It could have been any street in any industrial town or city in England that winter evening early in 1970. Almost fifty years later it is impossible to recall with accuracy the nature of the buildings that lined it, illuminated in the orange glow of sodium lighting. I imagine most would have been closed and shuttered except perhaps for a launderette or a tobacconist. A dress shop, hardware store and pharmacy would have ceased trading an hour or two earlier. A fish and chip shop would have announced its presence long before I reached it.
It was around 7pm and the traffic was light. The number of working class families with motor cars then was much fewer than now. But it was an feature of the traffic that served as a reminder that this was not just another English city. In fact, it was not even England.
At just turned 28 I had been working for my then employer for a little over a year and a half. Much of that time had been spent producing drawings for a plant to be installed at the company’s synthetic fibre manufacturing facility at Carrickfergus a few miles north of Belfast. With design work completed I had been assigned to another project. Now construction of the plant was completed too. The task of starting up and handing over of the plant had been allocated to a young management trainee from Northern Ireland. I had been delegated to accompany him to Carrickfergus where my role would be to acquaint him with the various parts of the plant and their intended functions.
It was the availability of accommodation for him in the family home that left me alone in a small hotel for the night. I decided to take a bus into the city and take in a movie. The local paper I found in the small reception area of the hotel told me there was a film that might be worth seeing at a cinema on this street. Not knowing how far along the street the cinema might be, I decided to walk out from the city centre.
The name of the street was all too familiar. Six months previously it had featured regularly in the evening news as the scene of rioting. I don’t doubt that my decision to walk was influenced by a morbid desire to see first hand the scene of those riots. For me and, I imagined, the majority of young Britons, those riots had revealed a shocking truth: that there was still, in the United Kingdom, a group of people who were denied certain basic human rights. They did not have the vote, they were denied access to certain jobs, and they were, or so it seemed, being treated by the majority of their fellow Northern Irish residents as second class citizens. We felt that, whilst some of their activities could not be condoned, they did have right on their side.
Now the government had acceded to some of their demands. The rioting had ceased and life in the province had returned to normal. Except that some of the army personnel that had been deployed to quell the riots were still present.
The passage along the street of two grey painted Land Rovers, bearing distinctive military registration plates, was my reminder that tonight I was on a street unlike any other in the Kingdom. Their windows were covered with steel plates in which narrow slits provided the only means for the occupants to see where they were going and to observe other road users.
Once arrived at my intended destination I discovered that the programme had changed mid-week and that the film I wanted to see was no longer showing. I didn’t fancy what was on offer and recalled that I had also considered the possibility of going to the “arthouse” cinema at Queen’s University where a film by Jean Luc Godard was promised. There was not sufficient time to walk back to the city centre but it occurred to me that I might get to the university before the film began if I took a bus.
I crossed the street and waited at the bus stop opposite the cinema. Soon I was joined by a couple of young men who stationed themselves behind me at a discrete distance and indulged in some idle chatter. I recall nothing of these exchanges. I took no notice, lost in my own thoughts until the re-appearance of those army Land Rovers on their return journey to the city centre.
One of the men behind me let rip an expletive laden torrent of invective against the “F***ing bastard British army”, shouted at the top of his voice. No sooner were the Land Rovers past than he must have regretted having expressed his anger within earshot of a stranger. He could hardly have failed to note my reaction: the reddening of my neck and ears, the agitated shuffling of feet.
“Are you English?” he asked in calmer tones.
Denial was not a viable option. I turned to face the men. I guessed from the way he looked me up and down that it was the younger of the two who had posed the question. I didn’t doubt, either, that it was he who had uttered the tirade.
“Yes,” I said, already beginning to doubt the wisdom of venturing this far from the city centre alone.
“I’m an Engineer. Doing a job for Courtaulds.”
“What part of England are you from?”
“Ah. I’ve been to Coventry. I have relatives there. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. Can you imagine how you’d feel if Coventry was bristling with soldiers the way Belfast is just now?”
I resisted the temptation to point out that Coventry had not been the recent scene of civil disturbances. Grateful for the imminent arrival of the bus I moved closer to the kerb edge. I climbed the spiral stairs to find a seat on the top deck. The two men ascended and sat in the seat immediately in front of mine. Turning to lean on the back of his seat, the young man repeated profuse apologies and went on to regale me with a story about a friend who had, he claimed, been brutally beaten by a soldier using the butt of his rifle to administer the blows. The soldier and his colleagues were just teenagers like the victim and his friend. Their vicious show of power was the cause of his anger.
As the conductor arrived to collect our fares the young man insisted on paying mine for me. When we arrived at the city centre he provided directions to Queen’s University. It was there that I was to receive the second shocking revelation of the night.
As the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland had grown during the preceding summer, echoing the similarly named movement demanding equal rights for African Americans in the USA, one of the people who had emerged as a popular leader was a young woman from Derry called Bernadette Devlin. She had grown rapidly in popularity among the population of Derry City, sufficiently so as to be elected to the British parliament, where she had become the youngest member of that body, earning widespread admiration for the way she had articulated the grievances of her fellow citizens.
That admiration plainly did not extend to all parts of the province. As I approached the university campus I passed a series of timber hoardings upon which I was able to read in graphic detail, not so much a critique of her rhetoric, as a libelous account of “Bogside Bernie’s” sexual proclivities and the crudest imaginable descriptions of various parts of her anatomy. Alongside this shockingly pornographic writing were equally lewd, rude and crude illustrations.
I don’t remember much about the movie. It concerned a group of people stuck in a traffic jam as they joined the annual summer exodus from Paris. I vaguely recall that it featured some horrific pile ups involving numerous vehicles and some strange antics, around a camp fire, involving a fish.
The two examples of sheer unforgiving hatred that I experienced on my way there will, however, live with me forever. I recalled them repeatedly over the next two decades of violence that beset Northern Ireland and frequently spilled over to England with bombings of pubs and shopping centres in Birmingham, Guildford and Manchester among others.
In recent years the warring factions within the province have arrived at something of an accommodation and I have the greatest admiration for those like Mo Mowlem and George Mitchell whose patience and persistence made that possible. But it remains difficult for ordinary outsiders like me to understand what drove such bitterness and hatred. My belief is that fear born of ignorance is the root cause of conflict wherever it is found.
I often wonder what became of those two young men that travelled on the bus with me that night forty eight years ago, or the authors of the evil graffiti on the hoardings near Queen’s University. Did they join a paramilitary organisation? Were they driven out of their homes because they were of a different religion to that of their neighbours? Did they serve time in the infamous “H” block high security prison, perhaps participating in the hunger strikes or “dirty” protests? Did they become active participants in one or more bomb plots? Did they achieve positions of power within local or national government or in some covert organisation?
Above all, did they pass on their hate filled beliefs to their children and grandchildren, or did they discover, as some of their leaders seem to have done, an understanding of the importance of tolerance and forgiveness? I hope the latter is true.