Wednesday is the 40th anniversary of an event little remembered, except perhaps by those who were there.
A British Airways flight left Belfast airport in the middle of the day on July 23, 1974, on what was supposed to be a routine flight to London. I was on the flight, as a stand-by passenger, after what seemed then like an exhaustive screening procedure at an airport where security was a watchword.
The flight had some passengers, sitting not far from me, whose trip, we later discovered, was deeply offensive to the Provisional IRA. The chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, James Flanagan, his wife, and two RUC officers were heading to London to receive an honour from the Queen for their public service.
About twenty minutes after the flight took off, the flight attendant came out of the cockpit looking grim, and saying “the pilot will be making an announcement. Please stay calm and listen carefully.” The pilot did come on, saying we would be making an immediate landing at Manchester Airport, and to follow the emergency instructions.
As the plane approached the runway, ambulances were driving alongside, and we were told to go out the inflatable chutes, and to run from the plane as quickly as we could, leaving everything behind in the plane.
It was a warm, sunny day, and as everyone got out with no harm done, people were in a jocular mood as we waited for a bus that would take us to a hangar where our belongings were gathered together.
Always in the search for knowledge, I was reading The Role of Sex in Human Loving by Eric Berne. Everyone cheered as I claimed it. I now read dictionaries on planes.
After many hours of milling around, and many interviews with police officials, we were allowed to return to London by about midnight. We were told at the time that “a device” was found on board, but nothing more than that. Fact is, they found a two kilogram bomb just a couple of seats away from where I had been sitting.
Many years later, I learned in a history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary that the bomb had been intended to go off, but that a single coat of paint on the pin from the electrical charger to the bomb had stopped it from detonating. The Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the bomb, but insisted that it had never been intended to explode. They simply wanted to “make a point.” To this day, I don’t believe them.
When I was asked to do a review of the Air India bombing in 2005, that incident was very much on my mind. The 331 passengers on board Air India flight 182 died because, as Justice John Major reinforced in his own report, everything that could have gone wrong did indeed go wrong.
The Air India families have shown a breathtaking resilience and determination. They insisted that lessons should have been learned, and were not. They wanted their loved ones to be remembered, not just by them, but by the entire country. They are right, and Stephen Harper should have long ago implemented all the changes in security policy and legislation suggested by Judge Major.
Watching the terrible news about the missile attack on the Malaysian Airlines flight this past week reminds us that our lives are held by a single thread. A moment’s inattention, a few seconds of negligence, a fluke of bio-chemistry – so many narrow escapes. But deliberate decisions to kill others in the name of whatever cause – this is different, and this we must stop. In the world in which we are living, President Vladimir Putin’s encouragement of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, and supplying them with advanced missile technology, is like giving matches to a gang of pyromaniacs.
And on July 23, a quiet toast. To life. And to love. As the poem says engraved in stone at the Air India memorial in Ireland, “Time flies/Suns rise and shadows fall /Let it pass by/Love reigns forever over all.”