When `The Troubles` Came, They Were “In Battalions”
(Part 2)

Then a captain stepped in the corridor and recognised me; my heart leapt with relief. A few weeks earlier, a Pakistani youth, employed as a cook at the Crossmaglen base, had been shot dead in his car near Ford Cross by the I.R.A. The `Daily Mail` had asked me to interview the boy’s father, and the captain, who was the Press Officer, had made the arrangements.

He enquired why I was in the Bessbrook base, and I explained what had happened. The sergeant was told to release me. I was told to wait for the camera to be returned from the dark-room. In the meantime, the sergeant, who had been giving me a hard time, asked if I wanted a cup of coffee. Wanting to stay on his good side, I accepted the offer.

However, when asked if I would like a lift back home, I declined. The prospect of arriving back in Derrybeg by courtesy of the British Army, just after members of two respected families had been shot dead unarmed, might not have been very diplomatic! I decided to walk, and was soon given a lift by Anthony McKay back to Ballyholland, where my car was still parked, Anthony was fascinated by my tale!

Next day, the chairman of Newry Civil Rights Association, Sam Dowling, brought me back to the scene, and showed where soldiers had been hidden among trees, keeping surveillance on the cache of explosives. Empty packets of “iron rations” had been discarded. And since the two victims had not been armed, they must have been shot dead in cold blood.

Meanwhile, three journalists from the frontier town almost `met their Waterloo,` when standing six feet from a booby-trapped figure, while container lorries went thundering by, near the border on the Newry to Dundalk road.

Early that morning, I received a phone-call from Stanley Matchett, staff-photographer with the `Daily Mirror.` He had received a tip-off that customs officials, arriving at their caravan, had noticed what appeared to be a body, lying beside an abandoned car. Realising that, by the time he would have driven from Belfast, the main road to Dundalk would probably have been be sealed off, he asked me to check it out.

Grabbing my camera I headed up the Dublin Road, expecting to be diverted at Cloghogue Bridge. However, the road was still open, so I kept on driving until coming within sight of the customs caravan. Stopping about 50 yards away, I could see the `body’ lying beside the car. Realising the danger of booby-traps, I sized up the situation.

At that point, a car pulled up and two other Pressmen, Johnney Priestley and the late John McAnulty, got out and, after a greeting, headed across the road. I shouted a warning about the danger of booby-traps, but this was disregarded. Since I appreciated that a photograph, taken from a distance of 50 yards, would be no use to the `Daily Mirror,`, if the `Belfast Telegraph` had one from about six feet, I joined them.

The `body` was dressed in paramilitary jacket and trousers, with socks and shoes. The head was wrapped by a bandage, with a black beret perched on top. As we were taking the photographs, an unmarked police car drove up and two plain-clothes detectives got out. I almost had a heart-attack, when one of them tried to open a car-door! They may have been using us as cover, in case an I.R.A. gang intended to detonate explosives.

After they had left, we returned to Newry, and I put a film on the Belfast bus for the `Mirror.` On arriving home, I turned on the radio for the news. It stated that, when the British Army began to tow away the abandoned car, the `figure` had exploded. It was a tailor’s dummy, packed with Semtex!

One of the most historic events over the past century has been the H-block hunger-strike, and the death of Bobby Sands. The media from all over the world descended on Belfast for the final round of the epic duel between the republican prisoner and the `Iron Maiden,` Maggie Thatcher. Time was running out!

One fateful night, I received a phone-call at the night news-desk of the `Irish News.` It was from a member of the Sands family, stating that Bobby had died. Our newspaper had been supportive of the prison fast. The only persons on duty were myself and the chief sub-editor, Peter Montelier, later the editor of the `Irish News.`

I contacted the Northern Ireland Office, but they refused to confirm the report. Also, the latest radio and television news bulletins, as well as the Press Association made no mention of this major development. We were on the horns of a dilemma, - either we had a world exclusive, or we would have a huge dollop of egg on our faces, and probably resignations. We decided to trust the family and go for it!

While writing the lead story, I was inhibited by the fact that I was unable to seek reaction from party leaders or spokesmen. Someone would definitely have leaked the news to the rest of the media. Then, just as the presses started to roll, we received a fax from the N.I.O. stating: “An inmate at H.M. Prison the Maze, Robert Sands, died to-night.” We were in the clear!

The huge crowd at the funeral of Bobby Sands, M.P., the world-wide publicity, as well as the election of H-block candidates to Dail Eireann, convinced the Sinn Fein leadership to embark on electoral politics. The rest is history!

< Previous Page

© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008