Did MI6 stop Martin McGuinness IRA film from being shown?
Claims about British Intelligence role in suppressing footage of Sinn Fein leader handling guns just one of the shocking revelations in behind-the-scenes documentary about making of BBC NI’s Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History. Ivan Little reports
The executive producer of a long-hidden 1970s American documentary, which showed Martin McGuinness at the preparation of an IRA bomb and handling guns in front of children, has claimed that British Intelligence stopped the programme being screened across the world.
Leon Gildin has told a BBC documentary that MI5 or MI6 saw every frame of J Bowyer Bell’s Secret Army documentary, which was filmed in Northern Ireland in 1972 and that, even though a US network was keen to show it, the film never aired on television.
A friend of Bowyer Bell also told BBC NI’s Spotlight investigative team the film-maker believed the British government “at some level” banned the IRA film.
Excerpts of Bowyer Bell’s documentary were seen for the first time in the UK last month in BBC NI’s Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History series, but new details about the US film have been included in a follow-up programme that also shows rogue priest Patrick Ryan laughing about his links to over 100 IRA terrorist incidents.
And, after a screening of the behind-the-scenes programme yesterday in Belfast, reporter Mandy McAuley spoke of her shock at discovering the “hypocrisy” of victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer, who confessed to her near his death that he had distributed Ulster Resistance guns to the UDA’s Johnny Adair.
She said he told her: “You must think I’m some boyo.”
The documentary-makers also denied that their earlier allegations about the late Ian Paisley financing loyalist bombings at the outset of the Troubles were “tittle-tattle”.
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The new Spotlight programme has given viewers a background look at the making of the critically acclaimed series, which was produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Troubles and which has already attracted over one million viewers on the BBC’s iPlayer.
Spotlight editor Jeremy Adams said yesterday that his team will be carrying out more investigations into how the late Bowyer Bell’s Secret Army film was suppressed and also trying to establish the documentary-maker’s relationship with the CIA.
Reporter Darragh McIntyre travelled to America to find out more about the “disappearance” of the film, which could have led to Martin McGuinness being charged with terrorism offences if it had ever been acted on by the police here.
The Sinn Fein leader, who would go on to become Stormont’s Deputy First Minister, was seen in the American film showing guns and bullets to children and also walking outside a house in Derry, where IRA men were preparing a bomb that later exploded in the centre of the city.
But Bowyer Bell’s film was only ever seen at a couple of low-key screenings in New York, one of them to an Irish language society at the gymnasium of the St Philip Neri school in the Bronx.
“It was never shown in Ireland. It was never shown in the UK and you have to wonder why,” said McIntyre, who added that one reason might have been because of the footage of the IRA.
Spotlight producer Chris Thornton made a number of freedom of information requests about Bowyer Bell in a bid to find out if he was working for the CIA while he was filming the IRA in Derry.
And Thornton asked: “Was he making the film for them (the CIA)? Was this some kind of intelligence operation to see who members of the IRA were?”
Spotlight eventually traced the executive producer of the film, Leon Gildin, to Arizona, where he told McIntyre that his job was to look after budgets and to sell the documentary after it was made.
He said: “I went to a new company, which had just been formed, by the name of Viacom and I showed it to them and they loved it.
“They immediately offered me a contract for worldwide rights and they prepared a lovely, four-page brochure. But they never sold a copy. Not one copy.
“They told me that British Commonwealth countries were forbidden to show this film,” he added.
He said the rushes of the documentary were sent to be developed in London.
He added: "In London, British intelligence, MI5 or MI6, I don't recall which, would review the material to see whether they had captured anything that would be of interest to British Intelligence, or that British Intelligence did not want shown."
McIntyre said MI5 and MI6 wouldn't confirm or deny whether they knew anything about the film, which the reporter said "was one almighty gift for British Intelligence".
McIntyre also interviewed Roberto Mitrotti, a friend of Bowyer Bell, in Los Angeles, where he told him that the film-maker was "extremely upset and really mad" that the documentary was not seen and blamed "political interference" from the UK.
Mitrotti said that an American network was keen to screen the documentary, but the UK government "at some level" stopped it being shown.
Later, in a question-and-answer session, McIntyre said he wasn't aware of what British Intelligence did with Bowyer Bell's film, adding that Spotlight met with a wall of silence about it, including from Viacom, which claimed they knew nothing about the documentary.
Former IRA man Des Long, who was seen giving arms training to the Provisionals' Dublin unit, told Spotlight he believed from the very start that Bowyer Bell was an agent.
Long questioned how Martin McGuinness and other people were able to live openly in Derry at the time and he said he was "thinking black thoughts".
Asked why he'd agreed to be filmed by Bowyer Bell, Long said: "I did many foolish things."
The behind-the-scenes Spotlight programme also showed how Mandy McAuley spent days on stake-outs in Portadown as she waited to snatch a doorstep interview with church worker Alan Oliver, who was confirmed by a retired detective to have been a suspect in a large number of loyalist murders in mid-Ulster.
Oliver eventually refused to talk to the Spotlight team, who had also spoken to the family of murder victims Gerry and Rory Cairns, who were murdered by the UVF in Bleary near Lurgan in 1993.
The programme also featured reporter Jennifer O'Leary persuading IRA gun smuggler and ex-missionary priest Patrick Ryan to record an interview with her about his IRA activities, which former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had raised with the Dublin government.
In an earlier Spotlight programme, Ryan said he sourced finance and weapons for the IRA across the world and his only regret was that he "wasn't even more effective".
He also described Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, who supplied tons of explosives and weapons to the Provos, as "a fine fella, the best I ever met".
In a new excerpt from an interview with Ryan, the priest started to laugh as he talked about his links to 108 explosions across the British Isles.
O'Leary asked him why he found that funny.
Ryan replied: "My answer to that would be, sure, if it's more profitable to cry, I'd cry. I'd shed tears."
O'Leary was less successful in her quest to interview a Libyan about the IRA links. She returned empty-handed from a hoped-for meeting with him in Paris.
Yesterday, after the screening, I asked Mandy McAuley about her revelations that victims' campaigner Willie Frazer told her that he had passed on guns smuggled into Northern Ireland by the Ulster Resistance movement to the UDA via Johnny Adair.
She said she'd got close to Frazer and his FAIR victims group through making documentaries about heritage and the past.
As McAuley researched the Spotlight on the Troubles series, she said Frazer had been determined that Ulster Resistance, set up with the support of the DUP to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, would have its place and be acknowledged in the Spotlight documentaries. McAuley said: "Rightly or wrongly, he believed they had taken the war to the IRA. And I remember him telling me about his role in the distribution of the weapons.
"I remember him looking across the table at me and saying, 'Well, girl, you must think I'm some boyo, with the victims' groups and I was doing that'.
"People may say I was very naive, but I was very shocked. When he told me what he'd done, I was blown away. I couldn't believe it and I suppose the hypocrisy.
"Here he was telling me he had created victims himself."
McAuley said that more of what Frazer told her before he died might emerge at a later date.
In response to a question about claims in the first Spotlight programme about allegations that the late Ian Paisley was financing loyalist bombings at the start of the Troubles, the Spotlight team denied that the claims were based on hearsay evidence.
The programme had quoted a retired top Army officer saying he was shown evidence by an RUC officer in Co Down, which backed up the allegation.
Darragh McIntyre didn't name the police officer, but he said he went on to become the head of Special Branch, adding: "This wasn't tittle-tattle."
Spotlight on the Troubles: Behind the Scenes will be available to view on BBC iPlayer from Tuesday night. It will also be shown on BBC One NI on Thursday at 9pm