Friday, 7 September 2012

Troubling times

Many years ago, I emerged from a meeting in a hospital, with some of the managers and one of my colleagues, into pleasant sunshine made more attractive by the prospect of a congenial lunch ahead.

Nothing unusual about that. I’ve been working in the healthcare sector since 1985. To be out with a group of executives is normal to the point of banal. The aspect most out of the ordinary, this being the British Isles, was the sunshine.

But then the everything changed. As we stepped off the pavement, we moved into what might have been Beirut. To our right and left, in front and soon behind us were armed soldiers, crouching down with their assault rifles resting in the crook of their elbows, helmets low over camouflage painted faces.

My colleague and I, unnerved, fell silent but the hospital people just kept chatting easily, implicitly answering a question I hadn’t asked: how do we behave now?

And then I had the classic experience of such situations: one of the soldiers looked straight at me and smiled. He was a soldier no more. He was a young man doing his job, and that job meant that what for me was simply a pleasant spring day, for him was a day of wariness in which he was a target.

That moment didn’t take place in Beirut but in Belfast. In the course of more visits to the province than I can count, it was just one of many times I directly felt the effect of what we euphemistically call ‘the troubles’. 

On another, I was struck by the Israeli flags flying in a loyalist area.

‘Is there an official visit?’ I naively asked.

‘No,’ laughed my host on that occasion, ‘some of the nationalist boys have taken to flying Palestinian flags out of solidarity, so the unionists put out Israeli ones.’

Whatever one side did, the other did the opposite. It was sterile, hopeless, unremitting hostility.

But then I was back again soon after the Good Friday agreement. The transformation was extraordinary. 

On my first visit to the city, I’d been put up in the Europa Hotel, which seemed proud of its status as Europe’s most bombed. One side of the building was boarded up, the rooms out of service. The approach to the reception area was through a chicane but, in a very Irish way, unmanned so I could walk through unobserved and unchallenged. Opposite were the offices of the Ulster Unionists, sporting the slogan ‘Keep Ulster British’, which struck me as curious since Ulster isn’t in Britain at all.

As I was on my own, I decided to pop out for a drink in the evening, but quickly abandoned the idea. I’ve never been anywhere so eery. Empty streets, silent pubs, at 9:00 at night. And of course no-one was thinking of anything innovative in the way of food or drink: a sandwich meant two bits of white bread with ham or cheese in between, variety being offered only by the pickle; tea and coffee were virtually indistinguishable in their appearance, and sometimes their taste, served in huge mugs. And the place was bristling with weapons.

In recent years, it’s become unrecognisable. Coffee shops serve cappuccinos and espressos. You can get salads or noodles in fast food shops. Sandwiches are offered with a choice of types of bread, even baguette, and contain outlandish fillings such as brie. Brie? In Northern Ireland? Lord Carson must be spinning in his grave.

And in the evenings? The place is brimming with life. Young people, old people, all sorts of people, wander the streets. The pubs are loud and lively and cheerful. You can get weird cocktails (from experience, some of them very weird), wines, foreign beers. A fun, friendly, fashionable city.

So it’s depressing to see Nationalists and Loyalists rounding on each other again, over who can march where, who can shout what slogans at whom, who can sing what songs outside what buildings.

Going back to old ways?
It was a funny old place back then. But it wasn’t much fun. 

Who on Earth would want to go back to all that?


Anonymous said...

21sedtsrBWasn't the fact that they were deprived of pub life, seeing that at 9p.m. everything was dead, enough of an incentive to make peace?

Anonymous said...

I cannot see the point of the system making the human identification such a pain. It is impossible to pass the Preview stage, and when you go direct to Publish, you get rubbish at the beginning

waggledook said...

While Northern Ireland is not part of Britain I believe that any citizen of the United Kingdom can correctly be described as British. Though you might get punched in the face, the law would be on your side.

David Beeson said...

So it's less a question of keeping Northern Ireland British than of keeping Fenians British, against their will?