Great Ulster Friday - Frank McNally on Easter 1998, pre-Troubles sectarianism, and the great northern vegetable roll

Agreement memories

It was a bright cold day in April, as Orwell wrote, and after darkness fell, it became even colder. In the media marquee at Stormont, I shivered in my shirt, regretting the carelessness that made me leave my jumper in the hotel that morning.

The hot cross buns we had been served with Easter Thursday tea had not improved temperatures. Talks on the agreement dragged on, meanwhile, with no end in sight.

So after filing a preliminary account of the day’s events (including a joke about a “hot cross David Trimble”) for the first edition, I drove back into Belfast for the jumper, to insulate me during the long vigil ahead.

I had a Cavan-registered Nissan Almera at the time, my first car, bought second-hand in Monaghan, where the stigma of its origins had ensured a discount. Whenever driving it to a GAA game in Clones, I had grown used to a slight feeling of tension.


But after leaving Stormont by the side entrance, and then doubling around onto Newtownards Road, I was alarmed to face the gauntlet of an angry protest at the locked front gates, led by Ian Paisley and, according to banners, including supporters of the then notorious Loyalist Volunteer Force.

As they draped union jacks across the windscreens of passing cars, I became intensely aware of my southern registration. Luckily, the flag curtain created a tail-back. Obscuring my number-plate, I closed the gap on the vehicle in front to the width of a coat of paint or two, and passed unhindered.

An hour later, fully jumpered but now worried about the effects of pub closing on the protest, I approached the gates again. To my great relief, the Paisleyites had vanished. They were now inside, the man himself giving an impromptu press conference at which he damned the impending agreement to hell and briefly warmed us all up.


It’s nothing to do with the Good Friday Agreement, so far anyway. But among the books I’ve been reading lately is an intriguing memoir, Enchanted Life, by Co Down-born journalist and author Herbie Brennan.

Part of its intrigue, as the subtitle makes clear, is that Brennan considers himself mainly a “magician”. But the book also includes some unmagical descriptions of the pre-Troubles Northern Ireland of his youth, including the time – circa 1960 – he applied for a job with the Belfast Telegraph.

Brennan had been brought up Protestant. His surname, however, looked Catholic. So in what may have seemed like a diplomatic way to broach the subject, the interviewing manager asked if he was a member of the “Orange Order”.

“I’m not,” admitted Brennan, “but my father was. And a Black. And a Mason.”

“Black” meant the Royal Black Preceptory, to which the posher Orangemen were admitted. Freemasonry was another level up. “So you’re a Protestant?” the interviewer confirmed and Brennan agreed he was, even though he had turned his back on conventional religion by then.

He lived to regret the “lie” in Biblical terms, thanks to a notorious news editor. As he recalls: “God decided to punish me . . . through His instrument Freddie Gamble”.

Gamble was a rare non-Protestant at the Telegraph, but he was Jewish, which was considered the next best thing. Unfortunately, his abrasiveness soon caused the young recruit a nervous breakdown, following which he resigned.


A northern friend inquired via Twitter during the week if I was familiar with the “vegetable roll”. It’s an Ulster delicacy, but perhaps only north of the Border. Because no, I never heard of it growing up, although I know enough about northern culture to guess that, despite the name, it’s not vegetarian.

I don’t think it’s a shibboleth either, being popular across the sectarian divide. Thanks to the Irish Times archive, however, I know it was weaponised during the early Troubles. At a violent protest in Long Kesh once, vegetable rolls were used as missiles, earning them the nickname “riot burgers”.


Back in Stormont, at 4am on Good Friday 1998, it briefly snowed. But it wasn’t cold that bothered some of us then, it was hunger. The last copy of a three-edition night had been filed. Nothing more would happen now until morning.

So having gone without food since supper, a colleague and I went in search of a 24-hour McDonald’s rumoured to have opened recently nearby. We used her car, the windscreen of which was now frozen over. That meant we first had to make a hole in the ice with boiling water borrowed from an RUC hut.

To further complicate things, my colleague was also short-sighted and had mislaid her glasses. So as we circled the car-park slowly, I had to peer out the passenger-side window, giving supplementary directions on the way forward.

It felt like a metaphor for the peace process. Happily, the windscreen thawed and we found the exit eventually. Alas, the rumours of an all-night McDonald’s had been premature. We didn’t find that, or anywhere else still open.