Belfast Telegraph

Crumlin Road Courthouse: I look forward to walking back into 'Crumblin Road'... scene of scoops, television appearances and pure human dignity

A 1984 protest outside the courthouse by loyalists about the supergrass system
A 1984 protest outside the courthouse by loyalists about the supergrass system

By Michael Donnelly

So two decades after shutting its doors in June 1998, Belfast's Crumlin Road Courthouse is to get a new lease of life as a top-class hotel, where guests pay for the privilege of staying - although unlike the previous 148 years, not at Her Majesty's pleasure.

I look forward to returning to the building, whose doors I first darkened in late 1978, and which was to play such a central role in my life, working and brushing shoulders with some of the top names in journalism and the law.

Oh, and allowing me to pay the bills.

I've covered some of Northern Ireland's biggest cases - from the Shankill Butchers, the Sean Kelly bombing, and Michael Stone's cemetery attack to the killing of two army corporals in west Belfast.

There were also supergrasses and self-confessed paedophiles and rapists.

At times I have witnessed instances of pure human dignity and unbelievable forgiveness, often in the face of some of the worst excesses of hate and anger.

It also provided me with my first - and some say my only - 'scoop', and my only appearance on national television.

And on another occasion, I almost ended up in the dock threatened with criminal contempt and jail.

On each occasion the 'story' happened somewhere else but as always, the court provided the backdrop. One day I happened to be chatting with some officials in the large open hall of the 'Crumblin Road', as it was affectionately known, when over a 'security radio' came news that the then Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had been shot while being driven through the city centre.

I immediately ran to the 'press room' for the landline on my desk - no mobiles in those days.

I phoned and inquired of the news desk if they knew of the downtown shooting.

On being told that apparently an off-duty soldier had foiled a bank robbery, I blurted out my 'scoop'. In a high-pitched voice I informed 'the desk' that the off-duty officer foiled not a bank-raid, but the assassination of Gerry Adams.

I can't repeat what my colleague said to the news, but it ended "... Scoop".

And so began my 'leg-end', as they say.

My appearance on BBC 2's Newsnight came about in a totally different way.

I took an early day and was awaiting the return of my then wife, who complained about her bus having to be re-routed as "something was going on outside the court".

Fearful of having missed some huge court case, I drove to the court, only to discover the story wasn't there, but the jail opposite.

There, several prisoners had decided not to await sentence the following day for their 'alleged' involvement in the 'M60 machine gun' shooting of an SAS captain.

My subsequent TV appearance proved one thing. I'm no TV personality. I found the whole experience nerve-racking, and that I have a face best suited for radio reporting, which I continued to do for some time.

As a footnote, in those days I was known for my long unkempt dark-haired ginger beard. To cut a long story short, a secretary from one radio station, who saw my TV performance but did not hear it, later praised the 'BBC scoop' in getting an interview with one of the escaped prisoners!

How disappointed she was on hearing the truth. I never learned.

They say the last thing a journalist should become 'is the story itself'.

This almost happened to journalist Chris Moore and myself in a follow-up on the Kincora Boys' Home court case.

Due to a mixed-up telephone message I went looking for the court papers on file, claiming, as I mistakenly believed, that the then Lord Chief Justice Sir Robert Lowry, had given his permission.

Hand-delivered letters went whizzing between the Beeb's Ormeau Avenue headquarters and the Royal Courts of Justice before the criminal contempt of court charges were eventually dropped and Chris and I 'slipped the noose' and an appearance in the dock to be reported upon.

Since then I've managed to keep my nose clean, and avoided such mistakes by following that ole journalistic adage... check and check again before saying or doing anything!

Belfast Telegraph

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