Thursday, 4 September 2003

My last trip to Belfast

The Herald sports writer and Edinburgh councillor Brian Meek has been to Belfast for a golf tournament. He writes about a previous visit:
In 1975 I am visiting the city of Belfast and staying in the Europa Hotel. This is the most-bombed lodging-house in the whole of Europe and, anxious to put my family fears at rest, I ring home and tell the dearest that there is absolutely nothing to worry about, so I am just off to the Crown Bar across the street.

At this point, as I glance out of the window, two men carrying revolvers are sprinting across the car park and are firing at a pursuing British Army tank. The hotel's fire alarm goes off, I throw down the phone and dash downstairs to the street.

Ah yes, the Europa Hotel.

My last visit to Belfast was at the height of “the Troubles” in the nineteen-seventies. Back then I used to drive from London to Scotland for a week’s tour every summer. This particular year I decided to try something different from my usual patronage of B&Bs. One night I would stay in a top hotel and make up for it by sleeping in the back of the car the next night. That’s how I came to spend my one and only night at Edinburgh’s North British Hotel (now the Balmoral) for the then vast sum of £16. The next evening I slept in the car park at Prestwick seafront. I then drove down to Stranraer, left the car there and took the ferry over to Northern Ireland. I arrived in Belfast as darkness was falling. York Road Station was deserted. This was a night for the top hotel, not for wandering strange streets looking for a B&B. I took a taxi to the Europa.

An elderly employee showed me to my room.

”Well sir, you’ll notice that there’s two beds.”

”Er, yes.”

”Now it’s up to you sir, but I would sleep in that one.”

”And why’s that?”

”Well,” he replied. “When the bombs go off it’s the other bed that gets showered with glass.”

I followed his advice.

The next day I took a stroll up the Falls Road and had a Guinness in what appeared to be an IRA pub. I then went to the Shankhill Road and had a pint in a Protestant pub. After a walk round the city centre, with some relief I took the train back to Larne for the ferry. When I was sitting in the ship's cafeteria I noticed a man in his thirties looking at everyone in the room. I was the only unaccompanied young male. He came over and quickly showed me some official-looking ID. I was asked for my name, date and place of birth and the purpose of my journey. Years later there was a break-in at my place of employment and the police interviewed all the key-holders, including myself. Again, date and place of birth were required. One policeman was phoning the details of all of us back to his base. He leaned over to the other officer and said: “He’s clean, except he went to Belfast about ten years ago.”