If I thought that yesterday was a bit of an eye-opener, then today was going to be even more so; and if you haven’t already read Part 1, this post will make more sense if you do.
If you have read it, you will already be aware that last night I managed to get a Catholic taxi firm to agree to send me a driver this morning who was prepared to show me a different perspective of sectarian Belfast than I had yesterday.
I met my taxi driver in the reception area of the hotel and he briefly introduced himself as a Republican, which said volumes already. Just as I could tell the difference yesterday between a protestant and a Loyalist, I sussed straight away that there was a difference between a Catholic and a Republican – in other words he was a member of the IRA. He asked me if I was ok with that, and even though I wasn’t really, I said yes. To be honest, I think he knew how I felt, and when we got into his taxi, he tried to reassure me that I was in safe hands and wanted to make sure I felt comfortable before we started off. I was and I wasn’t, because even though he came across as a very open and approachable chap, the front taxi seat must have been the most uncomfortable seat I’ve ever sat in.
As we drove off, he explained that I was staying in one of the very few places that he would be prepared to make a pick-up outside of a catholic area – the city centre and university area was about it really.
At the bottom of the street he turned right onto the Lower Ormeau Road, which just happens to be Catholic, and Brennan immediately pulled in near a betting office. He encouraged me to go and have a look, and outside was a memorial to the victims of a ruthless UDA gun attack in 1992. There were fifteen civilian customers inside at the time, five of whom were killed and nine injured. Five months later an Orange Order march passed the scene of the carnage with members shouting pro UDA slogans and holding up 5 fingers as they marched past. I was already beginning to see things from a different angle today.
I know this sounds weird, but Brennan was much easier to get on with than the driver I had yesterday. Mind you, he must have thought all his Christmases had come together. Here he was showing a Brit around the Catholic parts of the city giving me all the propaganda he wanted – and charging me for the privilege. No wonder he was friendly.
Our next stop was where McGurk’s pub used to be. On 4th December 1971, the UVF planted a bomb at this North Queen Street pub killing fifteen Catholic civilians including two children: The pub was completely destroyed – and to make matters worse, the RUC blamed the IRA for it. In 1977 a UVF member was jailed for 15 years: By my reckoning, that makes it one year for every life.
McGurk’s pub was on the edge of New Lodge, a Catholic estate in North Belfast, and Brennan was keen to show me a Garden of Remembrance just off New Lodge Road, somewhere both local civilians and members of the IRA killed during The Troubles are remembered.
Being a Sunday morning, it was very quiet, and the more time I spent talking to Brennan, the more I felt at ease: I could ask him anything I wanted, but he already guessed the questions I wanted to ask, but wouldn’t – and so he volunteered the answers before I could ask the questions.
He lived in the Turf Lodge area of West Belfast, and he admitted that his house was heavily fortified – and for very good reason. He told me that Loyalists had tried to break into his house and as they couldn’t get in, they sprayed the front room through the window with bullets. He managed to escape out the back.
Had he been in prison? I asked. “For 10 years”, he said. “I was involved in a heavy shoot-out with British troops and one soldier was killed. I wasn’t convicted of murder, but was sentenced for being in possession of an armalite”. He also admitted that his father, two brothers and sister were locked away for terrorist offences. He insisted that innocent civilians would never have been a legitimate target for him.
While my brain was trying to take all this in, we were heading towards Ardoyne, a less than affluent district of North Belfast that had a mixed Protestant/Catholic population before The Troubles began. Since then it’s become an interface area bordering the Crumlin Road and has seen more than its fair share of trouble.
Opposite the Shamrock Sports and Social Club in Ardoyne Avenue there was a mural which under different circumstances might have made me smile. Its message states that ‘ten people from the Ardoyne were murdered by weapons imported by the British from South Africa’. I’ve no reason to doubt it, but at the same time, the IRA were importing weapons from Colonel Gadaffi’s Libya with money donated by NORAID (Irish Northern Aid Committee), an Irish American organisation that supported the Republicans in Northern Ireland.
Our next stop was at the Ardoyne shops, a flash-point so many times between the two rival communities, and was still very much in the news at the time I was here and even since. Most of the aggravation was caused when Orange Order Parades marched up the Crumlin Road past the Catholic shops. These parades occur throughout Northern Ireland annually on 12th July and commemorate King William’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne. It’s a day of festivities, bonfires and celebrations for protestants, but it’s also a day that Catholics regard as provocative, especially when the routes go through Catholic areas like this one. Trouble flared for years, but quietened down when a Parades Commission was set up to try and diffuse the situation.
The shops are situated near the Ardoyne roundabout where Catholic Ardoyne meets the Protestant Crumlin Road, and if that wasn’t contentious enough, Ardoyne Road, which branches off from the Crumlin Road at the shops, has a Catholic school in a protestant area; and it was only a couple of years before I was here when this road was the location for another awful episode in the area’s turbulent history.
The mural above shows the comparison between Ardoyne and the situation in Arkansas when African-American students struggled to end segregation in a high school in Little Rock in 1957.
In 2001, Protestants living in Ardoyne Road claimed that they were constantly being harassed by Catholics, and staged a protest by picketing the Holy Cross primary school for girls. Initially, the intimidation just involved verbal abuse, but as the weeks rolled by the situation got uglier. Hundreds of protesters, encouraged by Loyalist paramilitaries, did everything they could to stop the parents taking their children to school along their road. Bricks, fireworks, bags full of urine – and even pipe bombs were hurled at the young children. It took hundreds of riot police, supported by British troops, to ensure their safe passage to and from school.
Death threats were made to both parents and teachers, and the situation was made worse by serious disorder within the local Protestant and Catholic communities; and remember, this was happening three years after the Good Friday Agreement. Watching these scenes on television night after night would have made anybody’s heart sink. It certainly did mine.
Brennan wasted no time in driving down the Crumlin Road. As he morphed into the Irish equivalent of Lewis Hamilton, he pointed out that yesterday I would have been safe in a Protestant taxi in a Catholic area, but it wouldn’t be safe to be in a Catholic taxi in a Protestant area – so I urged him to get a move on.
Bearing that in mind, I was surprised to see that we were soon stopping outside the Crumlin Road Courthouse and Gaol. He obviously felt at home here, not just because it’s at the city centre end of this arterial road, but it’s where he was tried, sentenced and jailed before being transferred to Long Kesh prison. Long Kesh, by the way, was transformed into the Maze prison with its infamous H Blocks.
The Crumlin Road Gaol was derelict when we here, but these days it’s a visitor attraction and wedding venue would you believe.
I can’t be sure, but I’ve a feeling that my taxi driver had been involved in more than just a shoot-out with British soldiers, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I wanted to know. He did tell me that when a bomb was planted, there was always a warning, and he was “really pissed off” when a bomb went off in the city centre killing and injuring many innocent people: “The stupid bastard who had to make the official warning found the public phone box out of order and by the time he got to the next one, it was too late”.
I expected him to take me up the Falls Road where I went yesterday, and he did, but I did learn quite a bit more today: For instance, the reason that the Sinn Fein office looked quite modern was because it had to be re-built and fortified after three people were shot dead inside.
Yesterday, we turned off the Falls Road for Ballymurphy, but today Brennan agreed to take me to Milltown Cemetery which was at the end of the Falls Road in Andersonstown, and not far from his home patch of Turf Lodge.
Milltown Cemetery has the dubious distinction of being another notorious location during The Troubles, but I’ll come to that in a moment, because this is also a burial place for members of the IRA who are remembered for services to the cause. There are many ‘volunteers’ scattered around the cemetery in family graves, but there is also an area called The New Republican Plot. Brennan pointed out some of the graves that might be of interest me, and then left me to it while he went to pay his respects to his late father who was buried in a nearby grave.
Within this plot is a grave marked with the names of three ‘volunteers’ who died in March 1988, and this brings me to what I alluded to just now. It concerns three separate episodes, all of which were connected.
The first of these episodes centres around Gibraltar, where British Intelligence suspected that the IRA was planning a bomb attack at a military band parade, but before they were able to carry out their mission, the SAS intervened and shot dead the three suspects: The fact that the two men and one woman (Sean Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell) were found to be unarmed at the time didn’t go down well in some quarters, but the SAS wouldn’t have been called in to take prisoners.
The second episode occurred when their bodies were brought back to Milltown for burial. At the funeral, as friends and relatives were paying their respects, Michael Stone, a member of the UDA, pretending to be one of the mourners, opened fire and threw grenades into the crowd, killing three people and wounding at least fifty others. He was chased through the cemetery and was getting a severe beating by the time the RUC turned up and arrested him.
Three days later, Kevin Brady, one of those killed by Stone, was being taken to Milltown for his own funeral, when two corporals of the British army ‘strayed’ into the cortege. As the procession went along Andersonstown Road they were confronted by a car driving towards them at high speed, which then stopped and reversed. According to Sinn Fein, the crowd thought they were under attack from Loyalists again, but it was the occupants of the car that got attacked.
Inside were two corporals of the British army in civilian clothes, Derek Wood and David Howes. There are contradictory reports as to why the two men were there, but I’ll never forget watching how they were dragged out of the car and set upon by an uncontrollable mob. They were then taken away, stripped and beaten in a nearby park before being shot and left on waste ground.
These events were going through my mind as I wandered around the plot looking at all these graves and wondering what the hell I was doing here. When I saw the grave of Bobby Sands, I couldn’t help but think what did this conflict really achieve for all this loss of life?
I was even less sure of why I was here when Brennan returned, and I realised that he not only knew almost everyone in this plot, but some were obviously also very good friends.
He pointed to a nearby army observation post that kept an eye on things around here, and lo and behold as soon as he mentioned it, a “Bird in the Sky” (helicopter) made a sudden appearance just above our heads. It wasn’t that close, but it felt like it. It was time to move on, but not before he stopped a mother and daughter to ask them if they wouldn’t mind taking a photo of the two of us. What they were doing here, I’m not quite sure, but I could tell they weren’t comfortable with the question: The daughter agreed, but I’ve never seen anyone so nervous taking a picture before. Did they know something I didn’t, or were they just apprehensive about being here? After about six attempts we got our picture – but nobody asked me if I minded. A part of me wants to include it here, but another part of me doesn’t, and so I’ve decided not to.
Heading back along the Falls Road, Brennan turned off for Ballymurphy and showed (and told) me more about the estate than I got yesterday. He made it sound like a tough area, but oddly enough it didn’t look that bad to me. There was no outward sign of teenagers roaming the streets looking for trouble and I found out why. The RUC left areas like this to police themselves, and if anybody stepped out of line the punishment dished out would certainly discourage most people. Brennan explains that the IRA didn’t tolerate drugs being infiltrated into their society and anybody caught joyriding would be kneecapped – or worse. If it’s true, it sounds as though it does the trick because, as he put it, “there is virtually no domestic crime in areas like this”. Mind you, the sectarian crimes he told me about are so horrific I’m certainly not going to repeat them here.
From Ballymurphy we followed the Springfield Road, as we did yesterday, but instead of driving through the gates in Lanark Way, we stayed on the Catholic side of the Peace Wall to the area around Clonard Monastery, and particularly Bombay Street.
In a way, this was a fitting place to end today’s tour. Bombay Street is the location of the Clonard Martyrs Memorial, a place where Republicans from the Clonard area are remembered. The names go back many years before the recent Troubles began, and there isn’t anything unique about this memorial – I’ve seen others around the city – but this location is very poignant.
Bombay Street was the scene in August 1969, of what to Catholics seemed like a pogrom. Loyalists set fire to the whole street sending people running for their lives. Fortunately, there weren’t many casualties, but a lack of protection from the RUC who ignored pleas for help, meant that the Provisional IRA were formed to step into the breach.
Some of the houses were re-built, but even today, those that lie next to the Peace Wall have cages built around them to prevent missiles landing on their property. This is still the front line of sectarianism.
I think Brennan would have driven me around all day, and even though I agreed a price up front, I had a plane to catch, and I was already late getting back to the hotel. As I walked in, I think the receptionist must have been waiting for me, because, even though we had agreed an extension to my departure time by a couple of hours, I was late for that as well. As I walked up to the desk, I can still see her face now. She looked up and said “Did you enjoy your trip?” with a look that spoke volumes. I just smiled and said “yes thanks” and she gave me a key to get back into my room.
‘Enjoy’ was not the right word I would use for a trip like this: There are others I could use such as ‘fascinating’, ‘absorbing’ or even ‘educational’, but I’m glad I did it, even though I’m not 100% sure I am. I wanted to try and understand why places like I’d seen this weekend ended up at war with each other, but I still don’t really fully understand it. Yes, I know a lot more than I did before I came, but it threw up more questions than answers. For example, I never thought for one minute that I would get on better with a Republican than I did a Loyalist.
I know you can’t make a judgement about the rights or wrongs of a conflict like this by meeting just two people on either side of the divide, but I didn’t warm to yesterday’s heavily tattooed Loyalist driver, but I couldn’t help but like Brennan as a person today. I think we could have become friends – if only he hadn’t been a member of the IRA.