Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Troubles series can counter rewriting of our bloody past

Former First and Deputy First Ministers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
Former First and Deputy First Ministers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
'As political epithets go, the achievement of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working together, is not a bad one by any measure of success'
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Few of the revelations in last night's Secret History Of The Troubles on BBC One will have come as a surprise to anyone in Northern Ireland who lived through that unholy period.

The programme was no less powerful for that. Some stories will always be shocking, no matter how many times they are retold.

Most attention in the run-up to broadcast inevitably focused on the programme's depiction of the late Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as, in presenter Darragh McIntyre's words, they went from "dangerous radicals to elder statesmen", ultimately leading a Stormont Assembly that both started out by gleefully tearing down.

McGuinness was shown, in never before seen footage, assembling a car bomb with other IRA volunteers. Identifiable by its registration number, the car is later seen sitting among dust and rubble in the city centre.

Further footage showed the future Deputy First Minister mesmerising youngsters in the Bogside by showing them guns and bullets, like some grotesque republican child catcher. McGuinness's dark past may be well known, but these were startling pieces of film all the same.

Paisley, for his part, was accused of having personally financed the bomb which damaged the Silent Valley reservoir near Kilkeel in Co Down in 1969. The bomb was intended to be blamed on the IRA. In fact, it was the work of associates of Ian Paisley, who was himself conveniently behind bars at the time, where it's a pity he didn't stay.

Unionists have stoutly defended Paisley's memory, accusing the BBC of peddling fake news in order to strike a political balance. After so long, it's probably impossible to establish the facts beyond reasonable doubt, but those whose lives were endangered after being accused of IRA sympathies by Paisley on even flimsier evidence would have every right to be cynical at this spluttering indignation.

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Leaving aside the unanswerable question of whether Paisley directly financed the UVF in the mid-1960s, the programme more than demonstrated the negative influence the Free Presbyterian leader - dismissed by the unionist establishment at the time as a "booming cleric" and "flash in the pan" - exerted whilst scuppering all moves to reform when they might still have made a difference. His conscience had blood on it, even if it can be proved that his money didn't.

McIntyre actually told this story with scrupulous even-handedness. He forensically set out mistakes made by Stormont and Westminster, as well as the RUC and Army, in handling a deteriorating security situation, right up to Bloody Sunday, which "changed everything".

He also conveyed exactly what the State was up against as the old IRA hijacked the non-sectarian civil rights movement for its own malign purposes, then split to form the Provisional IRA in pursuit of a ruthless strategy to bring down Stormont and drive the Brits out of Ireland with "all-out war", just as calm was being restored in the late 1960s.

The exchanges with PIRA founding member Des Long were disturbing. "Every feller that gets his head cracked open by a peeler's baton is a potential recruit," he grinned with indecent relish.

It's all too easy to be wise with hindsight. McIntyre has made the masterly decision to largely stay with the story as it happened. But of course, his interviewees know exactly what was to come in the following years, so seeing them bask in memories of that time, almost nostalgic for the old days, is a telling representation of how basic decency can be warped by conflict.

The programme deployed a simple but effective device. In the bottom left hand corner, a box appeared every few minutes with a running total of deaths.

It was chilling to see how single casualties multiplied virus-like to become dozens, then hundreds. By the end of this first episode, in early 1972, with the Army's senior commanding officer, General Sir Michael Carver, writing a secret memo to his own government recommending a united Ireland as the only solution, the tally already stands at over 300, but the viewer knows there are thousands of deaths still to come. Watching is made more unbearably painful.

In an effort to draw in jaded viewers who feel they've heard it all before, the BBC has arguably overstated the 'secret' element of this history. There are confidential memos, unseen footage, exclusive interviews, but nothing feels that revelatory yet. It remains to be seen how far the programme will go over the course of the remaining episodes to expose the hidden hands behind terrorism on all sides.

It could turn out to be an essential step in what is now the real struggle, which is to wrestle back the narrative from opportunistic politicians set on seducing the next generation with shiny lies about violence, just as McGuinness did to children in the Bogside all those years ago.

The only thing that can counter that shameless falsification is the truth, ugly and grainy and rain-sodden as last night's footage showed it to be.

Belfast Telegraph

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