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On a Wing and a Prayer

Patrick Gillan

Gull, by Glenn Patterson, Head of Zeus, 305 pp, £14.99, ISBN 978-1784971762

Northern Ireland in the 1970s was in a sorry state. Paramilitary violence filled the vacuum created by the suspension of Stormont following the collapse of the short-lived power-sharing executive established under the Sunningdale Agreement. Armed republican gangs plotted to destroy the state by force so as to unite Ireland while their loyalist counterparts posed as Ulster’s defenders. Murder was commonplace, and many innocent men, women and children were killed, injured and maimed by bomb and by bullet; (the loyalist Shankill Butchers made their mark by knifing their victims).

The SDLP held sway among nationalists, but support for Sinn Féin was growing. Paisleyism was on the rise. Nationalist confidence in policing and the prison system was at a low ebb, and, it was alleged, the RUC operated a “shoot-to-kill” policy. Many Catholics were also highly critical of aspects of the judicial system. The Provisional IRA was happy to feed off such disaffection and treat police personnel, prison officers and members of the judiciary as “legitimate targets” to be murdered. 

Unemployment was another major problem. It hovered around the mid-teens, about twice the rate in the UK as a whole, and in some parts of Northern Ireland male unemployment was 30 per cent. Catholic males were two-and-a-half times more likely to be out of work than Protestant males.

It was against this background that John Zachary DeLorean in 1978 made his pitch for British state aid to start production of the “world’s most ethical mass production car”, aimed at the US market. In return he offered to create two and a half thousand jobs in West Belfast. Northern Ireland secretary of state Roy Mason was only too happy to announce that Her Majesty's government would provide £56 million to the DeLorean Motor Company, out of a total project cost of £65 million. DeLorean had previously sought support for his project in the Republic of Ireland, Puerto Rico and the US.

The acquisition of the DeLorean project was seen as something of a coup, although doubts were expressed over technical problems, the cost of transporting the cars to America, the fierce competitiveness of the US sports car market, and the fact that the factory was to be located adjacent to Twinbrook, an area with a high level of republican activity.

Nevertheless, DeLorean could boast of an impressive CV, which included a brilliant engineering career at General Motors. His second career, as an accomplished conman, had yet to come to public notice.

DeLorean’s company began production in 1981, but quickly ran into trouble. By 1982 he was demanding an extra £40 million in grants and threatening massive sackings if the government failed to come up with the money. In February of that year the company went into receivership and in May it was announced that the plant was to cease production with a loss of 1,500 jobs. A total of 8,500 cars had been completed whereas DeLorean had hoped to sell 20,000 cars a year at $25,000 each in the American market.  The closure of the company in October coincided with DeLorean’s arrest in the US for drug-smuggling.

In later years the DCM-12 became a collector's item. And it attracted widespread attention when it featured in the 1985 film Back to the Future.

Among DeLorean’s victims of fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion or defaulted loans were the governments of Britain, the US and Switzerland, celebrities such as talk show host Johnny Carson, who lost $1.5 million, and a California automotive inventor forced to pay him almost $500,000 to buy back his own invention. A British judge expressed his wish to sentence DeLorean to ten years in prison for “barefaced, outrageous and massive fraud”. However, he could not do so as he had wriggled out of an extradition request to the US.

DeLorean only ever spent 10 days behind bars while he raised bail after his arrest in Los Angeles in 1982 on charges of smuggling cocaine worth $24 million. His acquittal, two years later, due to FBI entrapment, was one of several cases in which he eluded criminal conviction.

Gull tells the story of the DeLorean saga through the perspectives of Edmund Randall, a journalist and traumatised Vietnam veteran employed by DeLorean as his Mr Fixit, and Liz, a Protestant factory worker. They first meet when Randall is a member of the panel that interviews her when she applies, against her husband’s wishes, to work at the Dunmurry factory.

Her application is successful and she gets a job in the assembly shop, where she holds her own with two co-workers, Anto and TC, both Catholics from Twinbrook. Liz and Randall embark on a platonic relationship, meeting occasionally in Botanic Gardens, until she reluctantly puts an end to their encounters.

Randall is closely involved with the launch of the DMC-12, the design of which is based on a discarded Porsche prototype. Politicians and media show up in numbers, along with the great and the good of Belfast. The debonair DeLorean is in his element and proud to show off his glamorous partner Cristina Ferrare (who was to leave him after the drug-smuggling case was heard). Those present are so fascinated by the gull-winged sports car that they don’t seem to notice that it is pushed rather than driven into view. The engine doesn’t work. A minor glitch, according to DeLorean.

What they cannot fail to notice, however, is the demonstration at the gates as they leave the factory. They’re met by blanket-clad women demonstrating in support of the H-Blocks protests and their cars are bombarded with bags of flour and eggs. Later, Randall has to deal with the fall-out after Catholic workers down tools and stage a walk-out to mark the beginning of Bobby Sands’s hunger strike. Notwithstanding the disruption, the first shipment of three hundred cars sails on schedule for the US at Easter. And the company weathers the storm following Sands’s death, and the subsequent deaths and funerals of nine other hunger-strikers.

Randall travels to the US where some workers have been sent to fine-tune the cars before they're distributed to dealers. He gets to spend some time with his daughter after receiving the usual cool reception from his estranged wife.

Back in London, the Tory government is less supportive of the DeLorean project than was its Labour predecessor. Mrs Thatcher demands to know when repayments will begin. DeLorean promises the prime minister to pay “every penny owing” within twelve months, asking, “in the short term”, for “one final cash injection” of £47 million.

When car transporters and their cargo are refused entry to Belfast Port because of outstanding dock fees, Randall manages to obtain a temporary overdraft facility and the transporters are granted admission to the docks. At the 1981 staff Christmas party, DeLorean is in ebullient form and tells the assembled workers: “You haven’t just made cars this year, you’ve made history.” However, things go badly wrong in the new year. The extra money sought from the government is not forthcoming. An extended three-day week is followed by the announcement of over a thousand redundancies (of which Liz is one). The remaining workers are soon after put on a one-day week. The firm is placed in receivership – “constructive receivership” according to the ever optimistic DeLorean. With closure looming, Randall and Liz meet for the last time. As a treat, he gives her a leisurely lift home in a DMC-12. Liz is tempted to linger, but whether or not she succumbs to temptation is for readers to discover.

Ultimately, Gull is the story of John DeLorean. A reckless gambler, he used borrowed money to “create” 2,500 jobs. His failure to repay his debts meant that every one of those jobs was lost. And it didn’t cost him a thought. During his Belfast adventure, he never once stayed overnight in the city. Perhaps he was mindful of the fate of German industrialist Thomas Niedermayer, who, in 1973, was abducted and murdered by the IRA and whose body was found in 1980 buried face down under a rubbish dump at Colin Glen.

DeLorean looked after Number 1. A born-again Christian, he lived a charmed life. He clung on to his $9 million New York apartment until 1992, and kept his $4 million, 434-acre New Jersey estate until March 2000. He left his cocaine case lawyer short of £2 million in fees and was pursued into the twenty-first century for another $4 million in legal bills. In the final year of his life he registered a company trademark that referenced Ecclesiastes 9: 10: “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

Glenn Patterson has employed artistic licence to good effect in his telling of the DeLorean story. His work of fiction never strays from the heart of the matter, and is realised with some style. As he writes in his author’s note: “I made this all up, apart from the pieces you just couldn’t.”

1/3/2016

Paddy Gillan has worked as a journalist and graphic designer.

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