Ian Paisley’s gesture was a much-needed moment of hope
DUP MP’s expression of thanks to Martin McGuinness was a courageous act
Just before Christmas 2013, west Belfast businessman Seán Donnelly made an audacious move – another gambit in Belfast’s “bus wars”.
The city’s remarkable transition from terrorism to tourism had, over the course of a decade, led to a proliferation of open-top sightseeing-bus companies vying for the burgeoning tourist trade.
It was a rough, aggressive business. Donnelly, an ex-boxer with a nose to show for it, had himself become embroiled in a street altercation with a competitor that resulted in a conviction for common assault. Welcome to Belfast – tourism with a twist.
What’s more, the bus tour business, like so many elements of Northern Irish life, had become divided along sectarian lines, with companies accusing each other of giving “Catholic” or “Protestant” versions of history.
Donnelly and his business partners had recently entered the market, and wanted to expand quickly. Now, as the festive season approached, they saw their chance.
Allen’s tours, another open-top sightseeing company, was on the ropes, having run into trouble with the authorities time and again for flouting the local regulations.
The rumour was that Benn Allen wanted to throw in the towel in Belfast to concentrate on giving coach tours of the causeway coast.
The old boxer in Donnelly knew it was now or never. He made an offer to buy Allen’s buses, and it was accepted. Donnelly was now the proud owner of several more tour buses, but he had inherited something else besides.
Falls Road businessman
Allen’s, based in the Sandy Row in Belfast, was a company with an overwhelmingly Protestant workforce, most of them on casual, short-term contracts.
Donnelly was most definitely from the other side of the tracks – a Falls Road businessman who had built up his empire during the worst of the Troubles.
There was no shortage of people from his own community who were looking for work. What’s more, it was midwinter, the very worst time for the bus tour business.
In their offices on the Sandy Row, Allen’s staff were called to a meeting.
“It was obvious what was going to happen,” says Alfie Quigley, then a ticket sales supervisor with Allen’s Tours.
“We were all going to get the sack and then they’d start up again in the new year with our old buses and their new staff.”
Instead, they arrived at the meeting and were surprised to find Donnelly himself there, the Catholic businessman having made a foray into the loyalist heartland.
Things didn’t go as expected. Donnelly is usually a jocular, expansive character, but in this meeting he was quietly spoken and serious.
“We’re not letting you go,” he told the staff.
As Allen’s staff struggled to take this in, Donnelly continued: “There’s one condition. There’s a hook by the door of our office. Do me a favour and hang your politics on it, and we’ll do the same.
“You’ll keep your jobs over Christmas, and then in the new year we all have a job to do, together. Those buses won’t fill themselves.”
Two and a half years later, I’m having breakfast with Donnelly and two of the men who were there that day, Alfie Quigley and Owen Hamilton.
They still work for him. Donnelly’s gamble on the bus tour business paid off. The company, Titanic and City Tours, goes from strength to strength. Allen now runs a thriving coastal coach tour business.
Last year there were more than two million tourist visits to Northern Ireland – enough for everyone to make a quid or two.
It’s a warm, sunny, summer’s morning, and Donnelly, Quigley and Hamilton are sitting outside a café in central Belfast. There’s a buzz in the air. Tourists, everywhere you look.
The men are in good form, which in Belfast often manifests itself as good-natured sectarian ribbing.
“I’ll have the Ulster Fry,” announces Quigley to the waitress.
“Right well in that case bring me the Irish breakfast,” replies Donnelly, and they all burst out laughing. Again, welcome to Belfast.
I look at them laughing and think to myself: this is it, really – this is the peace process we talk of. This little moment, which stemmed from another moment, and another decision, in an office on the Sandy Row a few years before.
I was reminded of it last week when I read Eamonn Mallie’s article, “Grace”, in these pages.
In it he imagines a counterfactual world in which First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster disregarded political expediency and inherent dislike of Sinn Féin, to offer former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness and the people of Northern Ireland a resonating moment of grace.
I was reminded of it again when, on BBC Northern Ireland’s political programme The View on Thursday, Ian Paisley did it for real, transcending the bitterness of decades to offer a simple thanks to McGuinness for the journey he had travelled.
Moment of grace
In an instant, it changed the discourse, jolted our perspective, reminded us, with a great pang of regret, of something that has been sorely lacking in Northern Irish politics over the last year.
It was a moment of political courage. It was also what Mallie would call a moment of grace.
The world does its best to quickly drown out such moments, of course.
The very next morning, DUP hardliners, perhaps anxious about a difficult election to come, rushed to disavow Paisley’s sentiments, and to lay the collective boot into McGuinness.
The next day, 3,000 miles away, a new US president promised in his inaugural address only insularity and withdrawal.
Soon after that, someone in Belfast sprayed a garage forecourt with automatic gunfire in an attempt to kill a policeman.
So it was that Paisley’s moment of grace didn’t stay in the headlines for long.Donnelly’s never made the news at all.
Yet in the end, despite all the odds, such individual acts add up to something very significant. They resonate in the moment and down the years.
They change things. We need such moments badly now in Belfast, and in Washington, DC. We need them like rain in a desert.
On that sunny morning last summer, after breakfast, I paid the bill. Donnelly strolled back to his office, looking for new worlds to conquer.
Alfie and Owen spotted a couple of Australian tourists who looked like they might want a tour, and off they went to make another sale, with full bellies and a glint in their eyes.
After all, those buses won’t fill themselves.
Declan Lawn is a writer and documentary maker