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The madcap plan to enlist Morecambe and Wise in bid to end the Troubles

PM Wilson wanted comedy duo to 'lift spirits' with Stormont gig

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Morecambe and Wise

Morecambe and Wise

BBC

Stormont

Stormont

PA

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Vera Lynn

Vera Lynn

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Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees

Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees

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Morecambe and Wise

A 'forgotten' photograph of comedy legends Morecambe and Wise during a little-known appearance in Belfast over 60 years ago has led to the re-visiting of a bizarre plan by Harold Wilson's government to use the English entertainers in an unlikely push for peace in Northern Ireland in the 70s.

Records found by a local historian from Bangor show that the idea was to recruit the comedy duo to sing their trademark song, Bring Me Sunshine, at Stormont in the hope it would influence terrorists to call a halt to their violence in Northern Ireland.

"It sounds daft. It was daft," said history researcher Haydn Milligan, who found out more than he bargained for when he started to search for information about the late comics' trip to Belfast.

His hunt started after he was shown a picture of Morecambe and Wise outside the old Forster Green hospital in Belfast in a book about its history.

Writer Duncan Wallace said that the photo showed the young comedians between variety shows at Belfast's Grand Opera House.

He said that entertainers at the theatre including actor Terry Thomas and singer Vera Lynn often used to visit patients at Forster Green in their downtime.

Mr Milligan said he'd wanted to find out more about what Morecambe and Wise, who were in their 20s at the time, had done in the city.

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Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

But it was during his research that he found another reference to the comic giants that surprised him.

For he discovered that the year after the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government in the wake of the Ulster Workers Strike in 1974, the British government toyed with the idea of using Eric and Ernie as a 'weapon' to end the Troubles here.

The plan, revealed in secret government papers outlined a proposed 'Brighten up Ulster' campaign after hundreds of deaths in Northern Ireland and beyond, including UVF bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in the Republic and IRA blasts in Guildford and Birmingham in England.

Mr Milligan said one idea for boosting morale that was made to the government's Information Policy Coordinating Committee was to enlist Morecambe and Wise to perform their Bring Me Sunshine song and dance routine on the lawns of the Stormont estate.

The chairman of the committee, newspaper man Michael Cudlipp, said the government should "think really big" in organising a series of events to lift spirits in Northern Ireland.

In a letter to committee members on March 18, 1975, just over a month after the IRA had declared a ceasefire that lasted just under a year, Mr Cudlipp suggested that Morecambe and Wise could be coaxed into giving their services "for more or less free" for a performance at Stormont. "But the records show that he didn't stop with the comics," said Mr Milligan. "He also went so far as to propose recruiting Frank Sinatra to sing for nothing too."

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Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Remarkably the ideas weren't shot down in an instant and committee members came up with other plans to highlight "the sunny side of life in Northern Ireland" to create a "post-war atmosphere and spirit."

Other apparently serious suggestions included an It's a Knockout competition hosted by Eddie Waring between towns and cities in Northern Ireland and it was reported that one committee member Jimmy Hamilton hoped that the appearance of giant foam costumes and buckets of gunge could cancel out the "murderous violence" on the streets.

He also proposed that as a sign of goodwill for the bigger events, security barriers ringing town and city centres should be removed even in the short term.

The records show that other ideas included a beauty pageant called Miss Good Cheer; a special 'sociable week' with the message 'Don't Let's Be Downhearted' and which would also involve Women's Institutes and Rotary Clubs organising 'good cheer' conferences.

Another suggestion was that newspapers and broadcasters should prepare special supplements and programmes filled with positive news stories designed to promote normality but it was also proposed that the government should have only a "discreet" involvement in the Brightening Up Ulster campaign.

Around the same time the Information Policy Coordinating Committee were also engaged in developing a propaganda campaign against the IRA.

Mr Milligan said that one memorandum claimed: "The IRA's will to fight can best be undermined by a concerted PR/information campaign aimed at isolating the Provisional leadership and movement from the remainder of the Catholic community."

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Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees

Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees

Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees

According to the papers Mr Cudlipp told the then Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees that there should be no moves on black propaganda without ministerial authority.

As for Morecambe and Wise, Mr Milligan said they did not perform at Stormont and it isn't certain if they were ever approached with even the most tentative of plans.

The official Morecambe and Wise website does make reference to the Bring Me Sunshine proposal for Stormont but it credits the idea to the late Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who appeared on the duo's Christmas show in 1978.

The website says: "According to secret government papers released in 2005, Harold Wilson wanted Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise to bring peace to Northern Ireland by singing Bring Me Sunshine."

Mr Milligan said he was surprised that the "crackpot" plan didn't get more coverage in Northern Ireland.

"I wasn't able to find anything about it in the local papers," he added.

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