Compared to the Middle East, Northern Ireland was a safe assignment. Tragic, sectarian, brutal, hypocritical; the little civil war – for that is what it was – was what the British army’s intelligence people called a “low-intensity” conflict. We journos did our stories. Then we went home to our rented accommodation in Belfast. And we lived – or thought we did – in the United Kingdom.
I witnessed my first real battles – in the Falls Road and in Derry – and I ran across Belfast on Bloody Friday, in July 1972, and saw the bits of human beings left after 20 IRA bombs exploded across the city in an hour and a half. Nine were killed, five civilians, most of them at a bus station. The IRA claimed they gave warnings. The police said they were overwhelmed. I was enraged when I saw the results. It’s when I first realised that war was not about victory or defeat but about the total failure of the human spirit – on all sides.
Yes, in Belfast I saw my first corpses: a British soldier falling from the back of his armoured vehicle in Andersonstown, his rifle bouncing off the tarmac, shot to death by a Provisional IRA man with very long hair hiding behind a dustbin; and a Protestant paramilitary lying in his coffin, surrounded by brown-shirted militia mourners who turned out to be his murderers. His father lifted his dead son’s hand to show me how his fingers had been broken.
But above all in Northern Ireland – preparation for what was to come in the Middle East, which I could not then have imagined – was the experience of confronting government officials and British army colonels, when they lied and I tried to hold them to account. When I wrote reports of British soldiers brutalising Catholics, I was told I was ‘pro-IRA’ or ‘pro-terrorist’ – the latter an accusation I was to grow wearingly used to in the Middle East – and when I travelled on British army or police patrols, I was allying myself with ‘Crown forces’ or was myself snidely accused of being an intelligence officer.
And when I wrote stories which offended the general officer commanding British troops in Northern Ireland, I was banned from army briefings – a boycott I later imposed on the army when they decided to forgive my transgressions. Refusing to talk to the colonels was the right decision: for after that, young captains and majors would pull up next to me in Belfast streets and hand me envelopes of confidential military instructions which they believed to be morally questionable.
When I received documents indicating that the British intended to blackmail Protestant politicians who would not support their policies in Northern Ireland, I ran the story. And within two days, three detectives came to my house before dawn to question me about my sources. I fled to the Republic, checked into a Dublin hotel and was almost immediately confronted by the British embassy’s resident MI6 officer. I threatened to call the Irish police if he did not stop harassing me. He left. It wasn’t as funny at the time as it seems now. But it was a lesson. I then ran the story of the embassy’s man’s intrusion.
Never, never, never give in, as Churchill once said (he was no hero of mine, I should add, although his portrait hung above the fireplace in my father’s library) but in this defiance, the man of 1940 was right. Never give in to authority. When you’ve got a great story and the powers-that-be want to stomp on you (occasionally with the help of your own colleagues), never apologise. Stick with the story. I would only learn years later – when I was in Beirut in wars that my experience in Belfast only just helped me to survive – that the blackmail papers I had got my hands on and publicised were a small part of what would be called the Kincora scandal, an outrage in which British intelligence was said to have set up orphans for paedophiles who might then be subject to political blackmail. A ferocious dispute over what happened at Kincora continues to this day, a government inquiry already dismissed by victims.
Many of those I interviewed in Belfast and Derry (or Londonderry, as we used to call it) – cruel UDA men, ruthless Provisionals, government public relations men, old soldiers – have since died. But it was – a cold way of looking at it, perhaps – an essential training ground for the betrayals, massacres and cynicism of the Middle East. We journalists have to fight the Trumps as well as the Arab dictators, the pro-Israeli lobbyists and the Muslim factions and sometimes, yes again, tolerate the anger of our colleagues.
The transition from Belfast wasn’t from the frying pan into the fire. It was from imaginable violence to unimaginable cruelty on a mass scale. I am thankful for those years in Northern Ireland. I think they helped to keep me alive in the later years.
I still go back to Belfast – to give lectures about the Middle East, to stay with my old mate David McKittrick who was later The Independent’s man in Belfast – and I would wish there might be a Good Friday for the Middle East. Alas, there will not be. Peace agreements do not travel well. But now, in Belfast, when I am there, I see the old enmities being defrosted and re-heated by the UK’s insane desire to suicide itself over Brexit. And I fear the creature in Downing Street and his cabinet midgets will tear Northern Ireland to pieces again. I pray not. But if so, I shall watch from the safety of the Middle East.