The first draft of Ulster’s troubled history

The first draft of Ulster’s troubled history


Reporting the Troubles: Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict
compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, with a foreword by Senator George Mitchell
(Blackstaff Press) £14.99 / €16.00)

Fifty years ago this month RUC constables attacked people peacefully demonstrating for civil rights in Derry. One of them laid into Martin Cowley, a reporter with the Derry Journal, who was on a day off and had gone along to watch the march. Cowley recalls having seen the enraged blackthorn-wielding constable in court once, back in what must have suddenly seemed to him like different times.

Cowley recalls a landmark incident. Other contributors remind us of incidents many of us have long forgotten. Derval Fitzsimmons describes the death of Jillian Johnston in 1987: “As she and Stanley (her fiancé) sat in her daddy’s car outside her family home, an IRA gunman came up unseen and pumped round after round into the car with an automatic rifle. Jillian’s horrified mother, Annabella, was just yards away inside the house when she heard the shots.”

The IRA later admitted that the killing had been a mistake. It was yet another grisly bungle. Wendy Austin recalls her visit to the ruins of the La Mon House Hotel, where an IRA device killed 12 people in 1978. Carnage, but unintended carnage, for which the IRA cravenly tried to shift the blame. It later “apologised for the inadequate warning – only nine minutes. They said a nearby telephone box wasn’t working.”

Thankless task

Journalists often had the thankless task of interviewing distressed people, maybe asking them for a ‘collect’, a photograph of the victim, for the front page. Peter Taylor recalls his strong sense of trepidation as he walked along cold silent streets towards the Bogside after Bloody Sunday to find eyewitnesses to the killing. He need not have worried: “Doors were opened and I was welcomed, watered with endless cups of tea.”

At other times, in other places, people had less to say: getting at the finer details often proved difficult. Kate Adie once visited a Belfast street where a man lay dead under a Christmas tree. “Me daddy won’t get up,” his young son told her. She knew that the family were the last Protestants on the street, and that the man’s killers had probably shot him to complete the cleansing. But, she tells us, words such as ‘probably’ don’t belong in news reports.

A difficult, deeply affecting book counsels against complacency. David Davin Power writes of the “dearth of political leadership” as Northern Ireland faces an uncertain future.

Tommie Gorman considers that uncertain future, warning that Britain’s decision to leave the EU has undermined the European dimension that is a vital part of Northern Ireland’s unique “political architecture”. In other words a place that badly needs strong functioning institutions is instead becoming unstable.