Belfast Telegraph

The adverts that urged Northern Ireland to leave Troubles behind

Documentary reveals NIO 'peace' commercials divided opinion... and Van Morrison didn't waive his fee for using song. By Ivan Little

A former Stormont spin doctor has criticised legendary Belfast singer Sir Van Morrison for not waiving at least part of his royalty fee for the use of his song Days Like This in the Government's 'peace' advertisements of the Nineties.

In a new BBC documentary about the Northern Ireland Office's multi-million pound public service commercials aimed at ending the Troubles, it was revealed that American singer and peace campaigner Pete Seeger had allowed the ad makers to licence one of his songs, Turn, Turn, Turn, for free.

And Andy Wood, the ex-director of information at the NIO, told the programme makers: "I just think it might have been nice if Van Morrison had behaved a bit more like Pete Seeger when it came to waiving perhaps some of the licence fee."

Tomorrow night's hour-long documentary, which is narrated by Eamonn Holmes, said it was Van Morrison who approached the advertisement makers about using Days Like This, rather than the other way around.

The song become a peace anthem in Northern Ireland and the former Them frontman sang it before the appearance by US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary at the switching on of the Belfast Christmas tree lights in 1995.

The creative team behind the ads, which were first screened in January 1988, claimed they were a success, particularly in promoting a confidential telephone line designed to elicit more intelligence from the public about loyalist and republican terrorists.

But Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Fein publicity director, said the adverts were propaganda.

In a withering attack, he said the Government advertising campaign had no effect whatsoever in his community.

The NIO financed no fewer than 25 commercials between 1988 and 1998, ranging from graphic images of machine gun murders in pubs to optimistic pointers to a new way forward. One piece of footage even showed two greyhounds being exercised together - one with an orange muzzle, the other with a green one.

The documentary, called Ads on the Front Line, also revealed that ex-Secretary of State Mo Mowlam thought the expensive and extensive campaign was a waste of time and money.

Wood said the adverts grew out of an idea from one of Mowlam's predecessors, Tom King, who initially wanted a programme to be produced in praise of the police and Army.

After broadcasters turned down his idea, the NIO came up with an alternative for paid adverts to air on Ulster Television and the Independent Broadcasting Authority gave the go-ahead on the basis that there was no-one who would object.

David Lyle, who worked for the McCann Erickson advertising agency at the time, helped create the first advertisement, called 'The Future'.

It focused on a young man, played by Perry Fenwick - who would go on to portray a character in EastEnders called Billy Mitchell, which ironically was also the name of a prominent UVF man in Belfast.

The slickly produced commercial, which was filmed in Scotland because of security considerations, showed 'Mitchell' agonising about how to achieve a better life for himself and his family and the way he chose to do so was by ringing the confidential telephone number.

The commercial included a representation of a brutal kneecapping in an alley and there was an almost subliminal message in there too, with images of the Enniskillen bombing that claimed 12 lives in November 1987 playing on a TV in the background.

Danny Morrison said the NIO films distorted the picture of the conflict in which he said the violence also came from the state.

He said the ad campaign wasn't targeted at resolving the Troubles through negotiation, discussion or compromise. Instead, he said, it was aimed at telling people to inform on their community.

He added: "I don't believe for a second they felt they were doing good. They felt that they were taking part. They were fighting their side of the war and this is the way they did it."

Former UVF man and now PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said the ads were an attempt to demonise the 'combatants' in the conflict.

But Julie Anne Bailie, who was at the forefront of the renewed advertising campaign from 1992, told the Belfast Telegraph that by the Nineties demonising terrorists and taking the moral high ground that terrorism was wrong was not enough.

She added: "That's why we developed a psychological approach which put the family at the very heart of the whole strategy. We humanised the terrorists and showed they were suffering as well as every other section of society."

Former journalist and Independent Broadcasting Authority executive Don Anderson said: "If in the context of today, similar advertisements began to appear in the United Kingdom which sought to humanise, if you like, people who were responsible for 7/7 in London or the bombing in Manchester, I think there would be a mighty, mighty eruption."

More and more, the films ratcheted up the impact of terrorism on the families of the perpetrators themselves. The most famous of three subsequent films, I Wanna Be Like You Dad, which launched in July 1993, was sound-tracked by the song The Cat's In The Cradle by the late American singer Harry Chapin.

The advert showed a boy growing up just like his terrorist father and following in his murderous footsteps before he himself was killed. It also featured a horrific shooting in a bar by a crazed killer in a scene that has ensured thousands of views down the years for the advert on YouTube.

The father was played by Michael Nardone, who is now a well-known actor in dramas such as The Night Manager.

Julie Anne Bailie said there was a 729% increase in the number of what the security forces described as 'useful or genuine' calls to the confidential telephone line in the wake of the ads, which often took over three months to complete.

Before they aired, some of the films were the subject of ground-breaking new techniques called real-time response testing, where 'guinea pigs' gave their immediate reactions to what they were watching.

The commercials won major awards for the producers but the tensions here were such that the advertising agency didn't seek publicity for its achievements. The NIO films changed dramatically after the ceasefires of 1994, with the emphasis then on 'selling' the new, more peaceful climate and the possibilities that it offered.

The first commercial of that ilk was called 'Time to Build' and used the Byrds hit Turn, Turn, Turn as the backdrop.

Andy Wood said the music licence for the song was held by Seeger and after NIO officials got in touch with his agent the word came back: "You can use it for free worldwide, I won't charge you a thing because I am so impressed by what's happening in Northern Ireland."

Another 11 feel-good commercials were produced to capitalise on the optimistic mood, at a cost of £2m.

Van Morrison's songs Have I Told You Lately and Brown Eyed Girl appeared in the upbeat adverts. But Danny Morrison was clearly underwhelmed by the ads, which tried to advance the notion that people here could now aspire to better things.

He said he didn't need an NIO advert to tell him that it was okay for him to have aspirations.

"They were seen as condescending," he added. Van Morrison, meantime, was about to take on another role in the advertising campaign.

Julie Anne Bailie said the singer's lawyer rang with a proposal from him.

"He said Van really wants you to listen to this new song which hasn't been released yet," she said.

"It's called Days Like This and it may well work with the whole mood of your campaign." The song was used as the soundtrack for a film showing two young boys, one Protestant, one Catholic, befriending each other.

It wasn't filmed amidst bleak buildings in Scotland this time but rather in the sun-kissed sand dunes on Runkerry strand at Portballintrae.

The song was a perfect fit, and Julie Anne Bailie said picking the right music for the films was crucial.

David Lyle told the Belfast Telegraph that he had no doubts the adverts had a major impact on saving lives in Northern Ireland.

"We were unrelenting in our commitment and the research showed that the adverts worked."

Don Anderson said: "I think they can say, 'we did a good job, we prepared ground that was worth preparing', because in the end these ads did contribute to an atmosphere that allowed the peace to progress."

Even Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who was initially opposed to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, said: "I think in a way even the politicians were influenced by the adverts.

"If nothing else, it re-affirmed us in our sense that we had at least to give this a chance."

The films also led on to Lyle and Bailie diversifying into advertising campaigns to tackle the scourge of deaths on the roads.

Julie Anne Bailie said: "The original films laid the ground for a very graphic style of advertising. If people sat through 'I Want To Be Like You' for two and a half minutes with that level of explicit violence they were, in a way, conditioned to the reality of things."

Ads on the Front Line, tomorrow, BBC1 NI, 9pm

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