U2 and Ash: I was there, helping to make history. (I just wish I hadn’t been scratching my chin)

THE PHONE rings at 10.30 on a Monday night. It is Bono. “We’re going to Belfast tomorrow night,” he says, “and we’re trying to come up with a song for the occasion. Any ideas”

The occasion turns out to be a short, surprise performance by U2 in support of the Yes campaign in the referendum on The Good Friday Agreement. U2’s lead singer has somehow managed to persuade both John Hume and David Trimble to appear on stage at a rock gig and shake hands in an unprecedented show of cross-tribal unity. First, though, they have to find a suitable song “Do you think,” Bono says, “we could get away with ‘Two Little Boys’?”

I have known Bono for a long time now but I have never quite grown used to his unflagging idealism nor his surreal sense of humour, both of which seem to have intensified rather than diminished over the years. I put the phone down and, still reeling from the idea that Rolf Harris could become a footnote in Northern Irish history, quickly begin rifling through my record collection for a lyric that might possibly surpass “Do you think I would leave you crying/When there’s room on my horse for two”. This proves more difficult than you might think.

Half an hour later I am in Notting Hill with Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton of U2, listening to an amended version of Hot Chocolate’s ‘You Sexy Thing’, the chorus of which — “I believe in miracles” — seems to provide the somewhat tenuous link with the referendum. For the next hour or so, we raid rock’s rich history without much success.

Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’? Too obvious.

Marley’s ‘One Love’? Too obscure.

Likewise, Curtis Mayfield’s anthemic ‘People Get Ready’ and though it seemed like a great idea for about 10 seconds, Marvin Gaye’s priapic soul stirrer, ‘Let’s Get It On’.

The phone rings. It is Tim Wheeler from the band Ash, calling from a tour bus somewhere outside Birmingham en route to the Stranraer-Larne ferry. He is just about to tuck into a service-station Cornish pasty. This news causes the three members of U2 to have a rock version of a Proustian rush: for a brief moment, the years roll away and they are back there, jet-less, limo-less, on a cramped tour bus crisscrossing the country in search of a half-decent Cornish pasty. Tim suggests Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’ — a tribute to the late, great crooner and a symbolic song for the parallel, but suddenly convergent, political paths of Hume and Trimble.

As soon as Bono puts the phone down, though, ‘Strangers in the Night’ receives a massive No vote. Too confusing. Too tenuous. Anyway, Frank deserves a tribute all to himself. Someone then, inevitably, suggests The Beatles. Everyone knows The Beatles. Even today’s teenagers know The Beatles.

As I leave, Bono, felt-tip in hand, is scribbling down the words to ‘We Can Work It Out’. And beside him The Edge is actually trying to work it out: “A typical Beatles’ song,” he mutters, feeling his way through the chord sequence. “It sounds so simple but it’s bloody complicated.”

THAT NIGHT, I have a dream in which Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams emerge out of U2 s most famous stage prop — the giant lemon, a fruit neither orange nor green — to the strains of ‘Two Little Boys’ played by Rolf Harris on a flute. Still disturbed by this grotesque vision, I ring Bono to find out that ‘We Can Work It Out’ has been discarded in favour of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’; an uptempo mid-period Beatles’ song for a slow, late-period one.

I wonder if this is a good move.

Bono’s tone of voice suggests that it is. He has chosen and won’t be swayed. “It’s simple and it’s direct and we can rev it up if we need to.” On cue, in the background Edge strums a few chords and they do a revved-up acoustic version there and then. Even over the phone, I have to admit, it works.

I am about to ask about the lemon, when Bono says, matter of factly: “Oh, I forgot to tell you, Helen (a U2 assistant) is not coming so there’s a seat on the plane if you want it.” Is the Pope Catholic? Is Paisley a Presbyterian? Do bears… well, you get the picture.

AN HOUR later, I am squeezed into a five-seater plane ascending into the strangely beautiful layer of smog above sunny Heathrow. A five-seater plane containing three rock stars, a tour manager and me. A small, dark voice in my head tells me this is tempting fate. I try not to think of Otis Redding or John Denver. I wonder aloud, instead, where the toilet is. I realise immediately that the plane is so small there is no toilet. “It’s not fear of flying you have to worry about in this thing,” notes the possibly psychic Adam Clayton, helpfully. “It’s more fear of farting.”

The Edge peruses the morning papers. “You’re a rock idol in the tabloids but just a humble rock singer in the qualities,” he informs Bono. Bono does not seem to hear. He has retreated into himself, and will spend the entire flight scribbling down notes on the back of the sheet music for ‘Strangers in the Night’. There is a press conference scheduled for before the gig; there is the small matter of how to introduce two uncool politicians to a couple of thousand highly charged teenagers. “When John [Hume] rang us, I had to think long and hard about how we could help,” Bono explains: “The one thing we didn’t want to do was to get involved in a partisan Yes campaign. I said we would help if he and Trimble shared the stage with us and then I promptly forgot all about it. Next thing I know, Trimble has agreed.”

Since then, of course, there has been the usual Northern Ireland chorus of cynicism, voiced most forcibly by UK Unionist Party leader, Bob McCartney, a leading No campaigner, who has called the peace concert a “silly and superficial” publicity stunt. I am pondering this pop and politics interface when Bono suddenly stops scribbling and says: “Why are we here?”

There is a pause as his two fellow rock stars, the road manager and the journalist think, in unison, that this is hardly the time or place to get all existential. “That’s what they’re going to ask us, right?” he continues. “So, let’s be ready.”

Another longer pause ensues. Then The Edge says, quietly: “We’re here because we want peace. It’s really that simple.”

AT BELFAST Airport, we are hustled into a small room for a briefing by Tim Atwood, adviser to Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party. He manages to be both upbeat and guarded in that effortless way that all political people are. Almost as an afterthought, he says: “There may be a few protesters. It’s Northern Ireland so it’s best to expect the worst and hope for the best.”

On the drive from the airport to the Waterfront, the venue for the gig, I count about 30 posters proclaiming “It’s Right To Say No”. I do not see one Yes poster. On a flyover, someone has written “A Bridge Too Far For Trimble…?” I think about how difficult it is for anyone who grew up through the Troubles — through every tiny, tortuous step forward, every botched agreement and stillborn deal, every standoff and trade-off — to be positive about Northern Ireland’s future.

Outside the Waterfront, things take a surreal turn. We are ushered out of the cars and right there, a few yards away, are John Hume and David Trimble with the four members of Ash. I trail along in the wake of a bevy of minders, managers and fixers as Hume, Trimble, Bono, Edge and Tim from Ash walk towards a phalanx of about a hundred exploding cameras. People are shouting from the balconies. Photographers are clicking and calling and jostling for position. A woman shouts, as predicted: “Why are you here, Bono?”

I catch the word “peace”, and the phrase, “it’s that simple”. He also says: “We are here to talk.”

Someone else asks: “How will you persuade the doubters?”

Bono says: “Well, we can deafen them.”

It goes on like this for a few mercifully short minutes until someone asks: “Why did you choose a youth-oriented event, Bono?” There is a short pause, a hundred minds all thinking the same thing: “Get a grip”.

John Hume then speaks and David Trimble speaks and everybody smiles and waves a lot and suddenly it’s over. No protesters, no particularly difficult questions, no potentially embarrassing answers. Later, my head will be spotted on the television news and a friend will inform me that I looked like one of “Trimble’s heavies”. Later still, my mother will ring and ask, not “What were you doing at the big event?” but, “What were you doing on the news with that Trimble character?”

INSIDE, BONO is ushered into a side room with the two politicians while two burly minders stand guard outside. A few minutes later, he joins the rest of us in the dressing room. “I’ve left them in there alone together,” he says, grinning. “I said, I’m sure you have a lot to talk about but I’ve got to go and tune a guitar.”

About 15 minutes later, David and John — we’re all on first-name terms now — join the rest of us. There is much handshaking, more smiling. I am sure I hear Bono and David Trimble discussing the musical merits of ‘Amazing Grace’. Then Bono says something like: “It’s amazing that the evangelical tradition can throw up such disparate campaigners as Martin Luther King and Dr Paisley.”

David Trimble nods his head, and says: “I’ve never thought about it like that before, but I suppose it’s pretty amazing all right.”

Then, Bono says: “I often wonder if Ian Paisley reads his Bible but skips over all the bits about grace and forgiveness.”

And David Trimble laughs and says: “No. Ian’s not very big on forgiveness.”

For someone whose career is on the line if this big gamble fails, Trimble comes across as remarkably upbeat and, if anything, more relaxed in this strange environment than even John Hume. Not exactly being the biggest fan of Ulster Unionism, of whatever hue, I am starting to reluctantly acknowledge that David Trimble may indeed be the visionary he has lately been portrayed as in the British media. He certainly seems to have a sense of humour and a considerable, albeit mostly hidden charm, neither of which I automatically associate with men of his political persuasion.

“He has made a leap of faith in the past few months,” Bono had assured me earlier, “and I think when you make a leap, you automatically reinvent yourself.” There speaks the voice of experience.

A few minutes later, I sit down beside John Hume, who seems lost in thought. Ever the catalyst, it was, of course, his initial phone call to Bono, asking for support for the Yes campaign, that set this whole peace train in motion. He tells me about his daughter, who works as a campaigner for women’s rights in El Salvador. He says: “Maybe Bono and the boys could do something for her campaign as well.” I tell him I’ll mention it. Then, Bono and The Edge break into an impromptu performance of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and everybody stops talking for a while.

After the song finishes. David Trimble comes over to John Hume and says; “Maybe we should take our jackets off, John. It might look a bit less formal up on the stage.”

John Hume, who is wearing a natty yellow number, nods his head in agreement. Rock and roll or what?

THERE IS a lull as Ash’s performance draws to a close on the video monitor in the corner and the big moment approaches. I watch Hume and Trimble, sitting side be side, not speaking, watching Ash tear into their final song. What are they thinking?”

Probably what the rest of us are thinking — what exactly are we doing here?

It’s too late for that, though. Then, there is a flurry of activity, as everyone leaves the dressing room and heads in a tight huddle to the side of the stage. David Trimble smiles knowingly and says: “You’re stage left, John, and I’m stage right,” before disappearing off down a corridor.

Stage left, the noise from the audience is deafening. Tim from Ash introduces The Edge and Bono and the decibel level rises to a shrill tumult. Together, beneath a big banner that reads “YES: MAKE YOUR OWN HISTORY”, they kick into ‘Don’t Let me Down’, revving it up to the max.

Beside me, John Hume looks transfixed. He waves to a gaggle of young girls who have spotted him through the bank of amplifiers and are screaming his name at the stage, one of our more unlikely pop stars.

The Beatles song, remade and remodelled by the combined efforts of what one newspaper called “the mixed religion Irish rock band” and the “Protestant rock group from Downpatrick”, suddenly makes perfect new sense. The crowd carry the plaintive chorus. It crashes and shudders to a halt and there is mayhem.

Bono has that look in his eye, part manic, part mischievous, that suggests a man in his element. He manages to calm the crowd down until they are hanging on his every word. Showbiz, maybe: charisma, definitely.

Then, he says: “It’s great to be in Belfast in a week when history is being made. And here are two men who are writing this history. They’re taking a leap of faith out of the past and into the future and we want to join them. But, first, we want them to join together [beat, beat] with us.”

In shirtsleeves. Trimble and Hume stride towards each other across the stage and the place goes wild. Even from the side of the stage, the adrenaline level is palpable. They shake hands. More mayhem. From where I am standing, I can see that Trimble is a serious handshaker. A symbolic gesture this may be, but there is nothing limp nor half-hearted about it. John Hume responds in kind, Bono behind them both, clapping and grinning.

Suddenly, the singer pulls them together and raises both their hands in the air. Shades of Bob Marley on stage in Jamaica, uniting deadly political rivals, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, back in the late Seventies.

John Hume looks ecstatic as well as dazed, brimming over with emotion. He manages a big thumbs up to the screaming girls crushed against the safety barriers. Trimble has a big smile plastered across his face. Everyone — the audience, the hangers-on, the musicians on stage — is clapping and cheering and grinning. swept up in the symbolism of the moment.

Then the rock stars and the politicians bow their heads and everybody falls silent in memory of Northern Ireland’s dead. For a long, stretched few moments, it seems that time itself has stood still. U2 play the opening chords to ‘One’, their most beautiful sad song, and, as John Hume crosses back to the side of the stage, I see he has tears in his eyes.

THE REST of U2’s short set passes in a blur. I hear the last chords of ‘One’ slip seamlessly into the chorus of ‘Give Peace A Chance’. By now, the crowd are screaming the house down and, after a short confab, Ash and U2 play Ben E. King’s anthemic ‘Stand By Me’.

(There is, it will turn out, a weird synchronicity about this impromptu choice of song. Unbeknown to U2, David Trimble had earlier been asked at a press conference when he had last attended a rock gig. He had to think for a long time before coming up with the name… Ben E. King).

In the dressing room afterwards, everyone is a little high, a little drained. David Trimble has to leave immediately for a television interview. John Hume is cradling a glass of red wine. “What a moment.” he says, to no one in particular. “What a moment. I was crying when I came off that stage. In all my years, I have never experienced anything like that.” Bono throws his arms around him. “We’re only amateurs at this,” he says. “This man has devoted his life to peace.”

Later, when the euphoria has subsided, U2 will be ushered into another side room to meet some of the people for whom a Yes vote and the promise of peace in Northern Ireland will have a particular, and unbearably poignant, resonance: those who have lost friends or family in the Troubles. It is a sobering moment for everyone, a glimpse of how high the stakes are at this particular moment.

Later, Bono will say: “I have to say, talking to people who had lost their loved ones made the No vote more understandable. People are justifiably worried, even afraid of where this is going. But what’s the alternative?”

Bono tells me how he spoke to one young lad, a 22-year-old, who had lost his wife in the Shankill Road bomb. The lad had told him: “I’m voting Yes, but it’s the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make. I’m nowhere near forgiveness and I know that the people who killed my wife could be walking the streets again in a year’s time, but I’m still going to vote Yes.”

For the first time that day Bono was lost for words: “I couldn’t say anything at the time but now I think, if someone like that can vote Yes, there is hope. That’s what this is all about for me: if we can persuade people to vote not in fear but in hope, maybe we can help swing it.”

As we leave for the airport on this strange night, it’s impossible not to feel he is right.

© Sean O’HaganThe Observer, 24 May 1998

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