Reporting the Troubles: A swirl of emotions
by Allan LEONARD
6 August 2019
As part of the EastSide Arts Festival, the editors read from Reporting the Troubles, their book compilation of stories of the Northern Ireland conflict. Deric Henderson (former Ireland Editor of the Press) and Ivan Little (UTV, ITN, Belfast Telegraph) were joined by guest Eamonn Mallie (RTE, BBC, Downtown Radio). Several dozen attended in a warm, upper floor room at the EastSide Visitor Centre.
After a welcome by Rachel Kennedy, the festival director, Deric Henderson began with a brief autobiography and explanation as to why he knew this book had to be written. With Ivan Little, their original idea was to write about notable people and how they were affected by the Troubles. Instead, they decided to focus on fellow journalist colleagues. Their brief was for 70-80 contributions, “but we could have had twice as many,” said Little. The book was edited by Helen Wright.
Little said that the book is not a rewrite of history: “It’s a postscript.”
Among the dozens of contributors, Little commented on Kate Adie, Gloria Hunniford, Peter Taylor, and Martin Bell. He remarked how Kate Adie remains deeply impacted by her story of being at the scene of a dead man under a Christmas tree. A boy of seven or eight was was standing in front of the fireplace and said to Adie: “Me daddy won’t get up.”
Henderson read his story about the death of his Uncle Ted, who served in the UDR, concluding: “I don’t remember who told me late that Friday afternoon that my uncle had died, but I do recall the distress and the heartache, and a grieving process that seemed to go on forever.”
Mallie read his story about his dealings with Margaret Thatcher, whom he prayed for at the time of the Brighton bombing; he was afraid that had she been killed, a lot of people, particularly Catholics in Northern Ireland, might have died:
“Twenty-four hours later I asked a Donegall Road woman — a Protestant who worked in our house — about the reaction in her area to the IRA attempt on Mrs Thatcher’s life. She shocked me with her reply: ‘Do you know, I heard some people saying it was a pity they didn’t get the oul’ bitch.’ Working-class people, regardless of creed, hadn’t forgotten the crushing of the miners by Margaret Thatcher in 1984-85.”
Little read his story about the UFF attack at Sean Graham’s. What made this reportage all the more remarkable was that Little and his UTV colleagues were at the scene of the atrocity immediately after it took place (UTV’s offices were just up the Ormeau Road) and that cameraman Martin Gibson recorded the scenes of the injured and killed being removed:
“One of the first victims to emerge from the mayhem was quite clearly only a child. I later learnt that he was James Kennedy, who was just fifteen. His father later called at UTV to ask me to stop using the pictures of his son because the family had been told James might have been breathing his last as he was wheeled past the camera.”
Little also ready the story by Wendy Austin, in covering the bombing of the La Mon. At the time, she was a junior reporter for the BBC and attended the scene with photojournalist Brendan McCann, TV cameraman Patsy Hill, and soundman Eamonn Doyle. By the time they arrived at the hotel, it was reduced to a blackened shell: “It was difficult to see how anybody could have survived.”
Mallie also reported on the La Mon bombing. He told the story of survivor Lily McDowell, who got separated from her husband during the escape. Sensing this was the end, she knelt down and recited the Lord’s Prayer, from beginning to end. McDowell was dragged to safety and was found to be the most seriously injured, physically and mentally, with 50 per-cent third-degree burns to her face, neck, and body. She endured years of painful skin grafts and several nervous breakdowns.
These three journalists shared with the audience individual perspectives about their daily work. For example, one aspect is to ask relatives of victims for their reaction and stories. Henderson recalled going to the house of a woman in the aftermath of the Loughinisland massacre. He politely asked her if she would grant him an interview. To Henderson, the shock of the news was still apparent in her face. “I’d rather not,” she replied. Henderson never asked another survivor for an interview. Little approached this task differently. He’d go to the doors and say, “You know why I’m here. If you want to talk, I’m here. If not, I’ll walk away.” Little said that he wasn’t as aggressive as other reporters, who would remain and try to convince the potential interviewee that talking would be cathartic.
Mallie found that people could be very dismissive about those not from their own community, with no care or compassion for those who may be killed: “We are an awful people.”
Little shared with the audience some moments of dark humour. One was a phone conversation with a loyalist that advised him that their paramilitary organisation was going to commence with executing two journalists per week: “We’re going to start by executing Ivan Little.” Little argued with the caller, reminding him of reading out his statements for public consumption. The terrorist ultimately replied, “Listen, there’s nothing personal in this!”
Little cited Senator George Mitchell, who wrote the foreword for the book and described Northern Ireland journalists as “a small group of courageous men and women who made an enormous contribution to the effort” of reaching a peace agreement. For Little, it was a more fundamental case of being from this place, living in this place, raising a family. He said that he did care about the Troubles and he wanted it to stop. Likewise, Henderson spoke of his emotional attachment and how at the time of the announcement of Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, he was unashamedly pro-peace:
“Journalists are supposed to be detached from what they report, not abuse their position. But the majority of journalists, especially those in Belfast, were very much pro-Agreement. I let it be known to my staff, ‘This is a pro-Agreement office.’ Anti-Agreement articles were treated as ‘Meanwhile…’ pieces, they were marginalised.”
In the question and answer session, I asked the reporters about how their work over decades affected their wellbeing, and how they felt when sending less experienced colleagues to cover violent events. Henderson replied that he didn’t cover the Omagh bomb because it was too close to him personally; he was from the area: “Sunday morning when I went down to buy the newspapers … I walked out of the shop having bought no newspapers. I wasn’t in a very good place at that time.” Little added that he had only ever heard of the word “counselling” after Omagh: “I tried not to take my work home … Like others, I drank my way out of it.” Henderson spoke of the work by Angelina Fusco and others, working to make journalists and others exposed to traumatic events (such as fire and emergency service personnel) more aware of the risks and what mental health support is available. This includes services from the Victims and Survivors Service and East Belfast Community Counselling.
Senator Mitchell summarises the impact of Reporting the Troubles well, when he says: “The resulting 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.”
Little remarked that Reporting the Troubles is being worked into the school curriculum in some places. Its rich content of first-hand testimonies should prove an invaluable resource.