One of the frustrations of the TV market in these multichannel days is that we’re a long way from “open skies” broadcasting for viewing on demand. This applies to BBCi Player if you live in the Republic and the RTE Player if you live as I do in Britain. This means I don’t get to see the RTE Prime Time documentary on Collusion. People in the Republic are much more likely to access the two BBC documentaries on Britain’s Secret Deals as many of them are within transmitter range or get BBC on cable. But the frustrating restrictions reduce the public impact of the programmes where it matters most – in Great Britain.
It may be a coincidence that the two national broadcasters have made powerful programmes on British state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Or they may be making attempts in parallel to set a legacy agenda that was supposed to be revived by the Stormont House Agreement. The question is now, how much pressure will the British government feel as a result of the documentaries?
A lot less than they should is the answer. Panorama landed with a dull thud, Prime Time probably likewise aside from ritual calls for a response and a doomed DUP attempt to embarrass the Sinn Fein leadership. Even during the Troubles Northern Ireland was notoriously not box office. So well done to BBC NI current affairs under Jeremy Adams for their coup in bouncing the story onto the network. But there are limits to what the BBC networks will absorb. It’s ironic that the reporter on the RTE doc was John Ware who together with Peter Taylor comprised the most distinguished investigative reporting duo for the BBC into the Troubles.
So the impact will be low. In Britain today terrorism is about jihadism, foreign and domestic. But it’s not as if old news can’t be revived. Look at the impact of the Hillsborough inquests and note the calls for a public inquiry into the “ battle of Orgreave.” If it’s truly “British” ( or rather perhaps, “English”), it still plays.
The basic problem is that British opinion declared victory in 1998 and washed their hands of a business which they feel is essentially not theirs. Then there’s the sheer scale of potential inquiry even beyond collusion, which most of the establishment apart from Nuala O’Loan it seems, recoil from. Consider the six years and £10 million costs of the Chilcott inquiry into the comparatively narrow issue of political responsibility for the Iraq war and compare it with the scale of the Troubles legacy over 40 years.
It is of course dishonest of successive British governments to shuffle off responsibility to the hapless Assembly. Minor reforms to the inquest system and a reformed historic investigations unit will make little difference to the snail’s pace of a clear-up rate. Is there anything that might force them into bolder action? The Irish government perhaps which has been reticent about putting on pressure over the Dublin- Monaghan bombs, no doubt for fear of rocking the British-Irish boat? But as the DUP like to insist, the legacy is Irish as well British business. This makes both of them accusers and accused. Enda Kenny has taken a direct hand in promising Irish government cooperation over the Kingsmills massacre. Over this and other cases, he’s owed a quid pro quo.
There may be just a clue in Gerry Kelly’s remarks in the Assembly. “… if we’re talking about the truth, I am for the truth coming out all over,” he declared. He for one has been far from reticent about his paramilitary activity. Will others follow his example? Aside from the handlers, I can think of no better way of exposing collusion than for former paramilitaries to expose it . Sinn Fein leaders have often talked like this before, secure in the belief that the British authorities will not “jump first”. If the republicans were to offer some voluntary disclosure by some of those who those have served their time, it would be that bit harder for the British authorities to continue refusing to respond. It’s a long shot, I admit.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London