It was early evening, the night before the proposed march at Drumcree. The quiet before the storm? Nobody was quite sure. But the RUC at the roadblocks seemed relaxed. Chatty even. I simply headed for the church spire on the hill and parked behind a row of burger and ice-cream vans. Saturday was quiet, but the week as a whole had not been. The melted tarmac on the roads and the charred and twisted debris at the sides of the roads were testimony to the disruption. I had sat in a coffee-bar in Belfast the day before, and the concerned waitress urged me to make my way home. It was four o’clock and they were closing. I had driven up the Shankhill, and the flags and the bunting had made the road seem alive. There was an air of excitement about. As it got dark on the Friday, groups of teenagers and much younger boys had been congregating on street corners. Waiting. Men in designer sweatshirts watched any strange car. The swagger was back in the walk. I noticed that. They knew what they were capable of.
Soldiers were patrolling the streets again for the first time in two years. There had been numerous burnings and hijackings. One unfortunate loyalist in Belfast had tried to hijack an unmarked car with three plain-clothes RUC officers in it. He said that he thought that it was a taxi.
I had heard Martin McGuinness on Radio Ulster on my way to Drumcree describe it as “the last kick of loyalism”. It was an unfortunate metaphor. A hanged man swinging on the gallows, dying, life ebbing away. But the bunting and the flags and the swagger in the loyalist areas said something different.
But on the Saturday, it was raining. I walked past the burger vans and a stall blasting out loyalist music. Echoes of the Somme. Sung by “The Platoon”. Some of the songs had a surprisingly cheerful tune, at odds with the lyrics about death in some foreign field that is for ever the banks of the Lagan. One burger van had “simply the best” on its side. The same slogan was on Johnny Adair’s T-shirt. “Mad Dog” had turned up at Drumcree earlier in the week with about 50 of the Ulster Freedom Fighters’ 2nd battalion, C company, all in matching white T-shirts. All with “simply the best” on the front, just like the burger van. But added below was “Their only crime – loyalty”. The Red Hand of Ulster had ominously become a red spectacle for the world’s media, but that was then. Now there were just about 15 sodden men, women and children who were standing beside the charred barricade, peering over a stone wall, watching some army engineers construct a low, green platform, for what purpose nobody seemed to know.
The soldiers were lying on their bellies in the mud, trying to put this thing together in the face of constant barracking. “We pay your bloody wages,” one man with a woolly hat shouted down at them. “Not those boys on the Garvaghy Road. They’re all on the fucking dole.” Another shouted: “What are you making there, lads? Is it a diving board to dive into that river?” A few laughed. The river beside the barricade was oily and dirty. A hose led out of it behind the army and RUC lines. They were saying that this was the water that was used in the water-cannons. “You’re making a right pig’s ear out of that wee woman’s garden,” another shouted.
There was a constant stream of abuse, which the soldiers did their best to ignore. They looked wet and muddy and fed up. Suddenly, a man with a moustache in a green waxed jacket with a pair of binoculars hanging around his neck started moving through the group, asking excitedly whether anyone had a tow rope. He came back a few minutes later with a blue webbed rope. It was, however, quite short. He looped it over the wall, trying to snare the shiny new razor wire. Every time it caught the wire, he gave a great tug and the small group cheered. It was all quite good-humoured.
What had hit me first about this gathering was the camaraderie of the whole thing. Every single person I passed on the road up to Drumcree church had said hello. If you were here, you were one of them. The Protestant people under siege.
The man in the waxed jacket now had a second bright idea. “Is anyone here left-handed?” he shouted excitedly. It wasn’t clear why. An RUC officer in a bulletproof vest and fireproof clothes came round to see what was going on. He was quite small, and this provoked a lot of comment. “It’s Robocop,” shouted somebody from the back, “the pocket-sized version.” He stood there for a few seconds, trying to look relaxed, but then quickly disappeared again. Everybody cheered. “You’ll be out of a job soon,” somebody shouted. “The Gardai will be doing your job.”
The soldiers worked away regardless, as if we were not there. A large woman in a pink dress leaned over the wall and shouted: “Wait until Johnny comes back and sees all this. He’s not going to be well pleased.” I noticed her later sitting in her car with her husband, eating an ice cream, with the window down and loyalist music coming out through the window. Johnny Adair was the new Protestant icon. There will be songs about him soon.
The man beside me was wearing a woolly hat with a loyalist badge in the middle of it. He was pointing at the wire. “Razor wire is illegal unless it’s 12 feet off the ground. This is against the Geneva Convention. That wire is on the ground. What would happen if a child got tangled up in it?”
He pointed at a small, plumpish boy of about eight or nine wearing a Pokemon sweatshirt, who casually walked up to the barricade and chucked a rock over.
“What would happen if that child there fell into the wire?” he asked. I thought that there was a more immediate question of why the child was allowed to be here in the first place, but I kept it to myself.
In the meantime, the boy had managed to push his head through the gap in the barricade. “The RUC are putting on their big helmets,” he shouted. “What does that mean?” My friend in the woolly hat shook his head mournfully. “They cleared the hill the other night with a water cannon. It was take no prisoners. I’ll tell you, it’s going to get worse before it gets better down here.”
He had been down every day and every night that week for the protest. “We have to make a stand,” he said, “or they’ll remove all our religious rights and freedoms.”
He told me that he had recently brought his grandfather to Drumcree and that his grandfather had cried when he saw the rows and rows of razor wire.
“He took part in the Normandy landings,” my new friend said, “and he told me that he never thought that he’d ever see anything like that again. And especially not here in his own country, to prevent him walking down a road in the land he fought for.”
A man in a black Adidas overcoat walked down to the wall with a young girl. He held her up so that she could look at the soldiers. This man turned out to be a pastor who runs a mission hall in north Belfast. “We have to make our stand here,” he told me. He had no faith in Tony Blair, he said. “His allegiances are clear. He claims to be Church of England, but he’s forever taking Mass. And I’ve seen his son on television wearing a Republic of Ireland football shirt.” The pastor had his whole family with him. I had heard Peter Mandelson say that the protests had been hijacked by thuggish paramilitaries and that the protesters were “a rabble”. But here was one family who clearly were not.
The pastor articulated his position. “The Garvaghy residents say that they’re offended by the Orangemen, but they come out of their houses to be offended. It takes ten minutes for the Orangemen to pass. Ten minutes.”
His friend chipped in. “And what exactly are they offended by? Is it the Union Flag or the open Bible? If it’s the former, then they’re fascists because they’re trying to stop us displaying our national symbol. If it’s the latter, they’re sectarian. Either way, we have to stand up to them. Terrorists have turned the state against its law-abiding citizens. That’s the crux of the matter.”
It had rained all afternoon and into the evening. I was soaked through, like the rest of them.
As I was preparing to leave, I asked the pastor if he thought that the Orangemen would be allowed to march their traditional route this year. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“And what will happen then?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I just don’t know.” But his facial expression, a mixture of fear and dread, said it all.
I made my way back down the road towards the burger vans. He shouted after me: “But don’t give up. Don’t forget what Winston Churchill said about the Ulstermen at the Battle of the Somme, ‘unquenchable, except by death’. Tony Blair might need reminding of that.”