Gordon Burns remembers working on World In Action in Northern Ireland and the challenges he and his crew faced

The other thing I should mention, which is another one of my pride areas, that World in Action was the great award-winning, again, pioneering investigative programme which the elite, if you like, in news… most journalists’ ambition was to work on World in Action, and it was left, right and centre award-winning, and tremendous investigative stuff, and they used me because of my expertise on Northern Ireland, and having covered the first four years of The Troubles I knew all the politicians, and I knew the story back to front and inside out. So when they did a number of stories on Northern Ireland, they used me as the… they didn’t really have presenters, but if they did, they had me as the presenter. In one particular one was the time of the Protestant workers’ strike in Northern Ireland, whereby the new power-sharing assembly – not the one that’s there now, but the very first one in which the SDLP with Gerry Fitt and John Hulme had to sit down and work with the unionists, led then by Brian Faulkner, who had been prime minister in Northern Ireland, and Paisley and the extreme Protestant section, who were probably in the majority in Northern Ireland, had refused to have any truck with it because they weren’t going to sit down with them. “We will not sit down with nationalists who don’t believe in the constitution of this country!”

So they would have no part in the parliament, which actually made it fairly ineffective if the largest chunk of Northern Ireland wouldn’t actually take part, but they were determined to make it work so it was up and running when the Protestant workers, who tended to be of the extreme unionist variety, called a strike, and they were going to bring the country to its knees, which meant the electricity was going out because all the Protestant workers were the workforce in places like the Ballylumford power station and so on, they controlled the power and they could pull the plugs, and it made life very tough.

So they told everybody that nobody was allowed to go to work, it was almost mob rule on the streets, and if you tried to go to work, they had set up vigilante groups all over Belfast and, I presume, other parts of the area, and guys with baseball bats, and if you were driving to work, your car was stopped and you were dragged out and beaten up, basically. And we went out to cover the Protestant workers’ strike, and I was there to more or less do it – but the producer had the overall control. And they decided one day that they wanted to go to the Lower Newtownards Road at 8am. Normally it would be packed with traffic – it was one of the main routes from East Belfast into the city centre, and it was also the heart of extreme unionism, if you like, but the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), which was the paramilitary group centred in East Belfast, and it was a heavy, heavy area. And of all people that the press had to be worried about, it was the extreme Protestant community, rather than the extreme Nationalist community.

Of course the Nationalist community welcomed all media coverage, because they felt it helped their cause in civil rights and in equality and all the rest of it, whereas the extreme Protestant side saw all that they had was being eroded, they had already lost their parliament where they had dominated, the gerrymandering areas were being resorted and all that sort of thing, so they hated the press and television, and they regularly beat up press and television if they ever got their hands on them. So it was dodgy – and I told them that when they said they wanted to go and film on the Newtownards Road to see it empty. And it was totally empty – nobody was daring to go to work. I said, “This is seriously dangerous if you want to do this,” But we had the most brilliant cameraman in the world bar none, in George Jesse Turner– big World in Action star cameraman, all over the world in the most dangerous situations. The man who knew no fear! And I was appointed driver because I knew the place like the back of my hand. I used to live just a little bit away from east Belfast, and that’s where I used to work in my early years – so I knew it all inside out. I remember warning them again that this was a dangerous situation, and I took them through the old rules of when I worked there – once you got in the car you locked the doors immediately. You did not forget to lock the doors, that was first and foremost. So we went to the Lower Newtownards Road, centre of east Belfast, and we set the camera right in the middle of the road in its tripod, just in front of our car – and he shot down the road to get these shots of totally empty streets in rush hour Belfast. And word gets about very quickly in those areas – little streets of terraced houses, all flying Union Jacks and red, white and blue pavements and all that sort of stuff, and there was a big pub right down on the left hand side in the distance, which is where the paramilitary groups used to gather. And even though it was 8am, there was a big gathering in there – and suddenly out came these thugs, basically, carrying things, and could see us filming in the road, and there were shouts and all the rest of it, and they came for us up the road. I said to George, “George, get in the car now!” Would he? No – he kept filming. I went, “Get in the car NOW, George!” They would have killed you, or certainly beaten you to a pulp if they’d got you.

And he was still filming as they were running towards us, and then suddenly, at the last possible moment, he swept the tripod in his arms, shoved it in the boot, which was open, leapt in the car, and I yelled again, “Doors!” so that they all locked their doors, and just as we took off the mob arrived and were actually holding on to the door handles, ad these faces peering in the windows that were absolutely almost black with rage, trying to get at us and drag us out of the car. I’m glad nobody was stood in front of the car, we just whizzed off and through a few side streets I knew we could get out of, and it was probably one of the most terrifying moments of my life, even having worked in Northern Ireland for a long time – but that man knew no fear, and that’s how he got some of the greatest pictures in the world.

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