Peter Taylor: “Gradually I got used to reporting death. But I never became insensitive to it.”

In advance of the broadcast on BBC Radio 4 tonight, 8pm, of Peter Taylor’s documentary, Fifty Years Behind the Headlines – Reflections on Terror, the renowned journalist has written an article on the subject for the BBC website.  Most revealing, on many levels, is the part in which he recounts the “interview [which] affected [him] personally above all others.”

The blanket protest by the IRA prisoners in the Maze started in 1977. They refused to wear prison uniform, insisting they were political prisoners and not criminals. The protesters resorted to wearing only a blanket to try and force the issue.

To try and understand the situation from the other side of the cell doors, I met Desmond Irvine, the secretary of the Northern Ireland Prison Officers Association.

As a unionist prison officer, what he said came as a surprise. He agreed to do an interview despite the Northern Ireland Office advising him against it. I felt he wanted to get his message across.

I asked if he respected the prisoners for their protest. “I don’t think they just do it mainly for publicity but because it’s their belief. I suppose one could say a person who believes sincerely in what he is doing, and is prepared to suffer for it, [deserves] a certain measure of respect which you give to him.”

After transmission, he wrote me a letter saying how pleased he was with the positive reaction he had had to the interview.

Then a few days later, the IRA shot him dead.

Deeply shocked, I felt sick. At his funeral I cried. And I remember the prison governor telling me not to blame myself, saying he was murdered because he was a prison officer and not because I had interviewed him.

But I’m still haunted by what happened. I was called by a Belfast journalist who asked how it felt to have blood on my hands. Death had come too close to home and I seriously considered stopping reporting Northern Ireland. In the end, I decided to carry on.

Read the whole thing.

The documentary, Fifty Years Behind the Headlines – Reflections on Terror, will be available on the BBC iPlayer.

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