Monthly Archives: August 2011

Vietnam: travel writing.


There we were on a blistering August morning stuck at the Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese border guards in their light green suits flicked through passports at their leisure. They seemed to savour making us stand and wait in the heat while we were exhausted from our overnight bus journey. The tropical heat was overpowering. My own smell had begun to offend me. One by one the passport were approved and people were stamped into the country. My cousin Denis was having trouble. The ink on his visa from the Vietnamese embassy in Laos was smudged. This was a major infraction of the visa regulations it seemed. There was much sucking of teeth. Could he be allowed into the country. Ooh-ooh – they were not sure.

Denis like the rest of us was at the end of his tether. We had slept only a little – and that was poor quality sleep. Bent double in a hot noisy bus as we bounced over the worst pot-holes in Asia. Hungry and dehydrated. We were in no mood for this. He was not anxious – just irritated almost to despair. He did not care if he got through – we did not care so long as we could just throw ourselves down on a bed to sleep.

Per, the Vietnamese-born Dane, argued our case. Per spoke Vietnamese of course and remonstrated with the border guards. I was surprised at the strident tone he took. I thought that in a communist country one could only mollify officialdom and not browbeat them. I hoped Per knew what he was doing.

Hmm… could they let us in. The border guards agonised. That smudged ink was a major issue. It was such a big nono.Well maybe, just maybe they could but it would cost a hefty fine. For fine read bribe. Per managed to beat them down on the amount. Soon a little money changed hands and we were through. The border guards must have had their slanty eyes scanning each page for the slightest error to find some pretext to extort a douceur. Denis had been their unfortunate victim.

We re-boarded our bus – delighted to be on the road again. The bus drove under an archway at the border post. Hurray – we were in Vietnam. The border was in the hills with thick forest sitting on either side of the road. In front of us the road wound and stretched down to the plains. The flat land lay spread out before us. We rumbled along the orange dirt road.

I was exhausted but it was scorching and so I could not sleep. I spoke to a Frenchman. I shall call him Yves. Yves had jet black hair and this colour made his dense stubble even more visible against his very white flesh. His deep voice boomed out impeccable English with an unmistakable Gallic accent. Yves had pouting red lips and brown-rimmed glasses. He was tall and slim. He looked a little Semitic. Yves had been to Vietnam before. He told me about visiting Hanoi and seeing a museum there. He told me the captions on displays mentioned ”French bouchers” – he meant ”butchers” – to describe French troops. There were also ”Japanese facists”. He informed me, ”It was not a vehry objectif museum.” We spoke in French a little. We went through the French and British national anthems. I relished telling him the little known verse of the British one. ”Lord grant that Marshall Wade/ May by thy mighty aid / victory bring/ May he sedition hush/ and like a torrent rush/ rebellious Scots to crush/ God save the Queen.” For crush I learnt ”ecraser”.

I thumbed through Yves’ passport – with his permission. I noticed he was young than me. That surprised me. His facial hair and very low voice were so manly.

I chatted to a German named Alex. Alex had very blond hair and he had a ponytail. Alex’s English was outstanding with only a vestigial accent. He had been to Argentina and mentioned all the graffiti about the Falklands – the Malvinas are ours. I thought of going there soon. I would not back down on my opinion that the Falklands did not belong to Argentina.

After an hour we were down on the plains. Rude wattled houses lined the road. Clumps of trees were beside the roads but mostly we could see rice fields. Peasants worked as they had for millenia – under dried reed hats, stooping over up to their waists in water tending their crops. The odd black buffalo was led by. There were very few vehicles on the road. We were going to Vinh – that was where our ticket was to. The bus was going on to Hue and there was the possibility of paying more and staying on till Hue Edward mentioned this option. I said no. I could not take a moment longer than necessary. Denis and Ruarai agreed.  After 17 hours on the road we could not take it any longer.

We came to a roadside restaurant and got off – this was the point of divergence. We went in for a nosh. We were to catch a bus on to Vinh from here. Our ticket was valid for that onward journey. We fed our faces. I am not sure how we paid. We must have changed currency at some point. Vietnamese money is called dong.

Soon a bus came along and it was a local one but it would take us to Vinh. On we hopped with our many bags. It must have been noon. We sat near the front and the leg room was astonishingly generous. A middle-aged Vietnamese bloke took an instant dislike to us. He had a briefcase but was not very formally dressed – black slacks and an undistinguished white shirt. He was demanding we paid more for the ticket. His scowling face did not scare us. After an hour we came into the city of Vinh. It was plain and had no high-rise buildings. There were many corrugated iron roofs. Bicycles outnumbered cars ten to one.



Under some large trees there was a unsurfaced bus park. Our bus stopped there to disgorge the passengers. God were we glad to be off the bus. Odd taxis sat there – motorbike taxis. We got out our Let’s Go guidebook and told the motorcyclists our chosen hotel. We got on the motorbikes behind the bikers and they drove us off to the hotel. It was a sprawling single storey affair. The room was the largest we had stayed in and fortunately there was a bed each. We just hit the hay. I slept like the dead. I have never needed my Zssss more.

A few hours later we awoke. Evening was drawing on. We showered and dressed. We headed out for a tour around this sorry town. If Thailand is the land of smiles Vietnam is the land of Frowns. They have fuck all to smile about – they are communists.

The people were clad in pale green, khaki, beige, powder blue sometimes – colours that were bland and impersonal. It was almost like they all wore uniforms. Many wore solar topee type hats. There were no car taxis around that I saw. I saw many cyclos – these are cycle rickshaws where the passengers sits in front.

The main drag was unpaved – of course – and low-rise banal concrete shops lined either side of it. At one end of it was large shopping mall. It was not the bright and shiny mall with a marble floor that you may have imagined. It had a grainy grey concrete floor with countless small stalls – so some capitalism at least. They sold clothes and nothing else that I could see. No one looked happy. Many of them scowled at us or bared their yellow teeth. My cousin (I accidentally typed brother and then had to delete it) Denis bought a T-shirt. It had an image of Ho Chi Minh on it. I have often had a hankering for such tendentious emblems but have so far desisted from buying them. I thought that this was in questionable taste. Ho Chi Minh was a tyrant who set up a murderous totalitarian state. He presided over many atrocities. Anyone who is a communist is beyond the pale. Ho Chi Minh had a personality cult built up around him and fomented a wars that lasted about 50 years. He brought more suffering to the world than all but a handful of rulers.

I can’t remember anything of not in that gloomy town. We walked back up the main boulevard. We turned left at the main square and saw down that street was the railway station. Thankfully some French words have survived in Vietnamese. The word for station is ‘gar’ no, not ‘gare’ ut ‘gar’. Denis and Ruarai could not face going in to try to buy a ticket. I went in on my own. People hurried in and out. The concourse was unlit and night was falling. People lay on the floor and a few were queueing up. I joined an orderly queue and soon enough I was at the glass window. The woman behind the screen spoke English – so there really is a god! I bought us tickets to Hue.

I went outside and announced to Denis and Ruarai that I had succeeded in getting us tickets. Denis in particular was elated. There was nothing of note in that dreary town. We went off to eat at some typically grotty in roadside restaurant. Vinh is a city that gives drabness a bad name.

Soon it was time for a kip.

Denis’ alarm went off in the middle of the night  – so it seemed. We had to get up – our train was departing well before dawn. We packed our junk and in the dark checked out. We were out on the main street. We found cyclos. A bony faced little middle-aged man cycled me and my bags. The cyclo glided silently down the deserted boulevard. Then a couple of youths came up to us. One menacing young man treated me to an evil smile. There was a glint in his eye. He had a bottle in his hand. In sign language he gestured that he wanted a cigarette. I turned up both palms and I opened both hands and moved the left hand to the left and the right hand to the right to indicate that I had no cigarette to give him – which was true. He lifted his bottle up above his shoulder to threaten that he was about to throw it. The cyclo was rolling only very slowly away from him under the weight of my huge rucksack and other bag. I though of shit – now I am for it. He is about to throw the bottle at my head. There is nothing I can do. I put both arms diagonally across my face and dropped my head to my chest. I heard the bottle smash – the youth had thrown it just in front of me – on the ground. I think that was deliberate.

We got to the station and all was blackness. A couple of ragged tramps dozed on the stone floor. All the booths were shut. We walked through the concourse and saw some platforms serried in front of us. There was a train sitting there with lights on in some of the carriages. We climbed up the ladder like things onto the train. This must be the right one. Denis was not convinced. He said he would go and ask someone if this was the right one. I was irritated – where are you going and why? It is this train – it is blatantly this one, I told him. Denis insisted on finding someone and asking. I tut tutted. I was up too early and was yearning to go back to sleep. He returned a minute later – it was the train on the next platform. Thank fuck for his stubbornness! If I had my way we would have stayed on the wrong train to who knows what destination.

We got onto the next train and only a few lights were on. We found our way to our cabin. In we stepped and threw ourselves onto our bunks. We caught up on some sleep as the train started to rattle along the tracks to the south.



When we stirred ourselves we were well out into the countryside. I looked out the stained window and saw the lurid shades of green stretching to the horizon across plains of padi fields crisscrossed with short trees. The cabin was brown formica like stuff. It was reasonably clean. I walked up and down the train. I sat in one of the chair cars. I fell into a conversation with a short middle-aged Vietnamese chap. He was the only affable Vietnamese that I had met apart from Per – and he was a Dane. I shall call this middle-aged Vietnamese bloke Chott. I made up this name because I used it in a story I wrote about 1950s Vietnam when I was 12.

Chott wore dark slacks and a white vest. His thick hair was lined with only the occasional grey follicle. He had a large mole on his right cheek with a surprising number of hair protruding from it. His sallow skin was free from lines. He spoke pretty good English and French. He was me his age – I was very surprised. He was much older than he looked. He was over 60, I forget his exact age. I had him down as mid-40s. He told me he remembered singing La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) at school during the colonial period. He was from North Vietnam and seemed to have no anti-French or anti-American sentiment. He recited to me a French poem. The only line that Chott said that I remember was,”mon amour pour toi reste toujours la meme.” – ”my love for you always stays the same.” He jabbed his right index finger towards my sternum as he delivered this line. This was just for dramatic effect – he was not making a pass at me. He spoke French much better than I do. He spoke from his palate in that tight nasal accent that South-East Asians have.

I wandered back to the cabin that I was sharing with the other two Irish boys. I read In retrospect by Robert McNamara. It had been published not before. McNamara was the US Defence Secretary who served in the mid 1960s when the US became militarily involved in Vietnam. This book is his mea culpa. He believes that the US ought never to have sent troops to Vietnam.

After a few hours we drew into Hue. This is pronounced Hway. It is the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam and sits astride the perfume river. From the station we took a cab to our hotel. The street beside the river was lined with generous shady trees. The buildings seemed cleaner and brighter than anything I had seen since Bangkok. There was a little traffic – enough to suggest prosperity but not so much as to snarl us up. In a jiffy we were checking into a hotel tucked into a side street not far south of the Perfume River. The hotel was run by a middle-aged Vietnamese woman. She was soften spoken and her English was good. Her black hair was tied back in a neat bun. She wore black rimmed glasses and bowed slightly and decorously whenever we asked her anything. I noticed that all the signs in the hotel were in French and English. The place was tranquil and limpid. We dumped our paraphernalia in a comfortable room and headed off to dine and stretch our bronzed legs. It was a sunny day but not roasting.

At a nearby tourist restaurant we dined al fresco. The menu was in French and English. There was a German couple on the next table. Denis started chatting to them. The man wore a red T-shirt and was about 30, gangly, blond and bespectacled. He had a lisp that did nothing to take away from his brilliant English. He seemed to be a serious-minded but likeable sort of chap.

We walked over a bridge to the old city. We saw an enormous Vietnamese flag – it must have been the biggest one in the country. I could see where it had been sewn together. Its pole was buried into the ancient dark grey battlement on the north bank of the river. Why was there such a huge flag here? This was the heart of the ancient independent united Vietnam. in February 1968 the communists launched an enormous attack o Hue. For a couple of days they had the run of the place. They rounded up hundreds of their opponents and shot them all dead without trial. This is one of the major atrocities of the Vietnam conflict. The Hue massacre is much less publicised than the My Lai Massacre despite the My Lai Massacre being of about 300 people when the Hue Massacre was of at least 2 800. This perhaps reflects the anti-American bias of much of the reportage and historical writing about the Vietnam conflict. The Hue Massacre is little known because it showed the communists for the oppressors they were and because it showed the US in a positive light. The US investigated the My Lai Massacre. Captain William Calley who was chiefly responsible for it was sent to prison but let out after a couple of years. He ought to have served life. At least the US did something to make amends. The communists never punished their people for this gross act of mass murder.

Much of what would have been the imperial city had been smashed down by the fighting in 1968. We saw open fields – ponds covered in water lilies, the odd water buffalo bathing. A young Vietnamese girl tended her impassive buffalo. There was so much greenery for what was a city centre. A few dark grey ruins seemed to be all that was left of a once famous capital.

The next day we took a trip on a boat along the perfume river. It was cloudy and the river was also cloudy and choppy. The engine buzzed. The fairly built-up city soon gave way to countryside on either side. The banks rose up steeply from the river. Both sides were densely covered in forest. We came to a small Buddhist temple on the north bank. It was only a few miles west of Hue. There we saw a car. A Buddhist monk burnt himself to death in Saigon in 1962 to protest at the South Vietnamese government. There was a car that he traveled in from Hue to Saigon and the car can be seen to the rear of the burning monk. The car was displayed there at that Buddhist temple which was this monk’s home for some years. I cannot say it made much of an impression on me.

We had a few more hours to explore this agreeable city. There was a goodly number of tourists but it was not overrun by them. In time we made our way to the railway station for an overnight train to Saigon – sorry Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam. Boringly the city and the river have the same name. Once the commies took over South Vietnam they renamed the city of Saigon in honour of Ho Chi Minh who died in 1970 after having set Vietnam well on the course to fratricide, poverty and oppression. In the 1990s the communists in Vietnam tacitly admitted that they had been getting it wrong all along. Communism is a disaster. It is supported only in Havana, Pyongyang and Oxford. Only in those cities do people make a living out of it. Now the dollar triumphs. Bill Clinton re-established diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1993 and declared that relations were normal between the US and Vietnam. Only a few wingnuts in the US still believed that hundreds of missing in action soldiers were still being held hostage in Vietnam. How does one prove a negative? To be fair there was an American who was captured by the Chinese in the Korean conflict who was not released for 20 years. The Rambo films played to this fantasy that hundreds of American were still being held captive in Vietnam in the 1980s.

It was another pleasant choo choo journey. How I love trains. Members of the train crew for no detectable reason who open the sliding door to our cabin and look in. When they saw we were sitting there chatting they would say nothing and slowly close the door and go away. This happened a number of times. It did not affect us at the time. The train made a rhythmic rattling nose and swayed from side to side gently. In time this lulled us to Morpheus.

The next morning we were woken by the sunlight blazing in the window – there was no curtain. I had put my trousers on the floor in my usual way. I had slept in my boxers. I decided to go and buy something from the dining car. I fished around in my wallet. All the money was gone! I had had a wad of cash in there. The day before I had put about 80 pounds worth of dong in there. That is a king’s ransom in Vietnam. What happened? My cousin and Ruarai are above suspicion. It xn only have been the railway staff. They had the opportunity and the motive. Why else had they been opening the door unannounced all through the day? Denis decided to do an experiment. He went outside and opened the sliding door to our cabin very slowly. With the noise of the train rocking from side to side the sound of the door opening was inaudible. They railway staff could very easily have committed the theft in seconds. If I were them I would have divided the loot so as they all had a stake in it – they would all stay silent. If arrested no one would have a suspiciously large sum on them. I shrugged it off. I was good to be philosophical. I could have let it ruin my holiday.

The journey dragged on. Buildings appeared more and more frequently beside the railway line – no more jungle. We seemed to be crawling along at 20 miles an hour. We grew ever more frustrated. The low grey buildings were plain and dispiriting. We saw more railway lines converged as we were coming into what must be the suburbs of Saigon. We had been on the iron horse for a good 14 hours.

Denis and I got into a heated argument about French colonial rule. I strongly defended the civilising mission of France. France had brough medicine, engineering, scientific knowledge, a world knowledge, a modern legal system and so forth to Vietnam. There was religious freedom in Vietnam under French rule and the rights of women were advanced. All these changes could not have been effected without colonial rule.Denis tried the old canard that French rule was exploitative. Sure many people were poor peasants as they had been before and they were no worse off under French rule – they had rather more to aspire to under the system of egalite. He claimed that literacy had gone down under French rule and not up. Vietnam had been a satrapy of China for centuries so had not been independent in a very long time. People had become literate in Chinese and then switched to French so there was a reduction in the number of those who could read possibly. I wonder how accurate the figures were for the 1850s when French rule was established. I pointed out that many Vietnamese volunteered for the French Army and this proved that they supported French rule. Denis said this showed nothing only that they needed jobs. I noted that the vast majority did not join the French Army – there were other jobs.

Ruarai stayed well out of it. He was perplexed and did not even pay attention. Why should we have such strong feelings about something that did not affect us? He was not a bookish type. He had little get up and go. When they first arrived in Thailand they spent some time on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. They had seen British sluts in string bikinis. Ruarai was keen to languish there. Although he was a fitness fanatic this Ruarai would not have left the airport if Denis had not made him. Ruarai lacked get up and go.

We calmed down and arrived in Saigon. We got a cab to our hotel. It was not a bad one and there was a room for our trio – even a bed each. The hotel was quite down town on a fairly busy street. the hotel was on several floors. Lots of backpackers stayed there.

We dumped our stuff and walked around. There were many tatty old stained buildings. Some new ones had sprung up – gleaming glass buildings that housed multinational corporations. I could not help but take satisfaction at the triumph of capitalism over Marxist dogma. There was a little rubbish scattered across the tarmaced streets. Cyclos slid by and noisy diesel cars crackled around the corners.

That evening we walked into what was pretty much the centre of town. We passed the soaring colonial era cathedral. It was spotless. The boutiques one the main shopping streets could have made me for a moment believe that I was in some French Riviera town. We dined in some pretty decent restaurant.

The next day we went to the old presidential palace. It was fairly wide and tall or so it looked from the outside. A wrought iron fence separated it from the boulevard. There was a large tank sitting on the well-kept lawn to the right of it. Tall and stately trees spread their canopies over most of the lawn. The odd shrivelled yellow leaf lay there – autumn was approaching. We paid our paltry admission charge and in we stepped. We waited by a side gate to the main building for the English-speaking tour. There were only a half-dozen people on our one. There was a bloke from Derry there – I shall call him Dara. Dara was perhaps 10 years older than me. He was average height and trim in build. He had shortish brown hair and just a day’s stubble. He wore a red vest-like T-shirt so beloved of Antipodeans. He was brown after a few months globetrotting through these sunny climes. He told me he was writing up his experiences for the Derry Journal. He heard which university I attended and said that explained my accent. I told him that all sorts of accents are heard there and I had developed my accent years earlier.

A unmemorable Vietnamese person showed us around. I do not recall whether this person was male or not which indicates how forgettable the guide was. I learnt that the French colonial governor’s mansion had been on this self-same site. After independence it was knocked down to make way for the presidential palace. I thought what a shame to unnecessarily raze a historical building – and a bloody waste of money for a poor country. How could they be so profligate when they had far more pressing problems to attend to than constructing a luxurious pile for the president?

The rooms were huge and the decor was very 1960s. It was all open plan and the white curtains seemed like doilies. The furniture looked like what one saw in hotels from that era or in Colombo programmes. There were various receptions rooms. Although it was not horrid I cannot say there was anything beautiful about the place. It was smaller than it seemed from the outside. The ceilings were very high. It was faintly disappointing. The guide told us about Ngo Dinh Diem – the president from 1954 to 1963. He was from a Christian family – very few Vietnamese were Christians. Vietnamese Christians tended to be pro-French and he was no exception. He was an aristocrat and a civil servant. He spent most of his adult life in Belgium and France. He returned to become president. He never married and his sister-in-law acted as his first lady. He wore white suits which marked him out as a yellow Frenchman. He was not a convinced democrat. The police dealt ham fistedly with Buddhist monks who protested against Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule. The US embassy found out that some army officers were plotting to overthrow Diem. They were asked to come to the US embassy. They were given a dressing down. They were offended and felt they had been treated like naughty children.  Pointedly the CIA did not tip-off Diem about the conspiracy. If Washington really valued President Diem then they would have informed him so the conspirators could have been dealt with. The military coup was being kept as an option by Washington.

Eventually President Kennedy changed his mind. He had several thousand military advisers in Vietnam including Colin Powell. Several hundred American advisers had been killed. Diem was so unpopular that his overthrow might be no bad thing. Uncle Sam then told the plotters that the United States would not support a coup d’etat but neither would the US oppose it. That seemed like a green light. In November 1963 the military coup went ahead. Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were captured escaping from the presidential palace by a tunnel. They were both executed without trial. I say executed which sounds like a punishment but I mean to say that they were not killed in combat or shot trying to escape. They were in custody and the decision was made to kill them. It was a shameful thing to do. They could have been imprisoned or exiled. There was no likelihood that people would rise up to restore them to office.

Towards the end of the tour Dara told us he had been reading about how the communists took the palace. That North Vietnamese tank in the garden was the first to smash through the gate. The commander of the palace guard said he was surrendering. The North Vietnamese replied that the commander could not surrender something that he no longer controlled. Dara smiled impishly at that. I got the sense that he sympathised with the communists. A political radical? An Irish republican? I went cool on him.

That evening we met him as arranged in a backpacker bar. Dara suggested smoking some pot with him. I declined. I am not into that but doing so in some place like Vietnam is a very unwise idea. The Vietnamese police probably do not compare favourably to the Royal Ulster Constabulary – but I did not make that point to Dara. Ruarai and Denis did not take up the offer.

I walked around the city on my own a little. I decided to geta  cyclo back. I notice that the cyclo cyclist had an extra thumb growing out of his right thumb. I had never seen this before. It must be more common than one realises but I imagine that in developed countries extra digits are surgically removed shortly after birth. A young Vietnamese chap speaking great English asked if he could come along too. I said yes and he sat beside me. He had a dark complexion and a curtains hairstyle. He had a hissing camp voice.

We got to my street. The sum demanded was inordinate. I think I had agreed something different at the beginning. My young companion on the trip took the cyclists side, ”we go to the police if you don’t pay”. His pissy voice whined menacingly. He repeated his threat a couple of times. I ended up giving them enough dong to satsify them – dong being Vietnamese currency.

Next morning was very bright. We went to some travel agency. A middle-aged chubby German bloke sat there. He had short orderly hair and tidy little glasses. He spoke terrific ENglish. There was also a diminutive American with a Southern accent. The little American had hard blonde hair and stoned washed jeans below his white T-shirt. He was affable and clean-shaven. I reflected that he was just the right age to have been a soldier in the Vietnam conflict – maybe that was why he was back. We were booking a trip to the Coo Chin tunnels. We got our ticket.

Outside we quipped about the Southron. We could have asked him if he had ever been to the Coo Chi tunnels and he would have said – not since 1973.

We waited on our street for a bus to come and pick us up. It was filled with Occidental tourists. I sat beside a portly Australian bloke of 50 something. He had thick greying hair and a gentle manner. He told me his ancestors came from Devon in England. It was a little refreshing as most Australians I meet seem to be partly Irish. My mum says the same about white Americans. In Minnesota they whites were of German and Scandinavian ancestry.

I spoke about the Vietnam conflict with my cousin Denis. Denis is a highly intelligent person and very articulate with it. He told me how many of the US servicemen were Irishmen, not Irish-Americans but Irishmen. Those who had a work permit in the US at th time could be drafted even if they were not US citizens. Some of these Irish soldiers who fought for liberty and against Ho Chi Minh’s vicious totalitarian regime came from remote villages in West Cork.

I remember meeting on of these Irishmen in a West Cork fishing village. He seemed younger than his grey hair and had an impressive moustache. He was free with his opinions. He said that the US could have won if only it had kept going. He expressed the horrifying view that it was right for the IRA to murder people whom they alleged to be drug dealers. The IRA were big time drug peddlars themselves – they just did not like competition. I had said these people could be completely innocent and they had no fair trial. He said that the IRA were always sure before they did this. He also defended the mutilation of alleged petty criminals. I was disgusted by this – this was barbaric, like what happened under the Taleban.

Our air-conditioned coached squealed to a halt in the countryside. There were no more telephone poles or street lamps. The village had some gloomy concrete houses with corrugated iron roofs and some wooden buildings.

There were 40 or so of us. A Vietnamese guide lined us up and told us a little about what we were due to see – how the Viet Cong lived and fought in the 1960s. I shall call him Edgar. Edgar was 40 I suppose – fairly tall for a Vietnamese. He was clean-shaven – in fact the only Vietnamese I have ever heard of with facial hair was Ho Chi Minh.

It was a very bright day and Edgar led us along a well-worn but narrow path through the woods. I was right behind him. We rounded a corner and suddenly I heard a sharp little bang. Edgar turned to everyone and told them this was a booby trap bomb – not a real one. He pointed to my feet. There was a metal can by my feet and a string attached to it. I had felt nothing but my leg had pulled the string and detonated the bomb.

Edgar told us how the Vietnamese had been building tunnels for centuries when carrying out guerrilla campaigns against the Chinese and then against the French. When the US military came to assist South Vietnam against the communists the Viet Cong dug tunnels in the forests to hide out in. For years the US military could not figure out how the Viet Cong could be cornered and then disappear. Finally they found about the tunnels. It surprised me that no one in the French military had told the Americans. Some of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had been anti-French, wouldn’t they have know about the habit of building underground tunnels.

Edgar took us further and demonstrated the many booby traps that the Viet Cong invented. He said that the idea of the booby traps was of course to kill and main the enemy but also to distract them. The American walked slowly through the jungle because they were looking out for booby traps – this gave the Viet Cong more time to prepare ambushes, to retreat and to set up more boob traps. The American at the front of the patrol was particularly distracted looking out for booby traps – he might not notice Viet Cong fighters hiding a few metres away.

He showed us some booby traps. To my mind a bobby trap is something funny – not deadly but booby trap is the only word we have. One was like a directors’ chair shutting on the guy – putting a spike into him. There were vines with metal barbs that swung across the trail at face and chest height, there were mines that jumped up to explode at head height; there were traps that stabbed into the groin. Edgar commented, ”what happen for the men? No marriage, no children.”

There were some tunnels for us to try out. I lowered myself down and was able to film. I crawled a long a little. It was very cramped and uncomfortable – 10 m was long enough for me. There was an Indian young lady just in front of me and I ended up filming her posterior mostly.

There was a longer section of tunnel too. That was too much for me. Denis tried it.

Egdar pointed out how small the tunnel entrances could be. With one foot he brushed aside some fallen leaves – there was a wooden door. We had not noticed it. He lifted up the wooden door in the ground to reveal a tunnel. He said the Viet Cong would climb down into the tunnel and put the door on. Local sympathisers would then cover the door with dead foliage.
He spoke about Viet Cong meetings. They all wore bandanas over their faces in case someone was an informer.

Edgar told me his father had been in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The ARVN was the South Vietnamese army, pro-American. Edgar had grown up on a base with many Americans and learnt English. His English was not fluent, he could express himself of course but he had a strong accent and fractured grammar. He was a genial sort of bloke. After the fighting was over his father spent years in a re-education camp. In these places ARVN men were worked extremely hard and treated with great brutality. After his release Edgar’s father was granted asylum by Australia. Australia had sent troops to support the US in its attempt to save South Vietnam from communist oppression. This was forward defence by Australia. If the communists took over all of South-East Asia they could easily invade Australia. Australia also had a defence treaty with the US, they were both part of SEATO the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation. The US would help Australia so Australia would help the US. It paid Australia to ensure that the US had a stake in the security of the whole Asia Pacific region.

We took the bus back into Saigon.

That afternoon we visited the American War Crimes Tribunal. It was like my French acquaintance had warned me on the bus in from Laos – he had been talking about the place in Hanoi. The aim of this museum was revealed by the name. The purpose was not to fairly present facts but instead to besmirch the reputation of the United States. I am not saying that every claim that museum made is false. I do think it failed to contextualize, presented things in the most one-sided way and probably invented a good deal. There were some horrid fetid dungeons.

We ran into a black Briton at the museum. He was a tall and well-built chap and I shall call him Harold. Harold spoke slowly and softly. His large teeth created a winning smile. He had a distinct Brummy accent – that is to say he came from Birmingham. In fact he never had to tell us he was British.

On our way home we nipped into a small and secluded Buddhist temple. It was an oasis of calm in that busy city. I took a liking to the turtles in their pond and filmed them closely. We left that shady grove and walked back to our hotel.

The next day it was around to the Cambodian embassy to expedite visas. The building looked like a bouregeois version of a Parisian chauteaux. It sat on a street with many similar buildings.

That afternoon we went to an internet cafe. I was emailing or something. Denis sat beside me and said some words that I shall never forget, ”Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York.” I assumed that it was a horrific accident. My ex-girlfriend Jane had written me and email saying she was watching those planes in the news hitting the buildings in New York City. I was beginning to think that this was not an accident. I looked at some news websites and began to see how many thousands of people were assumed to be killed. I had not at first thought that so many people would be killed.

One of my friends Sonia was in Washington DC. I read about planes crashing in Washington. I wrote to Sonia asking if she was ok. I was also thinking of trying to shag her next term.

I read how Al Qa’eda was the prime suspect in terms of organisations. I had heard of Osama Bin Laden few years earlier. I felt sure it was him and his gang but I did not actually know it then.

I do not remember anything of that evening as such. I saw some flags at half mast outside banks and multinationals. Someone told me some Vietnamese in a bar had applauded the Islamist attack on America. There is still some anti-American sentiment in Vietnam.

The next day a bus pulled up outside our hotel. It was another baking hot day. We piled aboard for the ride to the Cambodian border. I shall tell you the complement of the minibus. Obviously there was the three of us. I shall assign names to the others.

Pete – he was a Briton in his early 20s. He was as tall as me with light brown hair and a serious aspect. He had pale skin and struck me as deeply unimaginative. He was a scowelly sort of person. He was in the Territorial Army (the part-time army) and the less attractive side of the military mindset came out in him. He wore a floppy type hat that cricketers often wear.

Jessica was Pete’s girlfriend. She was just below average height. Jessica was of normal build and had dark brown tied back in a pony tail hair and little glasses. She was from southern England like Pete. I have given her a bland name just like her boyfriend in token of the fact that she was a dullard. She was not a well-informed person. When I mentioned the British Isles she told me she had never been there.

Tracey was tallish and had terribly dyed blonde hair – her dark roots were a disgrace. She was desirable in a sluttish way. She wore a spaghetti spring top and loose cotton trousers that backpackers often wear in South East-Asia.

Thomasina was Tracey’s traveling companion. Both were British, English to be precise. Thomasina was very slim – too slim for my taste with meagre tits. She had dark brown hair. Apart from her skinniness she was good looking. She wore the same sort of outfit at Tracey.

The road from Saigon to the border was good – smooth and a dual carriagewyway. There was little traffic and the road was built up on a cutting well above the padi fields to either side.

We reached the border and after the perfunctories it was bye bye Vietnam.

Laos: travel writing.


One drizzly morning, Denis, Ruarai and I headed into the border town. By an unpaved road we found the bus station to take us over the border. Puddles lay liberally on the ground. The town was groggily awake. It was warm rather than oppressively hot as it normally is in Thailand. Before long a white minibus drew up. I notice the writing on it declaring that it was a gift from the Government of Japan. It was spanking new – about the only clean vehicle I had seen in the country. The three of us were all too drowsy to chat much.

The border post was under a huge roof – such as sometimes covers a basketball court. Cars, buses and lorries stopped –  people filed out to be processed and then the vehicles nudged forward. A couple of undistinguished single storeyed cabins stood on either side of the road. A few gratifying stamps in my passport and a cursory luggage inspection. We were through into the country my cousin Denis insisted on pronouncing Lao. He event spelt it that way sometimes. I do not know whether that is right or not.

In a jiffy we were over the nearby bridge and deposited at a nondescript whitish building that appeared to be made out of plastic. The cloud cleared suddenly and the sun was not yet overly aggressive. Down we sat and we ordered a meal. We all felt content to be in Laos – it seemed like the difficult part of the day was over. Denis talked me into ordering Pad Thai. This dish is about the most popular fare in South-East Asia. It is a pile of noodles interspersed with assorted vegetables and the odd titbit of meat. Once we had munched we found ourselves a bus into the centre of the city – Vientiane.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos. It sits on the east bank of the Mekong River. Looking out on this light brown and very wide river is soothing – the Thai bank of its looks like a wilderness. The city was shabby but somehow upbeat. We got out on yet another unpaved street. It did not take us long with the map in Let’s Go to find our way to a hostelry we had picked out. It was owned by the Ministry of Tourism. We checked in and walked to the first floor to the room that all of us were sharing.

The room was spacious and en suite. Apart from that it was as gloomy a room as one couldn’t hope for. The mould culturing on the walls only amused me. But we were young – we still are young I like to delude myself. We were bohemian. I was faintly proud and even excited to be staying in such a grimey place.

I chatted to the receptionist as I normally do. I cannot remember the receptionist’s sex so it must have been male. I found out that a trio of Irish chicks were lodged in the same hotel. The receptionist volunteered me their passports to look at. All good options. The trouble was I never met them in the flesh.

We intended to go to Vietnam later. There was a sign on the wall by the reception desk saying that they could get us a Vietnamese visa cheaper than going to the embassy. The prices were about $50. The difference between the hotel doing it for us and us doing it ourselves was $2 – a significant sum to us in Laos. I decided it must be bullshit. How could it possibly be cheaper for them to do the work for us? When I went to the embassy we found out that the hotel was telling the truth.

Once we had dumped out junk it was time to nose around. The city of Vientiane is very flat which make life easy. One of the agreeable things about poor countries is they cannot afford enough motor vehicles to make life unpleasant. In fact they cannot many horse drawn ones either – maybe I did not see a single horse in the country.

We had to change money. I changed a few pounds. Laotian currency is kip – I am telling you because you did not know that unless you are a walking encyclopedia. It is a funny word kip – especially if you are Irish. Kip means and untidy, disreputable and contemptible place. The etymology is from Kippure, an area of Dublin where prostitutes used to offer themselves mainly to soldiers. In my personal experience brothels are not untidy. Now you definitely did not know that AND know about Laotian currency. Anyhow – I got my kip. Kip is not valuable. I got so many soiled and ancient banknotes that I could not close my wallet – I am serious. I have not been in that position since.

The tree-lined streets are full of low-rise and unremarkable buildings, off white and the odd grey one. Sometimes there were signs in French like Banque Laos pour le commerce exterieur. Laos was a French colony of course.

We walked to some huge parade ground not far from our hotel – it was in the direction going away from the river. There was a walled compound that we went into. The complex contained a large Buddhist temple built on a zigguart. I walked all the way around the base of it and saw the statues of Buddha in different attitudes. I did not find the place affecting. We went into cemetery next door – I think it was a cemetery. I am not sure of Buddhists bury their dead rather than cremate them.

We got to the main street. There was the world’s cheapest imitation of L’Arc de Triomphe. There are other imitations – India Gate in Delhi, Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest. L’Arc de Triomphe is in itself a copy of the Arch of Titus in Rome. The main drag in Vientiane is no Champs Elysees. It is unpaved  – that should go without saying by now – and had no pavement. Tatty clothes stalls line it as well as myriad downmarket electrical goods shops.

The arch in Vientiane is known as the vertical runway. The US gave a tonne of two of concrete to the Laotian Government to turn into a runway back in the 1970s. Laos was important to the US in that the Laotian Government was an ally of uncle Sam against the Red menace. The Laotian Government saw a smarter way to use the concrete – turn it into a triumphal arch. The anti-communist government had little to be triumphant about. We paid out admission and climbed up the tawdry monument.

The wind swirled about us 10 minutes above the street. A few other grockles wandered about and Laotians sat listlessly up there. We could see the Mekong a mile away. The thing had been hastily thrown up and was no work of aesthetic skill.

I went around the city in a cab filming randomly to get the measure of the place. Later we all met up at a riverside bar for a drink. I remarked on the brownish waitress – that she was desirable. My cousin disagreed and mentioned her teeth. Actually he was right, they were yellowing.

We went to a historical museum. The captions were in French and English. I read the French just for practice. It said that in 1948 France had granted ”une faux independence” to Laos. I saw th pictures of the French official in morning dress handing a leather folder with an official document in it to a Laotian dignitary, maybe the king. When we left and signed the book I added a comment, ”Vive l’Asie Francaise!” – ”Long live French Asia.”

We dined out that evening. Edward and I got into a historical argument. Denis said what I had written in the book was crass and provocative. I maintained that French rule had been good for Laos and it was a pity that it came to an end so soon. Laos had experience 40 years of misery and war after the end of French rule. I saw a notice in the menu. It asked us not to bring ‘working girls’ here. I saw one fairly tall miniskirted Laotian girl in platform heels walking uncertainly in – her arm linked with a white middle-aged man. I think this is what the notice was talking about.

Ruarai had let this argument wash over him. He is not a reading man. Eventually our argument blew over and we settled to other topics.



The next day we boarded a bus for Vang Vieng in the middle of Laos. I mistakenly thought that I did not go to Vang Vieng but to Lunag Prabang. Luang Prabang is a name I can never forget. I stayed in a district of Thailand when I was 9 that was mainly peopled by Laotians and it was called Luang Prabang after the second city of Laos. I wrote this saying Luang Prabang throughout ad then realised my mistake. I had to go back and correct myself.

It was evening time when the crumpled bus groaned off from the street side. The bus was packed and we found ourselves chatting to a fat young Frenchman. He was affable and told us he was there to help with a French language newspaper. He spoke good English – our chum Ruarai was no great shakes at French. We had read some English language Laotian newspapers and they couched criticisms of the government in very mild terms.

I read as long was light would permit. The open windows gave us some welcome relief from the heat. The tarmac road soon degenerated to a crumbly surface and eventually a dirt surface meanly scattered with gravel. There was jungle a few steps from the roadside. As darkness fell we could just about make out some hills in the distance to either side. An hour or so into the road trip and we were in the pitch black. The journey was about 3 hours.

Off we stepped in Vang Vieng. The place seemed very small. Somehow we managed to find a hotel we had picked out and a room was available. We never did anything so boringly middle-aged as to phone ahead and book. We were travelers not businessmen!

We checked into the spotlessly clean little hotel – a room for the three of us. There was a single bed and a double bed. We took turns in the single bed. Somehow we got along with two boys in the same bed who were not close blood relatives did not result in us fearing we were gay.

We dined at an open air steak house. I ate like a gannet. I demolished one steak and then another. Denis called me ”two steak Portley”.

Next morning we walked around the town as the clouds hung over us. It was practically all single storey. The town was nothing special and had few sights. There seemed to be precious little French influence to be found. I remarked to my pals what a wanker Justin Timberlake was. I wandered into an internet cafe. I saw that Timberlake was engaged to Britney. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOo! At the internet cafe I had a chin wag with a diminutive Israeli with a strawberry blond thin beard. We discussed his recent trip to Burma. I was unsure whether to go or not. I am not prejudiced against military dictatorships. They can be a good thing. However, this one in Burma had nothing to be said for it and much to be said against it. Was it unethical to go? The Burma campaign said to disinvest but some Burmese dissidents said to go and raise awareness.

We went on a day trip in a minibus. We met some other travelers. Three were British chicks and two were British boys – kind of. Let me describe the girls first. I shall make up the names. Lucinda was small and quiet but had a naughty smile especially when she was enjoying a spliff with immature glee. She had light brown hair and seemed silly in a public school manner. Octavia was tall and had dark brown hair – a little wavy. She had liquid hazel eyes and was almost standoffish. Audrey was slender and ebullient – she had a ski jump nose and mid brown hair. She told us her mother came from Malahide in Dublin. Audrey did most of the talking – she was reading Russian at Leed University. Apart from Audrey they were fully English, I assume.

Denis was speaking to them a lot. I got the feeling that he was trying to impress a little – prove to them that he was an adult too. He was 19 and had finished a year of university. I was a few years older than him.

One British boy was tall, blonde and very well-built in a handsome way. He had very thick biceps but had no thuggish swagger. I will call him Matt. He had an indistinct English accent except when he said Monday as ”Munday” – it turned out he was from Newcastle. He was reading Medicine at Edinburgh. He was a hunk AND brainy. The other boy I shall call Antonio. Antonio had jet black hair and a fairly respectable beard for one so young. His complexion was unmistakably dark. He revealed he was half Italian and had grown up in Tanzania. He was at Edinburgh too. I asked him if he was reading Medicine too. ”Fuck that – English lit.”

Matt told me how Oriental men often felt his biceps and remarked, ”you big boy ha.”

Cannabis was the main topic of conversation. I had only tried it thrice so could not contribute. Matt told me they had been in Cambodia where one was often offered a happy pizza. ”How happy do you want your pizza?” That means how much marijuana do you want on it. Audrey talked about ”skinning up” – meaning rolling a spliff.

Off we trundled in our little minibus. We stopped in a village where the buildings were all huts fashioned from bamboo and fronds. The several huts were clustered around a central space. We had a Laotian guide with us. I shall call him Bung. Bung was a skinny young about the same age as myself at the time. He was unfailingly smiley and had a loud and infectious laugh. His lit us up despite the grey sky. He told us a little about Laotian village life. We sat down at a table on a verandah. We had a snack I think.

Then we headed off along a clay path in between the rice paddies. Peasants stood up to their knees in water tending the fields. The emerald fields stretched away to the woods on either side. I saw for the first time that we were in a valley a few miles wide. The hills rose up quite suddenly but they were not that high. After 10 minutes or so of trudging over sludge we came to the foot of the hills. There was the mouth of a cave. Bung told us how to be safe in the cave. I did not remember any of it. In we went. We had no hard hats, no ropes, no safety equipment. From a sack he produced a candle for each of us and we lit them up. Bung had a torch. Bung told us to give him all our valuables and put them in his water proof bag. Soon we were to find out why.

The first gallery had a good tall ceiling and a few stalagmites drooped down. I do not see the attraction to speleology  – that is exploring caves to you laymen out there. I knew a Physics geek who had all the loathsome characteristics that one associates with that epithet – lanky, adinoidal, acne ridden, obnoxious, a Christian evangelical, tedious and with a Physicist’s dress sense. He even had a boring bastard’s name – Andrew. What a drippy name – it even begins with ”and”. That Andrew was into speolology or pot holing as Britons call it. He told me how difficult it was, how pitch black it is, how cold it is, how slippery it is, all the geeky equipment one needs  – how confined the space is. I am no claustrophile. He told me if people were injured and had to be put on a stretcher it could take them 24 hours to be got out. What is the attraction?

In we went for some easy pot holing. We were in high spirits. The ground sloped down gently. There was still light from the outside world. The cave curved around gradually to the right and then to the left. There were large puddles to avoid by hugging one wall of the cave. We chattered eagerly. The breeze from outside made our candles gutter. Now and then a candle would be snuffed out by a gust and it would be relit from our companion’s candle.

In time the puddles became too large to avoid – they stretched all the way from one wall to the other. We had to go through them – up to our waists in water. It was fun and we advised each other not to step there and to hold onto that. Our shorts and T-shirts got soaked. The girls were all in skirts.

We spent a good 20 minutes going into the cave. Bung’s roaring laughter filled the cave and echoed around. He told us we had gone about 400 m into the cave. But for the candles it was a dark as you can imagine. It was a bit sobering to think that for all that time and effort we had gone such a short distance. I was time to turn around. It seemed much easier on the way out. I really liked it but that was enough caving for me. I have not been since.

We tramped back to the village with Bung. We gradually dried under the overcast sky. We sat under the dried frond canopy on the verandah. A spirit was brought out and several glasses. The other all partook of it. I did not want any. Antonio said the village elders would be offended if I abstained. I obliged him by having a drop – literally. The English boys and girls had a joint while we waited. Then we took the minibus back.

The next day we took part in another activity. The sky was still brooding. We took a white pick up truck with a couple of muscular Israeli boys who had just finished national service. We went a mile or two north of the town. We were going inner tubing. We handed over a fistful of kip and were handed our inner tubes. We had no T-shirts or anything with us. We eased ourselves into the swollen river. The flood carried us fairly fast back to the town – we swirled at points and enjoyed nature. We caught sight of some pre-pubescent Laotian boys jumping into the river from a bank 5 metres up. I thought I would remember that. After a few minutes we came to the centre of town and returned our inner tubes to the gap-toothed Laotian who was waiting.

I walked barefoot through town back to our hotel. Later U suggested to Denis that we go back to that place where the boys had been jumping into the river. We walked along the river bank until we reached the high bank above the river. The boys were gone. We were not sure if we could throw ourselves in – would it be safe? The children had been much lighter than us and maybe they knew exactly where it was deep enough. I did not fancy a broken spine as a holiday souvenir. I climbed down into the water to search for a deep spot. None of it was out of my depth. We agreed that it was too risky and headed home.

That day was my birthday and we dined in the same place as before. We chatted to two Americans. One was a 40 something blonde whose pale blue eyes sparkled with mischief. She was every boy’s Milf fantasy except to make her body firmer she was nobody’s mum. She was of average height and had an orange but natural tan. She effervesced with fun. The other American was an unhealthily pasty boy a couple of years older than me. He had graduated from a fairly well-regarded college – so he said. I think it was the University of Virginia. He had dark brown curly hair that was thick and a little untidy. He had dark blue eyes that never made contact with anyone. He had a very distracted manner. His voice was hoarse and he spoke irregularly – in fast bursts followed by long pauses. He was painfully thin. Soon I was to find out why. In a conspiratorial moment the lady’s eyes flashed with sin – they had been trying heroin. Would we like to try a little. I courteously but firmly declined. She seemed to have come much better out of it than he had.

Later we went to a bar with them. The place was backpackers wall to wall. There was an Australian man of middle age there who was bald but in that revolting manner left his hair grow long at the rear of his skull. He was short and pot-bellied. He seemed to be very pleased with himself for no good reason that I could discern. He played pool while his son of about 6 scampered around. The poor child was bored stiff and was occasionally bought a lemonade or plonked back on a stool. The kid was the only one there. I felt very sorry for this child having been in that situation myself sometimes.

The American woman seemed attractive to me. I thought about trying to shag her but reasoned that she was likely to have a terminal disease. The other thing was that it seemed unwise to hang around with them. If they got busted for possession of heroin it would not be a good idea to be seen as their friend.

My cousin bought me a Lao Beer T-shirt as a present.

On the way home we chatted and somehow circumcision same up. Ruarai was surprised that Jews had this done, ”how do they reproduce.” Denis and I both virtually slapped our foreheads at his misunderstanding. ”It is not that part Doz” said Denis. Ruarai had assumed that these Jews had the penises cut off. Ruarai was very companionable but no intellectual. He is not a fitness instructor. His father started off doing door to door Bible sales and ended up owning a hotel chain.

.We saw on the street  that there was a car that was stuck in the mud. They asked our help to get it out. We all got behind the car and shoved –  the wheels spun and mud spluttered up all over us. I was highly amused. We got back to the hotel and I had them film me and I boasted about what we had done.

On the stroke of midnight we sang happy birthday on my video camera. We sang the main line ”Happy Birthday to you” in English, French, Spanish, Irish and German. We were all in our smalls and I showed my big belly. It was fabulous birthday and I wish my birthday were like that now.

There was a lizard on the wall. Ruarai said if anyone could get it he would pay them 100 pounds. I had no hesitation in taking up the challenge.  I got a towel and whipped the lizard off the walls. I threw the towel over it. The beast was blind under the towel and froze. I wrapped it up and dropped the little reptile into a bin. Ruarai was mightily impressed but did not pay the money.

The next morning was very bright as South-East Asia should be. We ate breakfast in that open air restaurant that we were beginning to inhabit. The American junkie was there – addled as ever. He spoke to use in his usual unusual manner and his bleary eyes studiously avoided ours. Bizarrely he was actually eating – an omlette in fact. Then he suddenly broke off and ran onto the street and vomited. Later he told us he had visited an orphanage and wanted to help the children here. Chasing the dragon was catching up with him. I wonder if he is still alive.

All good things must come to an end – I wish it were that way with shit things too. We picked up our stuff. We took our clothes off the line. I later discovered that I left behind some blue rugger shorts that I had been wearing as casuals since I left school several years before.

We strode across to where the sloppy jaloppy of a bus was supposed to pick us up. We walked across the runway of the airport that was right behind our hotel – no perimeter fence. I liked the informality of the place. In some countries walking across a runway would result in a shoot to kill response.

We waited by the dusty roadside and about on schedule a beat up multicoloured bus lumbered along. All aboard. We sat at the back and mercifully the vehicle was half empty. I chatted to two Danish boys of about our age. These blond Scandinavians were both skinny and spoke flawless English. One of them had a look of Zac Goldsmith about him. He told me breezily how they liked the hashish here and had some in their bags. I told him that this was not smart – can you imagine being caught for that? ”Then I would have to go to some horrible prison” – he reflected. His eyes darted away for a moment as he considered it and then seemed to dismiss the possibility. This is what I would always advise people. Do not dabble with drugs in Third World countries (yes I am politically incorrect enough to still use that term). Drugs are cheaper and better quality but the prisons there are also cheaper and much worse quality. Smoke cannabis in your Western land (assuming you are an Occidental). You are very unlikely to get caught. The police tend to ignore it. If they catch you they will probably confiscate the substance and that will be that. Even if you did go to gaol it would be a civilised one in your own country.

The journey was uneventful and towards evening we pulled into the chaotic bus station in Vientiane. We took a cab straight to the hotel that we had lodged in before.

Early in the evening we took a taxi to a small wooden building on rickety stilts near the edge of the city. It was a sauna place – not for a ‘massage’. In towels w went into a sauna room where some Laotians sat meditatively – blinking as the studed the bare white walls. One was a very short middle-aged person with a shaved head. This shorn headed individual looked like a tiny and strange man. Then I realised this person was a woman – maybe a Buddhist nun. The nun had hardly any bust. There was a Laotian chap in his mid 20s with a goatee. We chatted to him – his English was terrific, the best I had heard in Laos. He turned out to have studied at Oxford Brookes.

That evening we hit a bar on the street beside our hotel. I met a couple of Dutch ladies. One was a fresh-faced 20 years old blue-eyed and blonde and her pal was about double her age with brown hair, tired skin and a bloodshot eye. You can guess which one I preferred. They had been working in Australia – fruit-picking. Like typical Dutch folk their English was surpassingly good. They treated me to their Dutch football chant – hoop Holland hoop.

Next morning we had one last tour of this tattered town. We breakfasted at yet another dog-eared streetside cafe. We strode off. A good spell later something struck me. My video camera! It was 8 months old. It cost 1550 pounds! You could buy a football team for that in Laos. I rushed back to the cafe. My video camera was still there. The bag snatchers of Laos were on strike that day. We were due to get a bus to Vietnam. If I had gotten to Vietnam and then realised that I had left the video camera behind I might even have turned back to get it.Fat chance it would still have been waiting for me.

We went on a quick tour to some bizarre tourist attraction a few miles along the bank of the Mekong. The Mekong was sluggish that day – that seemed a pity as I had seen it in torrent. It is the mightiest river in South-East Asia and I felt we deserved better. Our ancient minibus pulled into a brown gravel car park. A menacing fence was slung around a riverside complex. We paid several thousand kip at the gate. Inside there were several bizarre structures. It was almost like a playground with tiny houses one could go inside – metal structures in the shape of animals. There were some kitsch statues made out of concrete. Much of it was distinctly craftless. There was a poorly executed concrete statue of a Sikh chap with an inscription in English about how he had moved from India to Laos. It seemed like a pastiche of a renaissance bust. The grass was very green underfoot as one moved from one work to the next – not so many people paid to visit this place.

We trundled back into town.

Evening came and it was time to get on the bus.

It was a tourist bus. There was a party atmosphere as two dozen backpackers piled aboard. We greeted each other effusively. We were psyching ourselves up for a gruelling 18 hours to Vinh in Vietnam. The travelers were probably all under 25. A trio of art students from London caught my eye. They were rather full of themselves. What glittering careers did they look forward, I thought to myself. Pennilessness? They would probably find themselves defeated and grudgingly drift into the most mind numbingly dull dead-end desk jobs. The bus had several large cardboard boxes along the aisle. Almost every seat was taken. I spoke to the only Oriental aboard. He was very tall for an East Asian. This well-built chap looked several years older than me. I shall call him Per because he was a Danish citizen. Per was born in Vietnam and his father had been in the South Vietnamese Army. When the communists took over South Vietnam his family was due to suffer. His father spent years being abused in a re-education camp. When he was released they decided to suffer oppression no longer. They had a boat and in the middle of the night sailed down a river for the open sea. Some people on the bank told them to stop. They wanted to come on Per’s boat too. The people told Per’s family that if they were not taken they would shout and shout until Per and co were apprehended. Per’s family decided to take these people. They got to the open sea. The motor broke down. One of those who had joined the boat by threatening to give them away fixed the motor. Per said if it were not for that man they would have died at sea. They made it to Singapore. They were locked up for some time. Their father got work on a construction site. After several months Denmark gave them political asylum. They moved to Denmark. Like a typical Dane Per spoke stupendous English. He told me he had a hearty hatred of communism, I could not agree more. He told me it filled him with horror to see people wearing T-shirts with communist emblems. This was as offensive as sporting a swastika. I agreed. Communist chic is repugnant.

We set off as the last light faded from the sky. Soon we were out of the city. There were no markings on the road and no street lights. The bus lurched over substantial pot holes. As we were engrossed in conversation we rumbled up into the hills – the road twisted this way and that.

We stopped unaccountably deep in the middle of nowhere. We seemed to find it somehow exciting and we all alighted. Everyone stood around chatting avidly and a few cigarettes were lit – this time it was not wacky baccy. Maybe there was a mechanical fault but whatever it was we were on our way after 20 minutes. The unexplained stop was fun – the first time. There were a few more of these. As we grew sleepy I was beginning to have a sense of humour failure about such needless pit stops.

I slept but fitfully. I could not stretch out and the seat was hard and too small. The leg room was designed for one of Oriental proportions and I am 6’2”. Denis is an inch taller.

As dawn broke we parked at the border post. We were in the middle of lush green hills. We wended our way along the red earth road. There was a large car park with jungle all around. We had to get out and queue up at some officious looking single storey building with a red roof. Getting out of Laos was easy enough – the Laotians were glad to be rid of us.


Tom Barry lied about the Kilmichael ambush.


There is much controversy about the Kilmichael ambush. Did Tom Barry order his men to kill uniformed men who had already surrendered? If so this is surely murder. Peter Hart said that Barry did do this. Meda Ryan who is a very partisan writer claims that what Hart said is a slur. I looked at the video made in the 1960s when he went to the site of the ambush and spoke about what he had done. I looked out for the tells of lying. People blink to replenish the moisture on their eyes. When one lies the blink rate goes up. People find it hard to look someone in the eye and lie. A liar usually averts their eyes at the crucial moment. A liar’s nose swells slightly with blood – the Pinnochio effect – and the nose itches. The liar rubs the nose. The liar touches his or her face as the actual word of the lie is said. Below is the transcript of the crucial portion of the video and the tells of lying he gave. Judge for yourself and look up the video on you tube.


These fellows shouting we surrender we surrender we surrender (blink) (blink)

we kept jogging on to them (blink – look to his right)

and (blink)  we saw them some of them throw their  rifles away (blinks and turns to his right and looks to his right)

and when they did (blink) three of this section (looks away to his right blinks touches his nose)

stood up (blinks)

and the Auxies opened fire immediately (blink blink blink blink) (turns head to his right and looks to his right)

they killed the two of ours after surrendering (blink blink)


Eton: Silver spoon or poisoned chalice. By Godfrey Wheat.


”Eton is a four letter word”, so said its Head Master once said. So what are the consequences of having been there? Time was the empire was your oyster. Ah yes – the top school, for the top people of the top nation. Effortless superiority was its watchword. The chair-borne classes lorded it over the rest. One lived in a sense isolation from the swinish multitude. There is a grain of truth in these presumptions. When I was a boy in there was an unspoken subtext to so many conversations in which 93% of people who attended state school somehow did not count. When one spoke of people it was public school people of whom one spoke. Many boys, with stratospheric conceit, openly said that all those who had not been to public school were thick.

It is the best club in the world so it is said. There even existed an Old Etonian lodge of Freemasons – the very Freemasons of the Freemasons.

But alas no more. Surely the costs now outweigh the benefits – and I am not talking about the 30 Big Ones  per annum one’s parents have had to part with to keep one strutting in a tail-suit. I am talking about afterwards. In the Big, Bad CHav World where prowess on the rugger field counts for precious little.

So what are the disadvantages? First off one feels permanently under-dressed. Then one is saddled with the bray – when one is really riled one tells people to ”FORK ORF.”

Etonians are told that the world owes them a living. But they are in for a very rude awakening.

Eton has been used as a cane with which to tan David Cameron. Whenever he invokes the cause of social justice he is sneered at well what would he know? Does he care? This bigoted line has been used by Gordon Brown. One does not have to like Cameron to see that this type of attack is grossly unfair. Cameron is a sanctimonious and disingenuous in equal measure but not because he went to Eton. No, let’s not let him off too lightly – his failings ARE personal.

Nothing provokes a reaction quite like having been to Eton. People are wont to hide it. I have used the school’s bizarrely lengthy official name  – the King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor – to disguise the identity of my old school.

I can, in good conscience, say tha I went to ‘the College of Our Lady’ or a school name, ‘King’s College’. After all, in the proper name ‘college’ does come before ‘Eton.’ So I can persuade myself that my versions of the name are more accurate than the commoner version – Eton College.

Etonians are told of their renowned old boys of the school: from Maharajahs to Prime Ministers, to authors, to actors to criminals. So does that mean, if one is nor a world beater, therefore one is a total loser? It is like Winston Churchill’s son Randolph remarked, ”nothinf grows in the shadow of a great oak tree.” The expectations to live up to are positively oppressive.

There are so many presumptions people have. You are an old boy of Eton you must have a double-barreled Purdey, quintuple barreled name, blue blood, broad acres, more bullion than the Bank of England and a burning contempt for all those outside what Gladstone dubbed, ‘the upper ten thousand.’ This golden circle who have been doing a golden shower on the rest for centuries are there to stay.

Leaving those storied precincts one is in for a massive come down. If the rest of the world attended that one attended Eton, it is very seldom in a reverential sense. More often it is in an outright hostile sense. One Etonian in the year below me was a talented sportsman. Popular and daring, he was not scholastically gifted. Even so, he achieved three respectable A levels putting him ahead of most of the population. But he could not adjust to Reading University, to the sudden loss of status. At the age of nineteen he took his own life. I don’t wish to insinuate that the wrench is a fraction so violent for most Etonians but it does illustrate how distorted one’s sense of the sources of self-worth can become.


The Northern Ireland Troubles: fumbling for peace 1994-2007


After the 1994 IRA ceasefire the UK Government released some IRA prisoners a little ahead of time although this excluded those on life sentences. The view that the Northern Ireland conflict was insoluble was no longer prevalent. Some US politicians spoke about sending a peace envoy to Ireland. Some in the Conservative Party were totally against talking to Sinn Fein under any circumstances. The Conservative Government insisted that the IRA disarm before talks could start. By-elections eroded a Conservative majority of 21 down to nothing. The Conservatives were therefore beholden on Ulster Unionist support in the House of Commons. The Ulster Unionist Party kept people guessing as to which way they would vote if it came to a vote of confidence.

Days after the IRA ceasefire the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, John Hume and Gerry Adams all posed for a photo joining hands. It was nationalist Ireland united. Reynolds drew a lot of flak for welcoming Adams in from the cold so soon. The IRA had been committing murder only weeks earlier and still had a huge arsenal of criminally imported firearms and explosives. Unionists and many politicians in Great Britain blasted what Reynolds had done. Even moderate nationalists in the Republic of Ireland criticised him. Reynolds’ defenders said he was right to do everything he could to encouraged the IRA towards renouncing terrorism forever.

Many people were sceptical and apathetic about the peace process. There had been so many false dawns. There was little purpose in investing hope in this. What the IRA wanted and what was on offer to them were radically different. Surely they would not settle for so little.

The IRA had given up as left wing English journalist David Aaronovitch noted because terrorism was ”profitless”. They had to risk more to inflict less. They had less support and technology was on the government’s side. The murder rate in Belfast was much lower than that of London. In fact it was about a third of London’s rate. Yet because of the number of violent deaths many people thought that the organisation doing most of the killing ought to be rewarded.

Jim Molyneaux unburdened himself of a reflection, ”this ceasefire is the worst thing that ever happened to us.” Sympathy for the Unionists in Great Britain was caused partly by common enmity towards the IRA. He realised that the UK Government was likely to make major concessions to Nationalism. The Unionist excuse for not compromising was that this would be giving in to terror would no longer hold water. Relations were warming between London and Dublin and whenever that happened the Unionist position was enfeebled. In 1993 Rev Martin Smyth, Unionist MP for South Belfast, suggested that talk with Sinn Fein were conceivable. He was slapped down by other Unionist politicians. Rev. Smyth was the one time Imperial Grand Master of the Orange Council of the World. He was no slouch in the Unionist cause but his statement had him labelled a Lundy by some.

An economic boom was just beginning in the Republic of Ireland. 20 years of EU funding was finally paying off. Massive investment in higher education had produced a generation of people in the South of Ireland who could help their country achieved rapid economic growth. The number of children per family had fallen dramatically. There was therefore a large young work force but not too large as had been the case in the past. Finally there were almost enough jobs to go around. The conditions were set for an extraordinary period of turbocharged economic growth. The Republic of Ireland legalised divorce and homosexuality. This made the prospect of joining the Republic of Ireland less repulsive to unionists. A growing number of paedophile scandals in the Catholic Church seriously reduced respect for the Church. Eamonn Casey, the Bishop of Kerry, was found to have had a sexual liaison with a young American divorcee and fathered a son by her. Church funds had been paid to her as hush money. Bishop Casey, one of Ireland’s most popular clerics, stood down in disgrace.

The UVF and UDA were also keen to discussions between all sides to start. This was a sea change. The UVF had started out in 1966 by setting its face against even the slightest reform, against even the mildest concessions to Roman Catholics. By 1994 the UVF and its political face the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) were calling for the UK Government to negotiate with the IRA. One DUP politician allegedly said to the UVF, ”you have got the IRA on the run. There is no ppint in stopping now.” The PUP was therefore much more moderate on this issue than the mainstream unionists the UUP. The DUP continued to be unswervingly opposed to speaking to Sinn Fein or even giving any ground to moderate nationalist sentiment.

John Major’s Conservative Government was vulnerable due to only having a 21 seat majority in the House of Commons. This was quickly whittled away by by-election losses. The Conservatives were dependent on UUP support in Parliament.  This put a block on significant headway being made with regard to negotiations with the Irish Government let alone Sinn Fein.

The Taoiseach of Ireland from 1994-97 was John Bruton of Fine Gael. He was a moderate man and did a lot to improve relations between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. He firmly condemned murders by the IRA. He welcomed the Prince of Wales to Dublin. Bruton also praised those Irishmen who had enlisted in the British Armed Forces during the Second World War.The Prince of Wales got a rapturous reception from some people in Dublin – especially old women. Sinn Fein protested against his visit.

In 1995 James Molyneaux stood down as leader of the UUP. John Taylor and David Trimble stood for the leadership. The UUP elected David Trimble. Trimble was a barrister and law lecturer from Co. Down and he represented Upper Bann as an MP. Trimble was a member of the Orange Order and had been in the Vanguard Party back in the 1970s. He had once written an article advocating Northern Ireland seceding from the UK. This would be so Northern Ireland could really take the gloves off and destroy the IRA and INLA.

In 1995 Sir James Kilfedder died. He was a hardline unionist and head of a one man band party – the Ulster Popular Unionist Party. His North Down seat was won by Robert McCartney of the UK Unionist Party. The UK Unionist Party was a minor party and was opposed to talking to Sinn Fein with or without disarmament. It wanted no devolution and full integration within the UK. It wanted mainstream UK parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats to stand in Northern Ireland. Only the Conservatives did but were a very minor party there. McCartney was a Protestant with Catholic cousins. He stressed his non-sectarian credentials.

Sinn Fein said that the demand that the IRA disarm before talks began was unreasonable. Much of the IRA had been difficult to persuade to keep to the ceasefire. The idea of handing in their weapons was too much for them. Sinn Fein claimed that to disarm was to humiliate the IRA. Michael Ancram, a Conservative MP and Northern Ireland Office minister came up with a new word. He said the IRA must decommission its weapons. Decommission was thought to be more semantically felicitous from an IRA point of view. The Irish Government, the SDLP and the PUP began speaking of ”paramilitaries” to mean ”terrorists.”

The DUP was totally against the UK Government parleying with Sinn Fein under any circumstances. Even if the IRA disarmed totally there must be no negotiation said the DUP. This would be to reward the IRA for its crime and such negotiations could only lead to weakening the British character of Northern Ireland. The DUP talked of the British way of life. Their notion of the British way of life was rather different to that of most people in Great Britain where Orange marches are very rare. Apart from that there are no significant differences between what people do in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland.

A segment of the UVF was very anxious about negotiation. They thought that the IRA must not be negotiated with. They were also exercised over the idea of the UVF disarming. The UVF terrorists who refused to support the peace process were called the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). The LVF split off the UVF and were led by Billy Wright. Billy Wright was known as King Rat. Billy Wright had grown up in Armagh where he had played Gaelic football with Catholic boys as a child. When some of his relatives were murdered by the IRA he became virulently loyalist. He was a Christian fundamentalist – asking his followers not to drink or smoke. He was fanatical about the loyalist cause to the point of saying that his willingness to kill for loyalism was so ardent that he may be endangering his soul. The UVF were invoved in delicate negotiations via their political fron the PUP. The UVF was worried that the LVF would provoke republicans and full-scale conflict would break out afresh. The UVF exiled Wright from Northern Ireland. They said if he did not leave by a certain day he would be killed. Wright proudly announced this to the press. He appeared at a loyal orders rally while the deadline for him to leave Northern Ireland expired. He gave a speech saying, ”I will not be leaving Ulster. I will not change my mind. It breaks my heart that fellow loyalists should turn their guns on me. I have to ask ‘for whom are you doing it’?’ ” Wright believed that the UVF wanted him banished or dead because he was trying to bring down the peace process. The LVF tried to destroy the peace process by murdering innocent Catholics. Michael McGoldrick was a Catholic taxi driver who was called to pick up a passenger. The so called passenger was an LVF gunman who shot McGoldrick dead.

Shamefully the Mid Ulster MP Rev. Willy McCrea shared a platform with Wright on a number of occasions. McCrea was a member of the DUP. The DUP’s horror at terrorism only extended in one direction.



Drumcree church is 2 miles outside Portadown in Co Armagh. Portadown is a Protestant majority town with a Catholic area called the Garvaghy Road. The Orange Order marched from the centre of Portadown along Obins Street to the church at Drumcree since 1807. It held a service there and marched back along Garvaghy Road to the centre of Portadown. Nationalists objected to the Orange Order along these nationalist majority streets. They said they felt that the Orange Order was triumphalist and even anti-Catholic. Nationalists protested against this Orange march and blocked the route. Some of them were IRA men. They had to be removed by the RUC. In the 1980s nationalists scored a victory when the government ruled that the Orange Order would not be allowed to march along Obins Street again. The return via Garvaghy Road was allowed. The dispute still seemed to be intractable.

In the early 1990s the Garvaghy Road residents’ Association was founded. It was headed by an IRA man named MacCionnaith who had spent time in prison for burning down a British Legion Hall. The Orange Order refused to meet with the GRRA saying it was an IRA front organisation. The Orange Order said it would have no truck with terrorism. However, the Orange Order met loyalist terrorists to discuss protests. David Trimble supported a refusal to engage with the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Association on the basis that it included IRA men. Yet he admitted meeting Billy Wright to discuss the Drumcree issue. Trimble was excoriated for talking to a terrorist and being an utter hypocrite because he would speak to a loyalist terrorist but not a republican. Trimble defended his action saying that Wright was a constituent of his and he had a duty to be available to listen to Wright’s concerns. Former UVF and UDA prisoners were allowed to remain members of the Orange Order. One Orange lodge , Boyne Island Heroes, even had a banner in the name of Robert Bates. Bates was one of the Shankill Butchers – a gang of cuthroats who engaged in the most horrific ritual murders of the Troubles.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley said that the right to march down Garvaghy Road was essential as part of freedom of expression within the UK. Orangemen recalled the 1960s when Catholics came out to march and they claim to enjoy Orange marches. Paisley said that marching down that road made the difference between, ”freedom and slavery between Ulster and an Irish Republic.” Whatever else may be said about the Irish Republic it can in no sense be called tyrannical.

Shortly after Trimble was elected UUP leader the Garvaghy Road dispute came to a head. Loyalists rioted when they Orange Order was banned from marching down that road. A huge number of loyalists gathered many of whom were not members of the Orange Order. 100 000 loyalists massed on the hill at Drumcree. The dispute came to a head in the build-up to the UUP leadership election. David Trimble was there – he would have lost face as leadership candidate of the UUP if he had not gone. Trimble had to show he was tough. Rev. Paisley also went. The security forces had to take a decision about whether it would be more dangerous to allow the march or to ban it. Eventually they decided to allow the march. Trimble and Paisley marched down the road with thousands of Orangemen and held hands – they were patently elated.

Loyalist terrorists associated themselves with the Orange campaign for the right to walk down the Garvaghy Road. LVF terrorists killed people around the time of the 1995 dispute.

A parades commission was established to adjudicate on the parades issue. The parades issue recommended that the Garvaghy Road be blocked to the Orange Order in 1996. Again due to loyalist rioting the Government caved in. The message seemed to be that rioting worked.

Many people in Great Britain found the Orange Order to be deeply distasteful. In liberal and left-wing circles the loyal orders were derided as racist and antediluvian. Sinn Fein assiduously spread propaganda saying that the Orange Order was like the Ku Klux Klan. This was despite the Orange Order welcoming black people in its ranks and also the qualfications of an Orangeman saying one must ”desist from any uncharitable references to our Roman Catholic brethren.” Ian Paisley came across as a ranter. The Orange Order did not help themselves by using outmoded expressions such as ”the queen’s highway” and ”Her Majesty’s Government.”  Their attempts to stress their British nationality rang hollow. Many people on the mainland saw Northern Ireland as a problem that they wished to get rid of.



The Troubles slowed considerably as the IRA and the UVF and the UDA were on ceasefire. The Provisional IRA still carried out punishment beatings of people whom it accused of being criminals. There was no form of a trial. The UVF and UDA continued to batter people whom they called criminal and again did not give them even a sham of a judicial process. The INLA and the LVF were still killing but as they were both small organisation their capacity to do so was limited.

The UK Government said that it would not talk to the IRA while the IRA still had an arsenal. Adams, McGuinness moderate leaders were under pressure from hardliners within their own movement not to hand over any weapons. The moderate leadership knew that if they did so much of the IRA would break away and start violence again.

The terrorist groups on ceasefire continued their so-called vigilante role. People accused of stealing or drug dealing were dealt with by warnings, beatings with iron bars, shooting in the leg, exile or death. The IRA murdered alleged drug dealers under the cover name Direction Action Against Drugs. There was much of the lynch mob section of society that approved of these murders. The IRA killed those whom they accused to be drug barons in both the North and in the Republic of Ireland. The author met a man in Cork who was not republican in his views but applauded the IRA for its ‘robust’ attitude to drug peddlars.

The RUC had somewhat improved its image among the Catholic population. Catholics were beginning to engage more with the RUC and see them as community police. A considerable number of Roman Catholics were willing to report crimes such as car theft to the RUC. This was especially so amongst the Catholic bourgeoisie and Catholics who lived in Protestant areas where the RUC could operate as an ordinary police force.

In February 1996 the IRA decided to break its own ceasefire. A phone call to RTE announced this. Within hours a bomb went off in London.



The IRA began killing again but was not very effective. It had a sniper known as Goldfinger. A special gun with a long-range sight was used to kill soldiers from a few miles away. In February 1996 Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was shot dead by a single bullet through his back. Eventually the gun was found by the Army in April 1996

The IRA hurt its image even more in the Republic of Ireland by organising a bank robbery in Adare Co. Limerick in which Garda Jerry McCabe was shot dead. IRA men were later sentenced to life for his murder. Sinn Fein later put up murals in Belfast to honour these men. Teresa Ferris, a Sinn Fein councillor in Kerry, even in 2010 refused to denounce the murder of Gard McCabe.

At the Drumcree dispute in 1996 the IRA threatened to shoot any Orangemen who walked down the street.

In May 1997 the Labour Party in the UK was swept to office by a huge majority. Labour was minded to be more inclined towards the nationalist position than the Conservatives were. Tony Blair was the new Prime Minister. Before the election Blair had addressed unionists in Northern Ireland. He emphasised that his mother was an Ulster Protestant – although she was from Donegal which is in the Republic of Ireland. He was saying that he was one of them. He remarked that if Northern Ireland ever did join the Republic of Ireland it would not be in the lifetime of anyone present. He was implying that this would not be for 80 years if at all.

The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was a woman named Mo Mowlam. She was a world away from her patrician predecessor Sir Patrick Mayhew. Her informal and liberal style discomfited unionists. She visited Garvaghy Road and spoke to residents. They asked her about the forthcoming Orange march what would the decision be. She was unable to answer them. They asked her that whatever her decision would she come and tell them personally. She agreed that she would.

In June 1997 the IRA murdered two RUC officers as they patrolled in Lurgan. That same month there was an election in the Republic of Ireland. The Rainbow coalition dominated by Fine Gael and lead by Taoiseach John Bruton lost. Fianna Fail returned to office with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach. Ahern’s father had been in the IRA in the 1920s. Ahern was firmly against the IRA of the 1990s. He gave the British Army permission to land its helicopters in the Republic of Ireland.

Both Labour and Fianna Fail were more willing to deal with the IRA than their predecessor governments had been. The author spoke to Patrick Mayhew a few months after he left office as Northern Ireland Secretary. He said that he agreed with the author that the government only treated with the IRA because the IRA had got into a reasonably strong position from which to negotiate. Admittedly this argument worked the other way around too. The security forces had the upper hand so the IRA felt they had to talk. The notion that the IRA would achieve some sort of Saigon style victory was for the birds. There would be no scene of British soldiers scrambling onto helicopters to be evacuated.

The Drumcree dispute burst forth again as it did every marching season. The parades commission again ruled for re-routing. The Orangemen should not be allowed along the Garvaghy Road where they were not wanted. Loyalist rioting was intense. The RUC were attacked, cars and buses were set on fire. Again the UK Government gave in and the Orangemen were allowed down that road. Mo Mowlam was warned that it was too dangerous for her to go there and deliver the message herself so she reneged  on her earlier commitment to inform the residents herself.

In July 1997 the IRA called a second ceasefire. It was decided that the parade down Garvaghy Road would be allowed in 1997. The RUC advised Mo Mowlam that it would be too dangerous for her to go to Portadown to tell that in person to the nationalist community. She broke her pledge to return to the Garvaghy Road to reveal the decision of the Parades Commission.



The UK Government under Blair had no disarmament pre-condition for talks. London entered into negotiations with Sinn Fein within weeks of the IRA ceasefire. That December a Sinn Fein delegation entered Downing Street for the first time since 1921. A crowd of unionists and ex-soldiers jeered Adams and his team.

On 27 December 1997 the INLA smuggled a gun into the Maze Prison. They shot dead LVF supremo Billy Wright. The death of King Rat was hailed in nationalist circles. Billy Wright had authorised the murders of up to 20 Catholics none of whom were involved in the IRA.

Within hours of their kingpin’s slaying the LVF had opened fire. It murdered Roman Catholics at random. The INLA managed to kill another two leading loyalist paramilitaries in the coming weeks.

In March 1998 the LVF attacked a pub in Poyntzpass and sprayed it with gunfire. They shot to death two men. One was a Catholic and the other was  Protestant. The killing of these two friends symbolised how the knuckle dragging LVF was trying to destroy cross community harmony. Trimble said of this crime, ”I am ashamed that the perpatrators of this act were Protestants.”

The LVF’s savagery knew no limits. In a dispute in their wing of the Maze they beat to death one of their number.

Mo Mowlam went into prison to speak to the UDA and UVF criminals and persuade them not to return to sectarian murder. Some acerbically criticised her for bending the knee to terrorism. Other lauded this as a bold step for peace. Whether her move was right or wrong it seemed to work. The UVF ceasefire held. Later the UDA committed sectarian murders and admitted it. Their political party the Ulster Democratic Party were about to be expelled from the peace process. Before they could be expelled they left anyway. However, the UDA desisted from further murders.

In April 1998 negotiations took place in Belfast. The UUP was there as was the Alliance Party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. The DUP castigated the whole process as a disgraceful surrender to terrorism. Senator George Mitchell from the United States chaired the meetings. Of course the US can hardly be expected to be neutral because the US is strongly pro-nationalist in the Northern Ireland dispute.

Finally on Good Friday 1998 an agreement was signed. It stated that all parties would use their good offices to persuade armed groups to put their weapons beyond use. Northern Ireland would only join the Republic of Ireland if the majority of people there voted for that. A Council of Ireland would be established to make decisions on mutual matters. A Northern Ireland Assembly would be elected and an executive would be formed from the two communities. The First Minister would come from the larger community and the Deputy First Minister from the smaller community. The cabinet positions would be awarded according to the d’Hondt formula – named after the Belgian political scientist who had invented it. The Republic of Ireland would reformulate its constitution to drop any claim to rule Northern Ireland. A new commission would examine the RUC with a view to reforming policing to make it more widely accepted. A new inquiry into the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry would be impaneled.

The Good Friday Agreement was based on what civil servants called ‘constructive ambiguities’. For example the Council of Ireland – would this develop no forther as unionists hoped? Or was it a Trojan Horse to lead Northern Ireland to join the Republic as nationalist boasted?

Trimble said that the Good Friday Agreement was worth signing because, ”it strengthens the union.” The Anglo-Irish Agreement was set aside and civil servants from the Republic of Ireland were no longer to have a supervisory role in Northern Ireland. Maryfield where Irish civil servants had worked was closed down as a confidence building measure for the unionists.

Adams presented the Agreement to the Sinn Fein conference. The Balcombe Street gang were temporarily released to urge the party to vote for it. A journalist described how the atmosphere was ”electrified” by their presence. Adams called the terrorists ”our Nelson Mandelas.” Blair in his autobiography ”A Journey” recalled that Sinn Fein had not informed the UK Government about the plan to have these men address a Sinn Fein rally. It was never in doubt that Sinn Fein would endorse the Good Friday Agreement but the scale of the endorsement was changed. 95% of delegates voted in favour. Unionists were incensed at the Balcombe Street Gang flaunting their parole.

A referendum was scheduled for that June. In the Republic of Ireland all parties except the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the Republican Sinn Fein urged their supporters to vote yes. The IRSP and RSF were tiny parties with no representation in the Dail.

In Northern Ireland Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and most of the UUP campaigned for a yes vote. A minority faction of the UUP led by Jeffrey Donaldson campaigned for a no vote. The DUP campaigned for a no vote as did the UK Unionist Party. The terrorist linked loyalist parties the PUP and the Ulster Democratic Party campaigned for a yes vote.

Paisley confronted a woman campaigning for a yes vote and said it was immoral to let out terrorists from prison and to talk to the IRA. ”We have to talk to them”, she replied. ”You tell that to the orphans and the widows.” Not all bereaved relatives wanted a No vote. The widow of Rev. Bradford, a Unionist MP murdered by the IRA, released a statement calling for a Yes vote.

Trimble and Hume appeared at a concert provided by Bono to campaign for a Yes vote. They joined hands and raised them in victory.

The Orange Order voted that it could not recommend the Agreement to its members. Nevertheless it did not actually call for a No vote.

In the Republic of Ireland the vote was 94% yes – that the Yes campaign would win was never in doubt. In Northern Ireland it was 70% Yes.

Paisley insisted that the majority of Unionist voters had opted for No. Of course the Unionists were not the only ones who counted but Paisley was loathe to recognise this.

Why was the Yes vote so much larger in the Republic of Ireland? One could say the nationalist side gained more. In a way this is not surprising that the nationalists gained more as the Unionists had things almost entirely their way for decades. It was also that people in the South did not feel so strongly about the dispute than people in the North. One ultra-nationalist Cork woman denounced the Good Friday Agreement saying, ”the Unionists have won.”

That July the by now customary stand-off at Drumcree occurred yet again. Tens of thousands of loyalists gathered and had to be held back by the Army. Among them was one of the most notorious figures in the UDA – a musclebound dwarf named Johnny Adair. Adair preferred to go by the nom de guerre Mad Dog. He was a petty thug before joining the UDA. Drumcree was a magnet for anti-Agreement Unionists. For them the Orange Order being banned from Garvaghy Road was yet another slap in the face. If they could force their way down Garvaghy Road then the would prove that Unionists no longer had to give ground. Tensions rose and rioting broke out. Both loyalists and nationalists attacked the RUC and hurled stones and petrol bombs. Cars were set alight.

A loyalist threw a petrol bomb into the house of a Catholic-Protestant family in Antrim. Three children were killed. As the Chief Constable of the RUC said, ”this is not protest – this is murder.”

Rev. William Bingham of the Orange Order then called for his organisation to abandon any attempt to march down Garvaghy Road because they must show sympathy for the family of the three murdered boys. ”Is any march worth the life of three little boys?” he asked rhetorically. Bingham was booed by hardliners within the Orange Order.

Trimble did not go to Drumcree as he had done in the past. Many within the Orange Order disliked him. He urged the Orange Order to renounce any intention of marching down the controversial route on Garvaghy Road saying this was ”the only way to distance ourselves from the murder.”

Senator David Norris of the Republic of Ireland was observing Orange marches on behalf of his government that July. He met the author and Senator Norris said the Orangemen,”have been given a perfect face-saving excuse to give up the march.” If the Orange Order persisted in demanding that they be let down that road then they would feel humiliated and be seen to lose face. Nationalists would try to block them from more and more routes.

The Garvaghy dispute was also a means for the IRA to let off steam by minor acts of terrorism stopping short of actual killing.

The Orange Order’s presence at Drumcree gradually decreased. They drifted away and their support from the wider unionist community was leaching away. More people wanted reconciliation. A teenaged Protestant from Limavady spoke to the author and said what many of his age groups felt – who cares who won a battle hundreds of years ago. This youth had no time for the loyal orders. The Orange Order have never been able to walk down that road. The Orange Order and its kindred organisations are in long term decline. They are largely bodies for older people. As their elderly members die off they are not replaced by a sufficiency of youngsters joining. In the 1920s 50% of Protestant men in Northern Ireland were members of a loyal order. It is now more like 10%.



On 15 August 1998 there was a fair in Omagh, Co. Tyrone. The Real IRA had never declared a ceasefire. It planted a car bomb in the town centre. A garbled warning was sent but failed to have people guided to safety. 29 people were killed and dozens were injured. Some Spanish children were among the victims. Many Yes voters were appalled, some regretted that they had not voted No.

If the Real IRA had done that 2 months earlier they probably would have caused a No vote to be sealed and the conflict would have been back on – just what they wanted.

Blair promised that the killers would be caught. He toyed with bringing back internment. Paisley said I told you so.

McGuinness visited Omagh and tried to express sympathy. Some barracked him saying he was responsible for this. He had been responsible for many such actions in the past. On this occasion he was innocent. For the very first time McGuinness and Adams denounced a violent act by republicans.

There was mass outrage at the Omagh atrocity. The 32 County Sovereignty Committee is the political face of the Real IRA. Angry crowds surrounded the 32CSM office in Dundalk. The Real IRA was left so reeling that they too called a ceasefire.



The IRA continued small-scale crimes such as mutilating people accused of petty crime. So did the UVF and UDA.

At the end of 1998 the LVF declared a ceasefire and handed in weapons for destruction. This was an extraordinary turnaround. A few months earlier they had been committed to destroying the peace process. It was the first and only terrorist organisation up until that time to decommission. The slaying of Billy Wright had decapitated the LVF and it lost any sense of purpose.

A new terrorist outfit emerged on the loyalist side. It called itself the Red Hand Defenders. The RHD was strong in Armagh and Belfast. The Red Hand Defenders was particularly present in Portadown, the town riven by the Drumcree stand-off. In 1999 Rosemary Nelson, a solicitor who often defended republican suspects, was murdered by the Red Hand Defenders. A car bomb blew her up. Some republican claimed that the security forces were in cahoots with the Red Hand Defenders concerning this crime.

The Northern Ireland Assembly met. Trimble was the First Minister and Seamus Mallon was the Deputy First Minister. However, they were still waiting for the IRA to hand over its weapons. Sinn Fein said that the Agreement did not require this and only that Sinn Fein try to persuade the IRA to do so. The IRA spoke of sealing its weapons in arms dumps rather than destroying them because this would be less embarrassing. Unionists were not satisfied with this.

Paisley lambasted Trimble for agreeing to such a feeble agreement. The IRA had not handed over its arsenal. Graffiti in republican areas read, ”not one bullet” – they would refuse to surrender their weapons. Gerry Adams discovered clandestine listening devices in a car he was using that had been lent by a supporter.

The UK Government pressed the UUP to set up and executive before the IRA disarmed and then the IRA would disarm. Trimble found this unacceptable and had to refuse. He was under enormous pressure from within his own party. Some Unionists who had voted Yes in the referendum regretted it.

Three British soldiers who were controversially convicted of murder for killing people in two different in Northern Ireland were released. Two of them were Scots Guards and were allowed to re-join the Army. Their release was greeted with the usual planned republican riots.

The youth wing of Sinn Fein organised riots where they attacked Army bases in South Armagh.

Blair had given handwritten pledges displayed on billboards in the run-up to the referendum. These said that anyone who did not renounce violence would be excluded from government. Terrorists would not be released from prison until their organisations had disbanded. As usual Tony Blair reneged on his promises. Terrorists both loyalist and republican were let out of prison. Terrorist activity continued.Loyalist and republican terrorists committed crimes against their own community such as savage beating and even murder of those whom they accused of crime.

Chris Patten chaired a commission on reform of the RUC. People of all views expressed their views to him. The Patten Report recommended renaming the RUC the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and having a 50:50 recruitment policy to bring in more Roman Catholics. The PSNI must not fly the British flag from its stations as the RUC had done. Courts in Northern Ireland were to remove the royal coat of arms. Unionists disliked the Patten Report as it reduced British symbolism. The SDLP welcomed the report. Sinn Fein demanded that the RUC be disbanded as the armed wing of unionism. Unionists were deeply unhappy about changing the name of the police force and dropping the British symbols. Pro-Agreement unionists did not seem to accept that the fact that they had agreed to an inquiry into reforming the RUC implied that major changes would follow. Pro-Agreement Unionists felt they had to stand firm on something because they were under pressure from growing anti-Agreement feeling. As of 2001 the RUC as such disappeared and became known as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the RUC). The RUC part was almost never mentioned and it was commonly called the PSNI. The PSNI became 30% Roman Catholic through a 50:50 recruiting policy. The idea is to eventually have equal numbers of both denominations in the police. The PSNI is more religiously mixed than the RUC ever was.

The IRA was caught spying at Stormont, trying to import weapons from the US and assisting communist narco-terrorists in Colombia. People wondered if there was a difference between the IRA and the Real IRA.

People switched from the UUP to the DUP despite their dislike of Paisley’s hardline views. They could not bring themselves to support the UUP when it was responsible for an Agreement that seemed to be a con. Jeffrey Donaldson finally defected to the DUP.

Lord Saville opened his inquiry into the 30 January 1972 and it was known as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. It heard from all concenred. It mainly sat in Derry but sometimes in London to hear from the Paras. It cost at least 400 000 000 pounds and a LABOUR minister Tessa Jowell blurted out that the true figure was doubt that.

The UVF was drawn into a feud against the LVF and the UFF. In 2000 and 2005 these organisations murdered several members of the other factions especially in the North Armagh area. The PUP which is the political face of the UVF was not penalised for this.

In an interview in 2000 John Taylor MP said that many unionists had had a sneaking regard for the loyalist terrorists – he referred to them as terrorists. He remarked that the loyalist terrorists had done more than the security forces to pressurise the republicans to give up violence. He did not endorse what these criminals had done but he made the observation. Opinion polls showed than a large minority of unionists approved of loyalist violence so long as it was against republican terrorists rather than Catholic civilians. Most unionists thought that loyalist crimes were reactive – hitting back in retaliation rather than starting the fight.

David Trimble eventually lost his seat to the DUP in 2005. He was replaced as leader of the UUP by Reg Empey an MP and former Lord Mayor of Belfast. The peace process seemed to be in disarray. The peace process was supposed to strengthen moderates – the UUP and SDLP – and marginalise Sinn Fein and the DUP. However, the opposite had happened. the UUP and SDLP had been overtaken by Sinn Fein and the DUP. It seemed like Sinn Fein could get results because governments always spoke to them as Sinn Fein had the guns. The idea that extremists had become stronger overlooks the fact that the extremists had moderated.

In late 2005 the IRA announced that the conflict was over. They destroyed weapons and this was witnessed by Christian leaders of both major denominations.

In 2007 Sinn Fein took its places on the Policing Board. It accepted the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a legitimate and fair law enforcement agency. Sinn Fein was larger than the SDLP since 2005. A new Northern Ireland Exeecutive. The DUP felt sufficiently placated to make them agree to make the Good Friday Agreement work. Ian Paisley met with Bertie Ahern at the Irish Embassy in London. Rev Paisley said it was the only proper place to meet representatives of a foreign power. The DUP shared office with Sinn Fein. This was extraordinary given that a decade earlier the DUP had denounced the UUP for even talking to Sinn Fein. Ian Paisley become First Minister with Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. The two had such good chemistry that people dubbed them the chuckle brothers.

The Red Hand Defenders was poleaxed. A new sinister loyalist terrorist organisation was founded calling itself the Orange Volunteers. It carried out some sectarian murders.

In recent years the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA have been active. The Orange Volunteers have also killed. Tim Pat Coogan, the IRA’s favourite historian, wrote that even if all the republican aims were accomplished there would probably be some lunatic sect that still killed in the name of the republican idyll.



Who is to blame for the Troubles? Of course chiefly the terrorists loyalist and republican are culpable. Any attempt to shift the blame is obscene. The UVF murders of totally innocent people in 1966 started the Troubles. The UVF abused the name of the original Ulster Volunteer Force. Gusty Spence’s UVF said it was defending the UK from the IRA when the IRA threat in 1966 was largely illusory – largely, not totally. The murder of innocent Roman Catholics apart from being disgusting was more likely to revive the IRA which it did. These terrorists did not desist from violence and allow the security forces to contain the situation. The criminals on either side stored up so much hatred in the opposite community that it became very hard to come to some agreement. Had there been no UVF violence in the late 1960s it is unlikely that the IRA would have resumed its campaign.

60% of those killed were killed by republicans. 30% of the deaths were caused by loyalists and only 10% of the deaths were inflicted by the Crown Forces.

Some loyalist politicians raised the temperature when they should have been cooling it. Rev Dr Iain Paisley if the chief offender here. He had many imitators. Their paranoia and demagoguery raised tension. While Paisley did not directly incite terrorism his spiteful doomsday rhetoric led a suspiciously high number of his associates to commit sectarian crime. He did everything he could to undermine attempts at reconciliation even between constitutional nationalists and unionists. This ‘not an inch’ attitude was very negative.

The Stormont Government did nothing to stop sectarianism. Unionist politicians made speeches that damaged community relations. Northern Ireland had a series of unimaginative and uncompromising Prime Ministers.

Bill Craig was unreasonable towards NICRA which was largely a peaceful organisation. He wrongly accused it of ”violence.” Stormont failed to act sharply against loyalist thugs. If O’Neill’s reform policy had been allowed to go on and bear fruit the whole horrendous story could have been avoided. It is hard to comprehend just how moderate politics was in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Devlin swept the Falls with the slogan, ”British rights for British citizens.” Heavy-handedness from the security forces and loyalist crimes made many Catholics become republicans. There were horrific incidents such as when a Paratrooper shot 12 year old Majella O’Hare in the back. The soldiers said he thought he was coming under attack. His comrades backed up his testimony in court but other eyewitnesses disputed this. He was charged with manslaughter and acquitted. Tragedies like this especially when justice was not seen to be done caused fury and resentment in the nationalist community.

The loyal orders demanded that they be allowed to march where they were not wanted. Their immoderate and belligerent attitude stoked tensions.

The Republic of Ireland’s broke its many agreements to partition. Articles II and III of the constitution were a clarion call to the IRA. It helped cause nationalists hold back from fully recognising Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.  It preached Anglophobia and did nothing to attract unionists. The Republic of Ireland eulogised about the IRA of the 1920s and this inspired men into terrorism in the 1960s. Security co-operation was not vigorous enough from Dublin. This is understandable because there was a small but significant minority of people in the South who were pro-IRA and most others were nationalist. The UK did not make it easy for the Republic of Ireland to co-operate fully. Economic failure and socially conservative laws in the Republic of Ireland made it deeply unattractive to unionists and even to many citizens of the Republic. However, from the 1990s onwards these problems were solved.

Far left figures in Great Britain gave aid and comfort to the IRA. They led the IRA to believe that their campaign would be rewarded. They were also denialists about the IRA’s ultranationalist and sectarian agenda.

Some Irish-Americans did not bother to try to understand the situation. Some of them donated money to terrorists and expressed their Irish identity by supporting the most extreme and aggressive notion of Irishness. They lapped up republican lies. They did not have to live with the consequences of the conflict they fomented in an Ireland most of them had never been to.

Terrorists often justified what they did because their friends or relatives were killed. Some were like this because they themselves were attacked or beaten. This is not acceptable. This would only cause killing to multiply.



Much as I disagree with some of the things he has said and done John Hume must be recognised as the most noble and honourable in Northern Ireland. He was magnanimous and he showed physical courage as well as moral courage. He called for an end to violence even when this was unpopular among Catholics. Unionist politicians did not help him by showing themselves open to compromise.

Trimble did well to go out on a limb. He was an outrider for the Unionist community. He bravely compromised and built peace. He suffered terrible slander from Paisleyites. Hate mail encouraged him to commit suicide. The easy and the safe thing for him to do would have been to refuse to countenance compromise. He was a good and morally courageous man hung out to dry by Tony Blair. No Unionist leader was ever turfed out for being too hardline – only for being too moderate.

The Alliance Party bravely called for restrained and conciliation between the two religious denominations. Their restrained and decent attitude was a beacon of hope in dark times. If only they had been more popular.

Some politicians from the Irish Republic deserve and honourable mention. Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald did what they could to try to calm tensions in very difficult circumstances. Lynch was abused as ”Union Jack” by critics within his own party who saw him as too friendly the UK. He trod a tightrope of being civil towards the UK and trying to improve the situation without being so pro-British that he lost office.

Politicians from Great Britain did their bit in different ways. Edward Heath was very inconsistent and showed himself willing to give in to the IRA. The truce of 1972 alarmed unionists and emboldened the IRA. It did sew divisions in the IRA and allow informers to be recruited. This was not the intention. He did at least pave the walk for the Sunningdale Agreement. This was a courageous attempt to build bridges that was brought down by loyalist intransigence. Wilson and Callaghan pushed for reform in the 1960s. If this had been allowed to come to frutition the whole tragedy could have been prevented. They commendably fought terrorism in the late 1970s. Margaret Thatcher’s unwavering stance against the IRA was honourable but she ought to have done more to woo the Nationalist community.

The RUC did a very difficult job in the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Murdered and defamed by republicans they were later reviled and murdered by loyalists too. They faced the most unbearable provocation. Occasionally some snapped and acted as they should not. Overall they are among the most gallant people in this whole sorry tale.

The Garda Siochana did their bit again despite the insults they faced from republican bigots. They were called traitors and West Brits. Their brave devotion to duty disrupted terrorism and helped to bring healing. The Republic of Ireland spent a lot of money on putting Gards and the Irish Army on the border. In the mid 1980s this was estimated at 250 000 000 Irish pounds per annum which was a huge sum at the time for a small country with a struggling economy. The UK could have offered a subvention to Eire to allow better security to be maintained South of the border. This would have been cost-effective in cutting the number of attacks North of the border.

One of the obvious solutions that was not looked into enough was repartition. The UK ought to have ceded Fermanagh, much of Tyrone, the Bogside of Derry, South Derry, South Armagh, South Down and maybe north-east Antrim. If West Belfast could have become a Republic of Ireland enclave this would also have helped. Join British-Irish patrols in these areas could have been negotiated. The British Army could have patrolled the areas ceded to the Republic of Ireland and indeed had the right of hot pursuit into adjacent counties – Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan, Cavan and Louth. This might have been for a specified period of 10 or 20 years. In return the Republic should have been persuaded to renounce any claim to the unionist areas. The nationalist areas would have been the poorer areas and a burden on the Republic which was poor. Loyalist terrorists would have attacked the Irish Army and the IRA would have attacked the British Army. This is why joint patrols would have been good for both. The rump of Northern Ireland would have been perhaps 90% unionist and very defensible. It would have reduced the burden on the mainland taxpayer by jettisoning the poorest areas of Northern Ireland. If both countries had brought in internment simultaneously it would have reduced crime radically. Sean O’Callaghan (a repentant doyen of the IRA) remarked this was the only way the IRA had ever been beaten in the past.

A repartition might have emboldened the IRA and given them more bases.

There should have been greater discipline for the security forces. The chief reason for this is justice but beyond that it would have reduced support for the IRA and INLA. Wrongful violence should have been swiftly dealt with by courts martial. This would have achieved justice and done more to gain the trust of the Catholic community.

The Northern Ireland Troubles sputter. 1989-94


The Troubles continued in 1989 but the number of killings was falling. Republicans and loyalist terrorists were capable of slaying but it was getting more difficult for them to do so. They had to run a greater chance of being caught in return for causing fewer deaths. Attacks by republicans took painstaking months of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Many of their attacks had to be aborted. The loyalists tended to attack soft targets – launching savage attacks on Catholic civilians. Those killed were invariably men and the UVF or UDA would then claim that the person slain was a member of the IRA. This was seldom true. There was one year in which the UVF outkilled the IRA. The Army was able to shut down any area in the North of Ireland within 5 minutes. Troops constantly waited by helicopters to be rushed to any area to secure it.

Margaret Thatcher adamantly refused to consider any talking to the IRA. With or without her knowledge there were covert contacts between the IRA and the British security service with a view to negotiating peace. There is no proof that she knew about this. Ken Livingstone accused her of ”fighting a dirty war in Ireland” and ordering the shooting of unarmed IRA terrorists. Livingstone noted that Lady Thatcher did not contest his claims. Martin McGuinness stated that his first meeting with a British Government official was in October 1990. He was informed that there would be no concessions whatsoever. This cannot be called negotiation.

The Catholic population was growing through birth. As there was less discrimination and less anti-Catholic violence fewer Catholics emigrated. Young Protestants, being from a slightly wealthier community, were more likely to move to Great Britain for university. Moreover, they almost all saw Great Britain as part of their country – the UK. Young Protestants often did not return to work in Northern Ireland. This added to the Unionist majority slightly decreasing especially among the middle class which is more politically involved than the working class. More Catholics were entering the professions. The economy was improving. All the years of subsidies were paying off. People had a better standard of living and more to lose through violence. Kevin Toolis is a journalist from an Irish Catholic background and a man of pronounced nationalist views – he dated an IRA man’s sister. Toolis wrote that the British ”were pretty generous opressors” in view of all the money spent to make life better.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were said to have realised that they could not compel the British Army to leave Northern Ireland. They Long War stratagem was only semi-successful for them. A masked IRA spokesman in 1990s said ”our strategy is to sap the will of the British Government.” Opinion polls the majority of the British public were weary of the conflict and wished Northern Ireland to leave the UK. The Conservative Party which was still dominant in the UK was committed to the Unionist position but not blindly so. The Labour Party advocated Northern Ireland eventually uniting with the Republic by consent. Labour had this policy in its manifesto in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections. Labour Friends of Ireland was a pressure group within the party which adopted the Nationalist outlook. Ken Livingstone, leader of the Great London Council, earned himself opprobrium for inviting Gerry Adams to London and calling the Ulster conflict, ”the last colonial war”. Livingstone adopted the republican attitude. Tony Benn and other far left figures followed suit. The Liberal Party in the UK called for Northern Ireland to stay within the UK but with major concessions to Nationalist feeling. As the Liberal Democrats emerged from the merger of the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party this stance remained the same.

Adams and McGuinness were arguably moderates within their terrorist outfit. Both could easily have been sent to prison for years.  Why were they not? Perhaps the UK authorities recognised that these were men who could eventually persuade the IRA to stop murdering. The IRA’s rule was that if someone was sent to a penitentiary this person no matter how senior lost his rank while inside. The worry was that Adams and McGuinness would be replaced by more hawkish figures. More obdurate figures such as Dessire Grew had been shot dead by the security forces.

In the early 1990s IRA terrorist who had been imprisoned in the 1970s were being released. In the early 1970s bomb warnings about explosions in shops and restaurants were short – say half an hour. Many civilians had been slaughtered. The rage this caused was seen to justify internment and a strong security response. It made the UK Government and Unionists unwilling to negotiate. The IRA had moved to longer warnings, say an hour. This enabled Army bomb disposal experts to defuse such bombs. The IRA was blowing up less and less. The IRA switched to shorter warnings again. The IRA was going to risk mass civilian killing. Some civilians were killed such as two little boys in Warrington causing disgust in Great Britain and in Ireland. However, the IRA was causing economic damage and that satisfied them. In response to the murder of Tim Barry and Jonathan Ball loyalist vermin killed two Catholic men who were not members of the IRA. These murders gained almost no media coverage.

The loyalists were hitting back. They killed a number of important IRA terrorists in a pub in Co. Tyrone. The IRA struck back by shooting dead three leading UVF terrorists on the Shankill Road.

The loyalist terrorists continued their campaign of murdering ordinary Catholics in bars. However, even the UVF and the UDA were beginning to think that it might be time to see if a compromise could be worked out with the IRA. They even met IRA representatives to discuss this.

Ray Smallwoods was a doyen of loyalist terrorism. He had been part of the UDA team that had shot Bernadette Devlin in her Cookstown home in 1980. Smallwoods served his prison sentence for this and when released he re-entered the fray. He was willing to contemplate reaching an agreement with the IRA and the INLA to bring the conflict to the close. Loyalist terrorists used clergymen of both denominations as intermediaries. Father Alec Reid of Clonard Monastery in Belfast was instrumental in expediting these talks without talks. Fr Reid believed that as a man of the cloth he should do anything he could to prevent violence – to encourage anyone to talk to anyone else, anywhere, anytime. While engaged in this dialogue Ray Smallwoods was tracked down by the IRA and shot dead.

Ian Gow, a Conservative MP who had been against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, formed the Friends of the Union club. The Friends of the Union was for people in Great Britain who were strident supporters of the Unionist position. In 1990 the Provisional IRA planted a bomb under his car in Eastborne and blew up him. His widow left the crater as a reminder. Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party, said it was ”appalling that he should have been killed for his views.” The Liberal Democrats considered not fielding a candidate for the forthcoming by election to replace the late Ian Gow. But their elections chief Rennard insisted that they do so and cajoled their leader Paddy Ashdown into it. In the end the Liberal Democrats romped home in a seat that theretofore had been a solid Conservative seat.



The Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (IPLO) broke away from the INLA in 1986. The IPLO killed a few people in the late 1980s. The Provisional IRA found the IPLO to be an irritant and accused the IPLO of drug dealing. In 1992 the Provisionals moved against the IPLO all across Belfast. Two IPLO men were shot dead and several more wounded mostly by beatings with iron bars. The IPLO surrendered and handed over its weapons.



Charlie Haughey returned to office as Taoiseach in 1987. Charles Haughey’s father had been an IRA man from County Tyrone. Charles James Haughey was a Catholic like as Taoisigh.  Haughey observed that he had many cousins in Nothern Ireland and he was particularly sympathetic towards them. He had been against the Anglo-Irish Agreement because it conceded the principle of consent. Northern Ireland would only join the Republic if the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for that. Haughey’s Fianna Fail party subtitled themselves the Republican Party. Once he was in government Haughey did not undo the Agreement. However, relations between Dublin and London were frostier under him. Haughey denounced Northern Ireland as a police state. Haughey went to visit Belfast and was greeted by enormous Unionist protests telling him how unwelcome he was. Loyalists saw him as little better than an accomplice of the IRA. Haughey was surrounded by a huge RUC protection squad. The Irish Times joked that Haughey must have then thanked God that Northern Ireland was a police state.

IRA suspects from the Republic of Ireland were supposed to be extradited to Northern Ireland or Great Britain to face trial. Some men sent for trial but sometimes the courts blocked such applications for extradition. Sinn Fein campaigned against it and said IRA men should not be tried but those who had killed 14 people in Derry back in 1972 should face trial instead. Some high profile miscarriages of justice made extraditions more difficult to secure. The Maguire Seven being a case in point where members of an irish family living in England had been wrongfully convicted of setting off bombs. The Guilford Four had their convictions for murder bombings overturned on appeal. Likewise in 1991 the Birmingham Six were set free after an appeal found their convictions to be unsafe. They had served 17 years in prison. They had been arrested minutes after bombs went off – they were on their way to the airport to go and attend the funeral of an IRA man killed by his own incendiary device. These three examples of wrongful convictions were very rare among the thousands of right convictions.



The Republic of Ireland had laws against divorce and homosexuality. In the 1990s these were repealed. The Unionist objection to the Irish Republic, that it was under the thumb of the Roman Catholic Church, was no longer so valid.

Mary Robinson was elected  President of the Irish Republic in 1990. Mrs Robinson was a Catholic married to a Protestant. She was a member of the Labour Party and a woman of outspoken liberal views. She was critical of Irish nationalism and recognised the need to conciliate Unionists.. Her fearless denunciation of the IRA and INLA did much to improve relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The IRA had little public support in the South of Ireland. There was revulsion that the IRA had dragged the conflict on so long and had killed so many civilians. In the Republic of Ireland the main issue was the sluggish economy and the North had not been top of the agenda since the early 1970s. However, in the early 1990s vast amounts of money from the European Economic Community were beginning to pay off. The Economy was starting to pick up. Northern Ireland was enormously subsidised by Great Britain. Many jobs were supported financially by state. If Northern Ireland were transferred to the Republic of Ireland then the cost of running it would be ruinous to Dublin besides the cost of security. One South Armagh Protestant observed in 1989, ”the South does not want us because we are too expensive.”

Public opinion in the Republic of Ireland was nationalist and would sometimes become stridently nationalist when the British Army killed someone in controversial circumstances. There was latent republicanism that could be reawakened. Most people wanted eventual unification as a republic. There was a large minority, however, that did not. To them Northern Ireland spelt trouble. People envisaged Irish troops replacing British troops as the piggy in the middle between the two communities in the North. The loyalist terrorists were sworn to fight against the Republic of Ireland. Loyalists burnt the Irish Tricolour on 12 July. Loyalists seemed so horrible that some in the Republic of Ireland did not wish to share their country with them. The Republic of Ireland for all its faults was a coherent society and functioned as a political entity. If Northern Ireland were added to the Republic this might not still hold true. Those of more liberal opinions such as Labour voters and Fine Gael voters were more open-minded on the Northern question and very open to compromise with Great Britain. Fianna Fail was a little more nationalistic. Everyone recognised that some degree of compromise with unionists was needed. Even Republican Sinn Fein wanted Eire Nua (new Ireland) with four provincial assembles. The Ulster assembly would be for a 9 county Ulster to ensure a 50:50 unionist-nationalist balance. Many people in the South were very open to making concessions on the North for a variety of reasons. That had little to bargain with and much to gain by this. They tended to see the North as foreign. A poll showed that most people in the Republic had never spent a night in the North. The word ‘Ireland’ was invariably used to exclude the North.

A month before Margaret Thatcher left office a British Government official had a secret meeting with Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was informed that there would be no negotiation with the IRA or Sinn Fein and no concessions.

John Hume and Gerry Adams secretly met to try to find a way to persuade the IRA not to kill. Adams had begun to pretend that Sinn Fein and the IRA were not two heads of the same beast. This fiction would make it easier for the UK Government and the Unionists to see Sinn Fein as an interlocutor.

The reforms in the Republic of Ireland made it less objectionable for Unionists.  The Southern Irish economy was also picking up. Unemployment was falling.



In 1989 the Eastern European countries ended communist dictatorship and Soviet domination. It was a time of borders coming down. Some people felt that this should apply to Ireland too. The USSR became democratic and broke up in 1991. So it was not always borders coming down – some borders were going up.

In the Israel-Palestine conflict peace talks were held. In South Africa apartheid was dismantled. The IRA tried to pretended that the Northern Ireland situation was analogous to apartheid. There were no sectarian laws whatsoever in Northern Ireland. Everyone had the right to vote. Elections were totally fair. Even the IRA’s political party won seats. The security forces were very gentle. As Jim Molyneaux pointed out another difference was that Protestants were the majority of the population in Northern Ireland.

As the Cold War was over the relationship with the UK was no longer so important to the US. American public opinion was highly sympathetic to Irish nationalism although this was not a major issue in American politics. More than a few Irish-Americans were outspoken supporters of the IRA. The US had never pushed London too hard on the Northern Ireland issue for fear of damaging the Atlantic alliance. Now it was not so important to mollify the UK.

In 1992 the IRA launched some major bomb attacks in London. The financial district was badly bombed causing millions of pounds worth of damage. Trains were bombed. German and Japanese banks secretly lobbied the UK Government to end the conflict or they would withdraw from the City of London.

Bill Clinton was the Democrats presidential candidate in 1992. In the campaign he said he would grant a visa to Gerry Adams if elected president. In 1993 Clinton became president. The UK lobbied hard against Adams being allowed to visit the US but Adams was granted his visa all the same.



Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made a seminal speech to the unlikely body – the canned foods association. He said that the UK had ”no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” Northern Ireland was only part of the UK because most people wished it so. This was the UK Government subtly indicating to the IRA that it was open to Northern Ireland leaving the UK if the wishes of the majority there ever changed. Unionists were suspicious and upset – they felt that Great Britain was itching to offload Northern Ireland onto the Republic of Ireland.

The IRA set off a bomb under a van taking workmen to a British Army base. 12 of them died. All were Protestants. Unionist opinion was outraged. Peter Brooke, the Northern Ireland Secretary, was appearing on an RTE programme that evening. He did his interview and for his party piece he sang ”My darling Clementine.” This was a grave error of judgment on his part. It was seen to be very insensitive. He was required to resign shortly thereafter.

Ken Maginnis, an Ulster Unionist MP from Fermanagh-South Tyrone, flew to London to meet the Prime Minister, John Major. Maginnis pleaded with the Prime Minister to reintroduce internment. Major refused for several reasons. Internment in 1971 had been a public relations disaster and had increased support for the IRA while damaging relations with the Republic of Ireland. Internment was distasteful on grounds of civil liberty. Of course Major was not comparing like with like. In 1971 internment had been led by poor intelligence and was carried out in a haphazard way. Internees were abused. Perhaps the secret contact with the IRA was the real reason that John Major declined to bring back internment. Furthermore, the relationship with the Republic of Ireland was better than it had been in at least 20 years. Major did not wish to damage that.

Maginnis said that this dastardly attack was yet another example of the IRA’s sectarianism. The IRA claimed that these men were not killed on account of their faith but because they were assisting the security forces. Anyone who worked for the security forces in any capacity was fair game.

The fact that the IRA had attacked construction workers showed how difficult they found it to hit the Army and RUC. The IRA began targeting anyone who had links with the Army. A cook for the Army in Derry was kidnapped and his family held hostage. He was forced to drive a lorry bomb into an Army checkpoint. A contractor in Dublin who provided supplies to the British Army was murdered by the IRA.



Patrick Mayhew was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1992 to 1997. He initiated some reforms that were sops to nationalists. He prohibited the UDA as a terrorist organisation. The murders had all been carried out in the name of the Ulster Freedom Fighters but it was tolerably certain this was merely a cover for the UDA.

Mayhew was later knighted for his service. Sir Patrick Mayhew was notably patrician in mien. At the age of one and twenty he was said, ”to have the manners of a judge and the voice of a duke. ”

The UDR was abolished. Instead the UDR and the Royal Irish Rangers were merged into a new outfit – the Royal Irish Regiment. The RIR had a full-time and a Reserve element to it. The RIR carried out some anti-terrorist duties. Her Majesty the Queen came to Northern Ireland in 1992. It was to mark the 40th anniversary of her ascension to the Throne. She presented new colours to the Ulster Defence Regiment shortly before it was amalgamated with the Royal Irish Rangers,

The UDR was badly tarnished in Nationalist eyes. More than a few UDR soldiers had been caught colluding with loyalist terrorists or even moonlighting as terrorists themselves. Efforts to prevent this had been only partly successful. As the UDR was 97% Protestant and mainly young working class men it was not surprising that some of them were involved in loyalist terrorism. Loyalists terrorists overwhelmingly came from this demographic.

The RIR was better because it had Irish in the name which was more amenable to Nationalists. Unionists very seldom called themselves ‘Irish’ at this time unless the word was immediately preceded by ‘Northern’.

Mayhew stridently condemned the hates crimes of loyalists terrorists and the insulting behaviour of certain Orangeman. Some Orangemen when they passed a place on the Ormeau Road where 5 Catholics were murdered by the UFF would raise 5 fingers to hail the murders. Mayhew said this behaviour, ”would disgrace a tribe of cannibals.”

Patrick Mayhew gave an interview to a German journalist in which he said the UK was not trying to retain Northern Ireland. If a majority of people there ever voted for it to join the Republic it would be handed over, ”we would do so with pleasure.” Mayhew then thought the better of that addendum and said, ”no I take that back.” Unionists were upset – they long suspected that London was eager to be shot of them and was conniving at ways to force Northern Ireland out of the Union.

Great Britain was subsidising Northern Ireland enormously. Most jobs were financially dependent on the Government. Many people were on benefit. The Army was there in force which was expensive. Informers had to be paid and the RUC were very highly paid because it was the most dangerous place in the world to be in the police. The public in Great Britain was just tired of hearing of the conflict. Much of the public did not realise that the casualty figures were greatly down on the terrible figures of the early 1970s. The UK was losing political capital by the Northern Ireland conflict. Irish republicans disseminated anti-British propaganda around the world which damaged the UK;s image abroad. Goodwill around the world towards the UK was eroded by the conflict. Northern Ireland comprised 2.7% of the UK population but consumed far more than its fair share of revenue.

The UVF boasted of having thousands of members armed to the teeth. Most of this was just hot air. By the early 1990s they were killing about 5 people a year – usually all unarmed civilians. The IRA and INLA could only launch occasional attacks killing normally just one person at a time. The days of significant numbers of deaths were over.

The SAS watched the IRA from hidden positions. The SAS was able to foil some IRA attacks and kill its enemies. At Clonoe three IRA men were riddled with bullets by the Special Air Service. At Coagh, also in Co Tyrone, the SAS also cut five IRA men to pieces in a hail of bullets. Sinn Fein lamented that killing terrorists who were armed to the teeth was a totally unfair thing to do.



Dr Robin Eames was the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Armagh. The Church of Ireland is the second biggest Reformed denomination in Northern Ireland and the archbishop of Armagh is the highest priests in that church. He acted as a go between for the UK Government to persuade the loyalist terrorists to cease their campaign of violence.

Steven Bruce published some books on loyalism in the early 1990s one of which was ”At the edge of the Union”. In this he said that he was sorry to state that the prospects of a loyalist cessation of violence was very slight. Loyalists would always suspect that republicans calling a halt to terrorism was due to them being given a secret deal by the UK Government.

Elements within the UVF began to turn against sectarianism. Their organisation was responsible for the murders of hundreds of innocent Catholics. Now they thought this was immoral and was more likely to increase backing for the IRA and INLA. They also recognised that Nationalists must have a reasonable outlet for their views. The SDLP would not be harmed. Gusty Spence said to his acolytes, ”if you are prepared to fight and die for Ulster you should also be prepared to stop and think.” David Ervine, another leading light in the UVF, at first dismissed this attitude but later came to share it.

The SDLP also entered into secret negotiations with the UVF to persuade them to suspend their terrorism.

This progress towards peace was almost all lost. In October 1993 the IRA sent two men into Frizell’s chip shop on the Shankill Road on a Saturday afternoon. In the room above the UDA regularly met. How the IRA knew this is mystery. Did they have informers in the UDA or were they tipped off by IRA spies in the security forces? The IRA say they planned to plant a bomb and warn the people in the chip shop to get out before the bomb blew. The bomb had an 11 second fuse. This explanation is not persuasive. If these IRA men told the people in the chip shop then these IRA men would have been seized by loyalists on the spot and most likely killed. 11 seconds would not have been enough for the IRA men and the civilians standing around to get to safety. The bomb went off before the IRA had time to get away – or warn the civilians there. 9 civilians died plus one of the bombers Thomas Begley. His accomplice was injured and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The UDA decided to commit an atrocity in reprisal. They entered a pub at Greysteel in Co. Londonderry. The UDA entered and shouted, ”trick of treat” before opening fire. 8 people were murdered. As the pub was in a chiefly Catholic village the UDA thought they would be killing Catholics. 6 of the people shot were Catholics and 2 were Protestants. It showed that many were not divided by sectarian hatred. John Hume attended the funerals of one of the victims. As the man’s body was lowered into the grave the victim’s father turned to Hume and implored him to continue contacts with the loyalist terrorists to bring peace. Hume broke down and wept.

John Major was asked in Parliament if his government had had contacts with the IRA. ”It would turn my stomach to talk to the IRA.” Major had not exactly denied it. He himself had not talked to the IRA and arguably neither had the government at all. The UK Government had been in a dialogue with Sinn Fein. The claim that Sinn Fein and the IRA are not the same was a myth. Labour chose not to attack the Conservatives on this issue. Labour said that if they took office the Conservatives must adopt the same bipartisan approach.

In 1992 a UVF team travelled by boat from Northern Ireland to Donegal. A Protestant Donegal farmer who believed in loyalism transported them. The UVF shot dead Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton. The fact that the UVF could kill people in the Republic of Ireland showed had a good offensive capability.

The IRA launched rockets at Heathrow Airport in 1994. The airport had to close for a while. This was part of the new IRA approach – to hit prestige venues. Because the IRA could not launch attacks often the few attacks it did make had to create an impact.

The UVF sent some men to Dublin with a view to bombing an ”Irish Brigade” gig at Widow Scallan’s – a well-known IRA wateringhole. The UVF posed as Billy Joel fans as he was doing a concert in Dublin that same night. The UVF terrorists were challenged at the door by the bouncer – they shot him dead. He was Martin Doherty an IRA man. The UVF had failed in their attempt to kill dozens in the pub but the fact that they had killed an IRA man was still a boon for them. The UVF had also proved their ability to strike deep inside the Republic of Ireland which for them was enemy territory.

In 1994 the IRA called a ceasefire.In Dublin the IRA murdered Martin Cahill – a notorious criminal nicknamed The General. The IRA claimed that Cahill had assisted the UVF. Cahill was a very bad man but the Republic of Ireland did not use the death penalty since 1954. Even when it had existed it had only been for murder. Even then it had been very seldom inflicted, seldom awarded and even then only after a fair trial. The IRA had no lawful authority to harm anyone. What the IRA did was patently murder. Again, it appealed to a certain vicious constituency that may be found in any society

Three leading UVF were stood on the Shankill Road, the heart of loyalist Belfast. INLA men on motorbikes came up to the UVF men and shot them all dead. It was a major success for the republicans. How did they know exactly where and when to find these UVF terrorists? They must have had very good intelligence.

The loyalist terrorists were determined to strike back with a bloody rampage. During the 1994 World Cup most Catholics in the North supported the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland was not in that World Cup. Loyalist terrorists burst into a pub showing the game on television. They shot dead 5 people including an 85-year-old man, the oldest person killed in the Troubles. The Loyalists calculated that those who supported the Republic in football were probably Catholics and if not were treacherous Protestants and deserved to die.

The UVF and UDA considered what to do. A nameless DUP politician spoke to them and said the republicans had called a halt to terrorism because the UVF and UDA had got them on the run. ”There is no point in stopping now.” The UVF and UDA considered that their attacks in recent years had hurt the IRA badly which was why the IRA had called a halt to its campaign. However, others advised them differently.

The UVF and UDA had been coordinating their activities for some time. They had previously got in each other’s way. 6 weeks after the IRA ceasefire the Combined Loyalist Military Command called a halt to its murders. Gusty Spence, then out of prison, read the statement and publicly apologised for the wrongdoing of the loyalists criminals. ”Abject and true remorse in all sincerity.”

Graffiti on the Shankill Road said ”we accept the unconditional surrender of the IRA.” It was notable that even loyalists had had enough. There was little in peace for them. Peace would surely bring more reform that they did not want. The only thing they could gain was prisoner releases. The UDA and UVF had no escape policy. Where would they escape to? Anywhere in the UK they could be arrested. The Republic of Ireland was not inviting for them. At least republicans felt that in the South of Ireland they would be fairly safe.

The INLA continued its terrorist attacks.