The Irish Question

I try not to write about Brexit, simply because it’s the most stupid, depressing, self-destructive and utterly dishonest thing that has happened in politics in my lifetime. And also because I can’t write about it as well as this. And because writing about it doesn’t matter, unless you have a job writing lies about it, like say for example, the Prime Minister.

On a personal level I can’t get over a friend who not only voted for it, but necessarily voted therefore for the unarguable liar Johnson, a man who can’t even say publicly how many children he has. Her reason was as idiotic as the project itself. She was worried, she said, about ‘the rising power of Germany.’

After I’d checked that my leg wasn’t being pulled – it wasn’t – I bought her a calendar for Christmas. It was, admittedly, beautifully done, showing a print of a European city on each monthly page, as a reminder of places much more difficult to go and live in now. Another benefit of this particular calendar, I thought, was that it was this year’s date, rather than say, 1936 or somewhere nearer Herr Hitler’s accession.

But like the bad penny that always returns, Brexit isn’t going to go away. For nearly thirty years the thing that stopped me joining the Royal Marines had, namely the situation in Northern Ireland. Apart from the dubious efficacy of sending say, parachutists, or littoral warfare experts or the Horse Guards to troll around city streets not accepting cups of tea because they’d been used as lavatories very recently, I couldn’t accept the politics of it. Not Northern Ireland’s – I happily knew as little of that as the BBC was prepared to give me. It was the politics of soldiering that bothered me then and now to the extent that like prostitutes and housewives, regulars and mercenaries, I can’t see much difference in people doing the same job for money. I was notorious at school in Wiltshire for asking the only question when the Army came to recruit, which being less than ten miles from the Warminster School of Infantry was a handy go-to resource for any group of teachers who wanted a day off lessons once a year. The thing that bothered me was the loyalty thing. Not the ach mein Fuhrer, I vas only following orders bit, although it didn’t work at Nuremberg. I could understand that.

Clearly one of the lighter moments at the Nuremberg Trails.

What I couldn’t follow was the sanctimonious ‘we just do what politicians tell us, it’s not our fault, we just get the job done’ schtick, which probably every soldier from Trajan’s legions to some grunt currently winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan has used. A politician tells you, for example, go to Northern Ireland. Ok, you do that. It’s Good. Orders. Another politician wins the election and says don’t go to Northern Ireland. Ok, you do that. Also Good. Orders.

Sorry and all that, but this isn’t the same as choosing macchiato or mocha. This is putting bullets in people, or stopping other people doing that, often by doing that. That, after all, is pretty much what armies are for. The self-deception of ‘I just do what I’m told AND it’s always right (and its accompanying “AND if you weren’t there you can’t judge” utter BS) is exactly what exercises Simon Wiesenthal to this day.

So I didn’t go. For a variety of personal reasons, from loving shooting and being quite a good instructor to an ex’s next door neighbour being the Commandant General with whom I’d shared gin and tonics on the lawn and then let down rather badly, I’ve always had mixed feelings about that. I didn’t go to Northern Ireland either, until three years ago. I absolutely hated the place.

I was nervous the whole time I was there. I was tour guiding, with a bunch of American kids. We arrived the day after the Apprentice Boys’ Parade. Oh, that was nice. Smoke from smouldering bonfires hung over Belfast, some still burning in the street near the central bus station.

“Gee, this is … this is just like Nazi Germany” one of them said. I told him there was no way Nazi Germany was this untidy. All I knew of Belfast was reading A Breed of Heroes while I was teaching kids to shoot and chasing cheerleaders in Wisconsin and from watching the nightly news throughout most of my life until the Good Friday agreement seemingly miraculously put a stop to “A bomb has gone off in Northern Ireland” headlines. But they weren’t even headlines. It happened so often it was like the weather; it was what happened there.

My step-sister walked past the car that exploded and killed a man in London. A friend had walked past Liberty’s window minutes before it blew out in another IRA bomb attack. Back in Warminster an army officer was shot when he opened his front door, but to be fair, it was never proved who did that and nobody in Northern Ireland claimed it. I remembered the Brighton bomb, obviously. I also remembered sitting in a lecture hall, hearing the bang and looking out of the window to see smoke rising from another bomb in London, as close as I ever want to get to the action, thanks all the same. That wasn’t really tension; none of us in those scenarios knew what was going to happen. Tension was what I felt in Belfast, with the streets full of smoke, people wandering around drunk who quite clearly hadn’t seen home in 24 hours and flashbacks to BBC News stories around more than a few street corners, with the paint still fresh on the UVF murals tastefully painted on the end walls of houses we saw.

Because I knew nothing very useful about the place apart from “I don’t want to be here, in a DPM smock or not” we collected a local guide and toured around the city with her. She was about my age. She’d lived in her farmhouse on the border all her adult life. Back when I was just about becoming an adult at journalist college I used to hitchhike, which was what people did back then. Not many, and not often, but some. More than now, certainly. If you’ve ever seen Radio On you’ll remember the mad flack-happy squady hitcher who gets dumped with good reason on the old A4. Yes, it’s very retro. So are petrol bombs in Northern Ireland, and they seem to be bringing them back. My own experience of meeting squadies on the road was the flip side of PTSD; I remember very clearly one describing how his foot patrol had taken fire from a farmhouse across the border one night. He told me about emptying magazines of 7.62 into the window the flashes were coming from; then when it had all stopped, totally illegally raiding the farmhouse in Eire to find only pools of blood, not the body they wanted to prove what happened.

We got chatting, the guide and I. Because of the Royal Marines thing although I’d never been there I knew a fair bit about the situation. The coach drove us to the Peace Wall, overlooked by the remaining bits of the infamous Divis Flats I remembered from countless news stories. The kids were supposed to write messages of peace and hope on the wall originally built to stop the locals fighting each other. Personally, I thought it was a pointless bit of empty posturing for American teenagers, especially as this bunch were from California, not Boston and half of them were Hispanic. But hey, I’m just the guide so local lady guide, do your stuff.

Which she did quite nicely. The kids grabbed their magic markers and piled off the coach to write their encouraging slogans and the local guide and I stayed chatting on the street, by the door of the bus. Well, you know. Maybe.

While we were talking though, both being of an age where we remembered a time when someone screaming “Hard targets” was always a possibility, we kept an eye on what was going on around us. What we both noticed was a black ex-London taxi that was driving very slowly. Urban legend had it that at one time the IRA used these as well as local cabbies used them, but as mobile command centres that nobody would notice, not to pick-up fares. The cab slowly drove the length of our coach then stopped about 50 yards in front of us. Ok, it’s there. Nobody got in, nobody got out.

A small motorbike drove up in the opposite direction, slowly, two-up. It drove past the taxi, almost got to the coach, turned around, drove up to the black cab and stopped. The pillion talked to the cab driver through the window. I knew the local guide had seen this; from her glance I knew she knew I had too. The little motorbike turned around again and drove slowly towards the bus, past us standing just in front of the coach near the door at the front, and drove out of our sight, towards the rear of the bus and the fifty-two teenage Californians. That’s when it happened.

Bang! Bang!

I don’t know about you but in a fairly odd life, I’ve been shot at a few times. I nearly stopped a .45 ACP bullet in the face when I was at a shooting competition. I was shot at while I was visiting a castle in the hills above Toulon with an American girl. I think from the sound of it that it was only an air rifle, but given we couldn’t see who was doing it and we were the only people there, we were definitely being shot at. The time I walked into the middle of an IDF ambush was the least amusing. Pointing guns at people is very bad manners. Shooting them is even worse.

The local lady guide and I did the only sensible thing. Neither of us yelled ‘Hard targets!’ But we didn’t exactly cover ourselves with glory. We dived for cover out of sight of the taxi and the bike, ****ing fast. Sorry about that kids, but hey, no sense in us all getting shot, huh?

It turned out when the guide and I got back up and pretended nothing had happened (not to each other, out of earshot of the kids we both agreed we thought exactly the same thing was happening and it was not a good thing) it was just the bike. Backfiring. Like a cartoon. Ooops…..

Still the day brightened up. One of the kids told me he’d written ‘Screw the Peace Process” on the Peace Wall, so I had to tell his teacher because I didn’t want the entire bus actually really being massacred when the little motorbike turned out not to be backfiring at all, which meant the whole crew of Californians getting a Big Serious Speech back at the hotel, after which it turned out the kid told me he had only said that to impress me (son, do you know how fast I dived for cover? No. And you’re not going to. Utter idiot.) So that was all fun.

And the best bit came later that day, after we’d dropped off the nice local lady guide, who I’ve never seen again to this day. We left Northern Ireland and drove not through a checkpoint, not through the hard border my lunatic friend has put across the road, but just drove south, under the empty British Army guard posts and their array of antennas now receiving no messages at all, into the green fields of the Republic, heading for Dublin.

Dublin, another friend agreed, wasn’t that different to a bigger version of Trowbridge, but the south-west, where we were headed next, that was, and is, something else again. Best of all, it wasn’t bloody Belfast.

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