I was talked out and very tired and Mette rolled on down the road towards Belfast. It was late and we all just wanted a bed for the night. I found myself feeling quite strange as Belfast drew nearer. I had done a little time there during the troubles in either 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember. It was very tense and wet and grey and intimidating. Then, I felt that what ever I did I was going to get hurt. Sectarianism and the violence that surrounds it is a very volatile situation. You just don’t know who is who and what is really going on. I was also 20 years younger then and walking across the cracks of society was not as instinctive as it is now.
It was leading up to Christmas and there was random violence that was basically aimed at destabilising the Christmas period. A few shop bombings accompanied by the usual knee cappings and killing was the norm then. On top of this were British army patrols that were primed to explode at anything that went out of the ordinary. I was basically wandering the streets following the sounds of sirens to get the odd shot of any aftermaths from this violence.
An old friend in Australia came from a strong Republican family and many of his relatives and brothers were in jail. He wanted nothing to do with any of this and got out and headed for a new life in Australia. Although he was well out of what was going on he was still well connected.
I contacted him before I came over and told him what I wanted to do and asked if he could connect me. His answer was short and to the point.
“They are all fuckin mad over there, stay away from it. It will only do you no good.”
As I was still keen he finally agreed to connect me with some people who could maybe get me approved to shoot some photos in the Republican areas. I had the numbers to call in my pocket and made the calls. I was heavily grilled on the phone and asked to call back in a few hours. I did and they agreed to see me. A pub in Falls Road was chosen and I arrived early. No need to say how they would recognise me as I just didn’t fit in here at all.
I walked to the bar and ordered a Guinness and no sooner had the bar tender walked away when I was picked up by my head and dragged with feet off the ground by someone. I was choking and gagging as he flung me against the wall.
“Who the fuck are you and what the fuck are you doing here?”
I babbled at full speed as someone made some phone calls. Finally the pressure eased a bit and the gorilla who had me pinned against the wall loosened his grip a bit.
“Ok, Sean is coming but if you film this, I’ll kill you and if you do that, I’ll fucking kill you and if you do something else then we’ll smash your knees. Now get up off the ground and I’ll buy you a pint”.
Point taken and absolute fear injected into my very soul.
I wandered Belfast for awhile and shot the odd shot and got bailed up more times than I care to remember by everyone from Republicans, Loyalists, Unionists and the British Army. Finally I was bashed in the face while just walking along the street.
“Fuckin news c…t!” was screamed in my face and they walked on.
I was fast becoming sick of this place and it could all go to hell as far as I was concerned. There were other jobs to do around the world and Northern Ireland could burn in its own mire for all I cared.
It was a weird feeling to now return to a place that I had a tough time in and really had no connection with. I just felt it was a place of anger and aggression.
The drive towards Belfast became better and better with new freeways feeding us into the city. Our GPS girl was behaving nicely and giving us the proper lefts and rights till we came off the freeway and into Divis street. This was familiar territory to me but I never would have recognised an inch of it. Belfast looked great. In the nineteen year gap and the years of peace they had managed to redevelop Belfast nicely. Bright lights bathed the nightclub set as they wandered from bar to bar. Many of the big retail names were here and it looked like any other capital city.
As we drove towards our hotel we passed many a spot I remembered like the Crown pub but it all fitted into a normal city and wasn’t something from the dark side. Belfast had been reborn.
Our hotel was just past Queens University to the south of the city centre. It was only a few hundred metres from the tiny guest house I had stayed in all those years ago. We parked the Ban Bus, checked in and went to bed.
The following day I was to speak at the Stormont. This is the parliament of Northern Ireland. Luckily the talk wasn’t till one o’clock so there was time for a gentle start to the day. Getting into any parliament is a coup at any time and getting to brief MP’s is a special connection. The general assembly this wasn’t going to be but a side briefing in the media conference room was still good. Amnesty had pulled off another good connection.
It wasn’t a huge crowd by any means but we had a representative from all the main parties. They had each been sent to gain the information we had to spread then feed it back to their parties.
Like most politicians they are in the business of governance and not overly concerned with details. They take a broad view of any topic then move on. It was my job to hopefully batter them out of their complacency. I knew it was to be short so it had to be sharp. I started firing information at them in a fast an aggressive way. So far so good and as I got to talking about the victims of cluster bombs I could see it was beginning to hit a chord with them. These could be their children.
I got to the end with only one MP leaving just before the end but I’d had a good talk to him before I began so that was not too bad. The rest had some surprisingly good substantial questions then the place was empty. We wandered the back corridor’s of the Stormont and as we were waiting for Mette to take a pit stop the doors at the end opened and none other than the Reverend Ian Paisley walked with his minders. I thought this was a good time to try and button hole him for a talk about clusters.
He ambled down the corridor flanked by his minders and I got eye contact with him. His head went back down and they pressed on by. The minders had that very definite look of not now, we won’t let you to him.
In another forum you push on in but in a parliament you do have to have a little decorum. We had a little debrief with Patrick and Fionna from Amnesty International and decided that the briefing was a good success. Patrick and Fionna do a lot of this kind of political lobbying and in comparison to other presentations they felt we had done well as the MP’s had stayed engaged, interested and had asked good questions.
A couple of photos later we headed back to the hotel till the afternoons presentation was due at Queens University. Mette wanted some really good photos of the Ban Bus at the Stormont so she and Raechel headed back with it to see what they could do.
Mette is the mistress of charm and has the extraordinary ability to talk her way into anywhere anytime. Once you have left parliament and the security area you then have no right to return. This meant nothing to Mette and as usual, she talked her way past the security and before they knew it, Mette was doing laps of the roundabout and Raechel was taking photos.
Queens University is a magnificent place with dramatic gothic architecture. The day was perfect and we were hoping for a good turn out of students and activists so we set up in a lecture room. Mette and Raechel hit the streets again and started interviewing every passer by. On the side of the university they were having trouble getting people to stop and talk till they realised that something special was happening in Belfast. It was a beautiful day. The other side of the street was in full sun and they were in the shade. Why would you stand in the shade and talk if you could be in the sun? They crossed the road.
The mood instantly changed and many were quite happy to stop and chat and give their comments about cluster bombs. The Irish are in general a very friendly lot and it seems anywhere you go they are up for a chat or craic. Good craic, a good chat.
It’s a perfect piece of Vox Popli or the peoples voice.
“So Sir, what do you think about the international use of cluster bombs and do you think they should be banned?”
Why is that only we actually ask what people think? It should be the very nature of being a politician. Ask the people how they would like to be represented then act on it. A very novel idea in the so called democratic world.
As they got their interviews piece by piece I met the various students who came for the talk. These were people who would hopefully engage in the issue. There is noting more passionate than a student activist.
I was starting to feel a little like a broken record as I launched into the presentation. The most important thing is no matter how you feel you can’t wear that on your sleeve. The people who we choose to represent from cluster affected countries deserve our best job and only our best job ever. Nothing more, nothing less. The talk went well and many stayed around for a few extra words and some ideas on what they could do and how to get involved. These are the people we really need.
Belfast has been short, fast and productive but on the road we must go so we packed up and headed west again to Derry or Londonderry or umm, I know someone will get upset no matter what I say so I might as well settle for what is at the entrance, The Walled City.