April 1986 – I remember the sensation very well. Newly commissioned, as confident as any human being can be at 19 years old, and about to fly to Northern Ireland, the scene of over 25 years of armed conflict, for my first tour of duty. Apart from an exercise on a training area in the south of England called ‘Tin City’, where we spent a week conducting internal security training and being harassed by the ‘civ pop’ – soldiers brought onto the exercise and given free reign to give soon-to-be officers a hard time emulating some of the scenarios we were likely to face – I was as naive as you could possibly imagine.
That was then.
This week has been surprisingly nostalgic. When it was announced last year that Cyber UK was going to be held in Belfast in 2023, I was excited at the prospect of going back to a city that still holds such strong memories for me.
However, as my departure date approached, I began to feel more unsettled. I was sleeping badly, I was feeling the signs of stress but didn’t understand why. Only when my partner suggested that the reason may be connected to my impending trip to Belfast did it begin to make sense.
So, sitting in the departure lounge, 37 years to the month when I first flew into Belfast City Airport, the sense of anticipation was tangible. It was a most unexpected reaction to a simple internal flight.
This time I would be attending a conference, listening to speeches, making connections and catching up with old friends. Whilst I knew this trip would be different in so many ways, a briefing the day before departure was a stark reminder of how some things hadn’t, in fact, changed at all.
Back then, soon after passing out of Sandhurst, I knew I was embarking on the biggest adventure of my life, with little idea what to expect.
As George Michael topped the charts with ‘A Different Corner’, I set off on a 6 month tour, designed to give me a taste of military life before my young Officer specialist training. I clearly remember stepping off the plane in Belfast, dressed like the typical Army Officer, complete with tweed jacket and hat. There was no sense of trying to blend in. Quite the opposite. It was as if I wanted people to know who I was.
Initially based in Lisburn, I lived a fairly ‘normal’ barracks type life, learning the trade of being a commissioned army officer. I wasn’t on the ‘front line’ in more troublesome places, like South Armagh. In fact I was experiencing many sides to life in Northern Ireland that few soldiers on 4 or 6 month tours would see: together with fellow officers from the Mess, I went out drinking at ‘safe’ bars in Belfast, like the famous Linen Hall, honing my accent as I went; I travelled to some of the bleakest corners of the province, pistol secreted beneath my driving seat just in case, navigating using a map hidden under my legs in the pre-satnav world; I found time to demonstrate my organising (and fundraising) ability by taking a group of soldiers on adventure training to the south of France; and I ended up taking the Lady Mayoress of Belfast out to lunch in Belfast. That’s a blog post in itself.
The most bizarre experience I had though was at the height of the Northern Ireland summer. After being invited to attend an international cricket match between Ireland and India, I was then co-opted to make the announcements throughout the match as each wicket fell. A team of soldiers from my unit had set up a public address system and, for reasons I no longer recall, the organisers decided that I should take command of the microphone. With the ground adjacent to a staunchly catholic area of the city, my English accent must have boomed across the nearby streets.
As the summer progressed, I had my first genuine experience of the potential dangers that lurked beneath the surface. Having frequented the Linen Hall several times with colleagues, each time on the same night of the week to listen to a particular band, I was beginning to feel at home. That sensation came to an abrupt end one evening.
After ordering a round of drinks and waiting to pay, the barman leaned across the counter and said; “You’ve been coming in here a lot recently.” I stared at him for a moment before mumbling a reply and handing over some cash. I’m not even sure we stayed long enough to finish them.
I had been recognised by failing to change my routine. Undoubtedly I was dressed like an army officer trying to blend in. I had relaxed and made a mistake. That bar was then out of bounds to me and my colleagues, self imposed, for the rest of my tour. The sense of safety I had felt earlier in the evening taken away in an instant.
Then, in the September, I was told I was going to spend a month with 45 Commando based in West Belfast, to further broaden my experience. Specifically a military base called North Howard Street Mill, just off the Falls Road, opposite Divis Flats. I would be patrolling with a seasoned infantry unit who had a fearsome reputation in the streets of Northern Ireland. And it didn’t take me long to realise why.
My memories of that time are like a series of videos locked in my memory, which I have not thought to access for many years.
Sleeping in a run down room; listening to patrol briefings every day before taking to the streets; travelling through West Belfast as ‘top cover’, scanning the immediate environment for threats; patrolling on foot through dangerous areas that had witnessed fatal attacks on British soldiers by the IRA over the years; wearing a different coloured beret to the commandos around me and being told that they were happy I was with them as I would be targeted first; visiting troops stationed in an observation post on the top floor of Divis flats; sprinting through a residential area in response to an attack on a coach carrying Protestants. And, in a twist worthy of a Hollywood script, learning that a girl, who I had met a few weeks earlier, had been curb crawling around West Belfast, trying to find me while out on patrol. I guess even at the age of 19 I knew I was going to live a varied and interesting life.
Fortunately, my return this week has been a lot less exciting. Just a routine business conference, lots of conversations, a walk into the city and a meal at a restaurant, followed by an evening in a bar with some local musicians jamming in the corner (unfortunately not the Linen Hall which closed down in the early 90s). It was all pretty routine and corporate.
The subconscious tension I felt in my body on my arrival and for a few hours afterwards soon dissipated. My decision to head into the city for lunch with colleagues, so soon after checking into my hotel, was the right one. I felt as if I needed to reclaim the city. On the final morning I sat outside a coffee shop with an old friend, who had also served as an Army pilot during the troubles, swapping stories that neither of us had spoken about for decades. That was therapy in itself.
The city felt familiar, like I had come home, but at the same time I knew we had been apart for too long. The time I had spent in Northern Ireland all those years ago had shaped my character in a way I had never really thought about until now. And I felt a strong affinity to it.
Belfast is a different city to the one I left behind in 1986. I made a promise to myself that it wouldn’t be another 37 years before I visited again.