From civil-rights demonstrations to paramilitary bombing campaigns and interviews with terrorists, images of the conflict in Northern Ireland often captivated global attention during the 1970s and 80s. The BBC, which shared exclusive control of Britain’s television screens with ITV, played a paramount role in chronicling the events of the Troubles to audiences in Northern Ireland, Britain, and beyond.
The Corporation faced mass criticism from all sides as it navigated its way through this crisis and strove to deliver impartial and insightful information to the public. Now, after a quarter of a century since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the difficulties in exploring this controversial conflict have passed on from the journalists and editors to the museum curators. The Imperial War Museum’s upcoming exhibition on the Troubles is the museum’s first in-depth exploration of this aspect of British and Irish shared history. Using oral testimony to portray the personal and political attitudes of those who lived amidst the violence and rigid sectarianism of Northern Ireland during this period, the museum aims to deliver a perceptive and enlightening exhibition.
The conflict in Northern Ireland was deeply rooted in the historical antagonism between two Irish political traditions: nationalism and unionism. Catholics were typically supporters of nationalism, while Protestants predominantly endorsed unionism. Politics and religion augmented the existing demarcation of two markedly different cultural identities in Ireland. One drew on an ancient Gaelic heritage, and one treasured the traditions of and connections to Britain. This created seemingly inextricable bonds between Gaelicism, Catholicism and nationalism, and between Britishness, Protestantism, and unionism. When Northern Ireland was created in 1921, it deliberately encompassed a Protestant unionist majority and a Catholic nationalist minority. The majority feared that their British culture and livelihood would diminish if the connection between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was broken, while the minority yearned to be part of a united Ireland. For half a century, unionists dominated the Parliament of Northern Ireland and under this regime, Catholics faced institutional discrimination due to fears of their association to nationalism.
Political and sectarian tension became a sustained backdrop to life in Northern Ireland. Violence erupted in the late 1960s when a civil rights movement emerged to protest the inequity faced by Catholics. Unionists suspected that the campaign was a subversive façade of the Irish Republican Army. Tension rose in Londonderry and Belfast as civil rights demonstrators clashed with Northern Ireland’s overwhelmingly Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Arson attacks, forced evacuations and gun battles developed across the province, exacerbated by the emergence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Initially committed to defending respectively Catholic and Protestant communities, these groups soon began to clash with both each other and the security forces. The British Army were deployed in August 1969, assigned with the task of restoring peace, but three successive decades of violence in Northern Ireland had commenced.
The BBC Broadcasting House based in Belfast had not escaped the sectarianism which pervaded this region. Established when the state itself was still in its infancy, BBC Northern Ireland was committed to upholding loyalty to British ideals. Senior staff in the Belfast branch maintained a close relationship to the unionist establishment for much of the twentieth century, and up until 1948 it was BBC policy to avoid debates around the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Consequently, BBC Northern Ireland grew to be overly sympathetic to and representative of the Protestant unionist community, leaving many Catholics and nationalists to perceive this British broadcaster as something external, untrustworthy and unbalanced.
Initial BBC coverage of the Troubles was characterised by caution and apprehension. Senior staff feared that the crisis could be exacerbated by irresponsible broadcasting, and so BBC programmes evaded any emotive or incendiary material. But the adverse consequence of this was an omission of insightful information, and so the BBC faced internal and external accusations of censorship. As the situation in Northern Ireland worsened, the BBC’s approach began to shift. The early years of the Troubles jolted the Corporation to recognise and dismantle its unionist predisposition, evolving into a more candidly representative institution. BBC Northern Ireland started to explore the deeply controversial nature of the conflict, exposing the grievances of Catholics, exploring the rise of paramilitary groups, and conveying what life was like in a profoundly divided society.
The governments at Stormont and Westminster deplored broadcasts which questioned the heavy-handed tactics of security forces, contending that the national broadcaster should be unquestionably on the side of the lawful authorities. Airtime given to enemies of the state was also widely protested, encapsulated by Margaret Thatcher’s infamous condemnation of broadcasters who were offering terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity.’ But the BBC consistently maintained that the conflict warranted comprehensive and probing reporting, despite how uncomfortable or disturbing the programmes may be.
Decades of discrimination and a radicalisation of the sectarian divide following the outbreak of violence in 1969 were issues of imperative value that needed to be exposed for the Troubles to be comprehended. The BBC was determined to chronicle events fairly and to clarify the context of the violence, exploring the circumstances that resulted in paramilitary groups gaining sustenance from communities in Northern Ireland. One aspect of this contextualisation was the BBC’s production of Irish history programmes. The Corporation engaged with prominent historians who were part of a new movement in Irish historiography which prioritised objectivity and strove to demolish divisive historical myths. They helped to create engaging and informative BBC programmes which observed how Ireland’s complex history had shaped the ongoing conflict.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC exhibited increased confidence in its approach to the conflict. Cabinet ministers were often incensed by programmes which featured interviews with paramilitaries or displays of their quasi-military activities. But senior figures within the Corporation remained resolute in their defence of informative and objective programmes. Numerous BBC journalists, Director-Generals and Controllers of the Northern Ireland branch repeatedly argued that extremist views had to be exposed to the wider public.
Through current affairs features, history series, documentaries, community programmes and dramas, the BBC’s broad coverage of Northern Ireland clarified the roots of conflict, encouraged discussion of possible resolutions, and brought the previously marginalised politics of the region to the forefront of British politics. Despite relentless criticism, the BBC played a vital role in fostering cross-community communication and understanding.
The BBC’s experience in Northern Ireland conveys the difficulties of chronicling a deeply contested conflict. Pressure mounted from all sides, as unionists expected the BBC to represent them, nationalists became adept at using the media to endorse them, and Westminster was outraged when the BBC disagreed with them. The Corporation had to circumvent the pressures while at the same time meeting the expectations placed on it as a British institution. As the Imperial War Museum begins to reflect on this conflict, the BBC’s evolution during this period and its commitment to impartiality and integrity may be usefully remembered. As an organisation which is semantically emblematic of Britain’s imperial past, the IWM is acutely aware of the sensitivity which surrounds this conflict. The museum’s approach to the Troubles is infused with boldness and percipience, and by incorporating a range of voices and acknowledging the contested nature of the Troubles, the IWM hopes to create an inclusive space to consider this divisive conflict.