For some inexplicable reason I wasn’t invited to today’s gathering of the great and good at QUB to celebrate (is that the right word these days?) the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Master of ceremonies was Richard English, who now rejoices in this title: ‘Distinguished Professorial Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.’ He has also been awarded a CBE (Commander of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for, to quote the citation, ‘….services to the understanding of modern day terrorism and political history’.
The Distinguished Fellow, like myself, wrote a book about the IRA. His was called ‘Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA‘. Mine was titled: ‘A Secret History of the IRA‘. He became a CBE who rubs shoulders with the masters of the universe. I now live in the Bronx and we have pizza and vodka martinis on Friday nights. Go figure.
Anyway among those swarming like flies around the proverbial at Queen’s University today were the Clintons, le and la, one a president who these days would have been impeached for his sexual abuse of Monica Lewinsky, the other whose miserable failure to beat the most transparent snake oil salesman in American political history could well lead to a different president being impeached. We live in hope.
Anyway la Clinton, better known as Hillary, has also penned a piece in The Guardian today about Brexit, the collapsed Assembly and the threats posed to the Good Friday Agreement.
It was one of those articles which rejoice in the description ‘transferable’. In other words much of it has been published, or delivered from a podium dozens of times before, the only difference each time is a bit of an update and the switching around of a few paragraphs.
And so we were treated once again to Hillary’s tedious account of her trip to Belfast in the early 1990’s and as soon as I spotted the work up, with a groan I knew what was coming.
And here it was:
It was on that same trip that I first met some of the women whose names are too often forgotten, despite their vital role in the agreement. One of those women was Joyce McCartan, a Catholic mother whose 17-year-old son had been shot dead by a Protestant gunman. Joyce invited me to join women from both traditions at the safe house she had set up in a local fish and chip shop. We sat around a small table, drinking tea out of an old aluminium teapot, while the women told me how they had first reached across their divides to band together to stop the price of their children’s milk from going up. Along the way, they discovered that the deep-rooted causes of the violence – the terrors of sectarianism, the burdens of poverty, the despair of unemployment – touched all of their lives.
Ah yes, Joyce McCartan. Now sadly no longer with us but the memories live on.
Actually it is the memory of her sons which really sear the brain cells.
Joyce and her family lived in the lower Ormeau Road, not far from the republican Markets area and adjacent to the scores of student flats that fan out from Botanic Avenue.
Joyce’s sons were thieves. Their speciality was to burglarize these flats and to steal anything that could be moved, from TV sets to purses carelessly left on mantelpieces. They also terrorised the lower Ormeau area, specialising in robbing pensioners and the like.
The thing about Joyce’s sons was that they seemed to have a free hand to indulge their criminality. The RUC in nearby Donegall Pass seemed not to care a whit about the misery they caused. The Provos kneecapped them once or twice but the sons seemed to have the protection of the Officials who were quite strong in the area.
Not surprisingly quite a few people concluded that the RUC’s apathy was deliberate, intended to get people complaining about lawlessness and the need for what was called in those days ‘normal policing’. (It was more probably just laziness. Cops hate to do work.)
I remember once coming back to our home in the Botanic Ave area to find the front door locked from the inside. This was a classic sign of a burglar at, or having been at his work. While rifling your drawers the burglar would hear the front door being rattled and know it was time to flee over the back wall. Thanks to the locked door he would make it in plenty of time.
We lost a TV set that day and needed new locks. So I had to report it to Donegall Pass to get the insurance and when the uniformed cops arrived I said to one of them that everyone knew it was the McCartan’s who did most of these robberies. Why weren’t they being done? People said the authorities wouldn’t touch them because they had official protection. Was that true, I asked.
‘You better ask the Special Branch, sir’, came the reply.
Anyway back to Hillary’s teapot. Joyce McCartan made a gift of it to the First Lady and every time Hill returned to Belfast to make a speech, she would bring the teapot with her, place it on the podium and tell the story along the lines in today’s Guardian.
Belfast folk are known for their cynical sense of humour. It is that sort of city and pretty soon a variation on Hillary’s teapot story was doing the rounds.
Hillary would tell the story of Joyce McCartan’s teapot and as she got to the punchline, she would flourish the teapot to show the audience.
In the cynical version of this, as she picks up the teapot a voice can be heard from the back of the hall:
‘Oi! I recognise that teapot! It was nicked from our kitchen last year!’