Gate D, at Belfast International Airport, is drab, and cheap-looking. The shabby grey carpet and beige walls are brashly lit by fluorescent tubes set into the polystyrene-tiled ceiling. In a far corner of the room, one of the lights flickers unsettlingly. It is 11 a.m., and the small bar area is busy with suited salesmen, their ties not yet knotted, and a boisterous squad of lads in football jerseys. They stand, drinking pints of Harp lager, at small circular tables, which perch atop tall chrome pedestals. A bearded, long-haired bloke in jeans and a dark green jumper is knocking back a Guinness in solitude. Skeins of yellow-tinged cigarette smoke hang in the still air. In the main hall there are ranks of uncomfortable, individual, plastic seats. They are all occupied. Knots of impatient passengers gather in the aisles; at the doors some are already queuing. Flights to London, Glasgow, and Liverpool are all boarding from here shortly. I scan the crowd, trying to work out why these people are travelling to and from Northern Ireland. It is late August, so there are a good few families in the room. They will be taking their kids back home after the holidays, ready for the start of the new school term. I hope the children had stayed in a wee quiet village somewhere on the coast and hadn’t been traumatised by army patrols, checkpoints, and atrocities. Sitting under the strobing light there is an old couple, eating home-made sandwiches from a Tupperware box. They didn’t bring a thermos of tea, I note, but bought two cups from the café. They look like well-organised, doughty, picnickers, so I wonder about the lack of a flask; maybe one of them drinks coffee, the other tea. They’re probably off to visit their progeny: I picture a paunchy stockbroker of a son with an unfaithful, skinny, tennis-playing wife and spoiled English grandchildren living in some immaculately-lawned residence in the Home Counties.
My flight is called, and I shuffle over to join the queue. The old couple decamp: she packs away the remnants of their lunch; he folds the Telegraph, stands, and offers his hand. He hauls her up and they join the line. As we move towards the glass door to board our flight, I notice an Indian woman coming towards me, trailing two small girls. The first thing I notice is that she’s beautiful, the second that she’s crying. There is a space where they were sitting and in the opposite bank of seats is a row of four tall, muscular men with regulation haircuts. British Army squaddies on their way home, I surmise: they are lean, dangerous, and drunk, holding almost-empty pint glasses. As she passes the last of them, a tight-cropped Aryan with high cheekbones and thin lips, he gulders at her in a slurred London accent: What’s the matter? You black or something? She hurries away, mascara smudged, bag slipping off her shoulder, a child in each hand. All around, eyes focus on neutral places: the floor, ceiling, Irish News, crossword puzzle. Not a word from anyone. Not a word from me, as the line moves on. Certainly, we are all cowed by the aggression, but I realise that there is something more behind our collective inaction. We are shocked and surprised: this English racism doesn’t belong here. Despite the years of sectarian and political violence, we’ve never experienced this particular variety of mindless hate before, and it has frozen us into pathetic submission. As I cross the tarmac the guilt starts to gnaw at me.