Stephen Smith

Three men left the church by a side door. They made to walk down the stone steps, saw our camera, hesitated. We had been filming what every media-savvy toddler in Belfast seems to recognise as a ‘gv’ – a general view – of the Holy Cross Church and Monastery in Nationalist Ardoyne. It was forty-eight hours or so after an IRA bomb had killed ten people on the Shankill Road, including the Ardoyne man who had been attempting to plant it. The local BBC radio station had just been airing a phone-in on whether he deserved a funeral. With its granite exterior and its rook-loud turrets, the Holy Cross improbably recalled Greyfriars School during autumn term. The dead giveaway that this was not Billy Bunter’s alma mater but a church in Northern Ireland was the RUC land-rover drawn up in the drive like an armoured hearse. We wanted the pictures to introduce a story about a priest who had agreed to talk to us about his flock’s fears of Loyalist reprisals. The three men were an irrelevance to the shot – at most, providing a little foreground movement, three parishioners on an errand or call. To tell the truth, I only noticed them as they havered on the bottom step, and then the only one who registered distinctly was the youngest – moustache, grey fleecy sweatshirt. The other two, in their late forties or early fifties, were neutrally swaddled in anoraks or car coats. But now that I gave them my attention, they all looked alike: they were all as shinily pale as camphor.

All at once, a fourth man emerged from the side door and walked towards us with a frown, a dog collar resolving itself from the blur of his mufti. ‘Are you filming?’ he said.

‘Filming what?’ said the cameraman, James Nicholas. The priest said: ‘Please don’t show this family.’ James reached along the stock of the camera and flicked a switch. Trimming what you film has become second nature in the province. Camera crews do not favour the faces of RUC officers; the cabbies who ply the Shankill or the Falls are ingeniously framed in their driving mirrors during interviews. The priest’s request seemed inoffensive; it was a nothing shot. We went back to low-angle views of a concrete Christ in the middle of a flower-bed.

An RUC chief inspector who was also visiting Holy Cross – a passenger in the land-rover – said: ‘You haven’t filmed these people, have you?’ We hadn’t. ‘We have to help them with their arrangements, you see,’ he said. We nodded, we quite understood. We resumed zooming in and out of the priest’s splendid show of early pansies.

In the welter of gunfire over the next two days – a 72-year-old Catholic killed at home; a lethal spree by the Ulster Freedom Fighters at a council cleansing depot; an attack on a Republican at the home of the dead bomber, as a result of which a British soldier has been charged – there was scarcely time to give the encounter at Holy Cross a thought.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in