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.
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.