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Wednesday, 3 October 2018

BOOK REVIEW - REPORTING THE TROUBLES


Reporting the Troubles
Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict

Compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little

The Blackstaff Press 2018


In the foreword to this powerful and emotional book, US Special envoy for Northern Ireland (1995 – 2001), Senator George Mitchell quotes Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Mitchell says: “This book will make a lasting impression on readers. It contains accounts of death and life, of loss and survival, of heroism and cowardice, all of which in the aggregate convey the swirl of emotions experienced by those who lived through the Troubles.”

In their introduction, compilers Deric Henderson and Ivan Little say that the book is “a series of deeply personal and engaged accounts of some of the key moments and personalities that defined and shaped the conflict. More than that, they are the testimony to the huge responsibility the journalists felt, to their commitment to putting things on the record, and to remembering.”

Gail Walker, editor of the Belfast Telegraph notes: “We could do worse than to remind ourselves that journalism is at heart about telling stories.”

Even before I read the first chapter, I was struck by the fact that this history happened in my lifetime. I was born and raised in Belfast. In 1968, I was fourteen-years-old, living in Andersonstown. A substantial number of the atrocities highlighted here resonate with me. In those days and onward, we all watched the news. As the sixties morphed into the seventies and on and on, we watched daily atrocities in Belfast and beyond. We lived through brutal and horrific times and, in my view, we took for granted the risks taken by on-the-spot journalists, camera and sound crews to explain to us what was going on. It is not practical in a review to comment on every chapter but I can say with certainty that each contribution to the book is compelling, and as a collective project, Reporting the Troubles sets the highest standards for recording history. Here are selected comments:

Martin Cowley, formerly of the Irish Times and Reuters Ireland, recalls the 5 October, 1968 when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association marched in Derry against police warnings not to, resulting in baton charges and severe beatings by the police. The incidents on that day triggered the start of what has become known as the Troubles. The difference with this day’s events was that, unlike previous street violence in Northern Ireland, this was “caught on tape, up close and very personal in daylight, and screened worldwide.”The accompanying Trevor McBride photograph of three policemen, one with gritted teeth and raised baton, restraining an eighteen-year-old student was a brutal example of what was to come across Northern Ireland.

Ray Managh, a freelance reporter and former B Special policeman, recalls a terrifying experience, when he accidentally found himself seeking sanctuary with others in an IRA safe house. “It was a little middle-aged woman in an apron, obviously the lady of the house, who turned out to be my saviour and liberator from what I saw as a doomed situation.” Thanks to the woman’s kindly instructions, Managh was escorted safely out of the area.

Martin Bell, the famed BBC correspondent and veteran of assignments in Vietnam, Nigeria, the Middle East and elsewhere – the man in the white suit – remembers the Reverend Ian Paisley, at an Armagh prayer meeting, calling him an employee of the Papist Broadcasting Corporation. “There is one man here,’preached Paisley, “who is no friend of the Protestant and loyalist people. Bell was jostled and made to feel very uncomfortable. Paisley was no Chuckle brother back then.

Peter Taylor, reporter and writer, describes his time covering Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, interviewing amongst others, a young Martin McGuinness. (“….. impressive, with a natural charm that belied the steel that lay behind it.”)

Gloria Hunniford, television presenter, remembers the horror of the Abercorn restaurant bombing in 1972 and the death threats she received during her broadcasting career in England. “Get that Irish bitch off the air or someone else will.”

Deric Henderson, one of this book’s compilers, tells the story of his Uncle Ted who was shot dead by a sniper. He doesn’t remember who told him his uncle had died “but I do recall the distress and the heartache, and a grieving process that seemed to go on forever. There was bitterness as well.”

Alf McCreary, veteran (and in my view legendary) journalist, reflects on some of the atrocities and heart-breaking stories he has covered over the years. “As I get older I become very saddened when I think of these things, and I wonder what all the suffering really achieved in the end. I can only hope and pray that it will never happen again.”

Denis Murray, former BBC Ireland correspondent, writes about the time he interviewed a ten-year-old boy – “a wee boy every bit as brave as his daddy”- soon after his father’s murder. Murray emphasised that “we in the media, and in Northern Ireland generally, are great at remembering the “big” tragedies, events in which there were multiple deaths. But the “little” individual tragedies are no less tragic.” Both “big” and “little” stories feature throughout the book.

John Irvine, senior international correspondent for ITN, writes about the ten funerals he attended in one week, describing his personal distress. “My tears came as a complete surprise.” He goes on to make this point: ”Covering Nelson Mandela’s passing a few years ago, I learned that those South Africans who entered this world after the end of apartheid are known as “Born Frees”. Perhaps people in Northern Ireland after the military ceasefires should be known as “Trouble Frees”. I worry they don’t know how lucky they are.”

There are many recollection of murders, injuries and destruction, the plague of tit-for-tat revenge killings of innocent people going about their daily lives, of bombs going off in busy cities and towns, of mouthy politicians stirring the cauldron, of quieter politicians trying to calm situations, of politicians and journalists from “the mainland” (I detest that term), clueless about Northern Ireland, its people and its history. The emotional descriptions of funerals and everlasting grief are powerful, as they should be.

The book’s final chapter by Gail Walker summarises superbly the book’s raison d’etre and reflects thus: “Some will say we should forget the past. Ignore it. Let it go. That it would be – ironically – the price of peace: a self-inflicted, self-imposed cultural amnesia that renders us, in the end, speechless. That’s a recipe for mass neurosis, delusion and moral hypocrisy – that, to keep the “peace”, we must inflict another kind of violence on survivors, censoring their stories, blue-pencilling the raw heart and hurt mind.”

Reporting the Troubles could well be the most important book ever written about Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and I don’t say that lightly. It is a potent collection of memories by people whose only axe to grind was finding and reporting the facts in the aftermath of atrocities. Sometimes it is a tough read, but that is surely the whole point.

Oh, and one last thing, please read it slowly. Let the words sink in. The victims and survivors deserve your time. The journalists herein have all earned great respect.


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