The Crumlin Road Canteen

In the series “Life on Mars’ the boss calls a meeting. The shock is that his colleagues are smoking, drinking, , eating pies and generally behaving in a way that nobody under 55 could remember.

I have read the Police Ombudsman’s report into the Loughinisland killings and , hopefully, I will write about it. But the point which is missed by him is the historical context. It is as if two men went into a pub in leafy Surrey and carried out an atrocity and the local Bobbies, with time on their hands, screwed up.

Let me describe the Crumlin Road courthouse in the 1980s. I do this  for two reasons. First , because, as a matter of policy, anyone associated with prosecuting for the Crown in those days has been erased from history as part of the deal with SF/IRA and secondly to explain what life was really like.

As one approached the courthouse from the city direction, there was frequently a RUC or army road stop. Only the bold prosecutor approached from the Ardoyne direction. This I did occasionally. More frequently I drove my GTI Golf at 90 mph down the M2 and then came up from the city centre.

At the entrance to the courthouse there was a security team who wanted to inspect your car, including boot and engine compartment.

This team was covered both from the open ground and from the heavily armed sangar.

Once inside the grounds, a further check might be carried out.

The Director of Public Prosecutions had its offices on the top floor of the building. Not a problem when one is fit.

More important was the canteen, to be found on the left hand side of the ground floor. Here was a microcosm of the Troubles. It was a small room, a counter at the far end and a number of tables. Behind the counter Etta presided. She had been at school with my Dad. She and her staff produced a wide array of food. From the black coffee and a possible scone for the barrister to the fry for the constable.

Why is this story important?

Because each morning the fug in that room had to be seen to be believed. There was no ban on smoking. Officers who had been out all night on duty and who were now required to attend court to give evidence in a terrorist trial , were trying to dry off their uniforms while having a fag and an fry. Later they would try to get home for a few hours sleep before another spell of duty.

Sometimes it was hard to see across the room. I recall chatting to colleges about how nice it would be to get away to the Med. One said, “isn’t it great to walk down to the local shop and buy croissants and yesterday’s paper and come back and read them in the sun?” Another described how beads of water ran down the outside of a bottle of white wine, placed on your table.

That was just escapism. On a day when the great and the good have joined together to mark the first day of the Somme, it is important that we do not wait one hundred years to mark what ordinary men did to protect society in Northern Ireland.

As , Dear Reader, you judge the acts and omissions of policemen and lawyers and read the Police Ombudsman’s report, prepared at length, in a non smoking environment, reflect on what life was really like and how the Crumlin Road canteen, shared with police officers, prosecutors, witnesses, paramilitaries ,Patrick Finucane, Paddy McGrory, Oliver Kelly and Seamus Tracey was a microcosm of how the troubles was really played  out.

 

 

 

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