‘Teenage Kicks’, my journey from Northwood to Belfast was better late than never and certainly not back to the future! While the radiotherapy department in Londonderry Derry that opened in 2016 underscored the impact of the peace process.

‘Teenage Kicks’, my journey from Northwood to Belfast was better late than never and certainly not back to the future! While the radiotherapy department in Londonderry Derry that opened in 2016 underscored the impact of the peace process.

The Undertones

Teenage Kicks, was the hit record by Derry punk band The Undertones and made famous immediately as John Peel’s favourite song, rocketing up the charts after he played it twice on his show when released. I was just 18 and still two years away from becoming a student radiographer when it was recorded in Belfast in 1978 and introduced that year to an embryonic but lively punk scene within the city. At the time I was getting my teenage kicks following Motorhead but loved this record. With echoes of the Ramones, the song actually only reached no 31 and for me, aside from the TV news was my only real snapshot of life in Northern Ireland and ‘The Troubles’ until 1990 when I visited Belfast for the first time on business, shortly after changing career from a therapy radiographer to an international radiotherapy product manager.

Pic: The Undertones in 1978

Out of interest I saw the Ramones perform live on the Old Grey Whistle Test when 18 as I my Dad got me a temporary job with the BBC and one benefit of employment was membership of the legendary BBC Club at the Television Centre in White City. This also allowed access to the viewing gallery of the BBC Studios and so when they performed a live two-song set I was literally the only person watching! Those were the days.

Holidays in Ireland

I had been to Ireland on holiday many times and largely travelled by boat via Swansea to Cork or Fishguard to Rosslare and knew west Cork very well. The Arbutus Lodge Hotel in Montenotte (somewhere I often used on business trips later in life) in Cork was always a stopping place for a full Irish breakfast en-route to a family owned cottage by a place called Barleycove close to Crookhaven and the Mizen Head and so considered myself to be a bit of a local.

Pic: The Mizen Head, an amazing location in Co. Cork

However, this was in the mid-eighties and so having a broad Cockney accent in deepest rural Ireland had its issues sometimes. In one bar in Kerry I asked for a pint of Guinness three times and each time was greeted with ‘pardon’, after three pardons I assumed that I had been ‘forgiven’ or it was time to leave quietly! I left but this didn’t happen again.

This was still a very a troubled time in the North and so you had to be careful. I recall seeing Gerry Adams in the Whites Hotel in Wexford after a Sinn Fein event on an overnight stop prior to one journey back to the Rosslare ferry and in those-days he was an intimidating politician indeed.

I took an active interest in the politics and sectarian issues behind the Troubles as it was always difficult for me to correlate the death and destruction with such a beautiful country and famously friendly people. My father would take summer holidays in Larne as a kid in the 30’s, the port linking Northern Ireland to Scotland accessed from Stranraer by ferry and just north of Belfast. He lived in Scotland but often his family visited the amazing countryside in that part of Northern Ireland. Belfast had an important Linen industry in those days and my Grandfather managed a large Linen production facility in Fife and so it made sense to combine work with pleasure, even in those days I assume.

I bought this book by Tim Pat Coogan back in 1996, it’s a good read if you want to find out more and still in print on Amazon. As with many things relating to this subject however, the author continues to divide opinion!

From Bloody Sunday to the Good Friday agreement, could a simple Covid19 vaccine stall the peace process?

One of the worst atrocities of the Troubles occurred in Derry on 30 January 1972 but a desire to create lasting peace has largely encapsulated the Island of Ireland for many years now. Here is an extremely brief snapshot:

1.Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday was a massacre in the Bogside area of Derry when British soldiers shot 26 civilians during a protest march against internment without trial. Fourteen people died while many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded.

Bloody Sunday came to be regarded as one of the most significant events of the Troubles, because many civilians were killed by the British Army in full view of the public and the press.

It was the highest number of people killed in a single shooting incident during the conflict and is considered the worst mass shooting in Northern Irish history. Bloody Sunday fuelled Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards the British Army and worsened the conflict. Support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army rose, and there was a surge of recruitment into the organisation, especially locally (courtesy of Wikipedia).

2.The Derry Lama

The incredibly unlikely but lasting friendship between the Dalai Lama and Londonderry man Richard Moore featured in Joanna Lumley’s Home Sweet Home TV series last week.

Pic: The two Lamas!

A new mural depicting the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Children in Crossfire’s founder Richard Moore in Londonderry has been painted.

The Dalai Lama famously described Mr Moore as his hero for the forgiveness and compassion he showed Charles Innes, the British soldier who shot Mr Moore in the face with a rubber bullet in 1972, blinding him when he was just 10 years old.

Pic: The actual mural being painted in Londonderry Derry

The bond between the spiritual leader of Tibet and an unassuming man from Creggan has been encapsulated beautifully by the same artists behind the now iconic Derry Girls mural.

3.The Good Friday Agreement

The political agreement which was to form a lasting settlement following the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland, known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed on 10 April 1998.

The proposals included plans for a Northern Ireland assembly with a power-sharing executive, new cross-border institutions involving the Irish Republic and a body linking devolved assemblies across the UK with Westminster and Dublin.

President Bill Clinton still considers the Northern Ireland Peace Process his greatest foreign policy achievement. The former US leader was one of the main architects of the Good Friday agreement assisted by UK PM Tony Blair and Irish leader Bertie Ahern.

Clinton visited a number of areas in Belfast and also visited Derry, Armagh and Omagh on his 1995 visit. He famously shook hands with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on the Falls Road, a ‘significant gesture’ according to the Republican leader.

Pic: Clinton on the Falls Road in 1995.

There were also some controversial proposals on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the future of policing in Northern Ireland, and the early release of paramilitary prisoners.

A copy of the Agreement was posted to every household in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and put to referendums the following May, which gave them substantial support by 74% and 94% respectively. The lower amount of support in Northern Ireland was allegedly attributed to a significant number of sceptical unionist voters.

4.Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley – from enemies to the ‘Chuckle Brothers’

A critical component of setting up a power sharing agreement in 2007 was their relationship, one a former IRA commander, the other once denounced the Pope as the Antichrist!

However, their friendship grew and this essentially allowed the peace process to flourish while the DUP’s Paisley became the Frist Minister and Sinn Fein’s McGuinness the deputy FM in the early devolved government.

Pic: Paisley and McGuinness

While they were close, they never forgot their political backgrounds and ideologies but did not allow that to stop them working together for the interests of the peace process and all involved. When Paisley was ill and then died in 2014, McGuinness was supportive to the very end.

Can a simple vaccine stall the peace process?

The EU aborted an attempt to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol in January.

Had they continued it would have broken the EU’s promise not to compromise the peace and stability of the Island of Ireland’s peace process.

It was seen as a knee-jerk, panicked reaction to place controls on the export of vaccines made in the EU into Northern Ireland and could have meant the introduction of a hard border, the situation the protocol is designed to avoid. The EU was late in both authorising and ordering vaccines and so this overt protectionism and nationalism was not at all expected and drew much harsh criticism from the UK and Irish governments and embarrassing backtracking from the EU.

Graffiti warning staff at Belfast and Larne harbours to keep away brought back stark memories of the Troubles and replicated some of the reasons why they started and caused such deep division. namely political instability.

As of now the UK government has promised to deliver existing orders of the Oxford Astra-Zeneca jab to the EU but they dramatically trail the UK in vaccine roll out to their populations.

Radiotherapy in Ireland meant business in Belfast

Cork was a very familiar city but Dublin and Belfast a lot less so. I had been to Dublin to catch a boat back to Liverpool once on a holiday but had never been to Belfast at all and so in 1990 when I stopped being a clinical radiographer at Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood and became the UK, Ireland and later Benelux product manager for Theratronics, the commercial radiotherapy arm of the Canadian Atomic Energy Authority or AECL and the Island of Ireland became my patch!

As in the case of the EU and vaccines, the Island of Ireland was then an example of Theratronics protectionism and nationalism! In those days there were only 3 radiotherapy centres, one at Cork Regional Hospital, one at St Luke’s Hospital in Dublin and lastly Belvoir Park Hospital in Belfast. Each had a Theratron Cobalt-60 Unit and all eventually all a Theraplan Treatment Planning System while now there are twelve radiotherapy centres of which at least 50% are private service providers.

Visiting Belfast was a completely novel experience. The easiest way to travel from London was either on a BA Shuttle or with British Midland with both airlines flying into Aldergrove Airport, an ex RAF base from Heathrow. This was often referred to as ‘Belfast International Airport’, probably as it was a huge distance from Belfast and at least a 30 minute and expensive taxi ride into the city! Later easyJet also started flights from Luton. BA and British Midland offered a full English breakfast in the morning and so you ‘pay your money and take your choice‘, I did!

This was before the new ‘George Best City Airport’ opened, an upgraded version of the old city airport that was built in 1937 and used mainly by Belfast aircraft manufacturer Shorts. This made travel much easier as located at the docks just 3 miles from the city centre and by the Harland and Wolf Shipyard. Naming it after George Best had mixed reviews within the local community as ever in a divided city.

Pic: The yellow H and W cranes can be seen across the city

The H&W shipyard is famous for being where the Titanic was built and launched in 1912 and where all other White Star Line ships where created. The iconic double yellow cranes that are still part of the city vista, named Samson and Goliath are still active, the site focuses now on ship repairs and also off-shore renewables such as wind turbines.

Back to the Future

The other largely ‘infamous’ business that Belfast is less renowned for is the DMC DeLorean ‘Gull-wing’ door sports car made famous in the movie ‘Back to the Future’ that produced cars from 1981 to 1982 mainly for export to the US market. Around 9,000 were made, were often unreliable and very few had a ‘colour option’ as the vast majority were silver due to the brushed stainless-steel bodywork that required no painting.

Margaret Thatcher was very much behind the initial factory set-up that created jobs for all sides of the city’s divide however the business soon run out of cash and filed for bankruptcy. John DeLorean was then subject to what looked like an FBI sting when allegedly trying to raise funds via a $24m cocaine deal to refinance the company and himself. He was charged as such but was found not-guilty due to entrapment law. He died in 2005 shortly after announcing plans to build a new car!

Pic: Back to the Future starred the DMC car and Michael J Fox

Security was tight in Belfast

Anyway, unlike Heathrow or Luton, Aldergrove Airport had heavily armed check points and concrete barriers at the road entrance to the airport for all cars to pass through, an X-Ray machine for everyone who simply entered the terminal building and police interview desks prior to the check-in area and then the usual airport security and these were in place well before Al-Qaeda flew two planes into the twin towers and so quite alarming for an unsuspecting traveller.

The airport taxis were white saloons that took you on the lengthy journey into town for an agreed rate and from what I could make out during the usual taxi chat, were largely ‘Unionist’. I am not sure what makes you jump in a taxi and ask the driver ‘how’s business at the moment’ but we all do it for some unknown reason!

I had been warned before my first visit to look out for the London style black cabs as these were allegedly ‘run by the IRA’ and that my very broad London accent might be an issue but I didn’t see or used them on my sanitised runs directly to and from the airport.

Things changed however, when I arrived at the railway station in the centre of Belfast having caught the ‘Enterprise Train’ from Dublin after a visit to St Luke’s Hospital. In the times of the Troubles this too was a very disrupted part of Irish infrastructure, usually from bomb hoaxes and was unreliable but relaunched in ‘Eurostar’ Livery as a much-needed boost to cross-border business. The first stop after Dublin is Newry and then on to Belfast in around two hours in total and one of the most beautiful short railway journeys in the world, following the coast the whole way.

Pic: 1980’s style Black Cab

On arrival at the station in Belfast city centre the taxi rank was full of black cabs and only black cabs. I rather nervously asked to be taken to the ‘cancer hospital’ in a contrived non-London accent hoping that they would be sympathetic. I need not have worried as the driver informed that we would wait until the other 3 seats were full and then get on our way. Five minutes later we were off to West Belfast, dropping passengers along the way and finally ending up at Belvoir Park in the south. The fare was divided by 4 and I got a safe view of parts the city like the Falls Road that I had only ever seen on the news or read about in books. The driver keen to know what I was up to in the cancer field as everyone knows someone with cancer and so is always an ice-breaker especially if it relates to someone in the family and we got on famously. Sharing cabs was standard practice in the city in those days and acknowledged by locals as one of the safer forms of public transport.

Lastly, one other area of potential concern for people with a fear of flying when travelling to Belfast was that in 1989 and a year or so earlier than my first visit a brand new British Midland Boeing 737-400 series jet crashed onto the M1 at East Midland Airport near Kegworth when the pilots turned off the wrong engine on an emergency approach when the right engine failed shortly after take-off from Heathrow to Belfast killing 47 people.

Belvoir Park Hospital

The radiotherapy centre in Belfast was situated at the Belvoir Park Hospital (pronounced Beaver) in the far south of the city and very similar to Mount Vernon Hospital where it was initially a ‘fever’ hospital when opened in 1906 and located far away from the city where all the fever patients and then all that ‘dangerous radioactivity’ could be safely located when becoming a regional cancer centre for Northern Ireland . It was a very sizeable complex of mainly large red brick, austere Victorian style buildings and is now closed as radiotherapy services were updated and moved to the City hospital in 2006. It is now a modern housing estate with apartments and town houses located in the old buildings, I believe.

The head of medical physics was Mr Derek Craig and his deputy Leslie Frew who is now head of radiotherapy physics at the City hospital. A very warm welcome always awaited from both, the hospital had a good canteen or sometimes a visit to a local hostelry took place and I enjoyed my stays at a small adjacent hotel, unfortunately some paramilitaries also took an interest in the hotel and fire-bombed it when the owner refused to pay the additional ‘rent’! It sadly never re-opened.

After that I stayed in the city centre at the Europa Hotel, that at one stage in its past was the most bombed hotel in Europe. Security was strict, concrete barriers and guards blocked all the entrances and often worryingly the fire-alarm would go off at night but I’ve been back recently and it has been fully upgraded to its former glory and not a security system in sight.

Pic: Europa Hotel was bombed very often

The centre quite quickly purchased a brand new Theraplan 500 series treatment planning system from me that was their first ever venture into 3D planning with some additional networked workstations that offered version 5 software including organ rendering, interactive beams eye view, images of regret, organ dose histograms and MLC simulation among other leading features of the time. This kept everyone happy and shortly afterwards all three sites in Ireland had this system installed which made sense from a data sharing and networking perspective.

Over in England in those days people were torn between the new Scandinavian boys on the block Helax TMS and the English old guard of IGE Target-2 while Theraplan was peripherally popular in Leeds and Liverpool who also upgraded to the latest system from Canada and so I had secured around a 10% share of the 3D planning market in those early days, not bad for an upstart radiographer! I would return once every six months or so to see how the land lied until made redundant, but that is another story and already covered in earlier blogs.

Altnagelvin hospital – A new cross-border radiotherapy centre for Londonderry Derry

A £50m radiotherapy unit opened in Londonderry Derry at the end of November 2016. The cross-border treatment centre at Altnagelvin hospital treats cancer patients from both Northern Ireland and Ireland and so the North now has two centres.

Cancer patients in the Derry area faced a 200-mile round trip to a cancer centre in Belfast while patients from Donegal in the Irish Republic no longer have to travel to Galway or Dublin for treatment.

The unit provides access to radiotherapy services to more than half a million people living in the Western Trust area of Northern Ireland and in County Donegal in Ireland showing how a devolved, power sharing government can really make a difference when it works!

Just a week before opening it was formally visited by none other than Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, the deputy first minister neatly creating a virtuous circle from the time of Troubles to a project benefitting cancer patients essentially available to all people of that part of the Island of Ireland, a solution in my opinion clearly emanating from the ongoing success of the peace process.

As I write Boris Johnson’s government has just released draft plans today of a concept to create a 23-mile railway tunnel from Scotland to Northern Ireland to promote business, it sounds great but let’s see what happens to that another time!

Duncan Hynd – March 2021 Blog – A Radiographer’s Life, a 40-year career in Radiotherapy