Gated Belfast City Centre in 1973

(This photo of Official World Famous Belfast Black Taxi Tour is courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Short story published in the Spring 2017 edition of the ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine. This story has been approved for publication by the Government’s ‘Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee’.

Every Rebel has a Cause 

 “The hope must be that, whatever lies ahead, their experiences should serve as a lasting reminder of why Northern Ireland should never again return to full-scale conflict, a lasting reminder of the sadness and the pity of it all, a lasting reminder that war is hell.”[i]

“You’re refusing to go to Northern Ireland?”

The Senior Estates Surveyor fixed me with an incredulous stare.  Based on that look I deduced that, in his lengthy career, no-one had ever before refused a direct instruction from him. We were alone in his office. He was sitting behind his large oak and leather-topped desk and I was standing in front of it on a square of carpet that covered a part of the standard civil service linoleum flooring. My mouth was dry so I just nodded and pressed my right foot firmly against the carpet to stop my leg from shaking.

“You need to reflect on this. Whilst you’re doing that I’ll consult Head Office. You’ll be hearing from me again.  Now get out of my room.”

I backed out and returned to my desk wondering if I still had a job.

It was 1974 and Northern Ireland was a dangerous place to go to. I’d been happy working on my quiet and safe Lake District patch. I was one of only two young surveyors in the office, younger by over thirty years. The other five surveyors were nearing retirement age and they had all taken their turn to cover Northern Ireland. I’d known that I might have to do it one day but had put it to the back of my mind, thinking that they would never give it to someone of my relatively limited experience and on the lowest pay grade. The trouble was that I’d been doing some good work on the Lake District, finding and buying sites for the rapidly-expanding GPO telephone exchange network.  It had been noticed.  Also, I’d recently passed a promotion board that would elevate me from Assistant Estates Surveyor as soon as a vacancy opened up, probably in another office.  It was likely that the Senior Estates Surveyor was going to lose me anyway so I guessed that he thought that he might as well make use of me on Northern Ireland whilst he had me and thus give the others a break from it.  I was a victim of my own success.

The office covered the management of the Government’s property across the whole of Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland and Northern Ireland.  We did all the buying, selling, hiring and letting of land and buildings needed for government functions and for the Post Office.  I could never understand why Northern Ireland didn’t have its own local office with its own surveyors.  Instead we flew people out to Belfast and put them up in the Europa Hotel and then flew them back again on a regular basis. I’d heard the tales from the others … Customs posts blown up every weekend, Government offices with steel security fences around them and windows meshed against rocket attack, the gated and guarded Belfast shopping centre, metal-detector scans at the airports, searching of vehicles in and out of Stormont.

“You’ll never get any sleep. There’s a bomb scare at the Europa every night,” was one comment.

Whilst no-one from the office had been killed or injured yet, I didn’t want to be the first.

I wasn’t interested in Northern Ireland.  Whatever was going on there was none of my business.  Ok, it was part of my country but I would have been quite happy if someone had cut the mooring rope and allowed it to float away into the Atlantic. I knew it was complicated; that the cause of ‘the Troubles’ was somehow tied up with religious differences and the historic wish by some Catholics to throw off British rule and re-join Eire but I’d never been there, didn’t know anyone from that part of the world and never really discussed it with anyone who knew much about it either.  If the subject came up I’d usually say,

“If I’d wanted to visit a war zone I’d have joined the army,” or

“I’ve no interest in religion.  If there’s a God he’s being used to justify killing by both sides and that seems incompatible with reason.”

In any event, based on one single incident from three years earlier, I already thought that, for my own safety, it was a place to be kept well away from.

I’d presented my arguments to the Senior Estates Surveyor.

“I’ve only recently married.  We’ve just moved thirty miles from our nearest relatives because I can’t afford to commute and pay the mortgage on our first house.  We can’t even afford a telephone. Going to Northern Ireland means leaving my wife, with our four month old baby daughter, alone in a strange town to worry about me without any kind of support or means of contact and without the use of our car whilst mine is parked at the airport.”

In truth, I could probably have overcome most or all of those practical issues if I’d really had to.  I just didn’t want to go. I began to think about Mal again, as I had so many times before over the last three years.

I’d been in the same year as Mal all through the Grammar School.  I’d liked him right from the beginning.  Everybody liked him.

Despite the regular attempts of all the boys to maim each other on the rugby field, by the time we reached the sixth form, he’d kept his good looks intact.  Off the field, when he popped on his pair of thin-framed spectacles that he needed just for reading, he looked even more intelligent than his excellent exam results proved.  In common with a lot of others, we laughed at each other and at ourselves through years of sporting effort, academic stress and adolescent uncertainty until we came out of the other end as successful products of the Grammar School system.

His father led the local pipe band and Mal could play the bagpipes with the best of them. They were a popular attraction at local fetes and every year they would head the parade at the Sports Day in the village where I lived.  In his black tunic and tartan kilt with a dirk stuck into his stocking he really looked the part as he led the front row of the massed pipes and drums behind his father.

“I see that you’re wearing your skirt again.”

“Sue prefers me in it.”

Ah … Sue, his equal from the Girls Grammar School who turned every lad’s head as she walked across the crowded concourse of the city bus station to meet Mal every afternoon after school. She gave him the perfect response to my ribbing.

When we left school, without planning it, Mal and I ended up in the same city but at different institutions.  He went to the University to study engineering and I went to the Polytechnic to study surveying.  At first we used to meet up occasionally for a drink but most weekends he went home to meet Sue and I went off playing rugby.  Life got in the way. We saw less and less of each other.

The last time that I saw him was after we had both qualified.  Mal had started as a trainee Engineer with the BBC at Crystal Palace and I had returned home to take up a trainee surveying post with the Department of the Environment.  He was in the crowded Kismet Bar, an early discotheque with a jukebox and ultra-violet lamps that highlighted both dandruff and teeth fillings, on the first floor of the Broadway Hotel. Its windows overlooked the seafront onto Morecambe Bay.  Sue was with him, still turning heads.

“What are you doing home?”

“I’ve just finished my initial training and the BBC is sending me on a job – transmitter repairs. I’m catching the ferry for Northern Ireland tomorrow.

“Aren’t you worried about the risks?”

“Nah, I’ll be ok. By the way, we’ve just got engaged.”

Sue waved the ring at me.

“Congratulations.”

Eventually they had to go.

“Look out for yourself over there.”

Mal grinned and waved as he opened the door to leave. I watched them from the window as they walked across the promenade. It was dark outside but, unusually for the time of year, there was no hint of winter mist on the water. I could see the street lights at Grange on the far side of the bay, reflecting on the incoming tide, which made them seem particularly bright.

It’s a common question. “Can you remember where you were when … Kennedy was shot … England won the World Cup … Neil Armstrong landed on the moon?”  It’s odd how some events stick in your mind and you can place yourself back in time as if it was yesterday whilst other memories fade away almost to nothing. I can remember very clearly where I was when I read about Mal.

My immediate boss, not the Senior Estates Surveyor but the Estates Surveyor in between him and me, was keen on snooker. He liked watching it and playing it and he was quite good at it.  So every workday lunchtime he and I, and Brian and George who were the Clerical Officers, would drive to the local Conservative Club, collecting pies and a newspaper on the way.  Civil Service working hours were not too rigidly enforced and we could usually make lunch last for an hour and a half.  We’d buy a pint at the Club, eat the pies and play doubles at snooker.  I wasn’t that keen on the game but took my turn and then read the paper in between turns.

It was just before 1pm on Wednesday, 10 February 1971 when I read the headline.  Brian had taken his turn and failed to pot a red, leaving it hanging over the pocket.  I was partnering my boss against the other two.

‘It’s your turn.’

I didn’t hear them at first as I scanned the front page article.  Then I looked up at my boss.

“You take it” I said as I tried to understand what I’d just read.

Bomb blast kills BBC Engineers in County Tyrone.

I think that, for the rest of the day, I just sat in my office and did nothing … I’m not sure … and then probably went home at 5pm.  But I can still clearly remember where I was when I’d read that headline and where I’d been just a few days earlier when I’d said goodbye to Mal.

My wife had summed up the situation.

“We have to pay the mortgage and we’ve a baby to feed so you can’t just give up the job.  Think of all the ways that you can reduce the risks and we’ll come up with a plan.”

Now I was back, standing on the same square of carpet. I’d been summoned again, this time to hear the verdict from Head Office.

“Either you go to Northern Ireland or be dismissed.”

“Ok, I’ll go but I have to give you fair warning that this may mean that I have to seek alternative employment as soon as possible.”

I returned to my office and started to put the plan into action.  The next day a copy of that week’s Estates Gazette was placed in my in-tray with my morning mail.  It had been curled open at the ‘Situations Vacant’ section, the preceding pages held back with a large paperclip. On the top margin was scrawled “You may be needing this” in his handwriting. He was calling my bluff.

The Northern Ireland Assembly had been suspended in favour of direct rule from Westminster. It was necessary to set up Civil Service support within Stormont.

“Your main task is to buy houses to accommodate the senior ranks of the new Civil Service being recruited to support direct rule. Those Civil Servants will be seconded from the mainland to fill the newly-created posts.  They’ll get promotion on a three years contract with all accommodation provided, rent and rates free, and job-protection on return to Britain at the end of the contract.

You’ll buy those houses within a specific geographical ‘safe zone’ near to Belfast where it will be possible to flood the area with troops, throw an armed ring around those Civil Servants and airlift them and their families out with helicopters if the balloon goes up.”

“Do I get to manage the job as I think appropriate?”

“Yes … er … yes, provided you get results.”

He wanted to tell Headquarters that he had quashed my rebellion.

“The other part of the job will be to replace the Customs posts. On average we’re losing one each weekend to the bombers.  You’re to arrange replacements with caravans, usually on a Monday morning, as that’s the only way of providing temporary accommodation quickly for the Customs Officers at the border posts.

Plus, you’ll also do anything else that might crop up over there.”

I kept my trips to a minimum.  The local newspaper that covered the safe zone was delivered to my desk each week.  I had to scour the estate agency pages for houses for sale within that zone.  Then I would fly out to inspect them for purchase.  As it was, there were only two or three potentially-suitable houses newly-listed for sale on the market within the safe zone within any two-week period.  So, to limit my visits, I arranged appointments to inspect all new listings on the same day.  I would fly out in the morning, inspect them all that day and catch the evening flight back.  Then I would try to buy as many of those houses as possible over the telephone. That way I only visited Northern Ireland for one day every fortnight.

The Customs posts were even easier to deal with.  So many had been blown up that it had become just a matter of being alerted to the relevant location each Monday morning, estimating a price for a replacement caravan from a trade price guide and ringing the supplier to negotiate the price and place the order.  Later in the day I’d check by phone with the local Customs staff that the replacement had been delivered and was suitable.  That way I never had to visit any Customs post locations whilst doing my house purchase inspections.

The visits involved flying out from Ringway to Aldergrove. Passengers were scanned for weapons or bombs before each flight.

“Remember not to talk to anyone about the purpose of your visit.”

Upon landing I had to wait in the arrivals lounge until my name was announced over the loudspeaker.

“Good morning, sir.  Where are we going today?”

A chauffeur in a grey uniform suit and a matching peaked cap would escort me to a large, black four-door Wolseley saloon with English registration plates.  The route was usually down the Shankill Road and through Belfast to reach the ‘safe zone’.  I wondered about the quality of the security.  Any terrorist wanting to take me out would only have had to follow the easily identifiable car or lie in wait outside the airport. This was particularly noticeable if it was necessary to call in at Stormont where the checking of IDs and the inspecting of car-boots for bombs or weapons were carried out in the open spaces outside the closed and manned main gates of its long driveway, where any sniper could pick me off, rather than in some secure, unobservable area.

“Have you had any problems whilst driving?”

“A couple of weeks back one of the other drivers had a bullet through his windscreen and out through the front passenger side window.  Fortunately, no-one was sitting in that seat at the time. It’s rare; there’s nothing to worry about, sir.”

It wasn’t reassuring.

I met some pleasant people, particularly the drivers, toured some attractive countryside very similar to the Lake District and surveyed some expensive houses. Through Belfast I saw terraced streets with cleared bomb sites, sectarian murals painted on exposed gable walls and army vehicles moving at speed.  In the event, nothing nasty happened to me but, on every trip, it felt like I had a target pinned to my back for the whole of the time that I was there.

In the twelve weeks between January 1974, when the change had been made to my duties, and April 1974 I visited Northern Ireland for only 6 separate days.  During that time, putting into effect the second part of the plan, I scoured the professional magazines for surveying vacancies.

“I hereby give you one month’s notice to terminate my contract.”

Local Government Re-organisation came to my rescue.  Surveying jobs were being advertised at the newly-formed County, Metropolitan and District Councils. As soon as the job offer was confirmed I stopped arranging appointments for house inspections whilst my notice expired.  I had not been bluffing.

I never went to Mal’s funeral[ii] in Morecambe. Maybe I should have but I didn’t really want to go.  I preferred my final memory of him to be that last night in the Kismet Bar when I’d seen him happy about getting engaged and excited about his new job.  For years afterwards Mal’s father made the crossing to visit the transmitter site to pipe a lament at the place on the track where Mal had died. When I pass the Broadway at night and see the lights across the bay I always think about Mal.  However, to this day, I’ve not been back to Northern Ireland. Unlike Mal’s father, I’ve never had good cause to do so.

———————————–

[i] Quotation from ‘Lost Lives’, compiled by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea. It was first published in 1999 and has been updated subsequently. It lists in chronological order the stories of the 3700 victims from all sides of the Troubles.
[ii] In the timeline of those 3700 entries numbers 55 to 59 relate to the five innocent victims of one incident: On the 9 February 1971 Malcolm David Henson, 24, BBC Technician, single of Morecambe, England was killed along with his colleagues, William Thomas (BBC Engineer), John Aitken (Labourer), George Beck (Labourer) and Henry Edgar (Labourer).  They were in a BBC Land Rover driving up the track to Brougher Mountain Transmitter Station at Enniskillen to carry out repairs when they triggered the tripwire leading to a landmine placed in some boulders at the side of the track.  It is thought that the landmine was meant for a British Army patrol which periodically inspected the transmitter but that morning the BBC vehicle had arrived first on the site.

©David Lewis Pogson 2017

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