Spotlight on the Troubles #2: intermediaries, talks, ceasefires and a mounting death toll (Tue 17 Sep at 9pm on BBC One NI and BBC Four)

The second episode in BBC Spotlight’s seven-part series A Secret History of the Troubles picks up the conflict timeline in 1972 and runs through to 1979. The programme will be broadcast tonight at 9pm on BBC One NI and BBC Four.

The key themes explored are the changing of the guard within the IRA that hardened attitudes towards ceasefires and opened the door to ‘the long war’; figures and initiatives that kept communication channels between the British and the IRA open; and the difference in attitudes between the British establishment in London and loyalist-sympathising security forces on the ground in NI.

The one-hour programme begins by explaining a little more – though clearly not yet the full story – about the provenance of the US footage showing Martin McGuinness examining a car bomb that had been assembled. The documentary team filmed an IRA cell planning a bomb attack in 1972, tracing the attack through to South Belfast, and includes footage of the bomb detonating at the QUB sports hall. Further footage shows IRA recruits being trained: Desmond Long identifies his fresh-faced image on the video, standing at the front with a gun in his hand.

The rest of the programme tells the story of secret talks between British and IRA figures, held in Derry (attended by Gerry Adams on temporary release from internment) and in London (with both Martin McGuinness and Adams in attendance).

The Bloody Friday attacks – with 20 IRA bombs across Belfast in a single day, killing 9 people and injuring more than 130 – precipitated the British Army’s Operation Motorman using 28,000 troops to break down and retake IRA no go areas. Bloodshed around the action in Derry was minimised by background coordination that allowed IRA guns to be taken out of the city beforehand. Derry businessman Brendan Duddy was a key go-between then, continuing in that role for decades, along with a young priest, Fr Denis Bradley.

Eamonn McCann describes Duddy using chip shop ketchup and vinegar bottles to outline concepts. He was “a strategist … who could explain the strategy of other people and what it ought to be”. Duddy himself explained his rationale for involvement as “when people like ourselves get so fed up with violence that they’re prepared to go a little bit further to meet each other’s point of view”.

Nearly 500 people were killed during 1972, the majority civilians. 20,000 people joined the (then legal) Ulster Defence Association. The Sunningdale Agreement with moderate unionists sharing powers with moderate nationalists was smashed by the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, which Sir Ken Bloomfield describes as “an insurgency”, not helped by Harold Wilson’s speech about “sponging”.

Eight protestant senior clergy – who claimed to be acting on their own initiative and independently of their denominations – met IRA leaders in the Smyth’s Family Hotel in Feakle, County Clare in December 1974. The only surviving member of the church group is Anglican minister Rev Ralph Baxter. (His letter to book the hotel for the meeting still survives.)

“We had Harold Wilson’s blessing … we met with them [the IRA] on behalf of the British Government … They wanted peace because they wanted out”, he told Spotlight.

The IRA were tipped off about a raid and fled the Feakle hotel before the Irish police and army arrived, waving guns in the faces of the ministers. While the British Government were pursuing talks – one memo refers to this approach as “stringing them along” to reduce deaths and reduce community support for the paramilitaries – the Irish Government saw the IRA as a threat that should only be dealt with by arrest and jail.

The outcome of the botched talks was the IRA ceasefire over Christmas and a message from the IRA that they were willing to talk further if British withdrawal from the north was on the table.

Duddy’s diaries are archived in NUI Galway and MacIntyre finds the entry that records his opinion that the British had agreed to discuss withdrawal. (The diaries also contain his suggestion that the IRA bomb economic targets with no loss of life.) And veteran republican and founding member of the Provisional IRA, Billy McKee, explains that he trusted that the British were serious about considering withdrawal.

In the middle of all of this, the RUC picked up IRA bomber Shane Paul O’Doherty, telling him that his arrest would be used to “wreck the ceasefire”. The truce held between the IRA and the British Army, but other groups were targeted. Sectarian tit-for-tat violence – including that carried out by loyalist gangs whose members included serving security forces – added to the mounting death toll which alarming and very soberly ramps up every time a date is shown on screen.

The southern republicans who had supported the ceasefire come under pressure from younger northerners like Adams, Brendan Hughes and McGuinness (described as “an aggressive militarist” and “a little Hitler” wanting to run the IRA across Ireland) who take control, drive change, and are prepared to wage a long war.

Desmond Long was then a member of the IRA Army Executive. He discusses meeting Gerry Adams on numerous occasions as the chair of the Army Council who would regularly meet with the executive:

“You can’t be on the Army Council unless you’re a volunteer. And you can’t be chairman of the Army Council unless you’re a member of the Army Council … This lie that he [Adams] comes out with that he was never there, that’s a lie … I’ll probably get shot for it, but I’m saying it.”

The old chestnut of whether Adams was in the IRA was probably unavoidable for the programme makers, though I don’t expect anyone with a firm opinion either way on the matter to change their mind. (The narration explains that Adams declined to take part in the Spotlight series.)

Among the ins and outs of talks, truces and ceasefires, and the large number of atrocities that murdered and maimed, there are two upsetting moments in the programme when viewed from a distance of 40 years.

The UDA were not supportive of the clergy initiative at Feakle, threatening the lives of Rev Baxter and his family who moved to live in Canada. Peacemaking was never an easy option.

Interviewed by Darragh MacIntyre, former IRA man Tommy Gorman at one point gets visibly upset and describes the futility of the conflict as “a waste of time and a waste of life”. Gorman’s words are a huge understatement, yet they that should – but probably won’t – be heeded by those groups planning murderous attacks today.

The sense of let-down after the pursuit of a deadly ideology and destructive dogma reminded me of Dolours Price’s very different, but equally heartfelt, post-ceasefire conclusion in last year’s I, Dolours documentary that “it had all been for nothing”.

Further episodes promise to ask why the conflict was so prolonged. But it’s clear from this second programme that the prospect of peace in the mid-1970s was at least moderately serious and well-meaning, though the window of opportunity was blown shut as the IRA leadership migrated north.

The secrets being revealed aren’t earth-shattering or too worthy of tabloid headline splashes. Piecing together the internal conversations within republicanism, loyalism, governments, security forces and intelligence services has been the subject of many fine books over the years. But the testimonies that Spotlight have gathered map out a timeline that is somewhat ill-remembered and often not seen in context.

The more fulsome pictures of the acts of commission and omission by figures who would later be key players in the peace process and unlocking political progress should serve to remind us of how far they moved, rather than be used to disregard their eventual legacy and wipe out some of their more positive achievements.

To me, the value of these seven programmes is less about the secrets or revelations, and more about whether they can provide an opportunity to wonder about past mistakes and ponder different ways of addressing difference in the future. The test will be if anyone in Northern Ireland is mature enough to reflect and be introspective without just throwing the head up and blaming everyone else except themselves.