Spotlight on the Troubles: a Secret History (BBC One NI and BBC Four, Tue 10 Sep)

If we have learned anything so far in the decade of centenaries, it’s that the urge to partake in an unhealthy amount of historical revisionism cannot be resisted by some. Yet as we begin to look at conflict-related fiftieth anniversaries, we should also hope that some of the thoughtful responses to events 100 years ago will be echoed, adding to our understanding rather than rehashing or revising, as many painful and contested events in the Troubles are remembered.

The BBC’s Spotlight team will start broadcasting a series of seven weekly films this Tuesday evening (8.30pm on BBC One NI and network BBC Four). At a preview event this week, the team explained that they have chosen not to try to tell ‘the definitive story’ of the Troubles. Instead they’ve applied their investigative skills to shed new light on various aspects of the conflict, telling ‘a secret history’ (and they emphasise that it’s ‘a’ secret, rather than ‘the’ secret history).

While Spotlight’s editor Jeremy Adams quipped that the team could have gone back 800 years to start the series, this Tuesday’s show begins in 1966 and works forward to the fall of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972.

Darragh MacIntyre bookends the series with two 90-minute programmes that first highlight the dominoes and how they began to fall at the commencement of the Troubles, before the final programme tries to explain the circumstances that led to the conflict ending.

Running through the first programme are the twin shadows of the men who were described as “dangerous radicals” and would later become “two elder statesmen”: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness.

The programme notes events in the build-up to forty years of conflict: the murder of Peter Ward by the UVF in June 1966, talking to one of the men he’d been out drinking with on the night he was killed; the Queen’s car being bricked in Belfast city centre; the NI Civil Rights Association and the demand for reform; resistance against Terence O’Neill’s reforms from “the big noisy booming cleric” who Kenneth Bloomfield, later the Head of the NI Civil Service admits he underestimated as “a flash in the pan”; and the emergence of the Provisional IRA in 1969.

Official papers show that O’Neill’s government suspected Paisley was doing more than just rabble-rousing, and linked him directly to a number of organisations, including the Ulster Volunteer Force, a link that Paisley himself denied.

A series of explosions that year damaged electricity and water infrastructure (including an aqueduct in Annalong and Silent Valley reservoir). Initially blamed on the IRA, the attacks were later found to be the work of the UVF and part of a loyalist false flag campaign to destabilise Terence O’Neill’s tenure and end his programme of reforms and what were seen as “concessions to Catholics”.

Tuesday’s programme will include an interview with retired army chief Colonel David Hancock who remembers a briefing from his friend, the RUC district inspector in Kilkeel. Hancock recalls being told that “Paisley had supplied the money that financed the Kilkeel explosion” and shown evidence of the involvement of money from Paisley into the UVF, where they had got the explosives from, and who did it.

Austin Currie, at that time MP for East Tyrone, tells the programme makers that he was warned in 1969 by Paisley’s bodyguard that the UVF bombing campaign was going to recommence, naming specific places that attacks would take place, and specific people who would be involved.

One of those, Thomas McDowell, was electrocuted and later died from his injuries trying to bomb a hydro-electric substation in Ballyshannon, and is buried behind a Free Presbyterian Church with his gravestone acknowledging his membership of the UVF.

At the time, Paisley said: “I can’t be responsible for everybody who is a member of church that I pastor or an organisation I lead”.

Appearing both in archive footage and then interviewed more recently by the Spotlight team, the now retired Free Presbyterian minister Rev Ivan Foster acknowledged that UVF members could have been “under the influence or in contact with the general witness and … protest against O’Neill” but put distance between the men of violence and the Paisleyite movement: the UVF men “were wrong [and] somebody deceived them into thinking that what they were doing was right”.

Time and time against, army assessments uncovered by the Spotlight team show the gap between those on the ground who understood how their actions were contributing negatively to the spiralling conflict, and those in the upper echelons and among the British political classes who made matters worse by their actions, including the internment of suspected republicans and the brutal and illegal interrogation used against a number of internees.

After Bloody Sunday, Denis Bradley remembers the IRA being offered more volunteers than they could handle. Unionist politician John Taylor describes his injuries and the facial reconstruction surgery he required after an assassination attempt in 1972.

Later in the film, archive footage from an unbroadcast ITV current affairs programme shows a young man with Martin McGuinness’ trademark gait inspecting the boot of a car in which a bomb had been planted. Another piece of film shows the aftermath of that vehicle exploding near Derry’s Guild Hall.

Further footage, from a US documentary that was never aired, shows Martin McGuinness casually driving through a Derry estate. Young children are gathered at the car window, and the IRA leader is nonchalantly showing them his hand-gun and bullets. Later episodes in the series promise to explain the provenance of this video.

Later in the series, Jennifer O’Leary will narrate two of the hour-long programmes that look at the IRA’s worldwide search for weapons and funding, and their twin-pronged armalite and ballot box strategy.

Mandy McAuley presents two programmes looking at the Anglo Irish Agreement, the distribution of weapons by loyalists, and will reveal new information about the Ulster Resistance, as well as the UVF’s attacks in Mid-Ulster and who was pulling the strings of those pulling the triggers.

Periodically, the count of deaths flashes up on the screen, at first rising slowly, before jumping into the tens, then hundreds of people with a sobering speed. The Spotlight team are aware that not every death or atrocity could be mentioned over the eight and a half hours of programmes that they’ve produced. According to Darragh MacIntyre, their emphasis has been on bringing “new material to light which might in turn give a new or better understanding of what happened here.” At the preview screening, the team were keen to commend the courage and determination of other journalists and historians who have investigated the Troubles.

Mandy McAuley says she has been heartened by “the number of people of all walks of all ranks and in all walks of life who were prepared on the 50th anniversary of the Troubles to put their heads above the parapet to help us unearth some very unpalatable truths”.

With around 100 interviews carried out over the last couple of years to make the seven programme, the Spotlight team say that they favoured people who would “attest the truth” over “propagandists” and admit that the “bar was high for evidence” as they sought to validate their stories.

The series of programmes and their analysis and archive footage are likely to provide many headlines over the coming weeks, and ignite fevered debate about the role and knowledge of many players during the Troubles. The Spotlight series could be an important part of extending our understanding of the legacy of the Troubles. In these politically fractious times, some of the predictably less-measured conversations around the Spotlight team’s discoveries could also be destabilising and damage green shoots of reconciliation and understanding. The maturity of today’s players in dealing with revelations – challenging, confirmatory or embarrassing – may well determine the nature of the impact.

Images: BBC Spotlight

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.