Lying half-asleep in my room at the Holiday Inn one night I listened to a song I hadn’t heard in twenty years. The tune was ‘Marching Through Georgia’, but the words did not belong to the American Civil War. I last heard them rising from the crowd at the Glasgow Rangers football ground, where every alternate Saturday the chant is probably bellowed still:
Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys!
Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys!
We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood,
Surrender or you’ll die,
For we are the Brigton Billy Boys.
I went to the window. Members of the British popular press were walking unsteadily towards the hotel. Great drinkers and pranksters, these chaps from the tabloids. Already in Gibraltar we’d enjoyed a fortnight of jokes. The first fashion was for water pistols, which to be strictly accurate was started by the men of Independent Television News (or at least it started at their party, shortly before their guests were thrown into the swimming pool). You might be sitting innocently in a bar or walking down the street when the challenge came from behind, ‘Stop, police, hands up!’ and you’d turn sharply – very much, I imagine, as Danny McCann and Mairead Farrell turned – and receive a small jet of water straight in the chest. This was the English journalists’ reconstruction of the role of the Special Air Service Regiment as executioners of the members of the Irish Republican Army. The role of the Irish Republican Army itself had to wait for the second fashionable joke. A couple of Japanese transmitter-receivers were purchased – the kind of thing strolling British policemen use, the kind of thing we’d been shown in court as an IRA bomb-detonating device – and then demonstrated whenever an evening looked as though it might close unpromisingly in an exchange of civilities. Once, at the Marina, I came across a drunken couple shouting into these machines outside a quayside restaurant. ‘Shitbag calling fuckface, shitbag calling fuckface, are you receiving me, over?’ ‘Fuckface to shitbag, fuckface to shitbag, I am receiving you, over …’ And now, two weeks into the inquest into the killings of three Irish republicans, this Orange song rolled around the lanes of Gibraltar at one in the morning. ‘Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys … up to our knees in Fenian blood.’ The only surprise was that Englishmen seemed to know some of the words of a song born of sectarian gang-fighting in Glasgow of the 1930s. But then the English these days are a surprising race.
I write as a Scot, and one with too much of the Protestant in him ever to empathize much with the more recent traditions of Irish republicanism, as well as an ordinary level of human feeling which precludes understanding of the average IRA bomber. But the longer I spent in Gibraltar, the more difficult it became to prop up a shaky old structure – that lingering belief in what must, for lack of a more exact phrase, be called the virtues of Britishness. Both the inquest and its setting played a part in this undermining; perhaps this is what the British government meant when it said that it feared ‘the propaganda consequences’ of such an inquiry and set up an informal cabinet sub-committee (which included Mrs Thatcher) to combat the eventuality. As it turned out – and who knows what part the informal committee played – the government need not have worried. They got the verdict they wanted, the great mass of British public opinion applauded it and the proceedings were minimally covered in the only foreign media which matter to Britain, which lie in New York and Washington. The government then pressed ahead with ‘the war to defeat the terrorist’ by banning IRA spokesmen and their political sympathizers from radio and television, where in any case they had scarcely ever appeared, and renewed attacks on the television programme that had ventured to suggest that the Gibraltar killings raised questions which needed proper investigation.