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Werner Heubeck: the boss who carried bombs off buses


Troubled times: Werner Heubeck (left) at the scene of an IRA explosion at the Ulsterbus terminal at Winetavern Street in Belfast

Troubled times: Werner Heubeck (left) at the scene of an IRA explosion at the Ulsterbus terminal at Winetavern Street in Belfast

Job done: Werner Heubeck

Job done: Werner Heubeck

Job done: Werner Heubeck

Job done: Werner Heubeck

A burnt out bus at Stanley’s Walk in Londonderry in 1976

A burnt out bus at Stanley’s Walk in Londonderry in 1976

Taking control: Werner Heubeck on one of his buses

Taking control: Werner Heubeck on one of his buses


Troubled times: Werner Heubeck (left) at the scene of an IRA explosion at the Ulsterbus terminal at Winetavern Street in Belfast

Werner Heubeck and I were - let's face it - a most unlikely combination; you could not make it up if you tried. The "odd couple" that had to try to keep Ulster's buses on the roads and its bus drivers safe was a team made up of a former soldier in Germany's Afrika Corps and a Catholic trade unionist from what some in the media and some politicians chose to demonise as the 'Bandit Country' of Crossmaglen.

We were also outsiders in a world where everyone was dripping with degrees and diplomas because we both left school with no formal qualifications. What we knew we had learned from life and hard experience.

Werner Heubeck was a tough man and a brave man. He was born in Nuremberg in 1923 and at the age of 19 he was conscripted from the Hitler Youth to be a soldier and engineer in the Luftwaffe's Herman Goering Division. He was posted to France, then Italy and finally North Africa.

The ship in which he was being evacuated from North Africa was sunk, but he managed to swim several miles back to the North African coast, where he was taken prisoner and sent to the United States.

After the war, back in Germany and working as a proof reader and translator at the Nuremberg trials, he met and eventually married Monica who had worked in Bletchley Park breaking German codes during the war. He was working in Scotland when he saw the advertisement for the job of UTA managing director in 1965.

He died in 2009 and I was not at liberty before to recount his good deeds to alleviate suffering, because he swore me to secrecy on the grounds - or so he said - that he never wanted to appear "soft". But, after all these years, it is only right that tribute should be paid to his decency and humanity.

He once said to me: "Mr O'Callaghan, you have a very high IQ in reading situations." My response was: "No, but I do have animal cunning when weighing up what was going on in another fellow's mind."

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And it was this combination of "bleeding hearts and bloody brains" that enabled us to keep the buses on the roads during those years when never a day went by without attacks on buses and assaults on drivers.

We were also management and labour, normally engaged in naturally combative roles, and we had our disputes, which we fought vigorously.

I even had to take action to stop him driving buses in an emergency - he had his HGV licence, but I regarded it as unacceptable to have him driving a bus for PR reasons whether designed to boost his own public standing or to put the unions in a bad light.

I had no support from the union hierarchy for this uncompromising line ("They're his bloody buses, sure he can drive them if he likes"), but my reasoning was that if we allowed Heubeck to drive buses before we knew it he would have inspectors driving buses during industrial disputes. So, it could not be allowed to develop.

We settled this argument, however, in a humorous way, which reflected the spirit of an adversarial relationship devoid of any personal rancour. It was agreed that if Werner drove a bus the bus driver who was next on the rota and who should have been driving it would be paid as if he and not Werner had done the driving.

Clearly, what we shared was a passionate concern for the industry and the men who kept it going - 17 of whom paid with their lives just for doing their job. And we were fast running out of replacement vehicles. Between 1964 and 1998, as Michael Collins in his book Buses Under Fire meticulously recorded, 1,484 buses were maliciously destroyed.

An idea was floated and acted upon whereby large numbers of old secondhand buses were purchased in England. Shop stewards were organised to drive them to the boats which brought them to Belfast. On arrival, they were initially parked in Duncrue Street and later at Sydenham Airport.

Engineers set about making them fit for service, which meant that if 10 buses were lost the previous day we had another 10 ready to roll the next morning. In that way we were able to maintain a service.

Again, I can say that, buses or no buses, fuel or no fuel, there still would have been no service if it had not been for the courage of the men who drove the buses and the women who anxiously waited each night, wondering if they would return home safely.

But as well as the physical battle to keep people safe there was a major psychological battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

The public had to believe that they need not be driven into conflict with their fellow citizens in order to survive; they had to be persuaded that it would be possible for people to live together in a peaceful future. I believe that the Transport Union played a major role in ensuring that sectarianism was not allowed to gain a stranglehold. It was not just a matter of fine words or backbone or stiff upper lips, we had to take positive steps to retain the confidence of the workers and the public.

At one stage, for example, we were facing a situation where the blue Ulsterbus vehicles were threatening that they would refuse to come into Belfast. This followed a bad incident when a Newry bus was hijacked, taken to Sandy Row and the driver kidnapped and held for a period of time.

It is understandable that a driver from the country, possibly from an area where everyone knows everyone else, on being asked to come into Belfast late at night would be fearful and apprehensive. Again, we were able to overcome this problem using various approaches with some confidence-building arrangements.

Over this period in the 1970s, Werner Heubeck was making a name for himself as the man who carried bombs off buses. There is no doubt he made a significant contribution as this was good for morale, though it is fair to say that the drivers - because of their experience of the situation - could nearly always tell whether the package placed on board was real, or a hoax.

The key to this was: if it was a hoax, the bombers travelled on the bus almost to its destination, but if it was real they would, after robbing the driver of his identification, travel in a car behind the bus. If the driver did not do what he was told, he was left in no doubt as to what would happen to him.

Yet, to this day, I am convinced that it was the sight of buses operating which created a sense of normality. That is what the busmen achieved, but at great cost in many cases. Lives were lost, many drivers injured and hospitalised and many had mental health breakdowns, hundreds of buses were destroyed and depots operated under a state of siege.

When the Army was installed in the Citybus and Ulsterbus depots, this also created problems. Additionally, there was the problem of Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) members who drove buses on a daily basis. These two issues had to be addressed, but this had to be done in a very delicate manner, which is what I suggested when Heubeck sounded me out. I should have known better - Heubeck was not the type of man to take the diplomatic approach. He went directly to Army Headquarters in Lisburn and told them: "I want you lot out of the depots." I think at first they did not believe him, but after a while they got the message and moved out.

He also spelled out his attitude to the UDR men driving buses; he told the Army that "the Ulster Defence Regiment and driving buses don't mix" and that, "I could not stop them joining, but the Army had to accept the consequences".

Had I done this, I would have had every unionist politician shouting from the rooftops for my hide. But Heubeck being Heubeck; not a cheep. When you consider it, what he did was absolutely the right thing to do. Otherwise, it was only a matter of time before a bus would be hijacked and driven into a depot with a bomb on board, parked behind the Army and detonated with devastating effect. With hindsight, the removal of the Army was the logical, hard-headed thing to do and - even if it seemed to be a retreat in the face of potential attack by the Provisionals - made political and security sense.

Another difficult and sensitive issue was allocating drivers to routes in "their own territory". Some drivers wanted Catholic drivers for Catholic roads and Protestant drivers on Protestant roads, but we strongly opposed it. While this demand may have been made out of fear and not for any ulterior motive, we demonstrated by weight of argument why this was a bad idea.

To do so would make it easy for the gunmen on either side to identify a target. While we remained mixed, it made it more difficult for them, if one side or another murdered "one of their own", the outcry from within their own community would be such that they would be more likely to be caught. We put it to the men that there would be no "horses for courses"; this policy was adopted and maintained throughout the Troubles.

There were lighter moments. With the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in September 1979, we had a further opportunity to develop relationships. As usual Mr Heubeck - craving the limelight - announced arrangements for the transport of thousands of people to the various locations in the Republic of Ireland which the Pope was due to visit.

I rang him and asked what he was doing, as he had no agreement with the union in relation to what he was proposing. Heubeck responded saying he did not need an agreement. I told him that if he wanted to move all these people he would find that he certainly did need an agreement.

Heubeck threatened me saying he was going to go on national television and to the Press where he would accuse me of obstructing his efforts by withholding consent. I said: "Well, you do that, but you won't be able to accuse me of sectarianism so go ahead if you think it will help your cause."

I offered him the opportunity of a further meeting provided the shop stewards were present at which I would endeavour to reach agreement, provided he was prepared to make the same effort. We met in the boardroom at the Falls Road depot on a Saturday morning. We laid out our case on how the operation should proceed.

As far as possible, buses should operate in convoys led by an experienced driver used to travelling through the Republic with those less familiar with the routes taking up the rear. The routes had to be well signposted; breakdown trucks were to be stationed in strategic locations; and arranged parking for buses on arrival and proper overnight accommodation provided with a shuttle service to and from the parking sites to the accommodation.

The toughest issue to crack was the rates of pay, but after considerable hassle and negotiation we reached an agreement.

Credit where credit is due, every aspect of the agreement reached at the Falls Road depot was put into operation with military precision, even to the extent that arrangements had been entered into with Ireland's national public transport provider, CIE, where replacement buses could be provided if necessary.

Heubeck certainly loved the praise he received for his organisational skills and our members enjoyed the rates of pay negotiated so everybody benefited.

At a personal level, Heubeck and I rubbed along, coming over time to recognise and respect each other's strengths, commitment and integrity. But we were not on Christian name terms - except once. I declined an invitation to his leaving party when he retired as Northern Ireland's transport supremo. My refusal clearly hurt him, because he said to me something along the lines of: "Eugene, why won't you come? Between us, we have done so much for the bus industry in Northern Ireland and I would like people to recognise that."

I gave him my reason. The hotel he had chosen for his "big splash" had a non-unionised workforce. So, fair play to Werner, he moved it to a hotel where the staff were unionised.

He was kind to me personally - he came to see me when I was recovering from illness. On one occasion, he could not come at the last minute, so he sent his driver with a bottle of whiskey. Now his driver was a real character and probably the only over-indulged employee of Ulsterbus. He was better fitted to drink the whiskey than I was so, as one wee dram led to another, before a couple of hours had passed Heubeck's whiskey was all drunk and his chauffeur was in no fit state to drive his boss's car back to base.

Yes, however improbable it was, we became an effective partnership and I think what we did together demonstrates how in times of trouble the most unlikely alliances of people can come together and work for the common good. It is a pity our politicians still seem so slow to learn that lesson.

However, there is one question I would give a lot to be able to ask him now. If I had asked it 30 years ago, it would have saved a lot of pain and hurt for a lot of people and righted, in good time, a wrong that was waiting to burst into the light of day. It concerned pensions.

I could not have asked this question 30 years ago, because I did not at that time know about the covert injustice which was being practised on the busmen. But it seems to have started on Werner's watch and I would so like to have said to him: "What the hell do you think you are doing? For goodness sake put this right before it is too late." But Werner retired in 1988 and died in Scotland in 2009 and neither I nor anyone else will ever be able to ask that question.

Knowing and respecting him as I did and acknowledging the genuine concern he had for the well-being of his workforce, I believe that he did not fully realise the significance of what might have seemed like a minor administrative adjustment.

Alerted to its full significance, in time I have no doubt he would have put it right.

Adapted from Busmen in the Firing Line by Eugene O'Callaghan, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation, priced £19.99

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