Thursday: My Nan's funeral.
Friday: Job in Belfast.
It's ironic that when you're in the middle of pondering the nature of mortality and our brief span on this planet, you get sent to a place popularly viewed as a war zone. Cold-blooded killers in black balaclavas walk casually into a pub full of people of a different religious inclination to them and open fire randomly. A man climbs into his car, turns the ignition, and the next second he and the crucifix dangling from his rear view mirror are vapourised. Display the Union flag on one street and everyone assumes you're waiting for the march to come through; talk with an English accent on another and you'll get as far as your first comma. Flak jackets and AK47s available on arrival, do not forget to leave your baggage in quarantine for 24 hours.
Belfast isn't like that at all. These things happen there, but not for the tourists and currently, hardly at all. When I visited, the IRA had just declared a new ceasefire, albeit one viewed with deep suspicion by almost everyone bar Sinn Fein, and it was gloriously sunny. There was one police roadblock on the way out of the International airport, and they don't stop buses. Certainly not a bus with two people on; the driver had just dropped off a party of schoolchildren on their way to Great Yarmouth and, having no fare for the return trip, had offered myself and a fellow traveller a lift into the city. This at least saved me having to work out which cabs were Catholic and which Protestant, a task I had been warned about and which, on reflection, seems as ridiculous as trying to buy grenades at the airport shop.
The city centre was busy with shoppers and looked the same as the precincts of any other UK city. The bus driver took me all the way round to the street I wanted. Still no soldiers, armoured cars, five minute evacuation procedures or loud bangs. Found the building (it was the one looking like a fortress because the well-known UK company inside has the word "British" in its title), did the job, had a few pints of decent Guinness and came home. Alive. No problem.
Apologies to anyone from Northern Ireland reading this, who's either rolling on the floor with laughter or starting up their mailer and setting the preferences to "Flame". Belfast is the same as any other UK city. Just different.
Can you imagine living your life within certain prescribed limits? Knowing that you belong to a creed which is irrevocably right and that you are locked in a continual struggle against those whose creed is irredeemably wrong, for reasons no one is prepared to forget? On my second visit to Belfast, the bus from the airport became held up in traffic caused by an accident on the motorway. The driver turned the radio up and we were told that this was only one in a series of accidents since the weekend. The word "carnage" was used. It's hard to believe that people in NI die through causes other than the bullet and the bomb but they do. Life goes on, except for those for whom it ended in a sudden collision of car and body.
I did finally see an armoured car, but only the one (although I started to worry a bit when it went past the restaurant for the fourth time). At lunchtime on the last day, my colleague announced that he was off to do a bit of sightseeing on the Falls Road. He came back - surprisingly - an hour later, ashenfaced. There had been someone lying in the road and he wasn't sure if the person was drunk or dead. (It's Ireland - he's drunk.) Myself, I don't need to get my kicks venturing into hostile territory. I figure the city centre is full of American tourists and they're about the last people the IRA will want to risk harming.
Visiting a place like Belfast helps you appreciate that you receive a completely skewed impression from the media. But it doesn't bring you any closer to understanding why an eighteen year old girl is executed in her sleep for taking up with a boy from the wrong side of the barbed wire. It won't make you want to own the problem. And it can't allow you to pick sides. It's their country. We nicked it. But now it's our country too. We'd like to give it back, we'd wholeheartedly like to be shot of the wretched place, but some of them are also us and we can't escape our obligations. I can take loathing the IRA as read now. No amount of sympathy to their cause is going to excuse a single pound of semtex. It doesn't mean I have any love for the Unionist position. Their cause isn't mine, despite my nationality; it's entirely their own. Greater love hath no man for his country than a Unionist. The only people who care as much on the mainland are WWII veterans and softheaded nationalists. No, on second thoughts, it was the Ulster Unionists who propped up Jonh Major's government for six months longer than necessary...they must hate us. If you love somebody, set them free, that's what I say.
The phrase "Let it lie" was clearly never invented by an Irishman.
23rd August 1997