'He’s no longer a soldier, he’s a human being'
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland
My memories of visiting Northern Ireland as a child were of a place that was rather frightening and sinister. I was always conscious that having the wrong accent could be dangerous and because my mum is from Dublin and my dad was English, anywhere could be a problem. On one occasion while visiting with family friends from the province I wanted to see a football ground and asked if they would take me to the home of the biggest club, Linfield. ‘Absolutely no way’ was the reply, or something to that effect. Their surname was Kelly.
The one place that felt safe was the stretch of the Country Antrim coast we visited, in part because it was out of the reach of the contested flashpoint areas, being so overwhelmingly Protestant. I remember village after village decked in Union Jack bunting, which seemed quaint, and visiting the Giant’s Causeway. The countryside in Northern Ireland is stunning – it’s the North in Game of Thrones – but the cities are quite bleak, Belfast far more resembling a northern English town than Dublin. Filled with rows and rows of terraced houses, the only way you might tell you weren’t in post-industrial Lancashire are the murals, and the walls that came to be built to separate the two sides.
I have a tendency towards doomerism but people who lament the current state of affairs forget that when people my age were growing up there was a low-level civil war in one part of the country and the Saturday news would often begin with a bulletin about multiple murders. Occasionally this would spill over into England, which the IRA began to attack in the 1970s; my uncle remembered fondly a London cabbie looking at his bag and saying 'ohright Paddy you ain’t got a bomb in that hav ya?' (Irish people doing cockney accents is always funny.) But otherwise the English tried to just ignore it.
The first time I went to post-Troubles Belfast was for a press jaunt organised by an energy drink, with an event held out in the park in the Malone Road in south Belfast (which, for those who don’t know the city, is the middle-class area where you don’t see flags).
The compere was television presenter Patrick Kielty, familiar to British viewers everywhere for his wit and charm, although most people were unaware of his tragic backstory. Kielty, who began his career on the comedy stage, is one of many people interviewed in Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, one of the best documentaries of this year, and by the same team who made the equally brilliant series about Iraq.
Although incredibly upsetting at points, the underlying message of forgiveness is deeply moving, and Kielty comes across as a thoughtful, humane man. He recalls, as a teenager at school, being called into the headmaster’s office, expecting to be told off for something, only to be asked to sit down and informed that his father had been shot dead.
Mr Kielty’s crime was to refuse to pay protection money to Loyalist paramilitaries, and running the local Gaelic football club in the village of Dundrum in Co. Down. If that sounds insane, it was a place where insanity ruled for a quarter of a century.
The series charts the Troubles from its beginning, which – without provoking any sectarian rows – was largely started by Loyalists, both the paramilitary UVF under Gusty Spence and the tub-thumping demagoguery of Ian Paisley. By the time I was growing up Paisley was something of a comic figure, and I remember watching on television as he heckled the Pope in the European Parliament, his 17th century sectarian rhetoric utterly bemusing the continental representatives until he was manhandled out by – just to complete the bizarre scene – the heir to the Habsburg throne.