Bussing through Northern Ireland's Troubles

  • Published
Buses destroyed 1982Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Ulsterbus had 1,500 buses destroyed during the Troubles

"All of a sudden the doors would open and there would be masked men with either cudgels or a gun."

Throughout Northern Ireland's Troubles, hijackings by paramilitaries became an all too frequent occurrence for bus drivers and their passengers.

Ulsterbus, which celebrated its 50th birthday this week, had 1,500 buses destroyed during the Troubles.

However, the impact on drivers was even more severe - 12 lost their lives and many more were injured.

Ulsterbus driver Raymond Bell was hijacked five times, with three of his buses completely destroyed.

"Normally, what they did was to get someone to stand at a pedestrian crossing and as you went down the road they would have stepped onto the crossing to get you stopped," he told BBC NI's Good Morning Ulster.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
The company would often not know how many buses it would have available after trouble

"Once you stopped, all of a sudden the doors would open and there would be masked men with either cudgels or a gun and they'd say 'we're hijacking your bus'."

Mr Bell said drivers tried not to dwell on the threat because, if they did, they wouldn't have gone into work.

However, he said the incidents did have an effect.

"If you were hijacked and you weren't injured, you came back to the depot and you continued your night's work or your day's work after that," he said.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Buses burned out at Ballymena depot

"Or the company would have said 'we'll cover your duty for you, see you tomorrow if you're able to come in'.

"Quite a lot of drivers suffered mental issues and also injuries and it stayed with them on the job and also many left the job because of issues like that."

The managing director of Ulsterbus during some of the darkest days of the Troubles was former Luftwaffe World War Two conscript Werner Heubeck.

Image caption,
Former Ulsterbus managing director Werner Heubeck became famous for carrying bombs off buses

He became famous for carrying bombs off hijacked buses.

Frank Clegg, a former colleague of Mr Heubeck, worked as general manager for services for Ulsterbus.

He said if the company didn't keep the buses running, they weren't serving the people of Northern Ireland.

Image source, Translink
Image caption,
The company celebrated its 50th birthday this week

"Buses represented normality - having buses on the road was lifeblood for commerce, for getting people to and from work," Mr Clegg said.

"So with all our colleagues - drivers, engineers - we kept the buses running and the service running.

"We didn't know how many buses we were probably going to have the next morning, we didn't know how many drivers, because unfortunately they suffered assaults and hijacks, but we had to keep services running and that meant changing timetables overnight in certain instances.

"It was a case of working together, it was a case of keeping things going.

"It wasn't defiance against whatever, it really was that was what our job was."

Image caption,
Former general manager for services Frank Clegg said staff worked together to keep services running for the people of Northern Ireland