Reporting the Troubles: 2 Prime Ministers, 5 P O’Neills, the last death knock, and addressing legacy issues

Brian Rowan and Deric Henderson speaking about Reporting the Troubles at a Creative Holywood conversation.When Deric Henderson and Brian Rowan sat down on Thursday evening to discuss their contributions to the book Reporting the Troubles, they had no idea of the tragic events that would happen just a few hours later in Creggan.

Henderson co-edited the book along with Ivan Little – now in its third print run by Blackstaff Press – collating contributions from 68 current and former journalists from across the island and beyond, capturing memories of situations and encounters for posterity and analysis.

The event was organized by Creative Holywood.

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Rowan was a former BBC NI Security Editor during the 80s and 90s. He described his role as “a privilege … we were able to operate, if you like, across the lines in this place, we were able to talk to all sides, communicate with all sides, fall out with all sides along the way, and on most occasions, we were able to repair broken relationships.”

He said that books like this were important “because in our waiting to address the past, we are losing critical living memory”.

“I think just back to the period of 1994, the ceasefire period, and those who were absolutely essential to the making of that at a political level within the IRA, within the Loyalist organisations. So many of them no longer with us.”

Henderson was the Ireland Editor for Press Association after jobs in the local press and Belfast Telegraph. He read from his own chapter in the book, recounting his many encounters with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as he reported on her visits to Northern Ireland.

While he could “see her far enough” when she visited very close to Christmas, and while the flights in the Wessex helicopter with “the door’s open [and] a machine gun pointing downwards” were “hairy”, Henderson was impressed with the politician who never raised her voice, even when her Secretary of State Jim Prior (“banished to Northern Ireland”) was particularly irritating.

Henderson travelled with her successor, John Major, to the border just after he took over.

“I remember he was standing on that big border checkpoint … on the Dublin road just outside Newry on the hill. I’ll never forget, following him up the steps: this guy’s first time in Northern Ireland, looking across the South Armagh terrain, this very hostile part of the world. And he had this sort of faraway look in his face: Jesus, what am I doing here?”

Rowan met with five different P O’Neill’s from the time of the Enniskillen bomb in 1987 through to 2010.

“I remember a woman stopping me in [Holywood]”. She said: “I hate those three words on the news in the morning” He asked: “what are they?” She replied: “‘Brian Rowan reports.’ It’s always bloody bad news!”

He explained how journalists would be called to meetings with the IRA at short notice, often resorting to scribbling down verbally-delivered statements on whatever scraps of paper they had to hand.“I wrote the IRA briefing of June 3rd 1996, which was ruling out a ceasefire saying that it was remote in the extreme at that stage that it would happen” on the back of the previous day’s church bulletin.

On Saturday 5 February 2000, Rowan met P O’Neill and “wrote the IRA statement [that there was no agreement to decommission] on these two Hollywood Taxi dockets – that’s what I had in my pocket at that time – and I wrote my news report for the BBC on the back of them.”

Henderson remembers being summonsed to Sevastopal Street off the Falls Road to be handed an IRA statement about ‘we only have to be lucky the once, you have to be lucky all the time’. He recalls that it was typed on lavender-coloured paper, a sheet he lent to Eamonn Mallie and has never seen since.

Rowan has filed around 30,000 scraps of paper, notes and statements in chronological order. Like some of the stories and details that he still hesitates to share, this archive is “not for today, but for 20 or 30 years down the road”.

He told the audience about 31 August 1994. “I knew that the [IRA ceasefire] statement was coming that day. And I remember around six o’clock in the morning, Val thought the baby was coming and I thought … I didn’t say this out loudly … but please not today, please not today.”

The signs of labour turned out to be a false alarm.

Rowan explained how a small number of colleagues were briefed, and a newsflash was readied with Donna Traynor waiting in a radio studio to relay the announcement after he phoned through the top lines on a “brick” of a mobile phone.

“We [Rowan and Mallie] went to a shopping centre in west Belfast for that meeting at 11 o’clock. Walked into a coffee shop. I saw the woman sitting there who I knew was there to speak to us and she had on her lap the tiniest piece of paper that that you can imagine.”

He later borrowed the scrap of paper to photograph for one of his books.

“I’ve said many times since that I’d written the statement down very carefully. Which I thought I had. But these are my actual notes from that morning: five pages of my jotter. It’s a scrawl. Because after she had read the opening sentence, which was that from midnight that night that would be a complete cessation of military operations and all IRA units had been instructed accordingly.

“We asked her could she pause so that we could phone that through to the newsrooms … she said: no, my instructions are to read the statement in full. So she insisted upon reading the next four or five pages. And as those four or five pages went on, my scrawl became … it was like money burning in your pocket. You know, this was big news to get out there …

“I went to the car park at the shopping centre. I got that mobile phone out and I read those first couple of lines through and Donna Traynor within minutes of that was reading the ceasefire statement and the news went across the world.”

Rowan acknowledging a feeling of “tug of war between your professional duty and your citizenship”. Local journalists “weren’t foreign correspondents sent to cover a conflict elsewhere where we had no emotional attachment” but were “stitched into the fabric of this place … part of it. We have families. We want this thing to work. But at the same time there is that responsibility that while you want it to work, you also have that responsibility to report it as accurately as you possibly can, whether that is damaging to the peace process or not.”

Ultimately, “you’ve got to do the best you can with the best information that you that you can gather.”

Rowan admitted that there were “times when I wanted to run away”.

Henderson recalled the Omagh bombing in his hometown in 1998.

“I wouldn’t go to Omagh and I sent a team of about 20 reporters and photographers down there. And I remember the Sunday morning. I always went out and bought the papers – especially this Sunday morning – before you went into the office because you were basically marshalling the [journalists from Belfast, London and Dublin].

“I went into the newsagents and I could see all the papers on the stand, and … I couldn’t bring myself to buy any of the papers.”

Years before, in Loughinisland, he vowed never again to knock on the door of a bereaved relative, what journalists refer to as a ‘death knock’.

“Probably the one time it really, really got to me was Loughinisland in 1994. It was a Sunday morning and we’d [been] partying in a friend’s house … I went down to Loughinisland that very wet and miserable Sunday morning with an absolutely thumping hangover.”

The print journalists on the scene divvied up the homes to approach.

“And I remember rapping the door and this lady appeared. She’d obviously been crying and she was wearing a dress, a black dress … it was obviously hurriedly removed from the bottom drawer for the period of mourning. And I always remember it was covered in white specks like wool or something … She was fingering a handkerchief.

“And as you did back then, you introduced yourself. The usual line was: sorry for intruding on your grief, but could you help me with an interview about your late father and could you tell me what happened?

“She said: Deric, I’d rather not.

“And I remember turning and walking away down the footpath and I said to myself: never again am I going to knock a door. And that was the last time.”

Rowan remarked that “the abnormality of that period became the normality. We got used to the dark. We got used to people being killed.”

“You know, I say quite often people here died for two hours, meaning that they were dead on the 10 o’clock news, but somebody else was dead on the 12 o’clock news. A bit like the way we listen to Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re kind of listening, but we’re not hearing. And I think that’s what started to happen here.

“That people became statistics rather than names and humans. The conflict dehumanised us all. And I suppose the challenge of 2019 is to rehumanise, to be people again.”

Less than twelve hours after filming Rowan and Henderson’s conversation, I awoke with a gasp to the radio news headline that a friend had been shot and killed overnight. Rowan’s challenge for lives lost not to become a mere statistic but be remembered and kept alive with humanity felt very apt.

During the Q&A, Rowan spoke about the outstanding problems surrounding legacy issues.

“We’re bogged down in these arguments over legacy and the past at the moment. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to bury ourselves and the next generation in the Troubles years … I don’t see no healing and reconciliation in this legacy debate at the moment. I see people trying to create a parade of shame so long as they don’t have to walk in it.

“And I think a conflict cannot be half over. It’s either over or it’s not over. And if it’s over, then we need to grapple with the issue of amnesty. And we need to find a process that does not send soldiers or police officers or Loyalists or Republicans to jail for the conflict period, but tries to achieve the maximum amount of information and practical help for those who are hurt the most. And I know that that’s a poisonous issue to raise with some people. But it is nonetheless an issue that we that we need to address.”

While admitting that it “might sound very hypocritical when I ask people to write about the past”, it is Henderson’s view that “it’s time that we … should draw a line here.”

“It’s not very popular thing to say, I know, but we really need to move on.

“We should never forget. And we should also be very mindful of people who were affected by the Troubles, who will continue to be affected by the Troubles. The terrible life experiences that they had and still suffer from.

“There’s some very eloquent writing in the book, for instance, Susan McKay writes a great piece, Derval Fitzsimons, about a young girl down in Fermanagh murdered by the IRA, Jillian Johnson.”

He describes the book as “a grim read” and “quite depressing actually, but those were the times in which we lived”.

“And it’s part of a storytelling process. It allowed those journalists who worked here to get something off their chest or to look back or reflect. It’s quite a small community … and we were very privileged. We had the most extraordinary access to people including that lady I met in Loughinisland.”

But thinking about the past and looking at today, Henderson asks:

“has it almost been 20 wasted years? When we are politically adrift, hopelessly adrift, and not getting anywhere … Brexit has been a big distraction, I know, but people really need to knuckle down.

“It’s time for big people to make big concessions and try and get back to where we were a few years ago.”

Current proposals for an information process talk about an archive. Rowan is not sure about the word ‘archive’.

“I think they need to call it something else because an archive suggests to people it’s something that lies in some dusty corner somewhere and if some academic wants to come along and look at it at some point … I think we need people’s storytelling to be part of some memorial and part of some remembrance.

“Because when you ask people to think back on the conflict period we can all remember the headlines. You know, we remember Omagh, we remember Loughinisland, and Loughgall, and the Shankill, and Enniskillen, and La Mon. But beneath that remembering so much is forgotten. The people who died on their own, are the names that are not as easily recalled.

“So I think that’s the sort of process we need. But if we’re going to do 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 more investigations in that period that runs from the 60s into the 90s and beyond. And out of that, I heard the Chief Constable say recently, there is maybe a 3% prospect of sending someone to court and someone to jail for two years.

“Is that addressing the past?”

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Rowan recalled an interview conducted with a Loyalist life sentence prisoner around the time of the Good Friday Agreement when there was “the battle about prisoner releases versus victims’ rights”.

“In the course of the interview, he said to me: we sleep with the victims. I knew exactly what he meant, but I asked him to explain. And of course what he meant was that he couldn’t sleep with what he had done. He couldn’t sleep with what he had done.

“And I remember beyond that interview, he did an interview with Peter Taylor, and then a couple of months later, he hanged himself. Now, I consider that man to be a victim of this conflict. That’s not to condone what he did, but we are very comfortable talking about what happened. And we’re not so comfortable talking about why it happened.”

As I edited the video of Rowan and Henderson over the weekend, I also watched the police CCTV footage of two youthful-looking masked men skulking around the corner of a building and firing shots towards the PSNI Landrovers in Creggan.

Rowan remarked:

“Think of the ages of those young people who were involved in the conflict in the 70s. And then think of the people who directed them. Who put guns in their hands, bombs in their hands, and all of those people will exit this stage without any responsibility or accountability.

“I don’t think that’s addressing the past. That we send a few dozen people to jail because we’re afraid to speak the word amnesty. And unless we get our heads around this there’ll be a room like this in 20 or 30 years’ time, not with him [Henderson] and I here, but with two or three other people saying: why did we not do something about that then?

“So we need a process, but we need a thinking process and we need the right process.

“We’re too small a place. You know, all of us remember something. This was around the corner from us. It was down the road from us. We’re all emotionally attached to it. And sometimes you needed that outside voice that said to you, but. And that’s why I think we need an outside voice to deal with this legacy question.

“I mean the idea that we needed George Mitchell to do the politics, we needed John de Chastelain to do the weapons, we needed Chris Patten to do the RUC and policing reform, but yet we think five political parties and two governments can sort out legacy. They’re part of the problem. They shouldn’t be anywhere near it. The idea that they would create a process that will take us out of this. I just think it’s ludicrous. And if we leave it to them, that’s what I mean about in 20 or 30 years time, we’ll be sitting here saying why have we not got that sorted out?”

I blogged on Saturday about Rowan’s fears that “the conflict generation are shovelling our experience on the people who come behind us” and the need for a legacy process that “should be about why this should never happen again”.

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On the restoration of devolved institutions, Rowan was gloomy.

“I’m not sure there’ll be a Stormont at the centenary of Northern Ireland. And I’m not sure there should be. That’s where I’m at. I don’t hear anyone saying to me we need Stormont back tomorrow. I hear people saying we need somewhere where decisions are made. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Stormont.

“And our politics is moving beyond devolution versus direct rule. There’s a third pillar now, which is about what a New Ireland might look like, and while a number of years ago that would have been dismissed as idle talk, it’s not been dismissed now.

“So we need to open our eyes. I heard some of the commentary today around manifesto launches -if you don’t vote for us, you’ll get them – is that where we are in 2019? Give me a break. Give us all a break.”