Ferghal Purcell is remembering the time he hosted Nelson Mandela during critical talks leading to the first free democratic elections in South Africa in 1991.
“I was general manager of the Lord Charles hotel in Somerset West on the Cape when Mandela and the entire ANC leadership came to stay. They were there to hold talks with FW de Klerk and his team about arrangements for the first elections. When Mandela grabbed my hand I remember my knees started to shake. He thanked me on behalf of his team for looking after them so well and I recall thinking to myself: ‘Ferghal, remember this moment – something like this doesn’t come along very often.'”
Now general manager of the Lough Erne hotel in Fermanagh, Purcell says historical lightning has indeed struck twice, as the hotel gears up to host the G8 leaders in June, the first time Northern Ireland has staged the summit.
“You can imagine the shock when the prime minister told us he wanted to host the G8 summit at our hotel,” Purcell said. “It took a week for me to convince the staff, all 180 of them, that we were going to look after the likes of Obama, Putin and Angela Merkel.”
With six weeks to go until world leaders fly in, preparations are well under way. So far, security around the hotel complex – which includes golf links and driving ranges used by the likes of Nick Faldo, who is honoured in a statue overlooking the green – has been low-key. For now the only visible presence of extra security are two new sets of bollards at two huts on the narrow private road leading to the hotel’s grand entrance.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has confirmed that a giant fence will block off the Shore Road, the four-mile scenic road to the hotel which hugs the edge of Lough Erne, even after David Cameron, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and the other G8 leaders have left on 18 June.
A no-fly ban has been imposed on flights from the tiny St Angelo airport, while tourists and fishermen will not be allowed on to the lough in their boats for 72 hours until the final helicopter has taken off from one of the Lough Erne hotel’s five helipads.
Apart from the G8 leaders’ helicopters, the only things flying in the sky that week will be three spy drones the PSNI has hired to keep an eye from the sky on anti-globalisation demonstrators and possible attempts by terror groups – dissident republican and Islamist – to attack the venue.
Purcell said he was looking forward to the G8 leaders relaxing in the hotel’s Gordon Wilson library. The oak-panelled room is named after the peace campaigner whose daughter Marie was murdered in nearby Enniskillen by an IRA bomb, which killed 11 Protestants on Remembrance Day in 1987. Wilson forgave her killers, begged for no loyalist retaliation and spent the rest of his life working for peace. “I would like to think that if the likes of President Obama or President Putin come into this room to relax, to maybe even talk about the conflicts in the other parts of the world, they will reflect on the life of the man whom this library is named after. Gordon Wilson was a man of great forgiveness and integrity,” Purcell said.
While the PSNI and MI5 – along with the CIA, Russian secret service and intelligence agencies of the other G8 nations – scout the complex and plan for the summit, there is a mixture of nerves and exhilaration among hotel staff. The executive head chef, Noel McMeel, said he had an idea what menu he will be drawing up for the presidents and prime ministers but was as reluctant to give details as the police and intelligence services are about releasing precise information on their security plans.
“I do know what I am going to serve them. It will be the kind of food we want to showcase – all the local, beautiful produce from Fermanagh and around Northern Ireland, like our lamb, or our fresh soda bread and good country butter. Even President Obama, who has been to Ireland, will not have tasted this kind of produce before,” McMeel said in the hotel’s Catalina restaurant, where the G8 leaders will eat.
The award-winning restaurant is named after the Allied flying boats based on the lough during the war, which were flown out to the nearby Atlantic, their lethal payloads used to destroy German U-boats.
Even the plates the world leaders will eat from will be sourced locally, with starters such as delicately sliced pieces of grey mullet accompanied by butternut squash served up on dark grey slate tiles mined from a County Fermanagh quarry.
Kate Mulligan, the executive housekeeper at the resort, said none of the staff had booked holiday in June. “We all want to be part of this and get our place in history. No one wants to miss it,” she said. She added she was most looking forward to meeting Merkel “because she is a great leader among the men and their equal in power”.
At a public meeting in Enniskillen town hall on Monday, Chief Superintendent Alwin Martin told residents about the PSNI’s plans to shut down the Shore Road in June.
“The moment the last helicopter carrying the last leader takes off we will ensure the spanners come out to start dismantling that fence,” he promised, after predicting that the engineering operation to erect and take down the security barrier would go on for most of the month.
Martin said the PSNI had been liaising with some of the protest groups who are expected to arrive in the town to demonstrate. He also urged people to use public transport and share cars to cut down on congestion during the visit.
A total of 2,500 extra police officers will be drafted in to the region for the summit, he said. The PSNI has also hired 170 pop-up mini-hotels that were used during the London Olympics. The “Snoozeboxes” will be deployed across Fermanagh for 1,350 officers costing the taxpayer £3.8m on top of the £1m cost of the spy drones out of the PSNI budget.
One of three anti-ceasefire Irish republican terror groups, Óglaigh na hÉireann, recently left a car bomb near the resort and later confirmed in a statement to the Guardian that the complex had been the intended target. The attack was aborted due to a high-security presence in the county, ONH said.
The G8-effect on the economy is most pronounced in the hotel and B&B sector on both sides of the border. The Great Northern hotel in Bundoran in the Republic’s western seaboard, for instance, is fully booked out for the summit, with foreign journalists, civil servants from the G8 states and security officials grabbing any room available.
In between talks about the Syrian crisis and the global economic recession, the leaders of the world’s eight wealthiest nations can rest on four-poster beds, relax in double Jacuzzis with flatscreen TVs, avail themselves of the spa and pool with a view on to Lough Erne, or brave the elements in one of the traditionally wettest counties on the island to tee off on the golf course where golfing stars such as Rory McIlroy come to play.
And when they return to their rooms, the more jumpy G8 leaders can use the free high-powered binoculars the hotel provides for its guests to check on all that security from their windows.