FISK IN IRELAND: PART 1: Back to Belfast

Robert Fisk, The Independent's award-winning war reporter, returns to Northern Ireland after more than 20 years to find that it has eerie parallels with the Middle East
Click to follow
Where was the border? All the way up from Dublin, the stations had been recognisably Victorian, with their stone booking halls and arched brick windows and lacy wooden roofs. Dundalk, the last station before the frontier, looked just like Lisburn, the last big station before Belfast. Indeed, they must have been designed by the same company, perhaps the very same architect, in the days before partition. But Dundalk had been identified in Irish as Dun Dealgan, while Lisburn carried no hint of its original Gaelic name.

The Middle East has sharpened my sense of the politics of names. In Hebrew, Jerusalem is "Yerushelaim". In Arabic, it is "Al-Quds". Belfast would also be "Beal Feirste" if that part of its history had not been washed away. Ironically, it is a stone keep to the left of the train that alerts passengers to the border, a medieval fortress every bit as forbidding as the Crusader castles that litter Syria, Lebanon and what was once Palestine, the 12th century reminding us of the frontiers of the 1920s.

How strange is the effect of crossing these invisible lines. On the other side of a field to the right, the cars bearing Irish number plates with their little Irish EU signs had vanished, to be replaced by vehicles with a familiar yellow British registration. Across on the Newry road, an advertisement announced the best dry-cleaners in Ireland "as seen on BBC". And high up on a hillside above the railway embankment, an iron stockade contained the descendants of the armies of Elizabeth I, their swords replaced by radio aerials and anti-missile screens, their presence reduced to this indefensible bit of the old Ireland.

The rain was beating against the windows of my carriage. The station signs now came in an odd, oblong typeface without capital letters, screwed on to iron grills.

I had forgotten the smell of Belfast, the cloak of invisible, wet smoke that wraps the city in winter. I had forgotten that despite its assumed Britishness, Northern Ireland boasted a Ruritanian currency of local fivers and pounds 10 notes, each illustrated with the kind of ripening fields and cranes and tractors that I can find on the banknotes of any Arab nation. And I had not remembered the distance - the hundreds of miles and light years - that separate Westminster from this avowedly British city.

In a province in which the Unionists are supposed to represent the Tories - which they don't - and in which the Labour party does not field a single candidate, the Belfast Telegraph was advertising an "exclusive" interview with Tony Blair. "There is not a lot of trust around now ..." he is saying. "What is to be gained by one more death and one more bombing? The answer is nothing ... If violence stops and trust and confidence can be built, then I think Northern Ireland can have a great future ..."

"Can". "Think". It was lamentable. What will Tony Blair's approach to Northern Ireland be? "Bugger all," an old Protestant friend of mine from Derry replied, reading aloud another passage of Blairite wisdom in which the Labour leader declared that he was "not going to dictate what the terms of that future might be" although it would have to "be based on consent and agreement and respect for the very different traditions which coexist in the province".

"Bullshit," my friend said. "It will have to be based on British leadership and contempt for sectarianism, on a British prime minister with enough seats to ignore the Unionist party, and who'll tell the police to keep the rule of law and not cave in to Orangemen, and who'll stop stroking the IRA one day and calling them shit the next."

I'd forgotten how little the British understood the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland - and how well Northern Irelanders comprehend the weaknesses of the little men at Westminster. Ask Protestants if they trust John Major and they will pronounce his name with the "J" of John heavily and contemptuously aspirated, along with the good-natured smile of the strong who know how to deal with the pusillanimity of their enemies.

"We don't trust John Major," Ian Paisley declared to me. "He's made promises to us and he hasn't kept them." And I noticed that the good reverend also grinned when he mentioned Major's name, like a hungry man contemplating lunch.

Or dinner, as Northern Irelanders call lunch - dinner being "supper" in Belfast. Just as Britain is "across the water" and Dublin is "in the south", the centre of the known world being Belfast - just as Beirut or Damascus or Jerusalem or Hebron or Gaza are to their inhabitants.

Belfast has now been dressed in fancy clothes in keeping with its status as a semi-peaceful - or half-warlike - city; boutiques, new restaurants and clothing stores and bookshops, a revitalised theatrical and arts life, and a new lower ground floor of the Europa Hotel that makes it look like the front of a Third Reich ministry.

"Don't you like the city now?" asked the lady who used to safeguard my bank account in Donegall Place in the days when I was a Belfast correspondent. "People don't want to go back to the bad days."

This surprised me. The "bad days" are supposed to be back. But as David McKittrick, The Independent's Ireland correspondent, has put it, this is "half war". "Quarter war," I suggested to McKittrick - we have been old friends since the Seventies, when I worked in Belfast for The Times, David for The Irish Times - after he offered to drive me round west Belfast. There were no security checks in town, I said. No barriers. No soldiers. Where was the war?

McKittrick has a soft, devastating sense of humour. Like many in Northern Ireland, he smiles after he has made a joke, not before. This can be disturbing. When I asked where the war was, he was silent.

"This is where Divis was - do you recognise these houses?" We had turned left off the Falls Road. Of course, I've driven round these Catholic homes many times. "No, you haven't," McKittrick said. "They're all new."

They were. Smart terraces and semi-detached houses - most built to the same dimensions as the slums they took the place of, the Housing Executive dutifully replacing the familiar with the familiar - had taken the place of the squalor that I remembered. But when we turned a corner, the old Belfast was there, two lonely RUC men in flak jackets with a line of British soldiers on both pavements, their rifle-sights caressing the contours of each house, the bright green and black camouflage making the old, cruel contrast with the grey estate. They slid past the car window like an old film, a television repeat of infinite weariness and meaning. McKittrick had made his point, but slid a cassette beneath the car radio.

An English voice, public school, vowels enunciated, was speaking slowly and deliberately over a two-way radio. "Two dead bodies are being taken to Altnagelvin Hospital," the voice said. The tape had been discovered by Channel 4 when its crew were investigating Bloody Sunday, the shooting dead of 13 civil rights demonstrators by members of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment in Derry in January 1972.

McKittrick let the cassette run on as we drove along the "peace" line, as high and as distressing as any of the Beirut variety that lay along the Lebanese front lines between 1975 and 1990. From the radio comes a high-pitched whine and a voice - another British army officer - saying: "Photographers are taking pictures of a body in Chamberlain street."

The whine continues on the tape. "Helicopter," McKittrick mutters. And I understand. The voices are coming from a helicopter high over the Rossville Flats on Bloody Sunday, as clear now - 25 years later - as they were on the day.

McKittrick turns into Cupar Way and stops beside the custom-made "peace" line, 40ft high, green-painted, running as far as the eye can see, shameful and sinister. And when I wind down my window, I hear, high above us, the whine of a real-time helicopter. Several thousand feet up, it circles and recircles this slum state, photographing and re-photographing the wasteland and garbage and the vehicles on the road and, no doubt, our car too. And an odd thought occurs to me, that this tiny machine has been flying for 25 years, that its haunting mosquito whine has never left the skies of Northern Ireland, that if I lived here - rather than amid the heat and flies of the Middle East - I could believe that nothing had changed since Bloody Sunday.

Like the Lebanese, the people of Belfast long ago developed an exaggerated sense of their own tragedy. The Lebanese foreign minister insisted to me in 1983 that if Lebanon was not given peace, it would be "the end of the known world". Palestinians have been given to claim that their plight is worse than that of the Jews in the European Holocaust. In just such a way, IRA prisoners in the Eighties would claim that Long Kesh camp was "worse than Belsen". Only last month, the Northern Ireland Office was proposing to make a television advertisement suggesting that intimidation in Belfast could be compared to the persecution of Jews in pre-war Germany. Nobody must be allowed to place events in perspective.

In Ballymurphy, four young men in jeans watch our car suspiciously. "Social workers," McKittrick says, only glancing at me afterwards to see if I caught his irony.

The walls were painfully familiar. "Welcome to the Loyalist Heartland of Ulster"; "Live Free - Or Like a Freeman Die - Not Like a Fenian Slave"; "Shankill Road No, Surrender".

Wasn't there an "h" in Shankill, I ask innocently?

"No," McKittrick replies. "But there's not usually a comma in the middle of `No Surrender'." Then he smiles quietly to himself.

In Lebanon, the graffiti is more rhetorical, declarative. "Nasser - light, brotherhood, unity," it says down the road from my Beirut home. "Support the resistance - crush Zionism." The Palestinians used to have a poster which proclaimed to its warriors that "we shall stand in the last trench against the Zionist death wagon", a remark which made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in passion. But in both countries, the real questions are the same. Who are these messages for? What is the purpose of the wall paintings of the Irish famine and King Billy? To preach to the converted? To reduce the complex to the simplistic? To avoid argument? Or to instruct us that hatred and fear and anger and a sense of injustice have a greater integrity - and are buried deeper - than peace?

Tomorrow: Robert Fisk talks to Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley.