Belfast Telegraph

Memories of the Troubles

Ivan Little was one of four veteran journalists who took part in a debate at the Oxford Literary Festival on reporting the conflict in Northern Ireland

From left: Ivan Little, Kate Adie, Martin Bell and Deric Henderson at the Oxford Literary Festival
From left: Ivan Little, Kate Adie, Martin Bell and Deric Henderson at the Oxford Literary Festival

Hard-bitten TV broadcaster Kate Adie, who covered horrors all over the world, had tears in her eyes at the weekend as she recalled a Belfast murder that has haunted her for nearly four decades.

Adie was addressing 450 people at a debate at the prestigious Oxford Literary Festival about how journalists covered the Troubles.

Martin Bell, her former BBC colleague, also took part in the discussion, alongside veteran Belfast journalist Deric Henderson and myself.

Our jointly compiled book, Reporting the Troubles, which includes the reflections of more than 60 journalists, was the focus of the debate in the magnificent Sir Christopher Wren-designed Sheldonian Theatre, where Paul McCartney once premiered a new piece of music.

Adie's contribution to the publication was her harrowing story of finding a bewildered young boy standing over his father's body under a Christmas tree in Belfast. The man, whom Adie has never identified, had been shot dead.

Speaking in public about the heart-rending scene that greeted her left Adie clearly struggling to cope with her emotions in Oxford.

Falteringly, she said: "It's not often that something gets right to you right in front of you. I've never forgotten it."

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Martin Bell told the audience, which included the Irish ambassador to Britain, Adrian O'Neill, that his time working in Northern Ireland helped to shape him as a journalist.

He remembered how the late Ian Paisley turned on him at a rally in front of 2,000 loyalists, saying he was an employee of the "Papist Broadcasting Corporation", but he later treated him civilly when he became a Westminster MP.

Adie said Mr Paisley once denounced her at a public meeting and called her the "whore of the BBC". She said that during her first visits she was ordered by her bosses that the IRA were not to be called the Irish Republican Army because of the use of the word 'army', and she spoke of the hostility she encountered from unionists who believed the BBC should be more on their side.

Bell related how BBC Northern Ireland executives tried to censor his reports in the early days of the Troubles.

Henderson, the retired Ireland Editor of the Press Association, reflected on the dangers and difficulties Ulster-born reporters faced covering "what was a war on our doorsteps".

He said he thought he was going to die during Michael Stone's murderous rampage in Milltown Cemetery and he added that he took his life in his hands on the many occasions he was assigned to accompany ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on her helicopter journeys around Northern Ireland at a time when she topped the IRA's hit list.

Henderson explained that the choppers flew low over the terrain so the IRA couldn't bring them down with their rockets. After one particularly hair-raising trip, Mrs Thatcher's press secretary, Bernard Ingham, said it was the first time he had ever flown underground, and an aide remarked that even the cows in the fields had ducked.

Henderson also spoke of how the Troubles impacted on him with the death of his UDR soldier uncle, who was killed by a single shot in an IRA attack.

I told how I "felt dirty" as I became a face-to-face conduit for paramilitaries who wanted to get their statements into the public domain, and how I tried to keep a distance between me and the terrorists.

I said I'd once declined an invitation to have a "Christmas drink" with one of my paramilitary contacts. And I said I walked away in disgust from a conversation between two prominent loyalists who were arguing over the most 'humane' way to kill a victim - with a breeze-block or a bullet.

I also told how I once received a statement from terrorists who said they were going to execute me because of my employers' editorial policies. The man who relayed the message added: "There's nothing personal about it".

Henderson said that the IRA devised a series of codewords, mainly the names of Irish writers like James Joyce, to authenticate telephoned claims.

The Provisionals' admission of responsibility for the Brighton bomb in 1984 was handed directly to him by a republican representative who never mentioned the encounter again in their subsequent meetings down the years.

As chair of the debate, I jokingly said at the outset that the debate about past troubles might prove a respite from current discussions about Brexit and the DUP.

But, inevitably, the tensions over Brexit did surface when I threw the debate to the floor for questions.

One woman wanted to know if there would be a return to violence.

Henderson said he didn't envisage that as there wasn't the climate for the Troubles to come back and he didn't foresee a hard border on the island of Ireland.

I said I thought Northern Ireland needed to rid itself of the "hard borders of the mind" - the deep-rooted sectarianism that is still plaguing many parts of society.

Martin Bell stressed that Northern Ireland must never be allowed to go back to its violent past.

Looking at the wider media debate, I asked Bell for his assessment of news coverage today and if he was a fan of 24 hour news.

"Don't get me started," said Bell, who added that he and Kate Adie had been lucky to have worked in the realms of real news.

She spoke of how mainstream news audiences were declining rapidly, with viewing figures a fraction of what they used to be.

In lighter moments, Adie, who is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland, said she loved the province and smiled at how it was the only place she had ever worked where people would stop in the middle of a riot to tell her a joke.

Once, she added, a rioter dropped the rock in his hand then stretched his hand out and said: "Put it there - I've always wanted to meet someone off the telly."

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