Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O’Hanlon: BBC NI’s The Troubles: A Secret History has produced some jaw-dropping revelations about the ‘dirty war’ ... but are younger viewers tuning in, or tuning out?

Accusations: Willie Frazer
Accusations: Willie Frazer

People in Northern Ireland apparently watch fewer hours of TV each day than in any other part of the UK, so it’s probably reassuring that, in this age of on-demand streaming and a myriad of other distractions, so many people can still be enticed to sit down at a certain time each week and all watch the same programme.

That BBC Northern Ireland’s seven-part series The Troubles: A Secret History is hardly light viewing makes it even more gratifying that it continues to draw in viewers.

Clearly, there is still an audience for intelligent news and current affairs content and that can only be a good thing, since it doesn’t come cheap.

This latest series, produced by the celebrated Spotlight team, has not radically changed how the conflict is seen. Most people in Northern Ireland have long ago made up their minds what they want to believe, or disbelieve, was going on.

But it has produced some jaw-dropping revelations, not least about the late victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer supplying guns to loyalist terrorists (an allegation which is denied by his family).

The sixth instalment on Tuesday included further details of security force collusion with paramilitaries, such as the murdered Loyalist Volunteer Force leader, Billy Wright (aka “King Rat”), who, the programme alleged on Tuesday, was provided with dossiers on leading republicans.

It’s hardly a surprise that many members of paramilitary gangs were agents of the state. Indeed, it’s starting to look as if only a select minority of them were not.

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But for those who can’t get enough of political intrigue, the series has been a goldmine of headlines and comment.

The Troubles: A Secret History will bag armfuls of awards in due course. It has been one of the television events of the year.

But it is worth wondering what the deeper effect of such programmes might be in Northern Ireland.

Digging up the past in this way risks adding to the grief and pain of the bereaved, without giving them any outlet for justice.

Largely, when it comes to outing the guilty, it’s also the dead who can be safely named. With a few notable exceptions, the numerous other sectarian killers and paid informers cannot be identified, which inevitably skews the shape of the story.

There are bigger stories yet to be revealed from the long years of the “dirty war”, but they must wait.

In the meantime, programmes such as this inevitably become political footballs, with insults and allegations traded for sectarian gain, with the bereaved pushed to the sidelines.

Politicians are never slow to find reasons to point fingers at their opponents, rather than taking responsibility for their own — often fatal — misjudgments.

All that can really be said as the series comes to an end next week is that no one in Northern Ireland had clean hands, but even that risks sounding too glib, because if everybody is to blame, why blame anybody in particular

That feeds into the pernicious lie that every player in the conflict was as bad as every other, which allows too many players to avoid their own personal responsibility.

There’s even a risk of wallowing in misery, to the point where it becomes a strange branch of the nostalgia industry. There’s something beguiling about all that archive footage.

Doubts aside, it’s still a worthwhile exercise, if only because victims and their families want that story to be retold, and, as long as they’re alive, their wishes should be paramount. More than worthwhile, it’s essential.

The famous BBC documentary series about Hitler’s rise to power was called The Nazis: A Warning From History. It was deliberately polemical in a way that The Troubles: A Secret History tries carefully not to be.

It seeks to tell the story of the conflict in a less openly didactic way. But the warning is the same: that history needs to be understood in order to never go back there.

While Sinn Fein continues to deliberately peddle fairy stories about the IRA campaign, it’s neither possible nor ethical to let up on telling the real truth of what terrorism did to the country.

Johnny Adair interviewed on Spotlight
Johnny Adair interviewed on Spotlight

It’s salutary to hear Provo priests declare their only regret is that they didn’t kill more people, not because it’s an admirable sentiment, but precisely because it’s so shocking and callous.

Let’s look into the dark heart of the past without blinking. Plenty more stones need unturned to see what’s crawling about underneath.

The only worry is whether that message is actually getting through to the people who need to hear it most, specifically those from the younger generation who don’t have direct experience of the Troubles.

One of the interesting details from the recent Ofcom report about declining TV audiences in Northern Ireland is that it’s older people who are watching TV. Younger people have other ways to distract themselves.

Since 2010, there has been a 48% decline in the hours of TV watched by the under-34s. It’s probably older viewers who have been watching The Troubles: A Secret History, too.

Younger people will still get a twisted version of the conflict through the poisoned lens of social media. It’s hard to reach those minds by traditional means. Depressingly, this series may have gone over their heads.

The even more awkward question is whether people are reaching a point of Troubles fatigue.

Reviewing the series, the Radio Times says “the audience for this sobering history has been small”. It means nationally, but, even locally, while audiences will have been bigger than for usual episodes of Spotlight, have they been that impressive?

It can be hard to get accurate viewing figures in Northern Ireland — they take a while to filter through — but what the statistics that do exist tend to show, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that, when people sit down to watch television, they generally just want to be entertained.

The Ofcom report found that the most-watched show here during the period under examination was Derry Girls, with one episode securing more than 600,000 viewers in Northern Ireland, a nearly 70% audience share.

That was more than 100,000 viewers ahead of the next most popular programme, I’m A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!

In fact, once you take out Strictly Come Dancing, Mrs Brown’s Boys and all the soap operas, the only news programmes to make the top 20 shows were devoted to the havoc wreaked by arrival of Storm Emma.

There is an appetite to remember, but there’s also an appetite to forget the past entirely, and both are equally legitimate responses to the trauma of the Troubles.

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