During the Troubles, and probably still today, many members of the security forces used ‘civil servant’ as a euphemism to disguise their actual employer when filling out forms.
Released under the 20 Year Rule, file CENT/1/19/5 [PDF] in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland reveals that on 2 January 1990, Alan Burnside Public Relations wrote to Richard Needham (the then Minister for the Economy) on behalf of their client video chain Xtra-vision to ask him to find out whether the security forces were banned from their stores.
Normally a company can survive unfounded, malicious and utterly ludicrous rumours but in the case of Xtra-vision the motivation for the rumours seems to be the preservation of the racketeering arrangements of the paramilitaries and their fringe criminal associates. The rapid growth of Xtra-vision has upset these people and prompted a hostile backlash of rumour, intimidation and bomb attacks designed to frighten the Company out of Northern Ireland …
One category of rumour which is giving particular difficulty to counter is that members of the security forces are banned from Xtra-vision premises. As far as I can establish this is untrue and denied by the RUC but the rumours persist regarding an official army and UDR ban on personnel using their stores. I have had discussions with the RUC on the rumours and the source of the attacks.
I would be grateful if you would raise this matter with the security forces to see if such a ban exists either officially or unofficially and to refute it so that a degree of commonsense could be restored …
The letter goes on to outline the scale of Xtra-vision’s existing investment (65 stores with 300 staff) and expansion plans (growing to 100 shops with 400 staff employed). After financial difficulties in the 1990s and the late 2000s and continuing on into the 2010s, the final Xtra-vision stores closed in 2016 though the brand lives on in DVD vending machines in supermarkets and petrol stations in the Republic of Ireland.
Alan Burnside explained his specific request to the Minister for the Economy:
Where you could help […] is by using your good office with the business community and the security forces to enable a legitimate, publicly quoted, international company to beat the video racketeers and restore its good name.
Richard Needham’s reply isn’t included in the file. However a parallel request from Xtra-vision to become a Youth training Programme (YTP) recognised training agency was flagged up by civil servant Nigel Hamilton to see if it was compatible with the “rumours of the Company’s non-involvement with the security forces and the Company’s policy of buying up existing video outlets”.
It seems that Xtra-vision quickly realised that the reference to ‘Employers’ on their membership form was what “caused difficulties with the security forces” and the company changed the form.
The file was closed in February 1990 with a note back to Nigel Hamilton confirming that “you should disregard the rumour and treat the Company for this purpose as you would any other”.
Form changed, problem fixed.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.