When you spend a few days rapidly reading through thousands of pages of papers, awkwardly tied together with treasury tags, there comes a point when your eyes glaze over and you find yourself flicking over pages that your brain hasn’t even begun to comprehend.
Then a word or a name jumps out at you.
Not the kind of word you’d expect a senior press officer to use in a typed note to the head of the NI Civil Service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield.
The context was that the IRA had planted four bombs – Semtex packed with bullets – in what was described by an RUC spokesman as a “necklace of death” around Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s Helen’s Bay home. At 6.15am on 12 September 1988 two of the devices exploded. The family were treated for shock. (It wasn’t Bloomfield’s first experience of bombing, with childhood memories of Luftwaffe bomb hitting the next door neighbour’s house in Ballyholme.)
A month later on 19 October 1988, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced the broadcasting ban that stopped representatives of organisations in Northern Ireland believed to support terrorism speaking directly on the airwaves.
That weekend, the Mail on Sunday carried a story conflating the broadcast ban with the bombing of Bloomfield’s home.
Digging into the source, press chief Andy Wood discovered that journalist Peter Dobbie had based his theory on his memory of Bloomfield’s comments at a dinner:
“It was bad enough being bombed: what was really totally unacceptable was hearing Adams on ‘Talkback’ the same day extending, on the IRA’s behalf, the threat to the rest of the Civil Service”.
Speaking to the journalist, Wood was unable to dissuade him from “his perception of the train of events” and his belief that the attack on Bloomfield had spurred the Prime Minister and Home Secretary into action.
Local civil servants did not seem to share London’s view that a broadcasting ban was a positive move, and felt that they may increasingly become targets.
Wood finished his seven paragraph note saying:
“You will know that I too have – and have expressed – my severe reservations about ‘gags’ like this latest measure. It is a matter of some concern to me that, despite the ability of the Belfast and London media to divine – correctly – my private feelings on this score some dickhead in West Belfast might put me in the frame as one the supporters of this scheme and act accordingly.” [emphasis added]
There is no evidence of a formal reply from Bloomfield in the Information Services file, and I didn’t have time to find look in Bloomfield’s own files to see if he annotated his copy of the note.
The same file begins with letters and memos detailing plans to publish an “Anniversary Book” to mark the twentieth anniversary of 1969.
NIO ministers feared that the “compulsive chapter on violence” may attract readers’ attention who may never read the rest of the text which intended to promote how Northern Ireland had positively changed over the intervening 20 years.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield objected to the draft text which referred to “the worst slums in Europe” saying that “no doubt such silly things were said but they must have been said by people who have never visited such places as Naples or Oporto”.
Lord Skelmersdale wrote to Brian Mawhinney – both in the NIO – pointing out the “danger in willy-nilly distribution through DHSS public offices” which could be in “areas where, I fear, the government’s ‘message’ may not be welcomed either by the customers or the staff on both sides of the political divide”.