The Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History series wraps up next week with the final extended programme at 8.30pm on Tuesday night on BBC One NI and BBC Four, promising to look at what drew a halt to the Troubles, how the UK government policy goal changed from defeating the IRA to bringing the republicans into negotiations, the internal struggle for control within the IRA, as well as the scale of secrecy that still surrounds the conflict. The entire series will be available for a year as a boxset on iPlayer along with other Troubles-related programmes (such as On the Frontline).
This morning the production team screened a companion behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the series to journalism and media students. This hour-long fly-on-the-wall programme will be broadcast on BBC One NI Thursday evening at 9pm.
It captures some aspects of the two year production process, highlighting the painstaking evidence gathering, creating detailed chronologies of events, the slow work to build trust to get key players to speak on camera, the disappointments of people pulling out of interviews, compartmentalising different investigative threads to prevent victims’ families getting their hopes up about new information, and the lengths the team have to go to ensure those facing allegations are given the opportunity to have a right of reply.
While the main seven programmes tell the story of different aspects of the Troubles dispassionately, the behind-the-scenes footage allows the Spotlight team to demonstrate their humanity, showing their reaction to some of what they uncovered. It’s clear that some of what the team unearthed will continue to be investigated and may appear in future editions of Spotlight.
In the Q&A after the screening, a student asked about the revelations about Willie Frazer’s role in supplying weapons to Ulster Resistance, and whether he had admitted this to her. A number of comments by unionists on social media questioned Spotlight’s postumus allegations about DUP leader Ian Paisley and victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer.
Series producer Chris Thornton referred to testimony about Frazer’s difficulty in getting a firearm’s licence during the Smithwick Tribunal in September 2012.
Mandy McAuley recalled first meeting Frazer while working on stories about FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives) and South Armagh for the Legacy radio series around 2000. (Two-minute audio testimonies by people affected by the Troubles were broadcast each day.) She’d subsequently remained close to those contributors. She travelled to the United States with Frazer, attempting to doorstep Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi at the UN.
She said that Frazer was determined that the role of Ulster Resistance would be acknowledged in the series. Frazer “believed they’d taken the war to the IRA and by God he wanted it acknowledged”.
Frazer would ring McAuley and she recalls meeting him one day in a Markethill café.
“I remember him telling me about his role in the distribution of the weapons … I remember him saying ‘Well girl, you must think I’m some boyo with the victims’ groups’.”
As someone who had reported on victims’ stories over many years and worked with Frazer, the reporter explained her genuine shock at what he had revealed. But when she checked with paramilitary and intelligence contacts, it was as if it was an open secret.
Thursday’s programme will also shed more light on the investigation into Alan Oliver’s link with the Mid-Ulster UVF and the long process that led to him being door-stepped as he arrived at work. Last week’s episode alleged: “He may be one of Northern Ireland’s most prolific serial killers still alive today, so why has he never been charged?”
Jennifer O’Leary is followed to Paris in her attempt to get a retired Libyan government official to speak on camera. She has more success with former priest Patrick Ryan, with further chilling footage to be aired about his unrepentant attitude to his role in sourcing weapons for the IRA.
Researcher Chris Morrison found The Secret History film produced by US-based historian J Bowyer Bell and showing Martin McGuinness inspecting a car bomb and driving through Derry with a revolver showing it to children who flocked around the car.
Only ever screened in a handful of locations in the US, though reviewed – positively – in the Irish Times – VIACOM bought the worldwide rights, produced a glossy promotional leaflet, but oddly never sold the film. The Spotlight team tracked down some of Bell’s surviving colleagues. Producer Bell seemed to work at times for the CIA. The film’s Executive Producer speaks about his understanding that when the rushes were developed in London, British intelligence services examined the footage.
Breakaway republican Des Long mulls the revelation that if McGuinness was captured on film so clearly, was he “compromised by the British?” How was he able to live in Derry undisturbed by the criminal justice. We might well infer from his furrowed brow that he worries McGuinness was being protected as an informer.
Darragh MacIntyre says that the team continue to look into aspects of the feature-length documentary, with unanswered questions about Bell’s role with the CIA. Further revelations may appear in future editions of Spotlight.
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Spotlight on the Troubles has been criticised by some as treating loyalism more harshly than republican paramilitaries. That fails to acknowledge the width of the series of seven programmes, and either looks for a false equivalence, or seeks to suppress embarrassing shadows cast on their political or ideological idols.
Others are at pains to point out that some of the allegations have been previously published in books. The programmemakers acknowledged at the series launch that they were building on a vast amount of existing journalism. Back at the start they also emphasised that it’s ‘a’ secret history, not ‘the’ secret history. Given the relatively low sales figures for Troubles’ books – few will match the readership of Sam McBride’s non-paramilitary scandal tome Burned — the viewer figures for Spotlight on The Troubles (soon to reach 1 million iPlayer on-demand viewings across the series according to BBC NI director Peter Johnston) show a strong interest in the topic.
There are those in the Slugger comments section and beyond who would prefer that the Troubles had a line drawn under them. They see programmes like Spotlight as hampering reconciliation, stirring up community defence of the indefensible, igniting passions and fuelling hatred, never mind retraumatising communities. They don’t seem to doubt the ‘truth’ being revealed, but don’t see its long-lasting purpose.
Which comes down to the difference between believing that Northern Ireland could repeat the mistakes of its past if it doesn’t keep one eye over its shoulder, and hoping that wounds heal faster if left alone and not disturbed.
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.