Diary

Stephen Smith

In the window of the bargain shop there was a photocopy of the front page of the Sun showing a Belfast boy hugging a British soldier. Speech bubbles had been added to it, so that the boy was saying: ‘Why are you going home, Daddy?’ ‘Because the Provies have surrendered,’ the squaddy replies. A few of the Unionists I spoke to sounded this note of triumph at the IRA ceasefire but not many. Most were either sniffing secret deals or talking about waiting and seeing. ‘Peace in our lunchtime,’ one woman laughed.

I thought I would leave it a few minutes before approaching the shop directly. A leather-jacketed stranger walking the Shan-kill Road on Saturday lunchtime, I had caused the clientele to turn interestedly from bins of computer games and collapsible plastic chandeliers merely by passing in front of the premises. It’s not yet a year since the Saturday lunchtime when the IRA used an outsider to deliver explosives to a fish shop on the Shankill. Thomas Begley, who blew up 11 people including himself, had seldom ventured from his Nationalist neighbourhood in his 23 years. And he probably wouldn’t have got as far as he did if he hadn’t been smocked and gloved to look like someone who was in his element among dead fish.

A trestle table had been set up on the pavement outside the bargain shop. The proprietor was laying out cheap shirts on it as if he were dealing cards. I asked him about the ceasefire but he said: ‘That’s the fellow you want to see. He’s what you’d call a Loyalist.’ He meant the man he had just been talking to. Wearing jeans and a sports shirt over a flattish stomach, the man was on his way to a park football match. ‘I’ll talk to you but you can’t use my name,’ he said. His accent was not as heavy as the proprietor’s. ‘Let’s say I would be in a Loyalist organisation.’

He said his involvement went back to the mid-Seventies, when he was jailed for six years after the RUC found him in a car with a gun. ‘An intent charge against me was dropped,’ he added. He was then 19 years old.

‘Do you still, I mean, are you ...?’

‘I’m still active, if that’s what you mean.’

He didn’t demur when I included him in a remark about Loyalist ‘operators’. In The Edge of the Union, Steve Bruce, the self-styled ‘Prods are me’ spokesman of academe, observes that ‘paramilitaries use the term “operators” to distinguish those members who have been or are prepared to be personally involved in illegal violence from the “backroom boys”, “armchair generals” and “politicians”.’ In other words, the man I was talking to was ready if need be to shoot people.

‘I think the ceasefire means the IRA are beaten,’ he told me. ‘I was up at the prison last week and from what they’re saying in there, the Republicans are sick about the long sentences they’re doing – twenty, thirty years. That’s their lifetime. The IRA has been having problems recruiting people.’ He said there was no lack of manpower on his side. ‘They’ve been queueing up to join because of the Shankill bomb.’

We were speaking after the Combined Loyalist Military Command, representing the outlawed Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, had set out conditions for calling off its gunmen. Touchingly couched in aspirational English (‘after serious in-depth analysis’), the statement had registered concern that the Republican INLA had yet to declare its intentions. The operator agreed: ‘I’ll feel safer when their trigger men have joined the ceasefire. As for us, I think we could have had one months ago. The UFF – Ulster Freedom Fighters – ‘have killed a lot of innocent Catholics. But on the other hand, the Provos were shooting and bombing. They wanted to put on a show of strength before calling it off. I’ll be happy with a ceasefire, I’ve got a young family. I’m not a criminal and I would never have been inside if it wasn’t for the Troubles.’

Other Loyalist operators aren’t so peaceable. Those who talk to them, like the Rev. Roy Magee, told me there was a danger that violence would be exported to targets in the Irish Republic, as a bomb in Dublin promptly confirmed. Incredibly, the sources claimed that British officials, with their celebrated ‘back channels’ to the IRA, had opened no lines of communication with Loyalist gunmen. ‘They thought there was only one side to the equation,’ one told me.

It was probably the last decent weekend of the year for having a wedding in Belfast, but even so the wind was riffling the bunting of Union Jacks above our heads, and outside the doorways of churches down the Shankill confetti was being blown around like ash. The operator said he had to be going. ‘What would interest me now,’ he said, acknowledging a teammate who had just walked up, ‘is a pan-Unionist front. The main parties, and others like the Progressive Unionists’ – which has contacts with Loyalist paramilitaries. ‘And ourselves. If there’s going to be a pan-Nationalist front, we have to counter that.’

This idea – or a legally more circumspect version of it – is one of a diminishing number he has in common with the Paisleyite Democratic Unionists, who have warned direly of civil war. He gave the Party his support as a teenager but now dismisses it: ‘The Big Man’s gone too far.’

The Loyalist operator gave the impression that he looked forward to putting down his gun. When I asked Peter Robinson of the DUP about his, he replied: ‘If I got the chance to get it out, I’d probably get quite close to my target.’ We were gazing across Robinson’s lawn at the ramparts of his garden wall. His closed circuit TV was showing a dull black-and-white road movie about the cars passing his gates. I thought it was curious that Robinson had spoken about a chance of getting his gun out rather than a need to. I made a point of taking the words down in longhand, though perhaps it had been a slip of the tongue.

Robinson wanted a pledge from the British Government, and not just the temporary occupant of 10 Downing Street, that any change in the constitution and governance of the province would rest on consent. Robinson had been ready to be a ‘persuader’ within the Unionist community, but when Major had shown the DUP his door, he could, he said, ‘have wept that the prime minister of the United Kingdom could behave in such a childish way’.

‘I’m interested that you talk in terms of crying. Isn’t part of your problem that public opinion on the mainland sees you and Paisley as unfeeling and rigid?’

‘The characteristics of Ulster Protestants are that they are dogged and determined. They take their politics seriously.’

When I asked Robinson if he thought British ministers were prepared to exclude his party from Northern Ireland’s political process, he emphasised the DUP’s support in the province. He looked at me and said that those who imagined his party could be bypassed were ‘thinking like Englishmen’, and I didn’t know if he meant Major and Mayhew, or me.

Because Unionists venerate the Queen, or at least her Protestant throne, patronising English people assume that they secretly fancy themselves as some of us. We imagine them saving up to emigrate to the Home Counties, or frowning over applications for a Gloucestershire green card. As a united Ireland seems to edge nearer, we wouldn’t be surprised to find Ulster rafters straddling HGV tyres in the Irish Sea. But most Unionists I spoke to can’t see unification happening, or take heart from the belief that even the province’s Catholics don’t want it. If a British government slung Ulster out of the United Kingdom – so that there was nothing for the Loyalists to remain loyal to – an independent North would be the only homeland that many could abide.

As to negotiating with Gerry Adams and other Republicans, for Peter Robinson it is literally a case of over my dead body. He said: ‘You’re talking about many, many years. It’s probably generational.’

‘You mean after you’re dead?’

‘That’s right.’

In a vox pop I heard on the radio, a man was saying it was only in Northern Ireland that a ceasefire could provoke warnings of civil war. And perhaps, too, it was only in Northern Ireland that an operator could seem more reasonable than a persuader.

Left to themselves, Unionist politics appear to move at a funereal pace. A year ago, I asked Chris McGimpsey, a leading member of the relatively placable Ulster Unionists, whether he could foresee sharing the diplomatic baize with the Sinn Fein president. ‘Sure,’ McGimpsey, a canny chain-smoker from Newtonards, replied. ‘Give it, say, fifteen years.’ McGimpsey is on the team that represents the UUP in talks about Northern Ireland. Did he still feel discussions with Adams were such a long way off?

‘Did I say fifteen years? I would think it wouldn’t be as long as that. It all depends. If in six months, the IRA have started handing in their weapons ... Actually, I’d still be reluctant. You see, many people are unhappy about that visit of Adams to Dublin. Good God, these people carried out a sectarian programme for 25 years. We have six days of peace and there are Hume and Reynolds sitting down with Adams.’

McGimpsey had just finished his column for the Sunday World: ‘It’s all tits and bums but they have about six political items.’

‘What are you saying this week?’

‘I’m saying I feel a bit like the man who’s falling off the Empire State Building,’ he said. ‘He’s passing the 14th floor and he yells to a man in an office: “All right so far.” ’

‘But he ends up crashing into the sidewalk?’

‘Well, maybe the firemen will be there with a big tarpaulin to catch him.’

In his poem ‘A Belfast Bildungsroman’, Tom Paulin, who was raised in Northern Ireland, looks forward to

that great and notable day when the curtain goes up
on a stagestruck city soughing like a full house

For the time being, though, a discernible lessening of troop and police activity on the streets is feared like the unravelling of a security blanket. (It didn’t help that newly unbuttoned RUC officers, paying back a group of lippy Protestant youths, allegedly lined them up against a wall and subjected them to a chorus of the Republican ballad ‘Soldier Song’.) ‘People aren’t exactly dancing in the streets,’ said a cabbie – a profession to whom, in Belfast, journalists can for once legitimately turn for a quote, since drivers have often been attacked by paramilitaries.

My cabbie’s coolness was shared by people in a Protestant café. A waitress in her forties shrugged when I asked her if she thought the ceasefire would last. Did she have any Catholic friends? No. Would she ever visit the Falls Road?

‘Only if I was going to hospital.’

‘Do Catholics ever come into the café?’

‘No.’

‘How do you know?’

‘You can tell.’

‘How?’

‘The hair,’ she said, ‘the way the women have their hair. And their eyes. They aren’t like ours.’

The Royal Bar, on the unimprovable Snugville Street, had a security camera like Peter Robinson’s. It pointed at me like a jabbing finger. Plastic bags containing semtex and petrol, and a housebrick for ballast, had been lobbed into the doorway of the next bar up the road, the Berlin, four weeks earlier. The story goes – and it has already been silted into Shankill folklore – that an old soldier had levered himself from his stool, effortfully gathered up the bags, shuffled to a patch of wasteland, and dragged two wires from the bomb, defusing it. ‘I like the bar I drink in and I didn’t want it destroyed,’ he told the RUC when they arrived.

A buzzer went off and the thick glass door of the Royal swung back. Grandstand was playing to a room the colour of tobacco. I was expecting looks of feral misgiving from the score or so of lunchtime drinkers, but a window-cleaner I had been talking to earlier – he was now leaning against the bar, arms spread-eagled on either side of a large bottle of Harp – told me he had vouched for my wavy likeness on the monitor above the till. ‘That’s what I’m telling you,’ he said, ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom.’

The barman brought my pint. ‘Who did you say you’re from?’ he said. ‘Well, put this in the London Review’ – and he proceeded to make a grave allegation against a leading Republican. The barman said he had a son in the Army, and the boy had to spend his leave on the mainland because the top brass thought he was in danger at his parents’ Belfast home.

The window-cleaner nodded thoughtfully. ‘Listen to me carefully,’ he said. ‘That’s what I’m telling you.’

The barman said three of his friends were shot dead opposite the bar in July. ‘They were just reading a book. That’s not the kind of thing you can forgive.’ He offered me his quiver of Regals.

‘There’s been too many deaths,’ said an old boy with a mauve nose and a sandy cowlick like a Pears baby’s.

‘The scars are too deep,’ said the barman.

‘The scars are deep,’ agreed the old boy.

‘Boom, boom, boom, boom,’ said the window-cleaner. ‘That’s what I’m telling you.’

The barman leant over to me. ‘You have to take into account,’ he said, ‘Mr Harp.’

As I left the bar, I could have sworn I heard gunfire. Perhaps it was the IRA getting rid of ammunition. It was difficult to be certain because of an amplified sermon that a young man was delivering beneath an orange tarpaulin in the grounds of a church. It involved a parable about a bus driver who ran over a child. The fatality turned out to be his son. ‘Friends,’ the young man said, ‘He gave himself to you. People rejected Him, friends. They rejected Him. Friends, this is the truth’ – although I was the only person in his audience. A flybill on a street sign promised ‘Ulster’s answer!’ Pastor Stephen Mitchell was proclaiming ‘the glorious gospel’ at John White’s Church on Sunday morning.

Pastor Mitchell, who is in his early thirties, spoke of the ‘gross indecency’ of Chaldee in Abraham’s day. ‘Is this not a picture of our own province?’ he asked. ‘God is still calling out Abrahams. He called Luther from the cloisters of Rome. Is God calling John White’s Church to be a lighthouse on the Shankill? To be a lighthouse, you’ve got to take a stand. Can I get an amen to that?’

‘Amen,’ everybody said.

‘If you are not saved, you could go out onto the Shankill and be on a road to a lost eternity’, said the pastor in a stage whisper. ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’