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Saturday, 18 April 2020

Norn Iron

Map of Northern Ireland

I had been asked (i.e. told) at short notice to give an outline of our business computing system to some new customers whose primary contact had been sent off to an urgent problem abroad. All I knew was that the four guys in front of me were from an outfit called NIPF and that they spoke with those throaty Northern Irish voices you sometimes hear on television. One, a big, confident man in his fifties with a shiny, shaved head and intense stare, was clearly in charge. Another was half his size and looked a bit shifty. I began, predictably, by introducing myself and asking their names.

“Con Cluskey,” answered the one on the left.

“John Stokes,” said the big, confident man.

“Eric Wrixon,” said the third.

“John Stokes,” said the little, shifty guy.

“Oh! That’s interesting.” I exclaimed. “So, you’re John Stokes as well? You’re both called John Stokes?”

John Stokes 2 looked flustered. “Sorry. It’s Morrison... Van… er, George… George Morrison… George Morris.”

“He’s very tired,” said John Stokes 1.

It was unsettling, but it seemed best to let it go and get on with the presentation. I showed them the system: how it could keep track of their computers and printers and other pieces of equipment, and would tell them when they needed updating or maintaining, and could record what things had gone wrong and repairs that had been carried out, and what parts they used, and so on. All went well.

When I got home that evening, I told the future Mrs. D. about the guy who didn’t know his own name.

“As if they weren’t using their real names,” she suggested.

It turned out that was indeed the case. In fact, they possibly did not even know each others’ real names. And it wasn’t just for maintaining computers they had bought the system. They had mobile communications equipment, surveillance kit and other stuff they’d rather not talk about.

Three or four weeks later, the Customer Support Director called me in. He asked me (i.e. told me) to go to Belfast to run a two-day training course for NIPF’s staff.

“It’s extremely confidential,” he warned. “They asked specifically for you. You have been checked out and granted security clearance. I would fully understand if you didn’t want to go. It would not count against you in any way .” Of course he would. Of course it wouldn’t. I started to feel very apprehensive. Not put too fine a point on it, I felt a bit sick. 

NIPF was a covert name for the Northern Ireland Police Force, then known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). It was the late nineteen-eighties and they were still dealing with the ethno-nationalist “Troubles” between warring paramilitary groups. Three members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) had recently been shot by British security forces in Gibraltar, and at their funeral in Belfast a member of the opposing Ulster Defence Association (UDA) had thrown grenades at the coffin and shot three people dead. At one of the ensuing funerals, two British Army corporals were surrounded in their car, taken away and killed. It was not a place any English person would go for a holiday.

When I told the future Mrs. D. where I was going, not even giving the full details, she almost had a meltdown. It’s the kind of thing that brings home how much you love each other.

Well, I am still here. NIPF gave me strict rules to follow. I would be met at the airport and taken to a hotel. The hotel was safe, but I was not to leave it under any circumstances. I would be collected each morning and taken to NIPF’s HQ, and returned to the hotel again in the evening. They would take me back to the airport at the end of the second day. I should speak as little as possible so as not to reveal my English accent. Everything would be fine, they assured me. The effect was to make me even more queasy and apprehensive.

John Stokes 1 collected me from Belfast International Airport. The windows of his Ford Granada had inch-thick glass. He warned me to mind my hands as he heaved shut the heavy door. It was reinforced with steel plating. The car averaged about seven miles to the gallon. When I asked was it all really necessary he said the route between the airport and hotel passed through bandit country and it would be dangerous if we broke down. Otherwise, it was just like being at any other customers’ except for the armoured Land Rovers parked outside, and the canteen where uniformed squaddies piled their submachine guns and body armour outside in the corridor. I didn’t eat much.

One thing I did like was the Belfast accent: the way they say “BelFAAST” with a big, wide “aa”; how words like “now” and “flower” become “noy” and “floyyer” (“hoy noy broyn coy”); the way they pronounce Rs at the end of words; how “rain” becomes “reey-in’ ”. They gave me elocution lessons, although I was a poor learner. On leaving, they gave me a present, a book on how to speak “Norn Iron” (you sound both Rs in that).

My queasy apprehension did not lift until safely on the plane home. I gazed over Port St. Mary and the little island known as the Calf of Man glowing in the evening sunlight, and giggled on finding the phrase I might have used to buy medicine for an unsettled stomach without giving away my English accent (remember, emphasis on the big wide “aa”s):

“Do you hav’ a battle fer vamittin’?”

42 comments:

  1. It's absolutely “hoy noy broyn coy”. So distinctive. I remember meeting the occasional Northerner here at Irish Pubs & they were always surprised to be sort of found out by an American. They were usually none too pleased when I'd respond with, 'Well, you do sound a bit like Gerry Adams. Sorry!'

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    1. At that time we had no idea what Gerry Adams sounded like, because terrorist voices were censored in broadcast media. Roughly half of those from Northern Ireland would be very offended at being likened to Gerry Adams, and the others at being likened to the Rev. Ian Paisley. Personally, if they were female and sounded like Gloria Hunniford, Caron Keating or Christine Bleakley/Lampard, I would listen to them all day.

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  2. Scary! I don't know that I would have gone on that assignment.

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    1. Well, I'm sorry Debra, but we are having to reduce our costs by making a small number of people redundant, including some that we really do not want to lose, and I am afraid that you are one of those we are reluctantly going to have to let go. You understand it is absolutely no reflection on you or your performance, and that you will be given a glowing reference. I'd like to say thank you for your valued contribution and wish you all the best for the future. You will now be accompanied to your desk to collect your personal possessions and escorted out of the building. Please would you give me your pass and ID badge now. (Later email to other staff): I am sorry to have to inform you that Debra has made the decision to leave the company with immediate effect. We are sorry to lose her and thank her for her valued contribution.

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  3. For some reason I was drawn to reading about "The troubles". Maybe because I'm half Irish. Actually half German/English, a quarter Cork and a quarter Norn Iron. Though my personal gratitude was always with the Norn Iron quarter, my sympathies lay with the other. I hope that disagreement says gone forever. I can imagine the story you had.

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    1. There were several serious incidents in England too such as the attempt to blow up the Prime Minister at Brighton. I remember in the bigger cities there were no litter bins and letter box slots were narrowed to prevent bombs.

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    2. Gripping story. I remember being in Selfridges in London when I noticed a brown package under the front of an overhanging jewelry counter on the ground floor. No one else was around. At that time, there were signs everywhere telling people to be on the lookout for unattended packages due to the IRA. I reported it to the clerk at the counter and quickly left the store as their security people moved in. Never heard more about it, but you certainly knew it wasn't an idle threat.

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    3. That must have been very scary too. I wonder what it was. You would have thought it was in their interests to give some feedback, so as to encourage people to report things.

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  4. Well that was an interesting read. It was also frightening! You obviously handled it all very well. I can imagine how your wife must have felt about all this!

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    1. I just hope I didn't come across as apprehensive as I really was. The piles of guns outside the canteen and the armoured vehicles outside (forgot to mention them) made absolutely clear how dangerous the place was. Of course, it's no longer like that.

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    2. Have now edited in a mention of the armoured Land Rovers outside.

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  5. You didn't 5 bullets in an envelope through the post when you got home so you were ok.

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    1. No, but it was some time before I stopped looking to see if I was being followed.

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  6. Phew! That was one gripping read to accompany my bowl of muesli. Thank you!
    It reminds me (even though the circumstances were totally different) of a friend of mine, originally from Liverpool, who studied the Russian language in Moscow in the early eighties. At one point, he was "politely asked" to accompany two burly men into the basement of the cheap hotel where he was staying. They turned out to be KGB officers, trying to recruit him for a spy, using his language skill and British nationality to their advantage. He insists they let him go when he, equally politely, declined their invitation. He also admits that he walked around with wobbly knees for the rest of his stay, and it took a long time for him to feel safe again.

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    1. The firm also had customers in Moscow. I never had to go there, but those who did said one should never go for more than 2 days so that you could take all your own food and get by without getting washed as the water only made you dirtier. I am sure it has all changed now and is a rewarding place to visit.

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  7. Crikey. I am glad you escaped unscathed and pleased that our little island brought some measure of comfort as you passed overhead on your way home.

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  8. That was unexpected! Wasn't Con Cluskey one of The Bachelors?

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    1. Full marks Joan! I knew someone would spot it. I can't truly remember what names they gave and (this being a memoir rather than a history) used names from The Bachelors and Them. Otherwise it is pretty much as I remember it. Con Cluskey now lives at Elland in Yorkshire.

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  9. I remember the film clip of the two soldiers who made a wrong turning in their unmarked car. One of them put his pistol through a window and fired in the air. The people surrounding the car didn't bat an eyelid. Terrifying.

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    1. I've just noticed that just below you statement asking for no adverts, you have adverts!

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    2. That incident was awful to watch because you could see what was going to happen. Their only hope would have been to drive out and run people over if necessary.
      Regarding ads: I remember you commenting before about not liking them. The link above the ad is to an explanation of why they are here - basically it started as a test out of a previous professional interest in how things work behind the scenes. If they ever generate enough money for a pay out, I will ask readers to vote on donations to charitable causes.

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  10. Hope you looked under your car every morning or a while after you returned home.

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    1. I did keep looking to check if I was being followed. I think the procedures I had to follow were more for their protection than mine.

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  11. Another enjoyable post. The Northern Ireland accent is certainly intriguing. Please remember that you are first and foremost a Yorkshireman. If kidnapped by paramilitaries you could have won your release by simply declaring, "I'm not English, I'm Yorkshire ye daft sods! Now put them AKA's away and mek us a cup of tea!"

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    1. Praise indeed. Note also, as mentioned in comment above, that Con Cluskey (the original, not the guy on my course) now lives in Elland.

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    2. I guess he was an economic migrant like those lads in Calais. Conleth was born and raised in Dublin.

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    3. Mmmm! A basic mistake. It's unlikely those guys from the RUC would have used Southern Irish names. I should have said he called himself Danny Blanchflower.

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  12. That was a really scary read. The Troubles were with us for a long time, and I never really understood it but those deep Irish brogues on the radio were always frightening. The 'hunger strikes' 10 men starved to death, and now Sinn Fein are a proper governmental party. There was such hate.

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    1. The issue has not entirely gone away. That poor reporter, Lyra McKee, was shot exactly one year ago today.

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  13. Droll and a wee bit terrifying. With odd little touches that are memorable: Gazing on the Calf of Man in the gloaming and thinking of medicine for an unsettled stomach. No wonder.

    Two great screen actors did the Ulster accent with its gutturals.
    Daniel Day-Lewis in The Boxer (1997) which deserved a British Academy Award and never got one.
    And Matthew McFadyen as a Calvinist minister in Middletown (1997) which got a disgracefully limited release. It gives a rather warped impression of Calvinist theology, alas, but that's the film industry.

    In John Le Carre's novel The Secret Pilgrim (1990) there is a character who bears my surname and who hails from Ulster. Haggerty is Berlin station chief for MI6. Now there's a job where you can practice your German consonants without losing your Norn Iron vowels.

    John Haggerty

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    1. A German Northern Irish accent! That I have to hear. I see you've got an account now.

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    2. The Irish are the wild geese. I have just finished reading a good first novel, *Love Notes From A German Building Site* by Adrian Duncan (2020). A structural engineer, the Irish author worked in Berlin where his story is set. Fascinating insight into how a building goes up in our globalist workplace. There's a glossary of German phrases in the endpapers. It made me think about Chomsky and the deep structure of language.

      John Haggerty

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    3. Oh, now your into one of my specialist subjects - I prefer Bruner's formats.

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    4. Thanks for reminding me of Jerome Bruner. I have just read his obituary in The Guardian online. I purchased one of his books, The Culture of Education, in the much missed Borders. I was friendly with a teacher from Macau, China, who was in Glasgow for a year, doing her Masters in children's literature. We disagreed about the work of Jean Piaget which she described as *boring*. Hilarious, really, because I would be incapable of writing even an elementary essay on Piaget. Yuan-Yuan's best friend is a maths teacher in Macau who owns the city's only children's bookshop. This lady came to Glasgow for Christmas with her husband and charming little girl. Bruner I associate with those New York intellectuals, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Dwight MacDonald, and the tragic Delmore Schwartz, to name just a few.

      John Haggerty

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  14. I remember being told in Belfast not to mention that I had family in Dublin. Wasn't sure why anyone would care where my aunts lived since one of them was in Madrid at the time... and another in Lagos. But obviously the one in Dublin was a problem.

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    1. It was truly a divided community and a very frightening time.

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  15. This was a powerful read -the hairs on the back of my neck stood up the whole while!

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    1. It captures how I felt. I've been trying to work out why it works like that for a lot of people as a piece of writing, and suppose it's something to do with the drip-feed of information, plus it's probably how all of us who lived through those times felt when it was constantly in the news, with bombings on the mainland and all the letter box slots made narrower.

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  16. I can hear those accents so well! They used to very familiar from the television back in those days.

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    1. Although the IRA voices were banned from television and radio for some years. There seem to be a lot of Northern Irish sports reporters these days.

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