getting the inside story

My first visit to Northern Ireland was on 30 January 1972. That fateful date became known as "Bloody Sunday," the day when British paratroopers shot dead thirteen unarmed Catholics during a peaceful civil rights demonstration in Derry. It was my first assignment as a reporter for the Independent Television Network's THIS WEEK programme--the weekly equivalent of FRONTLINE. I was ashamed at what had happened and ashamed at my own ignorance about Ireland. I was determined to try and understand how such a tragedy had occurred and why the conflict of which "Bloody Sunday" was a dreadful part, had arisen. The rest, as they say, is history. In the twenty five years since then I have made over fifty documentaries on the Irish Question and written five books on the subject--of which "Behind the Mask" is the latest.

After the IRA cease-fire of 1994, my friends and colleagues joked that I would now be out of a job as peace seemed set to descend on Ireland. I didn't share their optimism since I knew how fragile the cessation was. At that time, I discussed doing a historical series on the Republican Movement--the IRA and Sinn Fein--with the BBC. I'd tried to get a similar project off the ground in the mid-eighties but it was turned down. The political climate then, at the height of the Thatcher era, was to say the least, unfavourable. The BBC was keen that I should tackle the theme and I was keen to do so. I remember pointing out that the series should not be commissioned just because there was a cease-fire in place and I said I was not 100% convinced that it would last. If it was to end, I pointed out, that should not mean the end of the series. Fortunately, although the 1994 cessation was shattered by the London Docklands bomb in February 1996, a second cease-fire was in place by September/October 1997 when we came to transmit the four part BBC series "Provos: the IRA and Sinn Fein"--on which FRONTLINE's "Behind the Mask" is based.

The most difficult part of putting the series together was persuading the Republican Movement to give us the degree of cooperation that would make such a series possible. A few in the leadership were enthusiastic but more were less so. They said that they did not feel the timing was right: the conflict had not been resolved; they were concerned that the series might jeopardize the peace process; at this delicate stage, they did not wish to remind people of incidents in their own bloody history; and they felt that the only way in which the definitive story could be told was for the Movement to do it for itself. Despite these reservations, a decision was made to extend a degree of cooperation which, although unprecedented, was by no means total.

the interviews
Doing the interviews was exhausting. My producer Andrew Williams and I would conduct anything between two and five a day. Some of them ran to two hours or more. They were intense, often emotional and remarkably frank. They were also, literally, challenging as I questioned them about the use of violence and the actions in which they had played a part; for example, how could a postman delivering letters--who was also a part time soldier--be considered a 'legitimate target'? We discussed many of the question areas with the interviewees beforehand--although not the questions themselves--to make sure that when they talked on camera they were relaxed and able to talk freely. Many had never been interviewed for television before which gave their contributions great spontaneity and freshness. Some of the interviews--notably the one with the veteran Billy McKee--took months to secure as McKee was no longer connected with the Republican Movement having disagreed with its move into constitutional politics after Sinn Fein's Ard Feis (annual conference) in 1986. Andrew and I lost count of the number of occasions on which we went to see him to discuss his recollections of those critical early days from the formation of the 'Provos' in 1969 to their first military operation - the defense of St. Matthews Church the following year- in which, for the first time, the Provisionals were seen to be the defenders of the community.

Interviews on the hunger strike were particularly painful. Many hardened republicans had tears in their eyes as they spoke, so great was the impact of that momentous event and so painful was the memory of their ten comrades who had died. There were amusing moments too, like Brendan Hughes talking about his escape from "Long Kesh" and the new identity he acquired as 'Arthur McAllister'-toy salesman. When the Special Branch officer finally came to arrest him, he said, 'Come on Brendan, you've had a good run for your money." Hughes was a vital interviewee, not just because of his historic role in the Movement--from seeing AR-15's coming in from America on board the QE2 to leading the first hunger strike--but because of his assessment of the situation today--autumn 1997. When I asked him if he thought the "war" was over, he heaved a great sigh and said "yes" because it had "run its course." In that sigh were years of suffering and death--not just, I felt, on his side but on all other sides too.

response to the bbc program
What gave me greatest pleasure in making the series was the response to it. Many people have said that for the first time they had begun to understand what the conflict is about. The viewing figures for the BBC four-part series were far greater than I had dared hope--for programmes that went out at 10pm, 10:30 pm, 10:45 pm and 10:20 pm. The figure hovered around the three million mark and finally passed it for the final episode--"Endgame"--indicating that the series actually built and sustained an audience on a demanding subject at a demanding time. I hope FRONTLINE's "Behind the Mask" elicits the same kind of response in America.

the future?
Making "Behind the Mask" has been a long journey. I'm often asked, particularly having spent the past eighteen months talking to dozens of members of the Republican Movement at every level, what the end of that journey will be. Will there be a settlement? At this stage, with all-party talks barely under way, one can only speculate. The fact that all parties--with the exception of Ian Paisley's loyalist DUP and Robert McCartney's UK Unionists (a tiny grouping)--are now sitting around the same table is a remarkable achievement in itself which would not have been possible without John Major's tireless efforts to ensure that the unionists were kept in play. However, there is a lot of hard bargaining ahead between now and May 1998 which is the deadline set by the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. A settlement is possible, if unionists are prepared to make concessions as the Republican Movement seems prepared to do. Republicans have now put the attainment of a united Ireland on the back burner. The aspiration, of course, is still there but the specified time frame--until relatively recently five years (the lifetime of a British government)--is not. Republicans now also recognize that they have to reach an accommodation with their fellow Irishmen and women of a different religious and political persuasion.

The question is not whether a settlement can be agreed but whether it is one that can be sold to those who have fought the IRA's "war" for almost three decades. But whatever happens, there is no doubt that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will only accept a settlement they are certain they can sell to their troops. Only then can we decide whether or not the "war" is really over.

In the course of Peter Taylor's reporting on Northern Ireland for over twenty-five years, he has made over fifty documentaries about the conflict for British television. Behind the Mask by TV Books is Taylor's fifth book on the subject. The others include Stalker-the Search for the Truth, Families at War and States of Terror.

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