I’m not a big fan of Facebook these days but one thing I do like is the ‘Memories’ alert that you get each day. It’s nice to have a look back even though there may be a sinister algorithm at play.
One such ‘Memory’ popped up yesterday. It reminded me that ‘3 Years Ago today’ I was at Stormont parkrun in Belfast. There was a photo of me posted by the volunteer crew with the parliament buildings in the background. It documented my trip there, how I had flown in that morning, been picked up by Mel the RD at the airport, ran the parkrun then left on the 1300 flight. That visit was where my parkrun tourism journey really kicked off however it wasn’t the first time that I had been to Stormont. I had been there before almost 15 years previous when I was a student.
I’ve always been interested in Irish political history and it stems almost entirely from my Granny’s influence when I was young. We would sit for hours and talk about Ireland, the Black n’ Tans (they burned her neighbour’s house to the ground), her brothers John and Pat that had fought in the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War and also about the more recent Troubles. She was an inspirational person with great humour and I have so many fond memories of her.
Following my BA degree I enrolled on a history MA at the University of Liverpool in 2000. I wanted to do my thesis on the Troubles and with it being twenty years since the 1981 Hunger Strikes I settled on the political impact of the period as my theme. One day Jimmy, a Belfast-born painter that had worked with my father, visited our house. I chatted with him about my proposed thesis and he said that his nephew Dan could assist me with my research. I didn’t think much of it but that night I got a telephone call from Belfast.
A few weeks later I was knocking at Dan’s door in Andersonstown, West Belfast. I’d been to the city centre before but not here. History surrounded me. Not too far away was Milltown Cemetery the scene of Michael Stone’s attack on a funeral in 1988, the site of the corporal killings that followed it was just up the road and closer still an RUC police barracks that imposed itself over the neighbouring terraced housing. Peace had come by way of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement albeit it was an uneasy one.
Dan came to the door putting his jacket on as he opened it.
“Michael, I’m having to go out. I’m away to Stormont to film an election broadcast with Martin McGuinness. You can either come along or I can drop you at Linenhall Library to look at the archives.”
It didn’t take much thought so I was off to Stormont with Dan and a camera operator. As far as primary sources go this offered an excellent opportunity.
Growing up in England in the 1980/90s the conflict was close at hand. My dad had employed men from The North, a good school friend came from Ardoyne in North Belfast and I had also worked with ex-squaddies who had served there. There was also the quite regular IRA bombings and security alerts. The appalling murder of two young lads in Warrington left an indelible mark on me and there was also the 1996 Manchester bomb. I had a more critical view of the conflict though and never bought into the simplistic sectarian narrative. Even growing up I believed that dialogue, however uncomfortable, was the only way out of the human tragedy.
We were met at Stormont’s entrance by a Sinn Féin worker called Denis. He gave us a brief tour around and then escorted us to McGuinness’s office. Martin McGuinness was the bogeyman figure of the British media, the alleged IRA godfather with ‘blood on his hands’, but in March 2001 he was Minister of Education in the newly devolved Stormont parliament.
The office door opened and McGuinness greeted Dan as old comrades would. Due to his tight schedule it was straight into filming and I watched on. Here I was in a room with a man whom it had been illegal to hear speak on TV a few years previous and probably one of the most influential figures in modern Irish politics yet all I could think about was his resemblance to Art Garfunkel.
At the end of the filming I managed to get McGuinness’s attention.
“Mr McGuinness do you mind if I have a quick word?”
“Of course as long as you don’t call me Mr McGuinness, it’s Martin.”
It was short as he was in a hurry but I managed to squeeze in a few questions. I had an interview scheduled back over in West Belfast so it was also time for me to leave. As I departed I said my goodbyes to Denis and wished him well. Five years later he was found shot dead in Donegal after being outed as an MI5 agent.
A lift had been arranged for me and I was picked up near the Edward Carson statue in front of Stormont. We pulled up at a set of traffic lights and a official looking black saloon was to my left. Ciarán, my driver, nodded his head toward the passenger seated only metres from me. It was David Trimble, the leader of Ulster Unionism and Northern Ireland First Minister. Ciarán had only recently been released from prison and so I was in the surreal position of being sat between a convicted IRA man and David Trimble. The traffic lights changed before I could get my dictaphone out and tap on his bullet proof window for a quote.
I’ve revisited Stormont twice since that day in March 2001 but for the sole purpose of running the parkrun there (23:35 and 20:34 in case you were wondering). It is fair to say that both visits two and three have been slightly less eventful than my first one there.