Gareth Mulvenna is a writer and an observer of Loyalism whose work I have praised before on this site. In this piece for writingthetroublesweb he takes BBC Spotlight to task for failing to properly examine Loyalism in its recent ‘Secret History’ series. I think he has a point. The series was generally Provo heavy (leaving out the Officials and the INLA by and large) and aside from examining the role played by Loyalists in edging the IRA to a ceasefire, light on the early years and development of groups like the UDA and their relationship with mainstream Unionism. Anyway, here are his thoughts:
By Gareth Mulvenna–
secret historya version of historical events which differs from the official or commonly accepted record and purports to be the true version – Collins English Dictionary
This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the recent Spotlight series. I don’t think it is possible to fairly appraise the full project in only 1500 words; however, it aims to provide a few comments on some issues which I noted over the seven episodes, analyse the dearth of new information on loyalism (my main area of interest) and appeal for a better understanding of what the aims of the programme actually were. I also hope it will generate a discussion among academics and others about the documentary itself and journalistic treatments of the ‘Troubles’ more widely 50 years on from 1969.
When it was announced that the Spotlight team were working on a ‘secret history’…
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The series may have been Provo heavy but I thought it very light on new information. Apart for the naming of Willie Frazer as a Loyalist gun supplier, after years of innuendo and hints, the interviews with the Mid Ulster UVF gun man and the Bowyer Bell film, there was very little else over the six hours of film. Certain reading something like Peter Taylor’s trilogy and A Secret History of the IRA (not too sure who wrote that one…) would have covered most of the details.
One thing which did strike me was how gullible must Johnny Adair have been to involved with Willie Frazer? You would think if your game was illegal activity and someone introduced you to a bumpkin like Frazer you would run a mile. You would almost think he had reassurance from state forces that he was free to proceed…
I think the BBC’s In The Front Line.. series has been much more commendable.
I felt that the series was pretty good quality television journalism. It just oversold itself. I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the investigators and reporters weren’t too keen on the title “A Secret History” – certainly, in terms of accuracy, something like “Another Look At” would have been more accurate.
Journalistic and historical accounts of loyalist terrorism focus heavily on the post Anglo-Irish agreement campaigns*. I suspect that this is in part due to expediency – source material from 1985 onwards is easier to obtain, witnesses and perpetrators easier to interview and so on. But this leads to a misrepresentation of history. Many historical accounts note that loyalists “outkilled” republicans for the “first time” in the 1990s, and whilst this crude metric might be accurate, it is arguably misleading. Loyalists killed more people in 1975 than they did in the final three years of their campaign prior to calling a ceasefire. The destabilising impact of 1970s loyalist violence on Northern Ireland is rarely examined, and neither is the broader effect it had on support for republican violence.
A narrative has emerged that I believe is potentially dangerous, namely that loyalist violence post Anglo-Irish agreement led to the IRA ceasefire. Had political processes not been in place within the republican movement that were moving it to a ceasefire, the increase in loyalist violence could well have led to an increase in sectarian republican violence. Equally, loyalist violence could have hardened the positions of republican “hawks”.
The full spectrum of loyalist violence deserves rigorous academic and historical scrutiny. Collusion happened, but the intensive focus on it detracts from the far more common loyalist attacks that had a far greater impact on Northern Irish society.
* With some notable examples, the work of Iain S Wood, Gareth Mulvenna, and the Balaclava Street historical blog, as well as Peter Taylor’s documentaries.