Notes on a Notebook

Andrew O’Hagan

You set out believing in a world of possible truths; you finish up in an eternity of corridors waiting for clarification. Sometimes the only truth you find is the truth of your own hunger to find. You see in a flash that nothing will come of further questions or second trips. Between the lines of your unyielding story another narrative may awaken and begin to stand up. And that will be the story you take home: the unending story of the story itself.

You’d do well to snap your pencil and walk away at that point. Exhaustion can be a wise counsellor. But sometimes the second story not only stands up but takes to running: it comes after you, and even in your sleep you meet these pieces that won’t fit together, voices and minutes and partial truths hanging around on their own. These fragments – rags of description, orphan facts – can become the spoiled children of the journalistic art. They want attention but not direction. They demand the right to exist without the requirement to coalesce. It is usually worth ignoring the impulse to put them in a school and call it an academy. All I can say is that one morning in twenty you do well to forget your own advice.

2. Last April I began to write an account of the life and death of Rosemary Nelson, a 40-year-old solicitor in the town of Lurgan in County Armagh. At 12.40 p.m. on 15 March she got into her car outside her house at 5 Ashgrove Grange. As she drove away a bomb went off in the car. She lost both legs and suffered fatal abdominal injuries. Sarah, the youngest of her three children, was on her break at the primary school fifty yards away when the bomb went off. The two boys were on a school trip to France. Her husband was at work.

Mrs Nelson had just come back from a few days in Donegal. Her car had been sitting outside the house. Within hours of her murder Tony Blair spoke of it as ‘a disgusting act of barbarity’. David Andrews, the Irish Foreign Minister, said that it was ‘clearly designed to sabotage the peace process at this very critical time’. A crowd of about two hundred young people marched on the RUC station at Lurgan. A few of them threw petrol bombs at it. Mrs Nelson had been the Catholic residents’ legal representative in their efforts to stop the annual Drumcree march from coming down the Garvaghy Road. She was also prominent in the demands for an inquiry into alleged British security forces involvement in the killing of the Nationalist lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989.

Responsibility for the killing of Mrs Nelson was claimed by an unknown organisation that called itself the Red Hand Defenders.

3. I bought a new notepad in London and looked at the pages. I always buy a notepad with a degree of breezy hopefulness, flipping through the blank pages and wondering what will become of them. I buy the same ones every time – A4 and green as it happens – and the man in Haverstock Hill who sells them to me always looks up as if to say ‘here we go again.’ The hopefulness wears off and I grow superstitious and fearful looking at the pages. What if I can’t get it down? Looking at the last page I try to guess at some future frame of mind. Will anything crucial happen on these pages? This time I had a dream that my notepad wasn’t blank at all; it was full of strange bumps. And what I was doing wasn’t writing at all but rubbing. The story is already there in the dream: I rub a crayon into each page and words appear, but the hard thing behind the page is never apparent, and I don’t know what to trust. In the morning when I woke up I looked at the notepad. All I could see were the lines I’d copied down the night before from a hate letter sent to Rosemary Nelson. ‘We have you in our sights you republican Bastard. We will teach you a lesson. RIP.’

4. Rain was blowing over Lurgan my first day there. Young boys were playing football in a field beside the main road. Everywhere you looked things seemed normal: D.F. Heaney’s, the newsagent; Kernan’s Fruit – Veg. A few small shops, more like parlours than shops, are devoted to ladies’ fashions, with names like Scruples and Elegance. You always see these places in Ireland and Scotland – hard against the chip shop – with tall mannequins and their big eyelashes. A flow of youngsters came out of the school gates slugging from plastic bottles of pop – orange or green or black or blue – ignoring the rain, the cars and the time, attending only to each other.

Some of the flags were torn by the wind. The Irish ones were tied to lamp-posts on the road to Market Street. Union Jacks and Red Hands of Ulster were up on Russell Drive, on the other side of the town, and they, too, were ripped by the wind. Mrs Nelson was two weeks dead. I walked to her office and looked up at the windows. The door was locked and the street was busy with people doing their afternoon things. They walked past the solicitor’s office like it was nothing special. It was just another house on another street in a town in Northern Ireland. And yet it was their own town. The ones I spoke to called it theirs.

‘The first time I met Rosemary she was with the Shankhill Help,’ said Wilson Free-burn, with a mug of tea in front of him. ‘It was 12 years ago and we had no money and I was involved in community relations and she was trying to give Citizens Advice.’ He stared into the Formica. ‘She had sparkle you know – and she never charged those voluntary groups for her time. She just gave it. And her mother helped out on the Voluntary Bus for 15 years. She wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was a working-class girl. It wasn’t a weakness Rosemary had but where she saw a need she found it difficult to say no’

I wrote all this down in the notepad. I wrote more and still more and turned over the pages. He spoke of how the public toilets down the street marked the border between Catholic and Protestant Lurgan. And he told stories of people who had been murdered here: a mobile shop blown up; two community policemen shot; a girl called Bernadette Martin with a Protestant boyfriend shot in the middle of the night. There had been more than 120 deaths in this town since the start of the Troubles. ‘Nobody trusts the police,’ he said. ‘There’s even a credibility gap between the RUC and the Protestant community. There’s systematic sectarianism within the RUC just as there is systematic racism within the British police force in England.’

An old man sat down. He said that Mrs Nelson’s father told the Nationalist boys who were rioting and destroying buses to stop it. ‘He didn’t want them doing damage in his daughter’s name,’ he said, ‘he called them out.’ Another man who joined us, a youth worker, said he was a Nationalist who could shake hands with RUC officers. ‘This Nelson thing,’ he said, ‘it caused my boys – the boys I look after – to go out rioting. Two years’ work was destroyed over one night.’

5. In some ways the Garvaghy Road in Portadown is like a South African township. Graffiti are daubed on many of the walls (‘Disband the RUC.’ ‘This is an Orange-Free Zone’). And as well as that there is something territorial about the way people occupy the street. You would guess the community was under siege: everyone seems to notice your presence. You wouldn’t wander there absent-mindedly or roam around without a reason or an appointment. Like a township it seems to be a place that is policed by the people who live there.

Brendan MacCionnaith has very green eyes. He is said by some to be the most wanted man in Ireland. His name appeared with Rosemary Nelson’s on many of the death-threat letters and leaflets doing the rounds during the Drumcree stand-off this year and last. At the door of the Drumcree Community Centre he waved to a busload of pensioners setting off for a day outing. He is charismatic and young and you can tell that the people here love him. He was carrying boxes as he walked me inside. ‘These are bullet-proof vests for the rest of the staff here,’ he said. ‘I’ve not been into the centre of Portadown in three years. I just can’t go there.’

MacCionnaith is the leader of this community. In Portadown and all over Ireland and in Downing Street, too, he is thought of as an important and shadowy figure. He is brilliant and fearless. His is an extreme set of circumstances: he lives in the heartland of the dispute, and his fame and his commitment keep him a prisoner here, while also making him a grass-roots hero, a modern Republican with clout on every level. He speaks the language of human rights with soft-voiced clarity.

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