Reporting the Troubles 2: an important storytelling contribution
by Kellie BANCALARI and Allan LEONARD
19 April 2022
Imagine getting a call in the middle of the night. It’s a source and they have a statement; they are going to execute two of your colleagues every week because they don’t agree with your workplace’s political leanings. Your name, this source informs you, is on the top of their list.
This was Ivan Little’s reality as a journalist during the Troubles, detailed in his new book with Deric Henderson, Reporting the Troubles 2.
Little and Henderson took to Linen Hall Library to share excerpts from their book and discuss the challenges that journalists, including themselves, faced during the Troubles. The event was hosted by library governor, Seamus McKee, who is also a former BBC radio host.
McKee kicked off the discussion by stressing the importance of quality journalism in Northern Ireland while acknowledging the dangers of the profession. He stated, “We depend on good journalists to inform us and help us understand, but that work can be dangerous and high risk.” McKee went on to cite examples from Little and Henderson’s first book, including Jim Cambell’s account of being shot in his own home in 1984 and the death of investigative journalist Martin O’Hagan in 2001. Reporting the Troubles 2 also contains a piece by Donna Deeney highlighting Lyra McKee’s tragic death in Derry/Londonderry.
Reporting the Troubles 2 contains the stories of 70 more journalists who covered the conflict in Northern Ireland. As Seaumus McKee told the audience at the start of the event, “This book extends the range of Reporting the Troubles One, covering not only the years before, but the years after the Good Friday Agreement; journalists were asked to write about a defining event or person from their experience of reporting the Troubles.”
For Little, this second edition of the book represented an opportunity to include voices from younger journalists. He explained, “We started to talk about the possibility of book number two because we realised there were quite a few other people who maybe were too young to be in the first book because in the first book, we concentrated on the people of our own, older generation who had reported and lived through the the early phases of the Troubles.”
McKee asked Henderson about how he, as a journalist, honoured his commitment to the truth. Henderson replied that during the Troubles, “It wasn’t always easier, because you’re under, not pressure, but you were getting it from all sides — the politicians, police, army, the Northern Ireland Office, the British government, the Irish government, as well as from the Americans.” He explained that he always tried his best to reflect as accurately as he could what he was told. He reflected that the only time he “let it go a bit” was at the time of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and subsequent referendum. He said that this was especially the case for journalists who lived here and with the stories of the Troubles 24/7, “who had had enough and were very pro-Agreement”. As head of the Press Association at the time, Henderson made no secret of the fact that anybody who was against the Agreement came down to the second part of the published news stories. McKee asked Henderson if this editorial position was right. Henderson replied, “No, probably not,” and added that while Belfast today is a much better place than it was in 1998, he asks himself what this place could really be like “if things had moved on”.
McKee read a passage from Darragh MacIntyre’s contribution, where he had just retired from journalism, with plans to run a pub and a restaurant with his wife, Sharon Hall, also a journalist. Travelling on the motorway, they heard on the radio the breaking news of the Omagh bomb. They considered reverting to their previous roles, but realised active journalists would be well on their way to the scene. The pair started to cry and hold each other, “sobbing for minutes”. MacIntyre later wondered why he had never responded this way before:
“I think it was actually quite simple. Our job had protected us from the full emotional context of the Troubles. We didn’t emote because that would get in the way of the work. There was an invisible ring fence that protected us from having to deal with what we were seeing and meeting on a near daily basis. This was the very first time we were outside of that ring fence, looking on like most citizens of this place, without any guardrail to lean on.”
Little remarked that he probably covered more murders and funerals than anybody else in Northern Ireland, if only because for over 30 years he was a frontline reporter. However, he reminded the audience of the current conflict in Ukraine and how an ITV cameraman friend and award-winning colleague, Eugene Campbell, was there now and providing much imagery that the world has seen. But Campbell is under missile attacks and witnessing decapitated bodies. “We didn’t go through anything like this,” Little said. Campbell told Little that his return to London would be difficult for him: “At home I will have to start worrying about bills and shopping. That’s the mind-bend of going back into a reality of irrelevance compared to the reality of survival.”
McKee noted the contribution by Freya McClements, who is northern editor of the Irish Times. Her book, Children of the Troubles, co-authored by Joe Duffy, can be seen as a project of remembrance. In Reporting the Troubles 2, McClements wrote:
“At the book launches … the vast majority of those present were relatives of the children remembered in the book. I remember looking down at the crowd in Belfast, several hundred people packed into the room, and seeing a man — whose 16-year-old sister had been shot dead — hugging the book tightly to his chest. Some later told us they had bought the book, but couldn’t look at it; others ahd hidden it away. But all wanted to know it was there, in the house, and that it would be there for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.”
McKee asked Henderson and Little what was the importance of gathering these stories? Henderson replied, “The journalists who worked here have a story to tell, like the firemen, policemen, nurses, doctors, and kids. They all have a story to tell. It’s part of the storytelling process. Hundreds of journalists passed through Belfast, Derry, [etc.]. I think [this book] was an opportunity for them to divest themselves of what it was like.” Little added, “I think it’s also to do with telling victims’ stories that have largely been forgotten,” such as the 1973 Coleraine bomb that killed six people. “I think it’s vitally important that we don’t let [such stories] slip from our memory. It’s a stain on all of us.”
Both Henderson and Little were doubtful about a formal peace and reconciliation process taking place anytime soon in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, Henderson said that there should be some process to help people tell their stories: “Everybody should be given the freedom and the right to either write or record or do whatever they want their with thoughts and views and memories of this place.”
Henderson suggested the Linen Hall Library as a suitable depository of such testimony. However, Little recalled an outcome of another storytelling research project, ‘the Boston tapes’, where existing criminal prosecution policy compelled the PSNI to seek material lodged at Boston College as evidence for crimes. Little concluded, “We need to deal with the legacy.”
Reconciliation in Northern Ireland will be incomplete until its legacy of political violence is adequately addressed. But at least editors Ivan Little and Deric Henderson are making an important contribution through their collection of journalists’ stories.