A Beacon Of Hope In Northern Ireland

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A beacon of hope in Northern Ireland

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

Most people have heard of the Europa, the world’s most bombed hotel, even if they couldn’t find Belfast on a map. But when you ask exactly how many times it has been blown up, opinions vary.

The deputy press officer at Sinn Finn’s headquarters in the Falls Road, after assuring me that his organisation had nothing to do with the bombings, thought the IRA had blasted the Europa 33 times between 1970 and 1995.

"Are you aware of any plans to resume bombing the Europa in the near future"" I asked him, cautiously, not wishing to be a guest there when it happened. "Oh no," he said, "you’re pretty safe."

Which of course wasn’t always the case.

Home for journalists covering the terror, the Europa supplied moments of black humour that are looked back on with a sort of grim fondness.

There was the time in 1971 when two young gunmen calmly walked in to the reception lobby and deposited a large white box marked "IRA" stuffed full of gelignite beside the lifts.

"Don’t move until this goes off," one of them told staff and guests.

Then there was the occasion when the hall porter noticed a furniture van parked outside and was expecting it to blow up. He was approached by an American guest demanding his mail from the pigeon hole. "You’ll be getting it by airmail shortly," the porter said, with an eye on the van.

The Europa’s first general manager, Harper Brown, received an MBE (Member of the British Empire) from HM The Queen for keeping the hotel open. He died in 1989 but his memory lives on in the annals of the hotel.

Like the day the IRA came in with a bomb and Mr Brown picked it up and put it in the car park. The IRA saw him and in turn, like some terrible farce, brought it back in again. The redoubtable Mr Brown carried it straight back out, at which stage the IRA gave up and left.

Dr Billy Hastings, OBE, the present owner of what has become a four-star symbol of Northern Ireland’s rise since the IRA ceasefire was first announced in 1994, doesn’t agree with Sinn Finn’s assessment.

"I think 33 times is a bit of an exaggeration," said Dr Hastings. "Every time a bomb went off in Belfast and rattled our windows, the media announced the Europa had been blasted again.

"One of the reasons the Europa was such a target was that the international Press corps provided much of its business over the years."

According to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, there were more than 10,000 explosions throughout Northern Ireland in the past 30 years, of which about five were major hits on the Europa.

"No matter what happened, the hotel never closed, even when we were very badly damaged," said Martin Mulhollond, who has worked at the Europa for 18 years.

"Sometimes we had no doors and no windows. We’ve even had the journalists climb up the fire escapes to get to their rooms when the lifts were blown out of action."

Jimmy Connor was concierge for two terms in the 1970s and remembers the hotel at the height of the troubles.

"During the strike when everything else in Belfast closed, including all the other hotels, the Europa remained open, with a great deal of difficulty. They’d throw the power off now and then so we’d have no lifts and no lights.

"At the finish, the chef lit braziers and cooked over them. In the bad old days, guests who stayed were given a special tie to show they’d survived the experience. One London businessman who stayed the other week said he had been dining out on that tie for years."

Many others have dined out on the story of the American woman who walked up to reception in the early 1970s to ask if the hotel was likely to be bombed in the next couple of days.

"No," she was told by one of the receptionists, "at least we hope not." The woman looked disappointed. Embarrassed, she explained that the Europa was as famous as the George V in Paris or the Saigon Hilton and she just wanted to send a postcard back to her relatives in the States saying she had been blown across her bedroom.

My dear friend, the late, Belfast-born Ivor Mills, former ITN broadcaster from 1961 to 1975 alongside Reginald Bosanquet, returned to the Europa in 1995 after a decade away.

"How did you get on"" I asked him, shortly after he returned to London.

"In the early Seventies, the whole ITN team did the Six O’clock News standing on the roof of the Europa," he said. "You could see repairs going on and rubble being cleared away.

"Today, from that same roof, you no longer see the pain but the rebirth of Belfast."

Back in 1993, Billy Hastings was undaunted by the prospect of taking over the Europa, with bomb damage estimated at around £1.5 million.

"Sure, the Europa was losing money and seemed to be a constant target for terrorists," he admitted, "but I could see glimpses of excellence there.

"Even if it hadn’t been damaged, I would still have taken the place apart to redevelop it. It was like an old vehicle left in bad shape that just needed a bit of tender loving care."

The Europa first opened in July 1971, at the cost of £2 million.

Bombed yet again in May 1993, it was closed for the first time in its battle-scarred history for a £6.5 million overhaul.

Eight months later it was wrecked by a 1,000lb IRA bomb. But a regal Europa, newly adorned by classical columns fronting Great Victoria Street, reopened with a grand ball in May 1994.

In December 1994, the world’s Press descended on the hotel for John Major’s Irish Investment Conference.

On December 1, 1995, President Clinton stood in the Europa lobby for the first time, during his trip to Northern Ireland.

Maybe he’ll return for the sixth anniversary of the IRA ceasefire, which takes place at midnight, August 31, 2000.

I asked Billy Hastings if the Europa would be holding a party to celebrate this momentous event.

"Not really," he said. "We’ll be keeping our head down and trading away as usual. And leaving the celebrating to somebody else."

A few weeks ago, I stayed at the Europa, as chief judge of the BT/IPR Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. Over two days, I smoked, eat and drank myself into a decline, courtesy of my generous Irish friends.

Not only has the Europa remained smoker-friendly, it also displays a remarkable little sign on the tables in its restaurants, lobby, bars and rooms, entitled "Courtesy of Choice."

Underneath the heading are the following words, "The concept and symbol of Courtesy of Choice reflects the centuries-old philosophy that acknowledges differences while allowing them to exist together in harmony.

"Courtesy of Choice accommodates the preferences of individuals by offering both smoking and non-smoking areas in the spirit of conviviality and mutual respect."

It is tolerant attitudes like this that will, I believe, continue to strengthen the ongoing Peace Process in Northern Ireland.

What a pity they haven’t adopted that sign in smoker-unfriendly California.

Copyright James Leavey, 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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