Courthouse takes centre stage as actors revisit horrors of Belfast

<b>David McKittrick</b> reports on a piece of theatre played out at the epicentre of the Troubles
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If buildings have memories, Crumlin Road courthouse must harbour more emotions than almost any other in Belfast, having been for decades an epicentre of the Troubles in the city.

If buildings have memories, Crumlin Road courthouse must harbour more emotions than almost any other in Belfast, having been for decades an epicentre of the Troubles in the city.

The courthouse is where more than 10,000 republicans, loyalists and others were tried by the Diplock non-jury courts. At a rough guess, the judges who heard these cases handed down sentences that totalled more than a quarter of a million years.

Many ghosts were conjured up for those who this week walked its disused corridors on cold, dark evenings, touched the bullet-proof glass - used to stop people shooting the judges - and visited its grim underground cells. Although virtually all of those jailed here are now free again, the courthouse serves as a repository for the feelings and emotions of those who passed through it.

The courthouse closed several years ago partly because modern premises opened elsewhere in the city, and partly because the Troubles trials became largely a thing of the past. But it has been opened for a few weeks on a limited basis as part of a unique piece of theatre. Every evening, the Belfast Tinderbox theatre company has been staging seven short plays, entitled Convictions, in different parts of the crumbling building.

Together they amount to one of the most powerful evocations of the horrors and hardships of the Troubles, summoning many shades from the recent past. The power of the drama augments the strength of the bars and the bullet-proof glass of the court-house itself.

Everyone who was anyone in republican and loyalist organisations stood in the dock here. Some of the most dramatic times came when both republican and loyalist "supergrasses" testified against those they alleged were their former associates.

At times the dock and surrounding seats were filled with up to 30 defendants, surrounded by scores of police and prison officers. At least one judge wore a flak-jacket underneath his flowing robes while police officers armed with rifles stood on each side of him. On one occasion, Lord Justice Kelly, whom I had once briefly met, nodded civilly to me as I entered the press box. A dock full of defendants, spotting this, swivelled their heads in unison to check the identity of this friend of the judiciary they despised.

The 10-minute Tinderbox plays are staged in different parts of the old building - some in the courtrooms themselves, one in the cells below. One, unforgettably, takes place in an underground lavatory in which the whiff of republican and loyalist urine still lingers. The courthouse encapsulates how a poet once described the Northern Ireland problem: great hatred, little room.

One play is staged in the main hall, where I once watched a Catholic widow eyeing a loyalist figure she suspected, correctly, had shot her husband.

The last time she had seen him was in the living room of her north Belfast home, dressed in boiler suit and balaclava, pumping seven bullets into her husband. Now there he was, in a cheap suit, ready to try to convince the judge he had unaccountably been wrongly accused.

The underground cells are particularly grim, separated as they are from the outside world by seven or eight heavily barred gates. Prisoners tended to remain impassive in the dock when they were given lengthy sentences, but once away from the public gaze they could break down.

An RUC inspector recalls in the programme notes: "Frequently I saw people lose control when it finally got through to them what was going to happen over the next long number of years... it was quite harrowing at times to see."

One of the most powerful parts of the evening comes when an actor, cocky at first, is reduced to whimpering when he is locked in a cell. The audience is left briefly, but memorably, in total darkness - momentarily sharing his loneliness as the ghosts of the courthouse come crowding in.