Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Chapter thirteen

Interlude in Northern Ireland

 

< Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 >

In January, 1972, I left Reuters and joined the BBC World Service as a chief sub-editor.

Before quitting Germany, the first task was to find a home in England. I left Veronika and the children housed temporarily at our old flat in Brünnhildestraße and travelled alone to London, to be housed temporarily in a Reuter flat in Westminster. From there I ordered our house from Countryside Properties in Chelmsford and observed the construction of the small four-bedroomed ticky-tacky box at nearby Great Baddow. The house was a somewhat Gerrybuilt structure in which I invested my payout of one thousand two hundred pounds from the Reuter pension fund plus a 25-year mortgage of £7,000 from a building society.

The house was soon ready for occupation. I hastened back to Bonn in our ageing Ford Taunus to collect the family. I well recall my little son Terry running across the lawn outside the Brünnhildestraße flat and flinging himself into my arms.

We drove across Germany and through the Netherlands to the Hook of Holland to catch the overnight ferry to Harwich. From there it was a relatively short drive to our new home in Great Barrow.

Reuters had paid for a German removal firm to transport our goods and chattels, and their van duly arrived at Great Baddow with our few sticks of furniture.

 

Subbing at the BBC

The BBC World Service started me off with the rank of chief sub-editor, writing the lead stories for news bulletins from agency copy and transcripts of correspondents’ dispatches – not a very demanding task. The chief sub dictated his story to a copy typist who typed a stencil, from which copies of the story were run off for distribution to the various desks putting together bulletins for the various foreign language services, like Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Hausa Swahili and Somali.

 

Children start school

We found places for the children at nearby Rothman's junior school, quite near our new home. Brendan soon started as a pupil at the huge Great Baddow Comprehensive, just a few hundred yards from our new home. I was lucky to be able to enroll Terry and Therese in a new Anglo-European School at nearby Ingatestone.

 

Covering the Troubles

In March of 1972, the BBC sent me to Belfast to cover the Troubles, the insurrection against British rule carried out by the Roman Catholic Provisional and the Official IRA.

The first death on Bloody Sunday: Father Edward Daly waves a white cloth as the body of Jack Duddy is carried away [Photo by courtesy of Fred Hoare]

 

Bloody Sunday’s repercussions

The province was still reeling from the repercussions of Bloody Sunday, when soldiers of the First Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, shot and killed 13 civil rights demonstrators in the Bogside district of Londonderry, a so-called no-go area dubbed “Free Derry” by the Civil Rights movement and the Provisional IRA.

 

Paratroop commander comes to dinner

I stayed at the much-bombed Europa Hotel in Belfast, where I entertained the man who had commanded the paratroops, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, to dinner to get his side of the story. He maintained that since his soldiers had come under fire, he was perfectly within his rights in ordering them to shoot back. He maintained that they had remained perfectly disciplined throughout.

 

Living close to the office

The BBC office in Belfast was within walking distance of the Europa, and I went there every day to cover the many bombings and shootings then wracking Northern Ireland.

One demo featured a sinister Protestant cleric who harangued a crowd of supporters carrying placards inscribed “Paras 13 – IRA nil”.

 

The pigs go in

Another occasion featured an attempt by soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment, using armoured cars known as “pigs”, to batter down blazing barricades put in place by demonstrators.

As the armoured vehicle lurched forward, a shot rang out from high in the Divis Street block of flats overlooking the area. The bullet entered one of the pig’s observation slits and killed the young second lieutenant in command of the vehicle.

 

The protestant terrorists take the field

Another feature of my time in Belfast was the emergence of Protestant guerrillas, known as the Ulster Defence Force, who were just as murderous as the IRA, and youthful rioters known as The Tartan Army.

 

Enter the Tartans

They wore tartan patches on their jeans, and were just as capable of causing Mayhem as their Roman Catholic opponents.

Major political figures of those days included the fiery Reverend Ian Paisley and, on the Catholic side, the moderate John Hume, of the Social democratic and Labour party, who displayed extraordinary courage at the height of the Troubles.

 

The bombing of McGurk’s bar

Of all the drama of those months, the incident that sticks in my mind was the bombing of Patsy McGurk’s bar in Belfast in which 13 people died. Both sides were blamed, but it later transpired that the Protestant UVF were responsible.

Perhaps my most sinister recollection is attending an IRA funeral at the Milltown cemetery. As the coffin was lowered into the grave, an IRA guard of honour appeared, each man holding up a loaded pistol. In unison, they fired a salute and then quickly disappeared into the crowd of mourners.

 

A new Northern Ireland

Today, happily, Northern Ireland is very different from the murderous place it was in the 1970s. The ferocious Ian Paisley became a Member of Parliament at Westminster and for many years First Minister of Northern Ireland, with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness as his deputy.

On my return to London, the BBC promoted me to the rank of Duty Editor.

Once fierce enemies, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness developed a "very positive and constructive working relationship" [AFP: Paul Faith/Pool/PA]

Now a museum piece, the Pig armoured car remains an enduring symbol of the Troubles

 

 

Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford in a BBC interview in 2000. He has never wavered from his conviction that his soldiers were fired on first

 

  

The sulphurous Reverend Ian Paisley in 1969...

  

...and in 1987, still resisting compromise with the Roman Catholic minority

 

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Next: Chapter 14 >> Another spell in South America

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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh