Thursday 29 March 2012

On the road to god knows where

The border, hard to spot on the ground, is clearly visible from space, as satellite photos show.
Spare a thought during this fine spell of early summer promise for the poor tourist circling forever on an M1 roundabout at Faughart. Or the other perhaps languishing and lost in the wilds of north Leitrim’s glens, both wandering and wondering how to get to this place called Belfast that their Satellite Navigation systems insist does not even exist.
It is surely a wonder of the modern world that our fickle frontier, unseen by the human eye, is so readily visible to electronic systems, including Google Earth. I have long marvelled that the border appears as a vivid white or yellow line on Google's satellite photos, surely rivalling the Great Wall of China as a man-made structure that is clearly visible from space.  
Even SatNav guide Hugo Duncan gets lost.
Back on planet Earth, meanwhile, we simply follow the roads across the Border with an occasional nod to the change from kilometres per hour to MPH. 
Yet many strangers on our shores do not even realise we are divided between political jurisdictions with their own jealously guarded geographies. They often have to rely on SatNav systems ranging from the dulcet British tones of Tom-Tom to our unique variations with ‘celebrity’ voiceovers featuring among others, Hugo 'the Wee Man from Strabane' Duncan.
Arlene Foster – not for turning.
These tourists are bemused at best by our presumption that if they managed to get here, then they should know how to get about. So we leave them to their devices on our labyrinth of highways and byways and expect them to pick up on our nuances of political positioning along the way.
A senior American travel advisor brought this to the notice of the Stormont Executive’s Tourism Minister Arlene Foster this month at a conference organised by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB).
The maid from Magheraveely – about one Irish mile from the Border as the tourist crow flies – wasn’t for turning. She insisted there would be no relinquishing on the ‘unique identity of Northern Ireland’ in the stakes to become 'a global holiday destination' this year.
The problem, as outlined by Roger Brooks, president of Destination Development International, is that we do not appreciate how visitors perceive our island. Add to this our failure to even agree on naming terminology for north and south – or even east and west and all places in between – only adds to the confusion.
A few years ago, there was widespread outrage when a young Canadian visitor was told at the Belfast bus ticket office that she could not board for Derry because no such place existed. The ticket-seller was making a political point, it seems, about our legendary Maiden City and took the consequences, although the problem persists. Our failure to tackle our multiple identity disorder has merely exacerbated the problem and now, it seems, Belfast has disappeared too.
Just don't key in 'Belfast' and 'Ireland'.
Roger Brooks, whose Seattle-based company advises countries on how to maximise their tourism potential, told the NITB conference that a funny thing happened to him on his way to the theatre.
He was setting off from Dublin to drive to Belfast using his rented car’s SatNav system: ‘I had to type in the city so I typed in Belfast and then I put in the address of the Merchant Hotel and then do you know what it said? It said there is no Belfast in Ireland.’
The story gets even better, or worse, depending on your vantage: ‘So then I went, let me type in Belfast, United Kingdom, and it said there is no Belfast in the United Kingdom, but we found one in Ohio. So I had to type in Northern Ireland and then it came up.
‘If I put in Ireland, it doesn’t find you,’ Roger Brooks told the conference and the Tourism Minister.
Giant's Causeway goes missing.
So in an age of Google holiday planning, the Seattle advisor advised, this probably means that even prime destinations north of the border do not figure under a search for the keyword ‘Ireland’. The Internet itinerary manages to gobble up the Giant’s Causeway, the Mourne Mountains and more and wash them away with Lough Neagh and the Erne, not to mention entire towns and cities.
He advised tourism operators in the north to buy keywords, including ‘Ireland’ so they get a look in.
‘You have to do that because we see Ireland as this great island and we don’t see it as countries,’ Roger Brooks said, ‘so we have a hard time finding your cities using search engines.’
One would expect that should practical advice would be widely noticed and acted upon. Yet the Belfast NewsLetter carried the only report I could find and it even sought a reaction from Minister Foster on what she had heard from Seattle's SatNav explorer. 
She could see only one road ahead for her jurisdiction, the NI2012 marketing programme of Tourism Ireland, the joint promotion body set up after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
This, she said, ‘offers a unique opportunity to change perceptions and confidently put Northern Ireland on the global tourism map – and the signs are already encouraging.’
The Creighton corner in Clones.
I am reminded, however, of an anecdote from my native town of Clones – about two Irish miles from Arlene Foster's Magheraveely as the tourist crow flies. A local ‘character’ was loitering about the Creighton corner at the foot of Fermanagh Street when a large car pulled up from the Newtownbutler Road. The driver rolled down the window and called out, ‘Could you tell me how to get on the road to Dublin?’ The local guide was dismissive: ‘I wouldn’t bother my arse if I were you,’ says he. ‘Sure if you’ve got yourself lost in Clones, you’ll not have a hope down in Dublin!’ 

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Seeking truth from Border 'blind spot' and a screen of senationalism

Even while police held security primacy elsewhere, the British army controlled south Armagh from Bessbrook Mill HQ
Here at the Frontier Post, we have been following with considerable interest the tribunal investigating the background to the bloody ambush of two senior Northern Ireland police officers on the Border in 1989. Today, in a dramatic turn on the 23rd anniversary of the IRA assassinations, the hearings in Dublin were adjourned by Judge Peter Smithwick.
No resumption date has been set and it is expected it won’t be until the tribunal receives British intelligence information which Judge Smithwick described in his recent interim report as ‘highly relevant and potentially significant’.
Before adjourning the public hearings, which began on 7 June last, Judge Smithwick said he is now ‘totally dependent’ on that information. This suggests that the British intelligence report can determine between the counter-claims on whether former Garda Detective Sergeant Owen Corrigan provided information needed by the IRA to kill Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan on the afternoon of 20 March 1989.
Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan
The Smithwick tribunal inquiry is taking place on foot of this allegation raised in the British House of Commons, following ‘disclosures’ by a journalist/author and a preliminary report on collusion on both sides by Canadian Judge Peter Cory. It has also been taken up by a ‘colourful’ former British agent in the IRA.
Even as the plot thickens, however, there has been some light shed on a dark period of our recent past along a Border that seems even more intricate than the rival plots.  Solicitor John McBurney for Chief Superintendent Breen’s family, says a much fuller picture of what ‘was known and seemingly ignored or withheld with regard to this tragedy’ was now emerging and the detail was ‘almost impossible to comprehend’.
But let us consider some of the evidence. Just before today’s adjournment, a retired British major, Witness 79, testified from behind a screen. He commanded British troops in the district on the day the two senior RUC officers were killed outside Jonesborough at 3.40pm as they returned from a meeting in Dundalk garda station. The former c/o says he was not aware of the police travel plans and these would have been strictly on a ‘need to know’ basis.
Witness 79 confirmed there were a number of army patrols operating in south Armagh, where the Army retained prime control long after the police had been pushed into security frontline in other parts of Northern Ireland. As well, there was contstant helicopter surveillance and the watchtowers on Jonesborough and Forkhill Mountains monitoring cross-border traffic. The attack took place in a ‘blind spot’, however, and Witness 79 suggests local people might not have known this.
On that basis he seemed to support the Garda mole theory that it would have required the risky deployment of too many IRA personnel to monitor all the local roads for the RUC officers’ unmarked car. A British army Brigadier had already gauged that this might have involved 70 IRA lookouts.
Toby Harnden wrote Bandit Country
Now I’m not a trained intelligence officer, nor am I even Toby Harnden, fugitive author of Bandit Country (1999), allegedly based on an awful lot of innuendo, tittle-tattle and information acquired in dubious circumstances through a personal relationship. The Garda ‘mole’ is central to Bandit Country, but Harnden – a former Royal Navy officer who has since written a book about Britain’s war in Afghanistan – last month declined to help the Smithwick inquiry.
Yet I’ve also written a book about the locality. The Chosen Fews: Exploding Myths in South Armagh (2000) was based on my experience of reporting on south Armagh since the mid-1970s backed up by diligent research. This involved frequent and repeated journeys in the district while the elaborate network of British army watchtowers was still in place. I often used Edenappa Road and other known blind spots, precisely because they offered a brief respite from constant monitoring.
So it strikes me that the collusion theory in these killings is based on lack of local knowledge and the pre-supposition of an intricate web of alternative routes that would be almost impossible to monitor.
So let’s consider other facts presented at the tribunal.
The IRA was in ‘communications overdrive’ from 11.30am that day, roughly the time Chief Superintendent Buchanan arranged the meeting on an ‘open and unsecured’ phone call to Dundalk garda station. The two RUC officers used Buchanan’s personal red Cavalier car, registration KIB 1204, which he had previously used for every one of 24 previous cross-border rendezvous with gardaĆ­. They stayed in Dundalk for roughly one hour – meeting Garda Superintendent John Nolan – before setting off back to the border.
Based on that information, a single look-out in Dundalk could tell what road the red Cavalier was taking. That is even discounting that the policemen were tailed by a cream-coloured van from which the four gunmen leapt at the bogus British checkpoint at the Border blind-spot on the Edenappa Road.
Edenappa road runs parallel  to former main road (NI) with new Mi motorway between
Yet we now await the British intelligence report which, one presumes, pre-dates the ‘exposure’ of collusion in Toby Harnden’s book, then backed up by another journalist of rather intemperate views on such matters and a British agent who has long exhausted the sell-by date on his franchise.
Of course, this is not to preclude the existence of an IRA mole in Dundalk Garda station, nor does it discount the elaborate preparations of the IRA in south Armagh whose enemies point out was ‘risk averse’ and very deadly. Conspiracies and collusion are always plausible in a dirty war.
Yet what happened in the deadly war along the Border does not need to be dressed up any more. So we can only hope that this hugely expensive tribunal might yet provide a clear picture from behind the screen of sensationalism that always seems to sell better than the bare truth.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Peace survives Loyalist bands celebrating St Patrick's Day

On 17 March 1762, some Irish-born soldiers serving in the British Army in the American colonies formed ranks and paraded to church in New York in honour of St Patrick. They probably had drums, banners and flutes (or fifes). It is unlikely that they had Mardi Gras costumes or floats and they certainly had no tricolour flags.
That was the first recorded St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Two-hundred and fifty years later in Armagh last evening (17 March), more than a thousand young men of military age – and some young women too – formed ranks and marched through the ecclesiastical city of Patrick to the brattle of drums and the sound of flutes. They played Irish jigs and traditional military airs including Tipperary and Killaloe. Most of them were dressed in military-type band uniforms.
A total of 40 guest bands joined the Cormeen Rising Sons of William Flute Band in the annual St Patrick's Day Parade which until now was held in the small village of Killylea, about seven miles from Armagh City.
To accommodate the growth of the event and stake a claim to the patron saint shared by all Christians in Ireland, this year the band changed the venue to their local city. The parade application was considered and approved by the independent Parades Commission, subject to certain conditions with which the bands readily agree to comply. 
Politicians from the national/republican tradition warned of serious trouble if the parade went ahead. They condemned it as provocative and seemed to imply that the Cormeen Sons should have stayed in their Border village where their annual parade in celebration of St Patrick has been studiously ignored for years.
Yet a few hours ago in Armagh, I saw families and band enthusiasts enjoying a traditional St Patrick's Day band parade that is now established as the first event in a busy season of events involving hundreds of bands and thousands of band members.
There were no tricolours, of course, but that does not make this any less an Irish tradition. Indeed, the spectators who lined much of the route, especially around the spectacular Mall at the heart of the city, were only waving St Patrick's Cross flags.
The event passed off peacefully and well before the 10.30pm deadline imposed by the Parades Commission.The world didn't end and there were no riots or confrontations. The peace process held and those present had a great evening out.
I do not come from the Loyalist tradition, but over recent years I have learned much about the huge importance of marching bands for Ulster Protestants. My book, Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band ( tells the story of a year I spent with the Castlederg Young Loyalist Flute Band. Last night, I met some of those young Castlederg bandsmen who had come along to enjoy the parade, even though they weren’t taking part this year (because of a wedding). It  was good to enjoy a bit of banter with them and see that they are clearly excited by the start of a new band  parading season.
Meanwhile, I was hugely impressed by the success of last night’s celebration in Armagh; by the way that the band and the local Armagh Bands Forum handled the issue; by their willingness to talk and engage with  representatives from the other tradition that the Orange and other loyal institutions won’t countenance; by their concern for their ancient ecclesiastical city and community; by their insistence that they will not be discounted from claiming their own Irish heritage.
The peace process was enhanced, not damaged, by this year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade hosted by the Cormeen Rising Sons of William. Last night, thousands of Protestants – many of whom openly said they had not been to a parade for some time – celebrated their stake in Ireland and its cultural heritage by showcasing their tradition of military-style marching bands.
They found a reason to be proud to be Irish according to their own Ulster Protestant traditions and a magnificent occasion to express it inthe way to know best. We should all be grateful for that.