Last week I shared with you some of my reminiscences of the IRA shootings that took place in Gibraltar in March 1988 and the ensuing inquest. Both were big stories of course but my baptism of fire – not the most appropriate description as you’ll see when you read on – had come the year before.
In January 1987 I was sent to London to cover the latest round of talks under the framework of the Brussels Agreement. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty here of what the agreement involved as it’s been well documented and there’s plenty of information about it readily available. Suffice to say that the accord, which paved the way for Spain’s eventual accession to the European Economic Community in 1986, grew to be hugely unpopular locally, not least because for the first time the UK agreed explicitly to discuss “the issues of sovereignty” with Spain. It was also seen as an unnecessary face-saver for Madrid, which was in any event obliged to fully open the frontier before joining the EEC.
I had prepared diligently for that, my first assignment abroad, especially when the Conservative government gave its consent for GBC to record a one-to-one interview with the Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. He was a towering figure in British politics having already served as Chancellor of the Exchequer before moving to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Sir Geoffrey would go on to be the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet.
I admit I was slightly apprehensive about interviewing such a heavyweight. At the same time I felt a strong sense of responsibility to ask the right questions – the ones my fellow Gibraltarians would want answered. The funny thing looking back now is that I can scarcely remember what I asked!
Instead what I recall most vividly is how bitterly cold it was and the contrast in the British and Spanish attitudes to us journalists as we tried to cope with the sub-zero temperatures.
As luck would have it the time I was in London coincided with the most severe spell of weather in southern England for more than a century. The day of the talks snow lay over 15 centimetres deep in places. Not great when you’re just standing around, waiting to be summoned for the concluding news conference.
The media were, quite literally, left out in the cold at No. 1 Carlton Gardens, the Foreign Secretary’s official residence. Had it not been for a friendly Catalan Television film crew who made space for me in their van with the heater turned on full blast I’m not sure I would have survived to tell the tale.
Compare that with the treatment we received at the Spanish Embassy where the Foreign Minister, Francisco Fernández Ordóñez, gave his own press conference. We were immediately ushered in, relieved of our overcoats and other wet clothes and served tea and biscuits while we waited.
What a shame our next-door neighbours aren’t anywhere near as generous when it comes to accepting the Gibraltarians’ wish to remain British and their right to decide their own future.