Belfast Telegraph

Mairia Cahill: TV portrait of a troubled past puts murky memories back in focus

A new BBC documentary series on The Troubles presents a view of Northern history without the spin, writes Mairia Cahill

By Mairia Cahill

The colour of the footage has faded, though it is no less shocking. Surrounded by houses, five men stand around the back of a car.

The boot is open and the camera cuts to its contents. Inside, wrapped inside plastic sheeting, are enough explosives to "blow them all to hell" according to a reformed former Provo who is quoted while watching the film clip on a laptop.

"There's a huge charge there,'' he says, as the camera cuts to someone wiring up a cheap alarm clock, the type that your granny would have had on her bedside cabinet. A folded piece of carpet is then lifted to cover the bomb. Beside the extraordinary scene, a resident's wet washing flutters in the breeze.

If there was ever an image for just how the conflict raged around everyday life in Northern Ireland, it's that.

The camera slows to show a young Martin McGuinness walk across the back of the car. The car later explodes in Derry, the car registration found lying among the rubble.

It's 1972 and the footage features in the first of an eight-part series commissioned by BBC NI, Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History, which airs on Tuesday.

In addition, a clip is also shown of McGuinness in a Ford handling a rifle and a revolver. Young children are jostling in through the window of the car as McGuinness acts the big lad and shows some bullets to them. The man beside him in the passenger seat pats the head of one of the kid's dogs affectionately.

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The image is appalling, and the short clip has so far angered Sinn Fein, who would like us, the general public, to remember the former deputy first minister as peacemaker extraordinaire, and less so as someone who groomed impressionable children as future terrorists.

As I write, a memory comes to mind of standing in Ballymurphy waiting to take my turn looking through the sight of a British soldier's rifle as he crouched at the corner of my grandmother's street. I was, like countless other children, curious - but wise enough to know who the community thought the good and bad guys were.

Looking through a "Brit's rifle" was frowned upon; we were warned not to go near them in case someone took a pot shot and you ended up as a human shield. Life was not normal, far from it, though that is no excuse for men like McGuinness who spent years peddling a line that the IRA were defending a community, when in reality they also did their fair share of exposing it to things it should never have experienced, or seen.

The minute the forthcoming Spotlight series started attracting media attention, the Sinn Fein machine swung into overdrive to try and seize the narrative. McGuinness "fought... for equality all of his own adult life", according to Martina Anderson MEP. There were lots of "proud to have known him" tweets. Elisha McCallion, the current Sinn Fein MP for Foyle, tried to rewrite McGuinness's entire history in one sentence when she tweeted: "Martin McGuinness never denied his past. He was an amazing man who fought his whole life for what he thought was right…"

There is a misconception that, unlike others, McGuinness was upfront about his IRA membership, though actually, he denied it at points also.

Journalists Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston in their book From Guns to Government carry the following from McGuinness in response to a 1993 Cook Report expose: "I have never been a member of the IRA. I don't hold any sway over the IRA."

Unionists are unhappy, too, particularly the son of the late Ian Paisley, also called Ian, who rang Radio Ulster's Nolan show on Friday to complain that Spotlight will air allegations made by a former army colonel that his father financed a UVF bomb. Paisley Junior was incensed and referred to it as a "filthy scum programme".

Former first minister, Peter Robinson branded the claim "fake news", and supporters of the firebrand preacher also took to social media to dismiss, and to retrospectively canonise him.

It's a measure of its journalistic integrity that Spotlight manages to piss off both sides of the community in NI equally, not because it intends to, but because the truth is uncomfortable for many.

To declare an interest here, lest anyone accuses me, I am biased. I have seen first hand how hard the entire team works, having been the subject of three programmes over the last number of years. I have spent hours upon hours filming, talking, crying, and yes, at times answering questions I found tough. It's the nature of the beast, and why I respect them as proper journalists.

They probed my story, yet also allowed me to tell it, and I had no idea how it would turn out until I sat down to watch it with everyone else. Yet I have also watched the programme for decades, as they won awards and waded through topics such as church abuse, collusion, murder, racketeering and intimidation, wrongdoing by politicians, and uncovering information that would probably otherwise remain hidden.

Spotlight worked on this series for two years. It doesn't claim to be a definitive history, or narrative, but it does offer us new information, insight and answers on a range of topics, from loyalists to republicans, British army intelligence, and everything murky in between.

They are renowned for forensic digging, and also for revealing facts or stories that others haven't been able to. Produced by Chris Thornton, reporters Darragh McIntyre, Mandy McAuley and Jennifer O'Leary examine NI's history of conflict from the late 1960s through the decades. O'Leary explains; "The purpose of this series was to peel back layers on events that people in the know very often don't want to talk about…"

McIntyre says: "The challenge was to bring new material to light which might in turn give a new or better understanding of what happened here," while McAuley states it was "one of the most demanding projects" that she has worked on.

George Santayana once said: "Those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For this reason alone, Spotlight's series should be unmissable for a generation who have been spoon-fed spin on the likes of McGuinness and Paisley at their chuckle brothers best, but who won't remember them at their worst. It would be disingenuous to sanitise either.

'Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History' starts on Tuesday on BBC One NI and BBC Four at 8.30pm.

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