Stephen Travers, extreme right, above and below…
It was a beautiful late afternoon and I hardly noticed the long drive from Cork to Belfast. As I passed that lonely spot between Newry and Banbridge, where, in a matter of minutes, my life had been changed forever, I thought how different the world was now to that of 1975. I reflected, as I always do when passing Buskhill, on the senseless loss of five young lives in the small hours of a July morning beneath those, now muted, shell-shocked trees that today stare stunned into that field of nightmares.
It was almost inconceivable that I was on my way to a reception at Stormont Castle; so long the imposing icon of prejudiced rule in the province. Tonight Ian Paisley would launch the autobiography of Eurovision Song Contest winner and former Member of The European Parliament, Dana Rosemary Scallon; a Catholic from the Bogside. I looked forward to meeting old friends and colleagues as well as the inevitable celebrated associates of a lady whose career is as diverse as it is amazing. The mix of showbiz, politics and religion would surely make this event unique. Martin McGuinness would be there too and I was intrigued and impatient to observe, at first hand, if the two men, having been diametrically opposed, sworn enemies for most of their lives really deserved to be called “the chuckle brothers”. That Paisley and McGuinness were now leader and deputy-leader of a power-sharing government was almost too good to be true.
As I zipped up the motorway towards Belfast I expected to hear the theme music from The Twilight Zone but it was the punchy brass-section of a Tamla Motown ring-tone that abruptly returned me to a more familiar world. My friend, the respected journalist Ken Murray, asked me not to go directly to the reception at Stormont Castle but to meet him at the nearby Stormont Hotel instead. He wanted to take me on “the alternative tour” before, as he put it, “we get caught up in the back-slapping champagne event and lose the run of ourselves”.
We hardly spoke as Ken drove up the Falls Road, down the Shankill, along Sandy Row, across East Belfast and past housing estates with names forever burned into the memory of anyone that listened to or watched news bulletins during the Troubles. In stark contrast to the phoenix-like rejuvenation of Belfast city-centre, privation and restlessness were evident in the appearance and demeanour of young people, half-sitting against windows of closed-down shops and congregated outside late-night mini-markets. Perplexity and suspicion were manifest on the not-so-subtly inquisitive faces of their temporarily barred, cigarette-smoking elders when our Southern-registered car threw a fleeting shadow across the local pub. Murals commemorating “fallen idols of the conflict” stood guard over public thoroughfares and huge signs put us on notice that we were “now entering” the realm of some Republican or Loyalist faction. It could have been 1975 but… it was thirty two years on!
We arrived back at Stormont to be greeted by the usual razzmatazz that accompanies such events and before long I was, as Ken predicted, shaking hands with dignitaries, hugging old friends, posing for pictures and enthusiastically swapping implausible compliments. Yes…it was all too easy to lose the run of ourselves.
Moving slowly like a colossus, Ian Paisley entered through a door at the side of the great hall to a deafening hush. All eyes were on him yet the gathering opened like the Red Sea before Moses as he effortlessly carved a preordained route towards the foot of the grand staircase.
I had mixed emotions; I couldn’t but be impressed by his charisma but now, more than ever, I wished he had employed that God-given talent, all those years ago, to unite the people rather than sow hatred, suspicion and division. But, “better late than never…….” I vainly persuaded myself! Some of the guests moved gingerly forward to shake his hand but, not wishing to confront a personal dilemma, I stepped back. Why? After all I had no problem shaking hands with the leader of the terrorist organisation that murdered my friends and left me for dead on that July morning!
But, before I could resolve my quandary, the unexpected happened; his wife Eileen left the procession and walked straight over to me. She took my hand and said “I’m delighted to see you here”. I had never met the lady before and I’m still puzzled why she did that but, through her, in that moment, I made my peace with her family!
As the night wore on I was bemused, if not astounded, at the pop-star reception given to Martin McGuinness. Everyone wanted to be photographed with him and I still have a picture on my iPhone of former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, Martin McGuinness and me doing exactly what Ken Murray had predicted earlier that afternoon.
About a week later, over lunch in the canteen at Leinster House, Ken asked for my thoughts on the day. I admitted I was concerned that the politicians appeared to have moved into a different world leaving their constituents bewildered and behind. I worried that their people would find it difficult to comprehend how the gulf between them had widened so much and so quickly but still aware that so little had changed in their own lives. I was fearful that all the components and conditions still existed for a violent expression of disappointment, disillusionment and frustration. I speculated that the much proclaimed and celebrated “peace” might be little more than a veneer to gloss over the deep cracks that still exist within Northern Ireland society. However, I believed the Great and the Good we met later that evening would provide the leadership to eventually “bring the people with them”. After all, the intelligentsia and middle-classes were usually the first to recognise the necessity for compromise and change. Business and pragmatism would dictate and establish an expedient new order. The working-class and even the hopelessly-unemployed would surely follow in due course. Yes, it fell to the Great and the Good to lead by example and I was convinced that they were eager for the opportunity.
One year later, The Miami Showband, while engaged on a nationwide tour, became embroiled in a dispute with the tour promoter. Both parties agreed that it could only be resolved through the law courts and my colleague and fellow Miami survivor, Des Lee, saw to it that we had the best legal representation available. However, before the case was heard, the promoter conceded and the band was free to resume its commitments. We hoped the promoter would graciously accept the outcome and allow the band to fulfil its contract peacefully and without rancour but we were to be sadly disappointed. Throughout the remainder of the tour, this overtly Christian, middle-class pillar of society used an all-too-familiar, local, age-old weapon of choice to punish The Miami Showband for asserting its legal rights by openly subjecting us to demeaning segregation.
On the night of our first performance in Belfast, we noticed that our dressing rooms were on an entirely different floor to all of the other performers. We shrugged it off by joking that we were given a floor all to ourselves but, as the tour progressed, we became more disconcerted, with our embarrassment climaxing in Dublin at the start of a four-night run of concerts: On arrival we found that The Miami Showband was booked into a different hotel to all of the other bands and crew. I called the promoter to ask the reason for this, by now, very obvious apartheid but was told that the other hotel was full. I called that hotel and was assured there was plenty of room for us.
It was only then that I finally appreciated how such disappointment, disillusionment and frustration could so quickly spark the tinderbox that was patently evident when Ken Murray and I drove up the Falls Road, down the Shankill, along Sandy Row, across East Belfast and past housing estates with names forever burned into the memory of anyone that listened to or watched news bulletins during the Troubles. While I could never condone violence, I now understand the gut-wrenching humiliation of segregation that triggered forty years of death and destruction in a province whose illuminati should know better than to re-employ this evil instrument.
There’s much work to be done at every level before the veneer wears off and exposes many actualities hitherto concealed and reopens wounds not properly attended to. If we fall asleep on the job, the nightmare will return. The men of violence are just waiting for the nod!