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Internment, herring and DUP tantrums remembered on a Northern Irish beach

Last week, we visited County Down’s coast, taking my toddler daughter on her first-ever trip, just around the bay from where I had mine 33 years ago

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 May 2022, 3.12pm

My toddler daughter Léa learned to say the word ‘bird’ while watching dancing guillemots, gannets and terns in Northern Ireland

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Imagebroker / Alamy Stock Photo

Standing on the seafront in Northern Ireland’s Newcastle, you can see round the curve of the coast of County Down. To your left, in the near distance, rise sand dunes and, behind them is Ballykinler Barracks.

This was the largest internment camp during the 1920s Irish War of Independence. People suspected by Britain of IRA connections were imprisoned there without trial.

Fifty years later, they were again used for this purpose, when Operation Demetrius saw the British Army reimpose internment without trial in Northern Ireland.

I visited them when I was four, in 1989, staying with a friend of my dad’s who was posted there by the British Army. It was my first trip away. Last week, we took my toddler daughter Léa on hers – at that vantage point just around the bay.

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On our third day there, COVID hit. After some discussion, we allowed our lockdown boundaries to stretch across the road from our wee AirBnB, to the sea wall.

Léa learned to say the word ‘bird’ while watching gannets survey the bay, foraging to feed their fluffball newborn guga. The Northern Hemisphere’s biggest sea bird, second only worldwide to the wandering albatross, their thin white wings with black tips stretch to two metres from point to point and, from below, look like cresting waves, confusing piscine prey. Their eyes have an extra oil lens to correct for refraction, letting them see straight into the deep, and their beaks are reinforced so they don’t smash back into their brain when they hit the water at up to 60 miles an hour, plunging and plundering.

Léa has started to copy my impression of them, swooshing her stretched hand down, and saying ‘pshhh’ as it smashes the imagined surface tension, then laughing.

Flirtatious black guillemots with their white panda spots had come inshore to breed, fluttering and bobbing over the waves, occasionally flashing bright red legs. Arctic terns had returned from their annual trip to the Southern Ocean, the world’s longest migration, and flipped in the wind on their angular wings, dipping to pick up whatever fish had strayed too close to the surface.

Guillemots and terns can live for decades, so some of those here today are probably the chicks of the birds I saw in 1989, just as the older birds then would have witnessed the 1970s internments.

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Back when I first visited, I remember being confused that the ferry went on the sea, because fairies fly. I remember sand dunes and rabbit warrens – probably my earliest images of beaches. I remember being told my dad’s friend had to check under his car every day, in case the IRA had hidden a bomb. I think I remember an army checkpoint. Perhaps my mind invented that.

Recently, my dad told me he’d been shocked by those barracks. While he’d been told the purpose of British troops in Northern Ireland was to keep the peace between two warring sides, the slogans and flags posted in bunkhouse windows showed they weren’t neutral arbiters, but belligerents on one side of a civil war.

I sometimes think the best way to understand that war is through the arrival of those troops. In his evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the senior British officer and later head of UK armed forces, General Sir Frank Kitson, admitted there hadn’t been an insurgency when he arrived in Northern Ireland in late 1970. After two years of applying the murderous tactics he’d developed subduing Kenya’s Mau Mau and Malaysian communists in the 1950s, the Catholic community was in full-scale revolt. Kitson, who continued to advise the US and UK on military tactics in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and who is still alive today, has never responded to my attempts to contact him.

I returned to Northern Ireland in 2004. The war was officially over, but wounds were still raw. I was 18 and working as a charity mugger for a fundraising firm, stopping people in the street and asking for a fiver a month for Amnesty International. I’m not sure the company who sent us understood the politics of doing so.

One man in Derry was keen to sign up: Amnesty had been there for him when he was inside, he told me. But he didn’t have a bank account, so he couldn’t. Amnesty’s opposition to detention without trial, and to torture, led them into regular conflict with the British state throughout the Troubles.

In loyalist Coleraine, people were much less enthusiastic. And in Omagh, just five and a half years after the bomb, there was active hostility. “See down there? That’s where the bomb went off. That’s because of people like you,” one large man shouted at my young female colleague.

Inevitable consequences

In 2017, my colleague Peter Geoghegan and I revealed that the DUP had been part of a funnel to channel a £425,000 donation from a secret source into the Brexit campaign, taking advantage of Northern Irish secrecy laws. The man whose company formed the prior section of the funnel had previously founded a company with a Saudi prince, who is the former head of the country’s secret service, and a Danish man caught up in an Indian gun-running scandal.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, now the party’s leader, had organised their Brexit campaign and, that spring, I tailgated someone into his office in Lisburn, a city eight miles south-west of Belfast, to ask him questions about the affair – like, did he know about those connections? He didn’t, he said. In that case, could he really claim to have done due diligence on such a huge donation, as the law requires? He didn’t like that.

I can sympathise with the DUP. With a toddler, I’m used to people raging against the consequences of their actions

Now she can, Léa points out all kinds of birds: hooded crows scratching for scraps of this and that; murmurations of starlings taking turns to lead; loved-up blackbirds shimmering in the sunlight; busy oystercatchers; herring gulls – adults in their grey tailcoats and orange lipstick, juveniles in mottled woolly jumpers.

The herring gulls’ name points to another part of this place’s past. The sea off County Down is an ancient spawning ground for the migratory fish after which they are christened, whose shoals once moved in such numbers that their arrival and departure brought the waters to frothing life and shaped whole coastal economies, followed as they were by predators including sharks, dolphins and whales, as well as fishing boats from across these islands.

But the transformation of these fleets after 1950 – sonar, larger nets, bigger boats – led to the collapse of all of the great herring runs in the north-east Atlantic, devastating seaside towns and villages all across these islands. In England, many former herring towns – Great Yarmouth, Scarborough, Whitby – became centres of support for UKIP and Brexit. You can’t really understand why places like this are attached to the past without knowing that.

Here in Newcastle, there’s only one working fisherman left. But there’s a cultural memory of a time, generations ago, when this was a herring town, welcoming seasonal workers with the arriving fish. The pubs by the harbour hosted an annual herring gutters’ festival until at least 2015. One not-so-old woman who overheard me mentioning this to my wife remembered them as bigger when she was young, with ‘bonnie baby’ and ‘glam granny’ contests and a regatta, as well as folk music and dancing. It was shut down, she says, by insurance costs.

Friends in London and Edinburgh announced seeing their first swifts of the year on Facebook, and a couple of evenings later, I saw mine. Able to propel themselves faster than any other bird, swifts go up to ten months a year without landing – sleeping, feeding and mating on the wing.

I’m not sure if Léa understands when I tell her that, but she delights at their airborne ballet.

We finally tested negative and escaped our lockdown. As we left Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson arrived, flying to Belfast today to try to resolve the crisis at Stormont. The DUP are furious that they lost votes and seats to parties that support the Northern Ireland Protocol, and have pissed in the swimming pool so no one can play. But the truth is that something like the protocol was always a likely consequence of the Brexit the DUP helped make happen. In a way, I can sympathise. As a father to a toddler, I’m used to people raging against the inevitable consequences of their own actions.

Poor visibility

I have never understood people who hide indoors on ferries.

On the journey out, we sunbathed on the top deck. On the trip back we snuggled in the wind. Visibility was at less than 100 metres and, after a bowl of canteen chips I wrapped Léa in my cardigan and marched her up and down the deck, singing Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come All Ye’.

Adam R

Adam singing to a sleeping Léa in the Irish Sea fog

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Adam Ramsay. All rights reserved

“Never heed what the hoodies croak for doom,” the old poet wrote. It’s the one thing he got wrong: hooded crows are optimistic birds, clever enough to make the best of anything.

The wind howled around us. Every two minutes, the ship’s vast fog horn joined my singing, warning other boats from its path. The baby drifted off in my arms. Back at Stormont, where visibility is just as poor, the DUP are behaving like they’re still the biggest vessel on the water. The problem for them is, they aren’t.

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