A bird's eye view
When Northern Editor GERRY MORIARTYmoved to Belfast in the 1990s, it was grey city of dereliction and bombed-out sites. The scars remain, but so much has changed
HE TIME I worried about my children going native up here was when Northern Ireland, and its striker David Healy, were on Ta roll in the mid-noughties – especially after, virtually on his own, he defeated England in 2005. On the back of that victory my then seven-year-old youngest son, who had a sports-store voucher, bought the Northern Ireland kit.
Hmm, was my reaction. But I kept my counsel although I was sorely tempted to play the old soldier and recount the sectarian ballyragging I, and the handful of others from the South who attended the games, were subjected to at Windsor Park in Belfast when the Republic played Northern Ireland in 1993 and 1994 – very bitter nights in November. In the spirit of the peace process and parental responsibility I bit my lip.
I arrived in Belfast in the spring of 1991. Settling into this place took time. Life was divided in two: work, which back then was essentially covering the Troubles – killings, wounding, bombings on a daily scale with a little politics thrown in; and social and home life. You had to maintain a distinction between the two to keep your sanity.
Social life was pretty limited. You had to be careful where you went – in certain places an Offaly accent could land you in serious trouble. In south Belfast, close to Queen’s University, were the pubs where you could be sure of having a mixed-religion clientele. Poet Michael Longley dubbed it the “Bermuda Triangle” of the Wellington Park Hotel, and the Botanic and Eglantine pubs. Often, though, you couldn’t readily get into them at the weekends because of the long queues of people anxious to socialise in an atmosphere where your religion didn’t matter. There were some decent restaurants but not many.
But what Belfast lacked in Dublin razzmatazz it made up for in friendliness and spirit. Belfast people would go way out of their way to help you. If we were looking for directions people wouldn’t just tell you the way, they’d virtually walk you to your destination. Conscious that they were speaking to a Southern greenhorn they might also provide a geography cum political lesson as well, as in: “Be careful if you go down that road – that place’s safe – for God’s sake keep away from there, you’ll be shot.” Or “shat”, as they say in Belfast. People were also hugely patient, and they needed to be. If a traffic hold-up caused by a checkpoint, bombing or shooting delayed you for an hour or so well, so what, your employer or the friend you were meeting would understand.
Dublin was only 100 miles away but it was a different world. In our office at the time there were six full- and part-time reporting, managerial and secretarial staff. Of the six, one Protestant woman’s businessman father had been murdered by Republicans; another, a manager of an Irish Times subsidiary, a Catholic, had his businessman father murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries – both sectarian killings, plain and simple.
Almost everyone in the North has a story to tell. If they weren’t directly affected by the conflict they had relations or friends who were. There’s peace now but the scars and the psychological damage that thousands shoulder is the unfinished business of the Troubles. Yet, I never found Northern Ireland a place of self-pity.