“The Troubles”


A number of people, whom I respect, have suggested that I should move on from the subject matter of my last few posts. So as much as it pains me to walk away from the deep mine of views this subject creates, I must bow to some of the calmer heads that advise me in my life and this blog.

This post is about a conflict that deeply affected my younger years in various ways. I was only 500 metres away from a bomb blast that killed Kenneth Howorth, a Metropolitan Police explosives officer who was attempting to defuse a bomb planted by the IRA in a Wimpy Bar on Oxford Street in London 26th October 1981. Myself and a couple of friends were walking towards the kerfuffle created by emergency services personnel trying to evacuate one of the busiest shopping districts in Europe. The blast certainly got people’s attention and had shoppers running screaming in different directions. Even from half a kilometre away we felt the percussion of the blast which made our ears pop similar to when you are landing in an airplane. In those days prior to cell phones my mother was worried sick because she knew I was in the area, and as was the norm for that era, news on casualties and severity of the damage travelled slow.
Believe it or not I have mellowed in my old age. There was a time when the mere mention of the conflict in Northern Ireland “The Troubles” had me frothing at the mouth and pontificating at full volume when anyone (usually Irish Catholic) had the temerity to have a view that was contrary to my own on the subject. In fact I was once at a dinner party in Sydney, Australia with 8 people sitting around a table, enjoying a lovely meal. An intemperate ex-pat Irishman, sitting opposite me, who claimed he had ties to the Provisional IRA. After hearing my English accent one too many times said “Fuck you English and fuck your whore of a queen”. It was only the intervention of a 260lb Aussie Rules fullback, that prevented a full on fist fight breaking out across the dinner table (The 260lb Aussie, broke three of my ribs while he was holding onto me though). Unfortunately the dining room table, dishes, food, flower arrangement centre piece, were not quite as fortunate. My wife of the time did not speak to me for weeks.
My ties to “The Troubles” have been many. My father was a member of the much maligned and eventually disbanded SPG (Special Patrol Group) a division within the Metropolitan Police. Its members were the first police officers in the UK to be armed during regular police service. Their modus operandi was to go into certain areas of London and clean up criminal activity by pretty much any means available. My father was on armed police duty in Central London early in the morning of 6th December 1975. His “Group” as they called themselves, received a call on the radio asking for armed assistance as gunfire had broken out around the Marylebone railway station area, with many shots being fired. What followed was what is famously referred to in the UK as the Balcombe St Siege. The following is the entry about what led to this siege from Wikipedia:

Inspector John Purnell and Sergeant Phil McVeigh, on duty as part of the dragnet operation, picked up the radio call from the team in Mount Street as the stolen Cortina approached their position. With no means of transport readily available, the two unarmed officers flagged down a taxi cab and tailed the men for several miles through London, until the IRA men abandoned their vehicle. Purnell and McVeigh, unarmed, continued the pursuit on foot despite handgun fire from the gang. Other officers joined the chase, with the four IRA men running into a block of council flats in Balcombe Street, adjacent to Marylebone railway station, triggering the six-day stand-off. Purnell was subsequently awarded the George Medal for his bravery.

My father was one of the “Other Officers”. The picture below is from the Sun newspaper from its 8th December 1975 morning addition, my father is the police officer furthest to the right. This picture hangs in the hallway of my home.

Balcombe St

Another connection I have to “The Troubles” is my Aunt Netta my father’s sister. She lives in Belfast in her own home and is now 95 years old, tough as nails. I talked about her husband in this space a couple of months ago my Uncle Herbie. After he left the army he joined the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary). My father and Netta had a long standing feud happening while I was younger so the Hanley’s were never a big part of our life growing up. I went to Belfast in 2008, after my father passed away, to visit my Aunt for the first time. Belfast is a strange place many streets are marked out very clearly by sectarian lines. Hanging from the lamp posts at the end of each street, the Irish Tri Colour flag for Catholic streets and the Union Jack flag for Protestant. My aunt obviously lived on one of the Union Jack streets. Netta is a woman of strong opinions, she told me exactly what her issues were with my father even though he had only been in his grave for 18 months and her issues dated back to the early 1950’s. But one thing she would not be drawn into talking about, no matter how hard I tried, was “The Troubles”. She told me quite emphatically “That is all sorted out now, no need for any more talk about it”.
While on this trip I took a tour of Belfast in a black cab. The cab driver was a very outspoken Catholic and supporter of the IRA. To many of you over here in Canada, when you speak to me, it sounds like I have an English accent. When I go to the UK everyone says I have a Canadian accent. So the cab driver did not know I was English. It was quite interesting getting a tour of Belfast from a Catholic point of view. “This is the place where 3 UDF (Ulster Defense Force. Protestant version of the IRA) terrorists gunned down a mother and her 3 kids” and “That block of flats (apartment building) is where the British occupiers set up snipers to shoot unarmed Catholics” and “This is a mural of the martyr Bobby Sands who died for the cause of freedom in our land”.
What’s that saying? “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”.

I wanted to talk about the “Good Friday Agreement” which promptly ended “The Troubles”. I mentioned it in my last post because I thought it was a brilliant document. But I have worn out my welcome and spent too much time reminiscing, so that subject will have to wait for another day. After I mentioned the Good Friday Agreement in my last post, I was very quickly jumped on by two people who are regular readers of this blog. They come from opposite sides of this conflict. The Catholic person I consider one of my very good friends. That’s how far “Nobody” has come in life, from all out brawler with Irish Catholics, to having one as a friend. There is hope for the world yet. I am sure both will have lots to say about this post. I hope they comment in this space and not on Facebook. This space is permanent Facebook not so much.

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17 thoughts on ““The Troubles”

  1. I find the Unionist viewpoint presented in these comments tired and narrow minded. One might want to consider who introduced the gun into the equation in response to a Civil Rights campaign to safeguard an apartheid state. Seeing Nelson Mandela mentioned above, one might also consider where his sympathies lied in relation to the North. But then again, many considered him a terrorist as well, including the current British PM who protested against Mandela while in university.

  2. Look’s like you went from the frying pan and into the fire on this topic as well Colin. I was enjoying the last topic. 😦 Bill had some great points and your counter punch never disappoints. Never a dull moment around here. Regards. G.

  3. Nobody: You should follow a blog by Ed Moloney: a former Irish journalist who covered the Troubles for the Irish Times. http://thebrokenelbow.com/2015/01/14/did-the-british-army-have-a-high-level-ira-agent-in-1973-code-named-brocolli/
    Also wrote an interesting book “Voices From the Grave” —-actual recounts of activities from UDA and IRA operatives, as taken from the Boston College tapes. I think you’d be interested in a lot of his material.

  4. I understand your Aunt’s point of view. Its probably not healthy to obsess over issues of justice that will never be done. Even justice can be sacrificed in the cause of a better future for everyone. Mandela understood this. The Adams’s and Mcguiness’s of the world are getting elderly now and in another twenty years they will all be gone anyway.

    Belfast isn’t a bad city these days. Check out the Titanic Museum (Harland and Wolff Shipyard). You can buy a T-shirt that says “Titanic: It was fine when it left here!”

    • Yeah I did all the tourist bits Bill – with my Provo Catholic tour guide. I even have a picture of myself looking very uncomfortable in front of one of the Bobby Sands murals. Some habits die hard 🙂

      • If you manage to come back, my house over there is a ‘stone’s throw’ (lol) from the Peace Wall, just off of Lanark Way – you could stop in for a cuppa 🙂

    • So the families of the people murdered by the IRA in the Shankill bombing etc. should just move on. Justice will never be done, unless you stand up and demand it.

      • There is more than enough blood on everyone’s hands. A Catholic would say back to you what about all the people the UDF “murdered”. Pointless conflict that needed to come to an end.

      • Maxine, from A History of The Troubles

        From the late 1960s a civil rights movement broke out in Ulster to promote the political and social rights of the Irish Catholic minority there. This led to violence with the involvement of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the Catholic side and the Ulster Defence Force (UDF) on the Protestant side.

        I do believe that they changed their name to the UAA in later years. But over in England they were always known as the UDF

      • However, I would agree with that Catholic. The only way forward is a mutual respect for each others cultures. Unfortunately, the aim of Sinn Fein is the erosion of all things Protestant and British. It is hard to run a country when you have people in government who’s main aim is to destroy that government.

  5. I wish you’d stuck to talking about muslims. The good friday agreement was a complete sell out of the protestant population of northern Ireland. Now a country governed by people like the murderer Gerry Adams and terrorist Raymond McCartney. My family spilled blood to keep Northern Ireland part of the union and blair negotiated away our birth right.

    • I’d argue that they spilled blood to prevent violence, or even a civil war. Not to keep Northern Ireland part of the union.

      I doubt any British government of the last 50 years considered a ‘birthright’ aspect to this. Most mainland brits wouldn’t miss the province if it became part of the Irish Republic. But the desires of the protestant majority there were respected (not to mention that the majority was largely prepared to fight for the status quo).

      I think successive British governments got it about right when it came to policy in N. Ireland. We can argue about the details, but many in the province are satisfied (or at least can imagine much worse outcomes).

      As for sticking to talking about Muslims. The only thing that springs to mind is that most Imams have done a much better job of condemning violence than many N. Irish priests or clergymen did during the troubles.

    • It’s a damn good job bigots like you were in a minority in the nineties because Ireland would still be at war now. One day Ireland will be one country under one government and one flag, Whether you like it or not. Protestant blood was not the only blood spilled in that pointless war.

      • As long as that flag is a Union Jack – it’s all good 🙂

        ps – would you like a cheeseburger with that B.Sands

    • B. Sands – I assume you are talking to Patty not to me??? Patty it’s a good thing 72% of your fellow Ulsterman and 95% of the population of The Republic disagreed with you. I do appreciate your “birth right” comment but I always thought the fact that most protestants in N. Ireland were more loyal to the queen than your average Englishman was more a matter of convenience than anything else.

    • I agree and from what I hear on the ground so do most of the Protestant population especially in the working class areas of Belfast. There is no going forward with the likes of Martin McGuiness and Gerry Kelly in our government – the HATE for these two is absolute, far too much blood on their hands.

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