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'FLASH FRAMES: twelve years reporting Belfast'
by Mark Devenport (2000)



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Text: Mark Devenport ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following two chapters have been contributed by the author Mark Devenport, with the permission of the publisher, The Blackstaff Press. The views expressed in these chapers do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
The two chapters are taken from the book:

FLASH FRAMES
twelve years reporting Belfast
by Mark Devenport (2000)
ISBN 0-85640-674-0 (Softback) 256pp £12.99

Orders to local bookshops or:

Blackstaff Press
Blackstaff House
Wildflower Way
Apollo Road
Belfast
BT12 6TA

T: 028 9066 8074
F: 028 9066 8207
E: books@blkstaff.dnet.co.uk

Cover imagery courtesy of BBC Press Office

This publication is copyright Mark Devenport (2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Blackstaff Press and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


From the backcover:

A different sort of political memoir about Northern Ireland - personal and lively, but with the bite and depth expected of an international journalist.

Mark Devenport arrived in Northern Ireland in 1986 as a trainee BBC journalist, wet behind the ears and entirely ignorant of the realities of life in Belfast. Twelve years later he left as the BBC’s Ireland Correspondent, having covered bombings, shootings and all the momentous events of the peace process - two IRA ceasefires, the loyalist paramilitary response, visits by the American President, and the Good Friday Agreement. Heading off to New York to take up his new assignment as the BBC UN Correspondent, he recalls the events, people and images that stick in his mind.

In television editing, a ‘flash frame’ is a subliminal picture which editors eliminate from the final cut in case it distracts attention from the main story line. In this candid and frequently funny memoir, Mark Devenport summons back his own flash frames - images and anecdotes too off-beat or too personal to make it into his reports at the time, but which, in retrospect, appear both telling and compelling.

The result is a refreshingly new perspective on Northern Ireland through the eyes of an English ‘blow-in’ who expected to stay for a few months and ended up thinking of Belfast as his home.

 


Contents

  PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS vii
  INTRODUCTION
United Nations - Once Again
1

1

‘Blow-In’ 4

2

A Question of Identity 15

3

When the Phone Rang 21

4

Learning Lessons 27

5

Accidents Will Happen 34

6

‘We Should Have Burned Them’ 39

7

Focusing on Funerals 45

8

Ballygawley and the Ban 49

9

Beyond the Ban 58

10

Under the Spotlight 63

11

Life in the Dub 67

12

Mata Hari 70

13

Tragedy in Coalisland 78

14

From Belfast to Baidoa 84

15

Rogues and Doorsteps 93

16

Agents and Informers 99

17

Sins of the Father 105

18

An Accident of Birth 109

19

The Advocate 114

20

American Connections 120

21

Network News 126

22

‘First and Live’

134

23

A Kick in the Ribs

142

24

A False Dawn

145

25

Marching Feet and Angry Voices

154

26

‘With Great Reluctance’

159

27

Groundhog Day

168

28

Groundhog Day Again

177

29

Back to Business

190

30

A Fresh Start

195

31

Divided Cities

202

32

A Long Good Friday

211

33

The Vote

216

34

Omagh

222

35

Victims

227

36

The Peace Process on Ice

230

37

Passing Time with the President

237

38

Boats and Planes

244

 

INDEX

248

 


PREFACE
AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

If you are a student of Northern Ireland politics or history looking for a handy guide to the twists and turns of the peace process then don’t buy this book. There are lots of better ones on the market. If you are going on a long flight, however, or recuperating from a serious illness, it might just be worth your while. I will not, though, refund your money if the in-flight entertainment is more exciting or Chapter 25 annoys you so much that you suffer a relapse. This is an unashamedly anecdotal account of one journalist’s time in Belfast. It could not have been compiled without the help - down the years -of innumerable friends and colleagues whose reward should be copious mentions in the text. I’d like to thank in particular Shane Harrison, Stephen Grimason, Barra McGrory and my brother Peter for their suggested amendments, Cathy Grieve and Gwyneth Jones for help with names and dates, and Trevor Ferris and Peter Cooper for providing pictures for the cover.

Everything from now on in actually happened, although on occasion I may have got carried away with the adjectives. Everyone is real although in a couple of cases I have changed their names for reasons best known to myself. All the mistakes are mine, and if my track record is anything to go by I am sure you will find loads of them, despite the great work of everyone at Blackstaff. I am very grateful to the BBC for allowing me to write this book. I am even more grateful to June Gamble from BBC Northern Ireland’s Information Research Department for helping me with various obscure details. The account starts at the beginning and finishes at the end, but it isn’t always chronological as that would make things far too easy for the reader.

 


27

Groundhog Day
SUMMER 1996

It was to have been a single day’s work in London, but the day had stretched out into almost a week. The reason - protracted discussions between the British and Irish governments about the precise role which should be played by the former us senator George Mitchell, the governments’ choice for chairman of the Northern Ireland peace talks. Despite the end of the IRA ceasefire the government had pressed ahead with elections to choose negotiators at the talks, presenting broadcasters with the job of trying to explain on air the D’Hondt system of proportionality, something which with my non-mathematical brain I found completely impossible. Challenged by one presenter to do it I took out a piece of paper and made various squiggles and said, ‘Look, there, it’s simple.’ It helped that I was on a radio programme at the time.

In London the sun blazed down on us as the Anglo-Irish talks went on. I finished off my report at the BBC’s Westminster office then hurried over to Horse Guards Parade to go live onto the Six O’Clock News. In order to improve the background the cameraman had me standing on a box so I teetered nervously waiting for my turn to go on air. We had absolutely no one around us and the only other BBC staff members nearby were in the broadcast vehicle hundreds of yards away. As the studio gallery told me I had thirty seconds to go I caught sight of half a dozen teenagers with baseball caps turned backwards on their heads coming around the corner of the parade ground a couple of hundred yards away. More importantly they caught sight of me. As the presenter asked his first question, I noticed the teenagers hopping over the barrier around the perimeter of Horse Guards Parade and heading full tilt in our direction. The cameraman, staring into his eyepiece, did not see a thing. I realised the question had come to an end and started to talk in a somewhat hesitant manner about the likely role which George Mitchell would play at the talks. By now the posse were just a few yards off - did they intend to jump in front of the camera and make silly faces on national TV or were they determined to knock me off my precarious position on the box? The presenter hit me with a follow-up question, which I tried even more hesitantly to answer. My real emotion was a mixture of suppressed amusement and relief. The teenagers had decided to pretend to be a Second World War fighter squadron. They swooped in perfect formation behind the cameraman’s back, simultaneously opening up ‘ack-ack’ fire on me for a couple of passes before fleeing to the other end of the parade ground. All the viewers on the Six O’Clock News saw was a rather stumbling correspondent. I wondered whether the baseball cap gang knew how dose they had come to national stardom.

George Mitchell’s appointment did not go down too well with some of the parties. Ian Paisley took the view that being a Maronite Christian was the next worst thing to being a Catholic so objected on those grounds alone. But eventually they all settled down. We journalists got used to taking up residence in a village of Portakabins which sprang up in the car park outside the distinctly non-televisual Castle Buildings office block where the talks took place. The main drama at the opening session of the negotiations on 10 June 1996 was provided by Gerry Adams and his Sinn Féin delegation demanding to be let in. The party had been barred because of the IRA’s return to violence. The republicans spent a considerable amount of time seeking out locked gates and fences to be photographed against in order to provide a suitable image of their exclusion. At one point it looked as if having got into the press village-cum-car park they would never get out as the horde of journalists and photographers from around the world besieged them inside a small Portakabin.

With the IRA ceasefire still off and Sinn Féin excluded from the talks the prospects for the summer marching season of 1996 did not look good. As anyone who had watched the Trimble-Paisley double act the previous year could have predicted, there was no mood for compromise in Portadown. The Drumcree stand-off handed David Trimble the Ulster Unionist leadership, but it also saddled him and indeed the rest of us in Northern Ireland with our very own ‘groundhog day’ - that depressingly familiar series of circumstances which looks doomed to keep repeating itself, no matter what anyone does.

Twelve months on we all found ourselves in the same cul-de-sac, saying ‘hello’ to the same local people and preparing for the same stand-off. The BBC sent over Kate Adie which gave one loyalist with a sense of humour the opportunity to erect a banner on the front line declaring that ‘it must be war, Kate Adie’s here’. With the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition now adamantly opposed to any march, the RUC once again blocked the Orangemen’s path. The stand-off began, with even more loyalist supporters gathering in the field beside Drumcree parish church than had been there the previous year. The disruption swiftly spread across Northern Ireland with loyalists mounting roadblocks in many areas.

The clashes on the front line at Drumcree were only part of the story. A Catholic taxi driver Michael McGoldrick was found shot dead beside his car in nearby Lurgan. My mind flashed back to my conversation with Billy Wright and his warning that there would be ‘very serious trouble’ if the Orangemen’s parade was blocked. Much later another loyalist contact told me that he had been in the field at Drumcree the evening before McGoldrick was killed and some Portadown loyalists had told him to watch the television in the morning to ‘see we mean business’. Neither side to the dispute heeded Michael McGoldrick’s father’s passionate plea at the funeral that they should ‘bury your pride as I bury my son’. Towns like Coleraine and Cookstown were cut off by makeshift barricades. The Orange Order appeared to be trying to tell the government who was the boss. I made my way through the front line early one morning to record an interview with the Orange official George Patton and get a few ‘vox pops’, brief interviews with the ageing Orangemen who had camped out overnight. It was okay to do this early in the day, but venturing on the other side of the lines became less advisable for a BBC reporter from the late afternoon or early evening onwards, as the heavy mob arrived.

George Patton told me he was going to do another BBC programme on the phone. I said that if he hurried up I could record his answers in decent quality and send them down the line from our broadcast vehicle. I couldn’t hang around, though, I warned him, as I had lots to do ‘on the other side’. George replied that he could, if he wanted, arrange it so that I couldn’t leave. He was joking, but only just. During that week, in that place, it certainly wasn’t the RUC’s writ which ran.

The atmosphere on the front line became ever more poisonous. RUC officers were taunted about how vulnerable their families were at home - in many instances police families living in loyalist areas came under attack. At one point a helicopter swooped low over the loyalist crowd. It turned out to be a deliberate distraction as the RUC riot squads pushed forward, pushing the loyalists back into the Drumcree graveyard. The manoeuvre bought the security forces a little time and space in order to install a concrete barrier which cut out the need for officers and rioters to come face to face.

With the disruption so widespread I divided my time between Portadown and Belfast, hammering up and down the roads at breakneck speed in order to deter anyone intent on hijacking my car. As the Ireland Correspondent on duty I was particularly called upon to give the early morning analysis on programmes like Radio Four’s Today and BBC Breakfast News. I decided it would be inadequate for me to get into the office and go on air just on the basis of reports on paper about the violence which had taken place the night before. So I got up in the early hours and drove around likely trouble spots so I could see the level of damage for myself. Once in north Belfast I was surprised to see the rioters still awake and active despite the fact that the night was over.

‘I wouldn’t hang around here too long,’ said one police officer, ‘it’s still a bit busy.’ I asked him what he’d been up to and he pointed to the burned-out apartment building behind him.

‘We rescued a Catholic family from the first floor there, had to get them out the window because the ground floor was well alight. Whilst we were doing that somebody on the other side of that barricade over there opened up on us with automatic fire.’

The police officer had been on riot duty for three nights in a row. He looked unshaven and completely worn out. I headed back to Broadcasting House to be told by the Breakfast News presenter that some people in the Ministry of Defence were briefing that there wasn’t really any need for extra troops to be sent over there and then, only for certain units to be put on standby. I replied that if what I had seen was anything to go by the soldiers were needed yesterday.

Getting up early and talking to politicians late into the night in order to assess whether there might be any movement in the stand-off was wearing me out. At one point I declared myself off duty for a couple of hours so I could go home and get a takeaway Indian meal with Patricia. On the way to pick up the carry-out I had to do a U-turn when a group of youths dashed out into the road and tried to hijack the bus just in front of me. The next night I resolutely refused to do any reports for half an hour whilst together with my researcher Declan Carlin I drank a beer and watched Men Behaving Badly. It was a way of staying on the edge of sanity.

What appeared most depressing was not only the level of violence, but the sense of foreboding that the Twelfth of July was just around the corner. The Orangemen threatened to bring one hundred thousand people to the field at Drumcree if they did not get their way, and none of us camped out in the field opposite felt at all confident that the police and army would be able to hold the line. The RUC riot officers joked with us that when the moment to retreat came they all had assigned seats in their grey Land Rovers, whilst we would be trying to jump the hedge and break the world record for four hundred metres. We had been issued with reinforced caps, shin-pads and even gas masks, although the security forces at no point used gas. One Dublin-based journalist, however, had come up with his own rather more useful form of protection should the breakthrough occur. He showed me an Orange sash he had hidden in his pocket, which he intended to slip on before melding into the crowd.

As someone who was on the television fairly constantly during the week there was no chance of me melding into the crowd. I knew the loyalists on the Drumcree front line didn’t like what I was saying because they made it obvious. One of them must have had a portable TV set because when I did a live turn from the field on the Six O’Clock News they erupted into clearly audible catcalls, ‘What do you know, Devenport? Go home, you little bastard!’ It was a charming display of Protestant culture. A bit of barracking might be off-putting but this was as nothing to the experience of my colleague Maggie Swarbrick. As we sat in the field a loudspeaker in the Orange encampment relayed to us stirring loyalist marching music throughout the day. We dubbed the service ‘Radio Orange’. Coming up to the hour, Maggie prepared to do a live report on her mobile phone. Somebody in the field decided at the same time to switch their PA system to BBC Radio Ulster. As Maggie went on air every word she spoke into her mobile phone came booming at high volume back across the fields where we sat. How she kept going through her report I don’t know.

Constant broadcasting has its benefits and its drawbacks. For weeks afterwards people came up tome in the shops in Belfast and thanked me for the job I had done keeping them informed. But a lot of people did not like anything I had had to say. During the week I had been secretly hoping that some kind of a compromise might be found in order to avert the doomsday scenario which we all worried about for the Twelfth of July. Some of my contacts on the Protestant side thought that some kind of limited parade might eventually prove acceptable and I referred to their hopes in one early morning live contribution. When I arrived back on the Garvaghy estate a man rushed out of his house to upbraid me. ‘How dare you talk about compromise! Brendan McKenna [of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition] is our leader and there'll be no compromise here.'

In the end the talk of compromise did turn out to be a false trail. Whilst the residents’ representatives and Catholic and Protestant church leaders met in a local factory the security forces got the order to clear protesters off the road and let the Orangemen pass. I still have the notepad on which I scribbled my script:

Within the past twenty minutes the army started to remove the barrier which separated the security forces from the Orangemen at Drumcree. Orange officials told their members to prepare to march down the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road without triumphalism, but with dignity and pride. At the same time on the Garvaghy Road residents mounted a sit-down protest. A few stones were thrown at the army who moved in quickly to drag the protesters out of the way. There has, apparently, been no agreement with the residents for the march. Soldiers used great force to move the protesters from the road.

I remained in the field watching the Orangemen move off but my colleague Juliet Bremner kept me informed of the fierce dashes taking place further down the road. As the lodges began to leave, the battery on my mobile phone gave out, but I restored service to BBC listeners with the generous assistance of my colleagues from the Guardian and The Times, whose deadlines remained a few hours away. A few minutes later I scribbled another voice piece.

Rioting is continuing now on the mainly Catholic Garvaghy estate as people express their anger at the decision to let the Orangemen go by. A van was turned over and set alight. Plastic bullets have been fired and petrol bombs thrown. The Orangemen were under orders from their leaders to march in silence, but nationalists are furious that the parade was allowed to go ahead.

As the mayhem continued the RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley defended his decision, saying the negotiating tactics employed by both sides had not left him with any room for manoeuvre. The stand-off, he argued, could have led to further loss of life and no parade was worth that. He added that his officers were sick to the back teeth of being the meat in the sandwich between two intransigent communities.

I watched the Orangemen walk silently and rather smugly by. For the second year in a row they had got their way. In principle I felt very concerned about Sir Hugh’s U-turn - would a lobby group have been allowed to triumph by sheer force of numbers anywhere else in the UK? Selfishly, though, we were all relieved that we wouldn’t be sitting in the field come the Twelfth of July. The U-turn had - for us at least - shattered that sense of foreboding which my researcher Declan and I had felt especially strongly earlier that morning as we drove towards Portadown.

Letting the Orangemen pass by inevitably led to a bitter reaction in nationalist areas. But whilst rioting and blockades in loyalist areas make the practical business of getting around Northern Ireland extremely difficult, the security forces find disturbances in nationalist areas easier to contain. Nationalists are not only in a minority, but they tend to live in areas which do not straddle the transport network and other vital parts of the local infrastructure. This is part of the legacy of the years of unionist Stormont rule. So whilst I had to vary my route home from work over the next few days, the drive back wasn’t half as complicated as it had been earlier in the week.

Between 7 and 10 July the police and army fired 662 plastic bullets. Over the next two days they fired 1,000 bullets in Derry alone. A man was killed after being hit by an army vehicle during rioting in the city. Nationalist politicians complained with justification that the security forces had torn into Catholic rioters with greater force than they had shown when confronting the Protestants. I am sure a few isolated police officers felt happier beating ‘the enemy’ rather than taking on their ‘own side’. But aside from the underlying sectarian attitudes of some members of the security forces, I believe there was interesting additional psychology at play. Many of the riot squad officers who had stood day in, day out taking the taunts of the loyalists at Drumcree were the same units who forcibly cleared the residents from the Catholic Garvaghy Road and who the next morning enforced a curfew on the Catholics of the lower Ormeau Road. I had watched them getting more and more wound up as the week went on and I believe many were keen to take their frustration out on someone, anyone. If the order had come to wade in at Drumcree then it would have been Protestant skulls which got cracked. But after Sir Hugh Annesley’s U-turn, the only skulls available were Catholic skulls.

On the Ormeau Road I noted what I described on air as ‘the greening of nationalism’. SDLP politicians who I talked to came out with comments I would normally have associated with Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin, in turn, sounded like the INLA’s political wing. I hated to think what the INLA was saying. The 11 July U-turn justified all the green nationalist arguments about Northern Ireland being an Orange state run for an Orange people. In the immediate aftermath Sinn Féin experienced some local difficulties keeping its followers in check. However, in the longer term, republicans, who had been under pressure over their failure to restore the IRA ceasefire, could now take satisfaction from the fact that the marching issue was proving their point and recruiting them new supporters.

At the end of the week I took a short break in Donegal. The lack of sleep and pressure of work had been getting to me. My brain wouldn’t stop turning over and I desperately needed a change. In a bar in Donegal I bumped into Enda Cullen, a Belfast doctor whom I had last met working for Concern in the Somali capital Mogadishu. He was just the right person to chat to as Somalia had been the only place I knew which had been madder than the scenes I had witnessed across Northern Ireland that week. Slowly I began to get matters in perspective.

But the break proved only a temporary respite. The phone went, and senior producer Clive Ferguson told me that a hotel had been bombed in County Fermanagh. Patricia and I piled into the car and headed to Enniskillen. The priest who had taken the warning call said the bombers had told him they were the IRA. But with the loyalist ceasefire on the brink, I cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The Continuity IRA, which eventually admitted the blast, regarded itself after all as the ‘true’ IRA. The front of the Killyhevlin hotel, a place where I had frequently stopped for lunch, had been reduced to rubble by the old-fashioned but highly effective car bomb.

I got back to the Belfast newsroom after a day broadcasting from Enniskillen. It was the first time in a week that I had a few seconds spare to check my answering machine - for days I had just been diving in and out of the office. On the machine there were reams of messages, many from members of the public, some who liked my reports and others who criticised me. One caller with an American passport wanted me to contact the us Consulate in order to seek approval for the dispatch of American peacekeeping troops to protect her home. One message went on forever. The caller began by telling me about a sectarian attack which had just been mounted by a gang of youths on the small group of houses where he lived. When I didn’t reply, he called on a neighbour to describe what had happened too. She told her story then passed the phone onto another neighbour, who did the same. Eventually what sounded like a whole streetful of people appeared to be talking on the other end of the line, partly to me and partly to each other, as if leaving a message on the BBC’s answering machine provided some kind of therapy. They never said exactly where they were or left a number for me to ring them back.

 


28

Groundhog Day Again
SUMMER 1997-SUMMER 1999

Nineteen ninety-six was undoubtedly the worst Drumcree I experienced. But as I have written my account of it I have consciously had to keep stopping and checking - did that event happen in 1996 or 1997 or 1998? It is in the nature of Groundhog Days that different times and different experiences meld together. Rather than filling in the gaps in strict chronological order I think it might be useful to turn to the other Drumcrees and draw what lessons if any I can from them. Like the Orangemen, having started this long march I think it might be best to complete it. But first, a little background on the Orange Order and me.

In 1988 the BBC sent me notification that I had ‘no perceived religious affiliation’. This came after it checked my records in accordance with Northern Ireland’s Fair Employment legislation. But a year or so later it sent me another note informing me that it had engaged in what it called ‘residual monitoring’. This meant checking my primary school records from England. It now told me that I was a Catholic. I replied that it had neither my actual religious affiliation, which was ‘atheist’, nor my perceived affiliation in Northern Ireland, which was ‘Brit’. The personnel department, however, gave no ground.

I suspect my arguments would have cut as little ice with the Orange Order as they did with BBC personnel, which made it all the more amusing when Walter Williams suggested I should join. Walter was the veteran official of the Grand Orange Lodge when I first arrived in Belfast and I had to chat to him on a few occasions about the institution’s plans to mark the landing of King William at Torbay. I thought I should be extra-attentive to try to learn about this strange alien organisation, and Walter, duly impressed by my detailed enquiries about Orange history, advised me that the Order could ‘use a few good young men like you’. I did not have the heart to let him know that I would have fallen at the first fence, although in later years I regretted I did not follow this approach up further. I could have been the best-selling author of the exposé I Was a Catholic Orangeman.

I had a number of other very civilised dealings with the Order, especially during the making of a Spotlight film on the importance of anniversaries and history to both traditions. I had to turn down an invitation to dinner from the St Brendan’s Loyal Orange Lodge in east Belfast. I genuinely had another engagement. It was nothing to do with them being dedicated to temperance, and therefore having nothing palatable to wash down the duck a l’orange.

But all these decent experiences to one side, I must confess that I start out with an inbuilt bias against any organisation which seeks to be exclusive. This goes for Freemasons, all-male golf clubs, and night clubs with dress codes and bouncers on the door. I cannot stand any of them. In the Orange Order’s case, of course, it isn’t especially helpful that it seeks to exclude me in particular. But I like to think I reserve the same amount of disdain for Opus Dci or the Knights of Columbanus or any other Catholic equivalent that anyone else can name. That said, in Northern Ireland there are a lot of organisations who wouldn’t have me as a member and as a correspondent you have to deal with them all. In a society which boasts the INLA or the Red Hand Defenders you have to admit the Orange Order isn’t the worst. But nor is it always the respectable upright institution it often claims to be.

Back in England my friends constantly ask me, ‘Why do they have to walk down streets where they aren’t wanted?’ and I try to explain about historical tradition, changing patterns of land ownership and settlement and so on. But it just doesn’t wash. If the Morris dancers, who have a long, proud history in Oxford, found the pub they had always performed at on a Mayday morning did not want them any more, they would merely transfer their allegiances to another hostelry. They would continue to perform their traditional dances, to wear their picturesque white costumes bedecked with ribbons and bells, to doff their funny hats and to beat their staves together as they have done for centuries. If the Orangemen are only maintaining their cultural traditions they could do the same. The fact that battle lines are drawn so firmly and, on occasion, so violently shows this is about much more than keeping colourful pageantry alive.

It’s true that many Orange lodges have been caught in a trap of the republican movement’s making, unwilling or unable to see that the nationalist residents’ groups win both ways. During the nineties the republican leadership identified Orange parades as an excellent issue to organise around. It exposes the poor treatment still meted out to some Catholic communities, highlights elements of Protestant tradition at its intransigent worst and poses constant dilemmas for the British state and British forces which republicans have long wanted to topple. The residents’ groups win if they win - by standing up for local people’s rights. And they win if they lose - because the RUC beats them out of the way and they are able to cry ‘Orange state!’ But if at times I have felt the same urge as the likes of Sean O’Callaghan or Ruth Dudley Edwards to educate the Orangemen in the fine arts of propaganda, at other times I am inclined to say, ‘Hey, Catholics have basic rights too, and the fact that Sinn Féin might be using their plight for its own purposes doesn’t change that bottom line.’

In 1997 Drumcree was almost over before it began when the new Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan made a decision that he and the government weren’t ready to take on the Orange Order. Wearing sinister-looking black flameproof clothing the security forces moved in early and cleared the road, despite fierce scuffles during the night. I had been spared the night shift in order to save my energies for the day ahead, so, like many other colleagues, had to scramble down to the Garvaghy Road to catch up with the action. The road was littered with stones and broken bottles. Police officers and soldiers sat slumped against walls, already exhausted, but still summoning up their strength for what was obviously going to be a tough day.

Approaching eleven o’clock in the morning local people started complaining that they weren’t being allowed to cross the road to get to their church. Some of these complaints were synthetic, coming from people whose only raison d'etre was to get out on the road again in order to renew their protest, something the police would never allow as it meant having to fight to clear them off all over again. One of these characters confronted a soldier just yards away from me and told him, ‘The only mass you’ll be going to will be in a box.’ It did not seem an especially Christian sentiment for someone so eager to get to church.

But at the same time there were old folks in the little cul-de-sac on the Garvaghy estate who seemed bewildered and distressed that they could not stroll over to their regular Sunday mass. I thought of my own father, a devout Catholic, and wondered what he would feel if a soldier stood between him and his church. Surely it was wrong that the British government was treating the right of people to walk down a road where they did not live as more important than the right of the people who lived there to go to their regular religious service?

In the event the local priests - to mix my faiths if not my metaphors -decided to bring the mountain to Muhammad, by holding an open-air mass in the estate. It made for great pictures which played very badly across the world for both the security forces and the Orange Order.

The march went ahead, the Orangemen crunching over the debris of the battle the night before, and the security forces holding their lines just long enough to get the whole business over and done with. Then, nervously and rapidly, the soldiers and police began to retreat, well aware that they would be followed by a hail of bricks and petrol bombs. The previous year I had been stuck at a commentary point nearer Drumcree church and out of line of sight of the riot on the road. In 1997 I insisted on staying in the thick of the action, even if this meant I could only broadcast from my mobile phone. This was partly because I wanted to see it all with my own eyes, and partly because I didn’t want my latest researcher, Jane MacSorley, charging around gathering material for me in circumstances I was not prepared to venture into myself.

However, every Drumcree the BBC sends over dozens of extra staff whom it expects to do the ‘eyewitness’ bit. It preferred to have Denis Murray and me, as the resident Ireland Correspondents, providing the analysis. This led to an interesting interview on The World This Weekend on Radio Four. The programme had probably taken quite enough of a blow-by-blow account of events on the Garvaghy Road by the time it got to me about half an hour in. But whilst it had been on air the riot, following the partial withdrawal of the security forces, had become much more intense. Jane MacSorley and I tried to dodge and weave to avoid the hail of rocks and other projectiles, but it was all, quite literally, hit and miss. Far from being the ‘old hand’ guaranteeing Jane’s safety I managed to lead her directly into the firing line on more than one occasion. On the mobile phone, the presenter wanted me to move on to the longer-term implications. ‘Mark, the march has now gone through relatively calmly, do you think that in the months ahead it will be possible for the opposing sides to come to some kind of a working arrangement?’ On the other end of the line, I wanted to tell him that the situation was far from calm. On air this came out as ‘Urn, I shall be happy to analyse the long-term context in just a moment but, urn, if you will excuse me for a second because there’s a frying pan flying towards my head.’ I ducked the non-stick missile then tried to mumble some apparently logical words of punditry.

The decision to push a ‘quick and dirty’ march down the road in 1997 led to a predictably violent reaction in some Catholic areas, but this was relatively short-lived. The Orange Order’s decision to voluntarily reroute many of its main parades on the Twelfth of July got the height of the marching season over and done with, with a minimum of fuss. But it still left unanswered basic questions about the rights and wrongs of the matter. No one could pretend that the tactical decisions of that summer had ushered in a new era of co-operation. I went to one street corner on the working-class lower Newtownards Road in Protestant east Belfast where, in the space of a few yards, I heard a whole range of views about whether the Orange rerouting had been a wise move or a sell-out. But the voice which stayed with me was that of a six-year-old boy who dogged my footsteps wherever I went: ‘I hate the Fenians, they won’t let us do anything we want to do.’ Needless to say, little Stephen didn’t have any Catholic friends - there was still a lot of work to be done.

In 1998 we were back - the same cul-de-sac, the same kids crowding around our outside broadcast vehicles, the same amazing generosity from many of the local people. Denis Murray bumped into one woman and mentioned that we had not fixed anywhere to stay. She responded by producing a set of keys and giving us her cousin’s house, left vacant as her cousin had decided to go away for the marching season. The family, who were clearly not well off, did not ask for a penny. The BBC responded by promptly losing their invaluable keys. With the assistance of our kindly benefactor, I then broke into the house through a back window. Fortunately we found the keys before the owner returned.

In contrast to 1997, this time the police and army were under orders to hold the line against the Orangemen. The barriers they had at their disposal were more formidable than two years before, but with dissident loyalist paramilitaries mingling with the Orange Order supporters in the field at Drumcree it remained a very dangerous situation both for the security forces and for the protesters. The RUC Land Rovers on the front line came under attack from a series of blast bombs, one of which shattered an RUC officer’s knee. Powerful fireworks sent the press corps scattering as they looped in our direction. Enraged by the injuries they were taking, the security forces responded to the onslaught with a fusillade of plastic bullets, on one occasion blinding a young female protester in one eye. There could no longer be any question that the ‘baton rounds’, as the security forces preferred to call them, were reserved for Catholics.

In between shifts at the front line, having our own house to retreat to was a boon. But the beds inside were scarce. One night I managed to book into a local guesthouse. It meant the chance of a hot shower, clean sheets and a cooked breakfast. But it was already late by the time I set off and travelling the nearby roads wasn’t necessarily a great idea. I negotiated for quite a while with soldiers to let me out of their barrier and they eventually waved me on their way, but I had not driven long when I saw a group of Orangemen stretched out across the lane in front of me. Perhaps in daylight I would have tried to talk my way through, but I wasn’t convinced it would be wise at this time of night - what if they didn’t like what I had just said on the TV? I took a sharp right into a farmyard, did a three-point turn and arrived back at the army checkpoint which I had just spent half an hour negotiating my way past. ‘Oh, are they still there?’ said the soldier. ‘We thought they’d gone by now.’ I wished he’d warned me about the possible roadblock on my way out.

Back in the estate, I realised there wasn’t a bed left in our house. Then, as I pondered my options, I spied Drumcree House, a bed and breakfast which stands in a field just opposite the church. At midnight I knocked on the door and fortunately Mrs O’Neill had just had a cancellation. There was a very nice room free. When I headed up the stairs I imagined that I would sleep the sleep of the dead. But I had not bargained for my brain, which continued to whizz merrily round, nor for the fact that my room afforded a grandstand view of the scene at Drumcree. That night I wrote the following dispatch which was broadcast the next morning on BBC Radio Scotland’s Reporter’s Notebook.

DRUMCREE HOUSE

Last night I went to sleep in a comfortable bed and breakfast replete with floral wallpaper, tea and coffee making facilities, a TV in your bedroom. The sort of place, in fact, that you might check into if you were on holiday touring the Highlands and Islands. Peering out of my window, I could dearly make out the silhouette of a picturesque Protestant church with a distinctive spire, something I might expect to see if I had been motoring around the Cotswolds.

But there the parallels end, because the bed and breakfast in question is called Drumcree House and it’s not in Scotland or England, but in Portadown, County Armagh. And beside the spire of the church the scene I looked out on was a bizarre mixture of the modern and the medieval. In the darkness, two contingents of foot soldiers faced each other across barbed wire and a deep trench. One, the British army and the RUC, the other, the Orangemen and their loyalist supporters.

Occasionally the night sky would be lit up by the flash of a rocket fired by the demonstrators. There were other cracking noises - the sound of plastic bullets and live gunfire, and above me the drone of the helicopter, almost, but not quite, drowning out the beating of the drums from the Orange encampment. A few yards from my double room, shower en suite, a battle straight out of the Middle Ages was being fought.

I had never intended to stay quite so close to the war zone, but the journey home had proved more difficult than I had imagined. Making my way through the army checkpoints, I headed out on an isolated country road. I had only advanced about half a mile when I came across around sixty characters wearing orange sashes, spread out across the road. Eleven o’clock at night, I decided, was not the best time to negotiate a roadblock. So I turned back and found my way to Drumcree House.

Roadblocks? Trenches? Drums? Foot soldiers? Fortifications? But this is the United Kingdom, Western Europe, almost the twenty-first century. ... Maybe so, but here in Portadown half a mile of tarmac, a road which once ran through rose fields but now goes past the homes of working-class Catholics, has been invested with so much importance that some people seem prepared to sacrifice their lives and imperil those of others for the right to set foot upon it, whilst others exercise the right to be offended by those who set foot upon it.

If such a conflict wasn’t so serious, it would be downright laughable. In my bag I have a recently published book of Irish political cartoons, which includes one of my favourites from the Irish Times last July. It’s entitled ‘If Ulster really was British’. It shows an Orangeman telling a Catholic resident, ‘No, we couldn’t possibly go down there, not if it would cause you any bother.’ The Catholic replies, ‘Don’t worry, it will only take ten minutes. I’ll just pop inside and have a cup of tea.’

If only.

The cartoonists aren’t the only ones who can squeeze some fun out of this situation. Peadar, Gerard and Pól, my footballing friends in the Garvaghy estate, look on this as the best time of the year. They have reporters, cameramen, soldiers and police officers to play with. And they enjoy the rioting too. But the world looks very different when you are only ten years old.

The grown-ups know this dispute is deadly serious and the roadblock around the corner and the pitched battle down the road are no laughing matter.

There has been much talk of rights and of culture and of civil liberties. But let’s face it, this stand-off is also about hatred and bigotry and mistrust, about who rules the roost and who runs the country, about those fearful of the future and those doomed to repeat the past, about whether there is any substance to the recent talk of peace, or whether it’s just so many word games dressing up an irreconcilable divide.

If this was a disagreement anywhere else in the United Kingdom the argument, as the cartoonist suggests, would probably have been over before it began.

If it was merely a dispute over the right of way on a road then a traffic warden could have sorted it out.

But this is about whether Northern Ireland wants to enter a new century or remain mired in its history. The challenge ahead is immense and the need for a resolution is immediate.

Reading my report for Radio Scotland back in retrospect, I realise my assertion that the Drumcree stand-off could not have happened anywhere else in the United Kingdom looks a bit patronising. It’s true that something similar couldn’t take place in the Cotswolds, but that’s because the region has a rather different history to that of County Armagh, not because its people have different blood running through their veins. I guess I was trying to answer the Orange Order’s argument that the row was about the ‘right to walk the Queen’s highway’, whilst it didn’t seem to fit any traditionally British view of someone’s inalienable rights that I knew about. Maybe a night without sleep, listening to the sound of violence, also tested my patience, tempting me into some of those easy prejudices I spent most of my career trying to avoid.

I did not spend all that week at Drumcree. The centre of gravity, as it had done in previous years, switched to and from the scene of the immediate confrontation. Earlier in the week I had been up on the roof of the BBC in Belfast peering out across the city as the Order’s nightly protest parades got under way. ‘Why don’t they just come here?’ I quipped to a colleague, ‘it would save us going to look for the marches and make sure they got on the Nine O’Clock News.’ We headed back down to the newsroom to be told that, sure enough, a thousand Orangemen were at our front door, complaining about our coverage and demanding to see ‘the boss, now’.

The boss in this case was my old editor Andrew Colman who strolled down to accept the formal complaint. The Orangemen said that we weren’t making it sufficiently clear that theirs was a purely peaceful campaign of protests, and our news broadcasts were rolling together the violence caused by others with the marches organised by the Order. This was actually quite a difficult matter to be dear about in a short news dispatch. Normally the protest marches did start off peacefully and it was rarely the actual Orangemen wearing sashes who got involved in the subsequent violence. But the parades were illegal - having not been granted permission by the authorities - and as sure as night follows day, a protest often led to violence and disorder, usually carried out by loyalist sympathisers of the Order rather than the Orangemen themselves. Try boiling that down in your twenty-second script.

Andrew Colman rejected the criticism of our supposed lack of balance whilst assuring the Orange leaders that he respected their right to their views. I recorded the exchange for the radio, but limited my follow-up questioning to checking the name and title of the head protester. Having one thousand people behind you does lend weight to your argument and is to be advised if you want to avoid a rigorous grilling by a journalist. It is a trifle ironic, however, if the point you are strenuously trying to prove is how utterly peaceful and non-threatening you are.

Later in the week I travelled over to London to cover a deputation of senior Orangemen meeting the prime minister. Number Ten gave them a polite reception, in the hope of eventually winning them over, but on the ground the police and army’s orders remained unchanged. This year the Orangemen would not pass without the agreement of the residents. Once again the Order was threatening to make Northern Ireland ungovernable and once again the place appeared to be heading towards a doomsday scenario on 13 July, which was the Orangemen’s chosen day for marching in 1998 because the Twelfth itself fell on a Sunday.

Having already experienced this scenario two years previously I think my patience was getting ever shorter. It seemed that the possibility of somebody dying was getting closer all the time, and the Order was, Pontius Pilate-like, washing its hands of all responsibility for the violence which came in the wake of its protests. In fact Orange spokesmen, like Davey Jones in Portadown, were sounding more and more like a mirror image of the old Sinn Féin - all violence was regrettable, but inevitable, given the oppressive attitude of the police and the government.

After meeting Tony Blair the Orange delegation held a news conference in one of the rooms available for MPs’ use in Whitehall. Standing behind them were a series of Unionist MPs, which the Orange leaders claimed illustrated the range of support for their cause. But by this time - the summer of 1998 - unionism was sharply divided between camps for and against the Good Friday Agreement and all those present were opponents of the Agreement. I raised the question as to whether some people were trying to use the Drumcree issue to fight the battle over the Agreement which they had lost at the polls. This touched a distinctly raw nerve, prompting Robert McCartney to shout ‘Rubbish’ and Jeffrey Donaldson to cry ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

As the MPs filed out Jeffrey Donaldson stared me in the face and asked, ‘What on earth has happened to the BBC?’ Ian Paisley lectured me, ‘Your questions did no good for the people of Ulster today, young man.’ Martin Smyth just looked disgusted. Robert McCartney tore into my colleague Stephen Grimason, whose firm questioning he had also objected to.

Although I made a mental note not to venture over the other side of the lines at Drumcree whenever any of these gentlemen were addressing the crowd in the next few days, I wasn’t much bothered by the criticism. Things were getting very serious on the streets and the time had come for reporters to take the gloves off. The question I was most glad to have asked wasn’t the one about the Good Friday Agreement, but one which I directed to the Reverend William Bingham, the Orange Order chaplain in County Armagh. I had met Mr Bingham before, putting together a report on the boycott of Protestant businessmen around his home patch of Pomeroy in County Tyrone. I knew that, although he was profoundly committed to the Orange Order and to its culture and tradition, his first master was his God, faith in which gave him a firm moral sense. With the death of some poor innocent appearing ever more likely I asked Mr Bingham, ‘How many lives is a road worth?’ In his view, he replied, it wasn’t worth any.

Afterwards in the BBC offices at Westminster William Bingham insisted that he meant what he said and that, for good measure, he wasn’t in the anti-Good Friday Agreement camp. His colleague Denis Watson, by contrast, told me he kept a list of reporters who asked awkward questions and I was now on it. Not sure if he was joking, I replied that this was good, as I was already on Gerry Adams’s blacklist, and it would even things up.

Three days later, back at Drumcree, I woke early to go on to the Breakfast With Frost show on the morning of Sunday, 12 July. The Belfast newsroom relayed to me the first reports of a horrendous arson attack at Ballymoney in County Antrim. Three young children, Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn, had been burned to death in their home. The three brothers, eleven, ten and nine years old, were the sons of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, something which made them ‘legitimate targets’ in the eyes of some bigots. Details were scarce as to who the cowards were who set fire to their house in the middle of the night. But it appeared there had been a loyalist barricade in the area not long before.

In the hours and days that followed some Orangemen, like Denis Watson, blamed everybody else. The arson attack in Ballymoney had been the result of particular local circumstances. The media, the RUC and the government were conspiring to suppress all the details. The Orange Order had had nothing to do with the violence which had been taking place across Northern Ireland that week. But it had less than nothing - if that’s possible - to do with this particular attack. In fact the death of the children could well have happened in any other week in the year, in any other town, in any other country.

At the subsequent trial of one of those responsible for the arson attack it became clear that a personal grudge against the Quinn family did indeed play a part in the warped logic of the brothers’ killers. If you wanted to blame an organisation for their deaths the local UVF was far higher up the ladder of responsibility than the Orange Order. But to totally divorce the intimidation of Catholic families in Ballymoney that week, culminating in the attack on the Quinn family, from the licence for lawlessness generated by the Drumcree stand-off appears an act of sophistry. The Quinns were not the only mixed marriage or Catholic family told to get out of their housing estate that week.

The Reverend William Bingham took a different tack to some other Orangemen. He did not tell his faithful, gathered in the Presbyterian church in Pomeroy that Sunday, that the dispute over Drumcree had had nothing to do with creating an atmosphere in Northern Ireland in which some loyalists, armed with a whiskey bottle full of petrol, thought they could get away with setting fire to a house in which children slept. Instead he urged his flock and Orangemen everywhere to walk away from Drumcree, telling them that ‘no road is worth a life’. The next day he was accused of betrayal by Joel Patton of the hardline Spirit of Drumcree group and there followed an undignified but suitably symbolic joust of black umbrellas between different sections of the Order. At Drumcree a few diehards lingered but most people voted with their feet.

Looking back on that summer it strikes me that while the people of Northern Ireland may be far from primitive, there is something almost primitive about the rhythm of events when the place is gripped by a crisis. Often both sides to a dispute edge ever closer to the precipice, taunting each other to jump. There is almost a demand for a blood sacrifice - in this case the poor Quinn children - then everyone retreats reassuring themselves that they aren’t really as bad as all that, they are more civilised than people in the world’s other conflict zones. If in 1996 the tension was taken out of the build-up to doomsday by Sir Hugh Annesley’s U-turn, in 1998 it required the deaths of three young boys to convince people to pull back from the brink. Leaders on both sides never appear able to come to their senses before allowing things to go too far.

The year I left Belfast, 1999, Drumcree passed off with an eerie calm. Maybe support for the Order had waned since the security forces held it at bay in 1998. Maybe the Order believed it could cut a deal with the government at a later date. I have considerable criticism for both sides in the marching issue. On occasion certain individuals in the nationalist concerned residents’ groups travel long distances in order to have the thrill of taking offence at marches. There is too often a simple win or lose mentality which I don’t believe serves either beleaguered communities in particular or the Catholic population in general. Breandán Mac Cionnaith, now an elected councillor for the Garvaghy Road, should realise he has responsibilities to Catholics in other parts of Northern Ireland, such as the isolated families in Ballymoney or the parishioners at Harryville in Ballymena, as well as to those in his own backyard. Consent is a great concept, but in the twentieth century it should mean more than just letting every group living on every street corner dictate exactly what can or cannot happen in their area. That way anarchy lies.

At the same time the Orange Order must wise up. I don’t care if the Orangemen won’t let me join, but like countless other people living in Northern Ireland I wish they would just let me live my life. Don’t lecture me about your God-given right to walk the Queen’s highway, when you know that if I want to cross the road during one of your marathon parades I risk having the hell beaten out of me by one of your fine upstanding members (marchers won’t countenance you crossing their path, unless specifically escorted by a steward, who if my memory serves me doesn’t have any more legal powers than me). Don’t wash your hands and pretend that you have no responsibility for disorder when you know full well it is likely to follow your organising protests in flashpoint areas. And wise up about the real march - the one your enemies are stealing on you. Every time you insist on tramping over the rights of others you are alienating the bulk of the British people to whom you claim you belong. They do not understand and frankly cannot be bothered trying to understand. Embrace a new future. Become Morris dancers.


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.


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