In May 1995 I had to arrange a business flight to Boston at short notice. The only seat I could get was with an Aer Lingus flight out of Dublin. Since the lady who has since become my wife, came from Dublin, it seemed to make sense for her to visit her mother as I flew out. The only seat I could get was in Business Class.
Once on board I settled into my seat, and to my amazement saw the two men being shown to their seats in the row in front of me. They were none other than Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, probably the two most well-known former IRA figures.
Now, I must acknowledge they both did much to ensure the peace process in Northern Ireland actually happened, with their work for a permanent ceasefire. And, Martin McGuinness has contributed a great deal to the governance of Northern Ireland since becoming the Deputy First Minister. To see him working with Unionists who were his sworn enemies says a great deal for his character.
However, on that flight in 1995 I very much wanted to confront them both for what I had experienced in Brighton. I had been within a few feet of the collapsed part of the hotel - the door of my room was twenty feet from the hole, and I could so easily have been killed or injured.
When we landed at Boston’s Logan Airport, I couldn’t quite believe the reception the two men received. Policemen, airport workers and members of the general public literally mobbed them as we walked towards the luggage hall.
When we passed out into the main concourse, there was a huge welcoming party, with people rushing over just to be able to touch them. They were treated like heroes, and all this was a full three years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was finally completed!
Earlier in my life I had experienced three incidents related to the sectarian conflicts and, of course, I was well aware of the extensive coverage of events. Bloody Sunday on 30th January 1972 was a major problem for the British Army, and as things became even worse, the British Government announced in March of that year the resumption of Direct Rule.
When I was the Young Conservative National Organiser I had a responsibility for liaison with the Ulster Young Unionists. The Unionist Party was then an officially affiliated part of the British Conservative Party.
My first visit to Belfast was in 1968. I was met at the airport by one of the YU officers, who came from Londonderry, as Protestants would have it, but interestingly, he was happy with Derry, the Catholic name.
We travelled into Belfast to the Press Club, where we were meeting up with another national officer. He stopped his car outside the club, where his colleague was waiting. There was a discussion about parking.
The guy from Londonderry was worried about parking on double yellow lines. The response from his colleague was my first ‘shock’.
He said, ‘don’t worry about it, with a YU sticker on the car, you probably won’t even get a ticket, and if you do, the local JP (Magistrate) is a good Loyalist, and he’ll see to it for you.’
Later that same day they took me to Stormont Castle, the seat of Parliament in Northern Ireland, and again during various introductions, the term ‘good Loyalist’ came time and time again. So much so, I slowly began to build an appreciation of how deep seated this Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist protection was. The whole time there was an undercurrent of ‘no surrender’, which was very much an Orange Order cry.
In 1971 I attended the Annual Conference of the Young Unionists in Larne. At a dinner on the last night I sat next to their President, William (Bill) Craig, a member of the Stormont Parliament, a former Minister in that Government, who had been sacked three years before.
We chatted amiably, and I began to think he was not as bad as the press painted him, until I asked him about Direct Rule, which was under discussion throughout the British press because the troubles were so bad.
For a long time he looked at me with a hard expression on his face, then, leaning close to me and in very quiet tones he said, ‘Then laddie, everything British will burn.’
He left me in no doubt he meant every word!! A little later he began his after-dinner speech, and as he ranted and raved against the British, because of the possibility of Direct Rule, I realised just how fanatical, a fanatic could be! At the end of his speech the diners sang Loyalist songs and chanted ‘King Billy’, over and over.
At least two decades later I met Bill Craig again at a Christmas drinks party given by one of the PR companies I had employed. We talked at length, and I knew at once I was talking to a totally different man.
His fiery Northern Ireland accent had almost gone, and he told me how he came to see the light, and how he had reached a decision that the earlier periods of his life were wrong. He explained how he was now campaigning for a coalition between Protestants and Catholics. He died in 2011, and many commentators referred at length to what some had described as his ‘volte face’.
During the late sixties and seventies I tried to do some voluntary work, and one of the things I helped with was to serve for a time on the Executive Committee of the Soho Project - a project working exclusively in Soho to ‘rescue’ young people who had taken to the streets, and were being threatened with drugs and prostitution. Some years later the Soho Project became a favourite of Princess Diana when she began her charitable work.
I helped with interviewing for some new outreach workers, and one young man we saw had previously worked in Belfast. For almost two years he had organised and run a drop-in centre for young people. He told us how there was a great mix of kids from both Catholic and Protestant communities, and how good friendships were developing.
Until one night when the local IRA commander backed up by a Catholic priest marched in and ordered every Catholic out of the centre. In a few seconds he saw two years of his hard work shatter, and he decided to use his skills elsewhere. I found that story shocking too.
My last example was from 1972. I knew a journalist from the Belfast Telegraph, and he suggested I should witness the troubles at first hand. The picture below shows British troops under attack in 1972.
He took me to a corner bar in a small street off the Falls Road, a staunchly Republican stronghold. He cautioned me to keep my mouth shut, and if anyone spoke to me just to nod and mutter; he warned me I must not let anyone hear my English accent.
We sat quietly in one corner of the bar drinking our pints of Guinness, when suddenly the door burst open and a young lad rushed, shouting ‘The Proddies are out.’
Immediately the bar emptied, and my journalist friend took me out into the street. We walked along until we could see the brighter street lights of the Falls Road up ahead of us. We stood in the shadows and watched.
Soon we could see the outlines of military vehicles arriving - the Army patrols for that night, but we could also see stealthy movement around us. One man walked by pushing a wheelbarrow, loaded with a dustbin full of rocks and two crates of petrol bombs.
Then we heard the first sounds of conflict, and smelt the first wisps of smoke and tear gas.
My friend rushed us away in the opposite direction. Once in his car he explained the true meaning of the term ‘the Proddies are out’.
It seems the soldiers deployed that night were from the Royal Scots Greys’ Regiment, considered by all Republicans to be a Protestant Regiment, and there was no way they could be ‘protected’. These particular soldiers were seen as being far worse than the Protestant dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary.
That evening was one heck of a shock to the system! The picture on the right purports to show a heavily armed IRA group patrolling.
Some years later I had a conversation with a seemingly mild-mannered Catholic priest during a party in Lincoln. As we talked he admitted he had been a prison chaplain for a time in Northern Ireland. Fascinated, I pressed him to tell me more. I found he wouldn’t give me a straight answer to my questioning, and as I insisted on answers, he became more evasive arousing my suspicions.
Suddenly he seemed to snap: ‘you fecking Brits are to blame for the troubles, get the hell out of my country!’
I’ve often thought about Northern Ireland, and the relatively small things I witnessed. And of course, it will never ever be possible to forget the night of the Brighton bomb. The conflicts caused by individuals holding fanatical views, particularly those who were supposedly ‘good’ Christians, Catholics and Protestants, was something I found extremely hard to reconcile in my mind.
Second General Election Campaign with Edward Heath click here