The Cost of a Living

The cost of a living – 01/03/01

Continuing our series in conjunction with Relatives For Justice,
Anthony Neeson speaks to Jim Neeson about the service the West Belfast
Taxi Association has provided over the past 30 years

The story of the West Belfast Taxi Association is a story of men and
women operating a unique transport system in one of the most socially
deprived areas in western Europe against a background of unremitting
official hostility.

As drivers plied their trade along the Falls Road, Andersonstown,
Twinbrook, the Whiterock and later Ardoyne, they had also to be
constantly on their guard against loyalist paramilitaries and the RUC
and British Army. A taxi driver was a favourite target for all of the
above. That was the day-to-day reality of working on the road in a
black taxi – it went with the territory.

The service was born against the backdrop of the turbulent early
seventies, and what started as a modest response to the glaring
inadequacies of the public transport system, would eventually become
the largest employer in the west of the city. Eight men would be
murdered while providing that service while many others who had sat
behind the wheel of a taxi at one time or another would die as a result
of the conflict.

The archetypal taxi driver is familiar to us all: complaints about the
state of the road, tales of local characters, theories on life, love,
the universe and just about everything else. They say that taximen are
the same the world over, but because of the unique nature of our
community over the past 30 years, black taximen in West and North
Belfast have endured conditions that would have forced lesser drivers
off the road. Through the violence and targeting and official
hostility, the drivers have kept a wonderful sense of humour and a
spirit which was an inspiration to the people they served.

Civil unrest brought the Falls Road to a standstill in the early
seventies. As people struggled to get to work in the morning in the
absence of buses, local men dreamed up a community initiative: lifts
throughout West Belfast in return for the cover price of the petrol.
The service became known as The People's Cabs and many people still
remember the large family saloons that were the first Falls taxis. Soon
it was decided that the classic London black taxi would be the perfect
workhorse, and the first black taxi pioneers travelled to London and
brought back a number of cabs. The service was increasingly popular and
soon any extra money raised from the service over the cost of the
driver's expenses went to aid prisoners' families. Soon the Falls Taxi
Association, besides employing the drivers, began to operate workshops
to service the vehicles and their own filling stations too.

In January 1982 Jim Neeson was brought in to run the newly formed West
Belfast Taxi Association with a brief to make it a viable business and
make the most of the strong sense of public service among the drivers.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had referred to the "nearly
legal" black taxi system in Belfast, and it was the new WBTA's job to
ensure that no-one could point at the black taxi service and cast
aspersions as to its legality. That would prove to be a long and
arduous struggle, sometimes fought out in the courts, but the
determination of the WBTA was total and won through in the end bringing
employment to hundreds and developing an unrivalled community transport
system. Now plans are afoot to open a new state of the art taxi rank in
the present King's Street car park from where the taxis now operate.
But according to Jim, now Chair of the Association, all of this is down
to the men and women who over the past 30 years have worked on the
road, and the sacrifice of those men who were murdered for simply being
black taxi drivers.

Today a monument stands at King Street in honour of the eight drivers
who were murdered. Jim is also conscious that other men who were once
black taxi drivers, and were subsequently killed during the course of
the conflict, are missing from the plaque. These include Fra
Notarantonio, Eddie Campbell and Mickey Lenaghan, to name only a few.
Of those serving black taxi men to have been murdered, the first was
Michael Duggan who was shot dead in St Paul's Hall in November 1975.
Jim Green was shot dead when he was driving his taxi down the Glen Road
in May 1977.
"Black taxi man were targeted because we worked at community level, and
it was seen that if you targeted us you were somehow hitting the
republican community," says Jim. "The first taxi man to be killed when
I began working here was Harry Muldoon in October 1984. His wife had
died and he was raising a family on his own when they broke their way
into his house and shot him dead.

"That was the first killing to have affected me pesonally. Harry was
one of life's nice guys. All of the drivers went to the funeral and it
made us all think seriously about our own security. But the strange
thing that happened during all these shootings was that it tended to
bring us closer together, and when one of us was killed, instead of
forcing us off the road as it was meant to do, it brought more of us
out, determined to carry on the work we were doing for the community."

The drivers hoped that Harry's death would be the last, but in 1986
Patrick McAllister would be murdered by loyalists in his Rodney Drive
home. 1988 would prove to be one of the most fearful years for the
WBTA. After the murder of driver Caoimhim Mac Bradaigh, who died along
with John Murray and Thomas McErlean at the funeral of the Gibraltar
Three in Milltown Cemetery, many drivers were arrested in the wake of
the funeral after two British Army corporals were shot dead by the IRA
after driving into the Mac Bradaigh funeral cortege.

Black taxis were to the fore on the day of the funeral and after the
two corporals were killed, the campaign of intimidation against drivers
by the RUC and British Army was stepped up. But yet again, adversity
made the drivers only more determined to do their job. And still the
drivers were being targeted by loyalists. Tommy Hughes was shot dead in
July 1991 as he sat in his cab at the traffic lights at Divis Flats.
"That shook all the drivers," adds Jim, "simply because every driver
has sat at those lights at some time or other waiting for the lights to
change. And God only knows what the passengers must have gone through."

Hugh Magee died under similar circumstances as his taxi slowed down at
the end of Rosapenna Street – that was just three months later. Padraig
O Cleirigh had helped form the FTA back in the early days, was an
executive member of Conradh na Gaelige and became a close friend of
Jim's when he too was murdered by loyalists in February 1992 at the
door of his Cavehill home. Today when Jim talks about Padraig, you can
tell that his loss is still deeply felt. But their memory will live on.
When the new depot is eventually built it will be dedicated to all the
drivers who were murdered serving the community. "We owe it to them,"
says Jim simply.