The Cigar Man
The Cigar Man

By Danny Morrison (for the Andersonstown News)

Of all the memories I have of arrests, and there are quite a few, probably the most abiding is of Pierre Salinger, the former press secretary of President John F. Kennedy, nonchalantly puffing a huge Cuban cigar as he was hoisted into a jeep in Springfield Road barracks before being sent to Castlereagh for interrogation!

Salinger, who died last week from heart failure at the age of 79, was a great journalist and broadcaster. It was at a Sinn Féin press conference in 1979 that he was arrested under the Emergency Provisions Act by the RUC which claimed that he and his crew were in Belfast to film an IRA checkpoint.

The incident occurred in early September 1979 on the Whiterock Road, a week after the IRA had killed Lord Mountbatten in Sligo and eighteen paratroopers at Warrenpoint. Following those attacks the Republican Press Centre on the Falls Road, where I worked, was inundated with requests for interviews and background briefings.

When we met he and I immediately hit it off even though I was a novice publicity officer to a revolutionary party and he had been press secretary to a US President. I knew Salinger was quite famous but not the detail of his life.

As a naval commander at just nineteen he was decorated for bravery for saving the lives of fifteen sailors stranded on a sandbar in Okinawa in 1944. Later, as a journalist who was researching corruption in the Teamsters Union he was hired by Robert Kennedy who, as a lawyer to a Senate committee, was also inquiring into labour racketeering. It was Robert who introduced Salinger to his brother John, then Senator for Massachusetts.

When JFK decided to run for the presidency in 1959 he made Salinger his press aide, and after his victory White House press secretary. There, Salinger was a reformer and adopted a media-friendly style, encouraging Kennedy to hold open and regular press conferences, live on television for the first time.

He sat in on cabinet meetings and inner briefings. About the failed US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis (depicted in the film Thirteen Days) he wrote about observing Kennedy and acquiring a grasp of the pressure of individual leadership and the loneliness of command.

After Kennedy’s assassination he left politics and went into business for a few years but later returned to work in Robert Kennedy,s election campaign in 1968. He was only ten yards away from Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated. He went to live in France (his mother was a French Catholic, his father a Jew), returned to journalism and by 1978 was working for ABC News out of Paris.

It was Tuesday, 4th September, when we met up for a press conference in the Ballymurphy Community Centre. However, within minutes a helicopter soared above the Whiterock Road, Saracens and jeeps arrived and sealed off the area. Joe Austin, PRO of Belfast Sinn Féin, was being interviewed by Salinger when the Brits and the RUC, accompanied by plain-clothes detectives and a British army intelligence officer, burst through the doors. They told everybody to stop what they were doing.

“Separate the press from the others,” said a Superintendent. In those days I was not that well-known and so I was taken out of the hall as press with Pierre Salinger, his crew and Basil McLaughlin (photographer for the Andersonstown News) and addressed as being one of the “gentlemen” who had fallen into bad company. Only when they checked my NUJ card, heard my accent and saw my address was I taken to the side like any decent “Paddy” and called, “Right, you!” Behind us we left Joe Austin, Richard McAuley and some Republican News, staff all of whom were separately arrested.

In Springfield Road barracks the cameras of the film crew, their videos (which contained an interview with Taoiseach Jack Lynch), Basil’s cameras and film, were all seized and it was decided to send us to Castlereagh. The two French men were terrified and were visibly shaking. As we were being taken out of the barracks and into the yard, RUC men shouted at them, “Who beat you at Waterloo, ayyyyhhhh!”

Salinger was surrounded by fairly aggressive Scottish soldiers, strolled past them with real poise and puffed at a huge Punch Punch Cuban cigar, which takes about 50 minutes of devoted time to smoke! (I read somewhere that he originally took to smoking cigars in order to appear more mature and authoritative when as a teenage naval officer he commanded twenty-five older men.)

Basil, the two French men, I and four RUC men were put in the back of another jeep, which was only insured for five. Basil pointed out a badge on the lapel of one of the RUC men “USC [Ulster Special Constabulary - the B Specials] L.O.L 1970”.

In Castlereagh I was put in the next cell to Pierre Salinger and joked with him not to break. He said the US Consul in Belfast was on his way in to see him. During questioning as well as being asked about the press conference I was asked, “Do you take drugs?”, “Have you shit yourself?”Meanwhile, Basil McLaughlin, as he remarked in last Thursday’s Andersonstown News, was being physically abused, with RUC officers almost breaking his fingers whilst forcibly taking his fingerprints.

Pierre Salinger was released after twelve hours, his arrest having seriously embarrassed Whitehall and been a huge story across North America. On Wednesday morning before I was released I was kept standing in a bare room for about ten minutes before a detective said, “You’ll be glad t know you stood for Lord Mountbatten.” My time in the room had included the two minutes silence held from 11 o,clock for Mountbatten, the civilians killed with him, and the paratroopers. Joe Austin and I were released first and Richard McAuley the following day. But they kept Basil for four days! Obviously one of those older and more sinister men that Diplock judges use to refer to!

Salinger wrote many books about his career and also several novels. Though he later went back to live in the USA he said he would leave if George Bush who was “not fit to be President” was elected. And so four years ago he went back to southern France and along with his fourth wife ran a bed-and-breakfast inn.

His eldest son Stephen visited him before his death and says that his eyes twinkled when he gave him a box of Punch Punch cigars. His vocabulary was limited to only a few words.

“That was okay, because among the few words he could still remember and words every son wants to hear, he said, ‘I love you’.”

He was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery, as he had requested, close to the graves of the two Kennedy brothers.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News