14 APRIL 1973, Page 7

Ulster (2)

Nothing ever happens . .

Chris Fassnidge

A week doing drama at the Ulster Poly? You must be mad, say my friends. Don't touch any duffle-bags, say some of them. Watch the crossfire, say others. The Head of Department has told me that it's really safer than crossing Oxford Street, so, gritting my teech, I book a return flight, Exeter to Belfast, wondering what I can teach Ulstermen about drama.

Exeter airport. "Do you mind if I search you, sir?" Soft, efficient Securicor hands do a quick whip up and down arms and legs. Supposing I had said no? Would I have been whisked off into limbo, or merely refused entry to the Plane? "Identify your luggage please, sir." Two forlorn pieces of luggage stand on the tarmac, unidentif led; eventually someone owns up to them, apparently under pressure. We eye him with interest but he seems too involved with his scotch to be a danger.

Aldergrove is dull, grey and clean, but rtly bag does not appear to be there; Perhaps it has become de-identified en route, and a suspicious stewardess has hurled it off into the Irish Sea? It arrives eventually. My host picks me out with ease — only drama teachers wear denim suits and sport droopy moustaches — and we set off for Whitehead, where he lives: a small holiday town about twelve miles north-east of Belfast, on the coast. The RUC stations are surrounded by high wire fences, looking a bit like tennis courts. (IRA 40; RUC 15; game, set and match to IRA.) Yellow notices abound: "No parkins; do not leave your car unattended at any time." We pass a donkey-cart, driven by three little kids — a moving postcard.

Whitehead. "It's very quiet here. Nothing ever happens." Big terrace houses in roads running down to the sea; clean and sleepy; another world from the Belfast suburbs. We go to the pub in the evening. Plastic wood and shiny seats; quiet, cheerful and murmuring; Guinness, Powers and Bushmills flow freely; the price of the beer makes it seem like the Hilton. After five minutes, the door Opens and half a dozen soldiers walk in: flak jackets, camouflage trousers, stens and rifles, one with a night-sight. You can smell the oil in the barrels. They order beer, rum, scotch. Nobody actually stops talking, but something changes; everyone is looking in the same direction. Is this normal?" "No — they've never been in before. Maybe something's up; they've been knocking around during the day for a week or two. But nothing ever happens in Whitehead."

We walk by the sea. Don't stand between a soldier and the top of a high building, I think. Just in case. These guys are different from the ones standing outside Buckingham Palace; their guns have real bullets, and there's probably one up the spout right now, and if he drops it on his foot by mistake it might just go off, if he's forgotten, in the heat of the last hot moment, to put the safety catch on, and it might just be that the other end of the thing will be pointing in my direction. Stop bc:ng paranoid.

The next even:ng — 10.30 p.m. The lights in the room flicker slightly. Maybe it's a power cut on the way? Then, in the distance, not so much a bang as a kind of muffled burp. Then — " Bee-baa-bee-baa " — a fire-engine goes past outside, followed by a police car. We peer out of the window; the sky glows orange a few hundred yards away. Shall we go and look? Rubber-necking qualms disappear; nothing ever happens in Whitehead, but tonight it has.

Down the road, hoses snake out of hydrants. A hundred people stand and stare; more are running from nearby houses. What we are looking at was once a hotel. It's still recognisable as a building, but flames pour out of all the windows; most of the roof has gone; a vast smoke trail, carrying sparks with it, stretches up and out over the town. The firemen point hoses at it rather helplessly, but the water seems to make little difference to the blaze.

It's odd, but there are no road-blocks or barriers, and we can mill about among the fire-engines and police cars; the only thing that keeps us back is tie heat of the fire. Walk around the roads and over the railway, so we can see the fire from the back. Someone mentions oil tanks — "they might go up any minute ", and we all move very sharply, in no particular direction. Don't stand silhouetted against the sky. "Where's the second bomb? They sometimes leave one to catch the firemen and the army." Does anyone know anything about it? It emerges in vague dribs and drabs. The hotel had just been bought by a bookmaker, who's been "bombed out of everywhere he's had." There had been a warning. All agree it was a small 'bomb, probably plus petrol, as there is not much damage to other buildings. The bookmaker himself had been killed; elsewhere, and earlier in the evening. Who did it? Was he a Protestant or a Catholic? A Catholic. That means, says someone, that he hadn't paid his protection money. All at once, Whitehead rings with strange echoes of Chicago and Capone.

The army arrive. They always do. People look weary in the firelight. Not the weariness of the often bombed, as in the Blitz or on the Falls, because nothing ever happens in Whitehead, but weary at having to tell themselves again that this is their constant mental wallpaper, and tonight, even if for the first time and only briefly, they've just moved into Northern Ireland's living room. They don't like the colours.

The next morning, we go out again to look at the ruin. It still smoulders, and the firemen haven't given up. We take one or two pictures, and chat to people from the Housing Executive who've come to assess the damage. For them, this is small beer. Besides, nothing ever happens in Whitehead.