Twenty Years Ago Today: A Live Action Parliamentary Puppet Show!

A photorealistic image of John Major, the British Prime Minister Twenty years ago today, Spitting Image was between its fifteenth and sixteenth series, and therefore not on the air. Instead, the good folk of Westminster were doing their best to create a live-action Spitting Image sketch. Eyebrows were raised throughout Downing Street as a terrifying sound issued forth from the office of the Prime Minister: the monumental boom of an outraged Ulsterman.

It was an argument about the Northern Ireland peace process, of course. The loud Ulsterman was none other than the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the protestant Democratic Unionist Party. In those days, they were a group of hardliners who opposed any accommodation with the catholic opposition, but their support was needed if the process was to go ahead.

Behind Ian Paisley's booming voice lay the calculating brain of that most terrifying of creatures: a politician.

Paisley's refusal to participate was annoying the PM somewhat, and it's said that Mr. Major - a man caricatured by Spitting Image as so dull that his colour control was set to permanent monochrome - flew off the handle, shouting that Paisley was talking 'total rubbish', and throwing his papers around the room. Paisley - who needed no caricature for anyone to know that his volume control was set to a permanent maximum - claimed that he actually had to raise his voice to be heard.

Paisley dismissed the peace process as 'iniquitous and a farce' and 'a rotten sinking vessel which is going down now in confusion.' Major accused him of constantly misrepresenting the situation, and the bellowing continued to rise. 'I have a better voice than him when it comes to volume,' said Paisley later on, but it wasn't his office; after half an hour of the two men screaming at each other, Major threw him out.

Both sides were swift to present their own interpretation of events, with Paisley's being by far the more entertaining, depicting him as standing up for his principles in the face of a prime minister who threw his papers around the room in frustration. His intended audience was probably not the British government, nor even his true opponents, Sinn Fein - but his own people back home. As the years progressed, his intransigence would continue to win him support among Unionists until his party supplanted the former leading Unionist party, and took power after the eventual peace agreement. Because after all, the biggest fights in politics are usually more between allies than enemies, and in-fighting is vastly more popular (and profitable) than actual fighting.

And for those of you who can't remember what Spitting Image was all about, here's a reminder:

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Fuel Is Always Greener On The Other Side

Red DieselTwenty years ago today, glasses were raised throughout Ireland and across the world in honour of St. Patrick's Day. But HM Customs had a special reason to celebrate, because one of their least favourite scams was to be made illegal at midnight - and it was something green. In this case, green diesel. Now, we're not talking about environmentally friendly diesel here. This is diesel intended to be used for off-road vehicles, such as agricultural machinery. And there's a specific place for it to be used: on the Irish side of the border shared between the Republic and the United Kingdom, the only land border that either nation has to worry about. Diesel for agricultural use is a lot cheaper than normal 'white' diesel for road vehicles, because it's subject to a much lower rate of fuel duty. So in order to stop people cheating the taxman from his rightful share, it's marked with dye - green in Ireland, red in Northern Ireland - and the police conduct random checks to make sure that only properly taxed fuel is used.

By the 90's, diesel engined cars were becoming more and more common, so the practice of selling red or green diesel to normal road users at half the price of normal diesel became a scam that criminals could take easy advantage of. The police occasionally stopped vehicles to check them, but there was one trick they couldn't prevent. It was illegal to buy red or green diesel in each respective country, and it was illegal to transport the fuel across the border - but it wasn't actually illegal to buy green diesel if you happened to be in Northern Ireland.

So the enterprising criminals of the border (of which there were many), would drive a tanker up to a point a few metres inside Ireland, run a pipe across the border, connect it up to a pump in the UK, and start selling.

The police forces on both sides of the border did their best to prevent this trade in all the traditional ways, like actually going up to the criminals and arresting them. But the borders were a lawless place, and it was impossible to keep every mile constantly under surveillance. Special operations were launched to try, but as soon as they put one group of smugglers out of business, another would spring up overnight.

So they did the next best thing: they changed the law. From midnight tonight (twenty years ago, that is), green diesel became just as illegal in Northern Ireland as red diesel, and the police could seize the vehicle for the crown if they found the Irish fuel in the tank.

And did this solve the problem of fuel fraud in Northern Ireland? No. Don't be silly. The criminals just found new ways to make money - for example, by passing the fuel through cat litter to filter out the dye. Plus there are all kinds of other cross-border fraud possibilities, such as tobacco smuggling. To this day, both the PSNI and the Garda Síochána are still struggling to keep up with the ingenuity of the criminal gangs that live on the border.

Twenty Years Ago Today: IRA Mortar Attack at Heathrow

Photo by Steve Duhig Twenty years ago today, Parliament was getting ready for its annual renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was largely designed to combat the threat from Irish paramilitary groups. There was little chance that MPs would vote against it, although the opposition would still make a token stand just on the general principle that they were the opposition. The news would doubtless be buried in the dismal middle pages of the next day's newspapers.

But not this time.

Late in the afternoon, a red Nissan Micra drove into the car park of the Excelsior Hotel at Heathrow. Inside were enough explosives to give the airport a really bad day. But they weren't intended to be used in a car bomb, for the car also carried a set of disposable mortar tubes.

Between 17:05 and 17:15, six major news agencies were called and a bomb threat was made using recognised code words. "Clear all runways," went the warning. "Stop all flights."

They didn't clear the runways. They didn't stop the flights. Instead, the authorities began a search, working on the assumption that the bombs - if they existed - were already in place.

At 17:40, a Concorde touched down after a flight from New York. At 17:57, four mortar bombs were fired at the runway. None of them exploded, though one shattered into pieces. Planes kept on using the runway, oblivious to the danger. It would take another forty minutes before the runway was closed and a search for the mortars began. The security services were not at their most efficient on this day in 1994.

The only explosion was back at the car park of the Excelsior Hotel. The Nissan Micra was almost completely destroyed when the mortars were launched, and cars around it were set on fire. Black smoke spilled into the sky. But not everyone had their daily routine immediately shattered; staff at the nearby Ramada Hotel couldn't hear the detonation because of the noise of ongoing refurbishment.

The actual mortar tubes used in one of the 1994 attacks on Heathrow.

The vote in Parliament went ahead, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act was duly renewed. No one was hurt in the attack, and the only damage was the disruption to flights while the runway was cleared. This was lucky for Heathrow, as these home-made mortars had often been used in Northern Ireland to lethal effect; like the security services, the IRA were not at their most efficient in this attack. But then they probably never intended to be.

Their true purpose was a political one. The Provisional IRA were saying: sure there's a peace process, but it's not going the way we want, so remember that we can still strike at will. The Troubles might have been about to transfer to the political sphere, but the combatants wanted to enter that sphere with as much advantage as possible from their days of violence. Attacking such a massively symbolic target as the busiest airport in the world just hammered the point home.

Similar attacks would happen again twice during March, both targeted at Heathrow. It didn't end the peace process; it just reminded everyone how much hard work still needed to be done to keep the bombers and killers from going back to their old ways.

Twenty Years Ago Today: News Roundup

Christmas Day 1824 no foreign news of material importance in the Manchester Guardian Twenty years ago today, it was a Sunday. And a bit of a slow day for historical events. Well, it was actually a pretty hideous day for the 200 people who drowned when a ship sank off Thailand (most of them Thais who had been working illegally in Myanmar), but sadly this is not one of those stories that English-language newspapers (and ultimately the English-language internet) record in any great detail.

So let's have a quick look at a broader range of stories that the papers are mentioning today...

  • The three surviving Beatles are being offered £2.5m to appear in a festival this summer at the Isle of Wight. This offer may have been inspired by reports that McCartney, Harrison and Starr were getting back in the studio - but as it turned out, this had more to do with the Anthology documentary series than any original music.
  • Gerry Adams went on ITV's Walden programme to say that Sinn Fein might not join in with last year's Downing Street Declaration - and if that's the case, then the hoped-for ceasefire from the IRA will fall through. Adams wanted the UK government to do more to persuade the Unionist side to accept the possibility of Irish unity, which the UK government was refusing to do. We'll be coming back to this story later in the year.
  • In southern Sudan, 100,000 people were on the move, fleeing refugee camps due to continued fighting and random attacks from both the government and SPLA rebels. This part of the world is no stranger to conflict, although in recent years it's been successful in breaking away from Sudan to form a new country, South Sudan - which has then resulted in renewed fighting over internal conflicts.
  • In South Africa, the process of moving towards a post-apartheid state continues. There are elections coming soon, but some groups are still not happy; King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus made a statement in Durban insisting that they have the right to their own country, while thousands of Zulus (many in traditional clothes and carrying ceremonial spears) demonstrated on the streets outside.
  • John Thanos, a murderer awaiting execution in Maryland, has given the go-ahead for his death to be videotaped so that another inmate can argue that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, Maryland speedily amended their laws to give condemned prisoners the right to choose lethal injection rather than the gas chamber - so speedily, in fact, that Thanos was able to select this option for his own execution on May 17th.

Many thanks go to Coventry Libraries for making newspaper archives available to anyone with an internet connection and a library card (although sadly this means that I can't link directly to the archives). I've found this rather useful for this little series, although I do tend to get bogged down reading articles that I'm not even going to use. It's just too interesting!

Twenty Years Ago Today: Murders in Northern Ireland

200px-Emblem_of_the_Ulster_Defence_Association.svg An average news day in 1994 features all the stories you'd expect in a world hungry for the least bit of pointless trivia. And somewhere on page seven, buried under all the stories about celebrity anorexics and complaints about the reorganisation of London's phone books, you'll likely find a little bit of news datelined from Belfast, telling how this Catholic or that Protestant was murdered yesterday at the hands of paramilitaries.

The terrorist campaign on the British mainland was a series of occasional atrocities, sometimes preceded by coded warnings that permitted the authorities to evacuate the area in time. Months or years could pass between attacks. Not so in Northern Ireland itself; there, the war kept boiling on from day to day and week to week as the self-appointed defenders of each side shot and bombed civilians or police or soldiers simply to enforce a regime of terror, all the while keeping organised crime under their control so they could keep the funds rolling in.

Today's victims are from the Catholic community, shot dead in separate attacks by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who were later understood to be no more than a trading name of the Ulster Defence Association, the largest Loyalist paramilitary group. Their names were John Doherty, an engineer who was shot as he slept in South Belfast, and Cormac McDermott of Ballymena, Co Antrim, who was killed by gunmen who walked into his house. His wife was left with neck wounds in the attack, though she survived.

Better things are coming in the next few years for Ulster. Most of the paramilitary groups will lay down their arms, albeit grudgingly. There will be some backsliding, and the real extremists will break away into their own groups to continue killing and bombing, but their numbers will be far fewer.

The situation has definitely improved. But that doesn't bring back John Doherty or Cormac McDermott, or any of the thousands of others who died during the Troubles.