Belleek is the most westerly point in the United Kingdom. It’s a small village, right on Northern Ireland’s frontier where Country Fermanagh reaches out towards the Atlantic. The final destination for many motorists driving across a now invisible border are the beaches of County Donegal. It is the place we learned this weekend where journalist Roy Greenslade was persuaded to support the violent extremism of the provisional IRA in the 1970s and 80s.
Greenslade’s views on republican terrorism were, of course, an open secret for many years, as he rose to senior positions at the Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror and, latterly, became a professor of journalism at City, University of London. He now discloses with some pride that, at the same time as working for papers that condemned the IRA's dirty work, he was anonymously contributing to Sinn Fein’s media outlet, An Phoblacht, justifying it.
His rationale for breaking silence in a piece for the British Journalism Review was to try to explain this subterfuge to his grandchildren. He has failed in this task. Greenslade is an unrepentant supporter of the ‘armed struggle’, lacing his self-regarding apologia with metaphors of ‘war’ and ‘insurgency’ that are put to work in some heavy lifting in the village of Belleek and its locality. While Greenslade was holidaying with top ranking republicans on the coast and drinking the Kool Aid of its futile death cult, just a few miles inland the reality was rather different.
Greenslade wrote of the terror of ‘dodging imaginary bullets’ in nearby Derry city. This was an escape denied to many of the local IRA units' victims operating from his newly adopted county. In 1988, William Hazard and Fred Love were driving their work van out of Belleek after working on repairs at the local police station. As the two pension age contractors drew up to a junction, they were surrounded by four IRA gunmen who used automatic rifles and a handgun to pour 150 bullets at close range into the vehicle. 150.
Greenslade’s rhetorical skills might have been in even greater demand a few months earlier when the IRA surrounded a car containing chemist’s assistant Jillian Johnson, 22 and her fiancé Stanley Ligget just outside the town. Neither had any connection to the security forces, as if that might have excused the unfolding savagery. The gunmen shot her 27 times, ‘basically cutting her in two’ according to Mr Ligget’s recollection of the inquest.
Donegal has many splendid beaches where you can imagine Greenslade, who has written of their beauty, walking with his locally born wife. If he took a stroll on Rossnowlagh’s wild strand, it was where two other sweethearts took their last walk together.
A year after Johnson was butchered in the dark, 23-year-old former police reservist, Harry Keys, was surrounded by IRA gunmen outside his girlfriend’s house as he dropped her off after a day at the seaside. He was slaughtered in front of her in the name of a new Ireland. Keys had made the lethal mistake of crossing the frontier into Donegal for love where he was the softest of targets. They shot him 23 times at point blank range and cheered in front of his horrified partner when they had finished.
Greenslade remains admirably consistent at least; this local sadism was a ‘war,’ he says. If this were indeed the case, the International Tribunal at the Hague would still be working overtime on arrest warrants. His defiant description of the ‘fine young men’ of the Provos smacks of nauseating revisionism. It’s surely the case that, in Northern Ireland, the ideological violence that Greenslade covertly defended as legitimate was a convenient occupation for people who would otherwise just have been unremarkable psychopaths and serial killers.
Greenslade's grandchildren are in for a festival of cognitive dissonance. How can someone who enthusiastically endorsed the sort of physical force described above also be ‘appalled by the carnage?’ Most of the people put to death in the now fallow murderscape of the Fermanagh/Donegal hinterland were defenceless Irish men and women from the Protestant minority community, many with ancestry in that part of Ireland that pre-dates the founding of modern America.
How can these poor, forgotten dead be victimised again as being expendable products of an unwelcome, unwanted British imperialist machine that underpins his ideological credentials? What sort of pathology leaves a professional journalist completely blind to the naked sectarianism of the cause he venerates? Greenslade admits his complete failure to understand Ireland as a cub reporter there in the 70s. His understanding has not matured with age.
There ought to be a memorial to the role played by journalism in Northern Ireland’s troubled past; those brave men and women who took risks and probably saw too much in the pursuit of truth. Greenslade’s pitiful bravado has provided at least one service to those who might think of its design: Do not start from here.
Ian Acheson was born and raised near the Co. Fermanagh border