressed the button and the Big One was about to begin.

Popular music, of course, didn't help becalm us, because Frankie Goes To Hollywood warned about Two Tribes going to war, while Swedish rockers Europe assured us we were all entering the period of the "Final Countdown".

This was the era of the mass demonstrations of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament across Britain and similar protests all over Europe, but especially in West Germany, where NATO had deployed Pershing and Cruise missiles in the closest country to the Cold War frontier.

While government information films were screened advising us to "Protect and Survive" a nuclear strike by taking the living room door off its hinges and then hiding under it when the mushroom cloud went up, CND urged millions to "Protest and Survive" and join the fight against the deployment of Cruise, Pershing and SS20 medium-range, nuclear tipped missiles on European soil.

Of course, the Cold War ended not with a bang (mercifully), but rather the dying whimpers of communist regimes across Eastern Europe and beyond.

It is ironic that the Ballymena nuclear bunker wasn't fully completed until 1990, by which time the Berlin Wall had fallen and Marxist-Leninist dictators were falling like nine pins - thanks, mainly, to mass, peaceful demonstrations and general strikes (the exception being Romania) and the Soviet Union itself was only one year away from dissolution.

Paradoxically, the world today appears an even more dangerous place than the time the USA and USSR faced one another across several de-militarized zones, walls and Iron Curtains.

It is a sobering fact of life that if a doomsday cult like Islamic State ever got its hands on a nuclear weapon, no matter how small or crude, they would probably use it either against Israel or one of the Arab states it regards as treacherous.

Yet until we can be certain that the maniacs of extreme Islamism actually have the bomb, we might as well turn our very own nuclear shelter into something practical and truly useful.

Perhaps it would make for a unique TV studio designed for a specific show.

It could be modelled on Channel 4's successful series Come Dine With Me, in which the camp, the mouthy, the shouty and the downright argumentative are thrown together in each other's houses to eat each other's food and then bitch about it.

Given that we are a morbid lot who have been living on the existential edge for decades due to the Troubles of our own, the local version of this show could be filmed deep down in the Ballymena earth, based on the assumption that when the contestants get outside, the rest of the planet will be destroyed.

How about calling it Come Die With Me?

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