Independent Messenger

A personal perspective on BBC News in Northern Ireland, Kevin Connolly

There was a time when the BBC in Northern Ireland was run by classically-educated, pinstriped emissaries from London; the kind of men - and they were nearly all men - who would have been familiar with the story of Antigone's masterpiece of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. Much has changed since that generation of well-meaning administrators coined their last A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., returned to London and took retirement, but almost everyone who has served the BBC in this divided place in the years since then has become familiar with the main lesson of Sophocles' work: "No-one loves the messenger who bears bad news".

In the very early years of broadcasting, audiences were prepared to be forgiving. The BBC's first station in Belfast, 2BE, opened in 1926 - four years after partition. Its inaugural broadcast was interrupted by a technical fault which meant that at first, the handful of listeners heard only a brief announcement followed by 'God Save the King', followed by silence. In the period before the fault was repaired and the programme resumed, nationalists must have felt their darkest fears about the new state had been confirmed. Even unionists, while they might have found nothing to fault in the content as far as it went, must have been a little puzzled by the limited use to which the BBC appeared to be proposing to put the dazzling new medium of radio.

As the BBC became more technically accomplished and more artistically ambitious with the passing years, our audiences and the first journalists to write about radio began to consider the programming they were offered in a more critical spirit.

The possibilities of the new medium were clearly limitless - BBC microphones were on hand when the foundation stone was laid for the new parliament building at Stormont. But at first news coverage formed a relatively small element of the output and was simply harvested from local newspapers through a centralised agency.

Even then, there were hints of the much greater difficulties that the future would bring. In 1935 the marching season turned violent and the BBC's local news service naturally enough made reference to the sustained rioting which broke out in Belfast. Listeners could have heard much fuller coverage if they'd tuned in to the programmes now being beamed into Northern Ireland by the Free State's new transmitter at Athlone, but even the relatively restrained descriptions offered from Belfast were enough to stir Unionist concerns.

A Unionist MP, Capt TH Mayes suggested that in times of emergency the government at Stormont should have the power to take over local broadcasting. Mayes would have known perfectly well that at a national level John Reith had only just managed to talk the Imperial Cabinet in London out of taking over the national BBC network during the General Strike in 1926, and he knew that the issue was a sensitive one.

Nothing came of his idea in the end, but it raised a fascinating question for local BBC managers. They knew their organisation was independent of course, but just who was it independent from - Westminster or Stormont? The BBC after all was a creation of the government in London, but it was the authorities in Belfast who were closer to hand, and whose displeasure could be most readily and most frequently felt.

News was limited in those days and Current Affairs a thing of the future, but the sensitivities of the national question still found ways in which to express themselves. One controversy neatly illustrated the force field of sensitivities within which BBC Northern Ireland operated - a force field in which the currents of controversy were conducted on wires that ran between local and national management on the one hand, and local and national government on the other.

In 1934 BBC Northern Ireland began broadcasting the results of GAA fixtures played on Sundays, outraging Sabbatarians and alienating the Loyalty League and at least one Protestant complainant who wrote to point out that the "Gaelic mind, speech and pastimes" meant nothing to him. After weeks of debate, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Lord Craigavon complained directly to the Director General about the practice, which was dropped. Politicians were learning how to complain and who to complain to.

Tellingly, when this controversy came around again in 1946, the BBC had acquired the confidence to find a compromise of its own. Sunday GAA results were broadcast, but on Mondays - a decision which managed to irritate Unionists who still had to listen to news about 'alien' games, without satisfying Nationalists who would find out from the BBC only those results which they already knew from other sources. The decision making process this time involved both the local Director of Religious Broadasting and the Director-General in London, two figures who perhaps not surprisingly are not normally concerned in the collation and transmission of sports results.

The BBC's own newsgathering resources were limited before the Second World War - indeed in the very early years bulletins were supplied ready-made by a journalist from the Belfast Telegraph nominated by the Central News Agency. For that reason perhaps controversy tended to be found in other programme areas, where innocuous content showed itself capable of irritating and offending the listeners. Why, they demanded, did musical offerings from Belfast to the national network feature Irish offerings like 'The Rose of Tralee' rather than perfectly good Ulster alternatives like 'Kitty of Coleraine'? And why so many accents that were more Oxbridge than Banbridge?

Even before the outbreak of the Second World War put the broadcasting of the news at the very centre of the BBC's business, the Corporation's executives in Belfast had succeeded in persuading their colleagues (and bosses) in London that Northern Ireland was a place of special sensitivity, deserving of particular caution.

This was largely the achievement of George Marshall, a Scot and a personal friend of John Reith who established the principle that nothing should be broadcast about Ireland anywhere on the BBC without reference to him. Broadly similar arrangements remain in place to this day, although not quite with the rigid formality that Marshall enjoyed. As tensions within Northern Ireland have abated, so the BBC has been able to move from a tightly-enforced regime of "upward referral" to a less rigid system of consultation between programme maker and manager, and between London and Belfast. Marshall though, you sense, was very much a creature of his times. He springs from the dead pages of the archive as a tireless administrator, always equally ready to explain or to complain. He seems to have developed a special antenna for any rendition of A Soldier's Song anywhere on the BBC's already considerable output. No attempt to play it escaped his wrath, either on the Overseas Service, or even on the BBC's regional programmes for Northern England, and while he acknowledged that such concerns might seem childish in London he explained that they were of "paramount importance" in Northern Ireland.

So Marshall stood ready to deal with controversy whenever it arose, but it was clear for decades that the BBC's essential policy was to avoid it at all costs. Rex Cathcart, the best historian of the Corporation's early years in the province put it like this: "They (senior managers) wished to see open political debate but they remained chary of speakers with extremist views on the grounds that they were divisive. Their conviction was that dialogue would help the communities discover what they had in common".

It was a policy which could produce peculiar results - a discussion about the economic problems facing Londonderry was carefully edited before transmission to remove references to partition - a proceeding which doesn't appear to have struck anyone within the BBC as particularly unusual. The middle ground it was clear, was to be searched for, even when it didn't exist.

Curiously enough the eventual impetus for an expansion of political coverage came not from within the Corporation, but from the politicians themselves. By 1948 a system had developed in which the BBC broadcast news about parliamentary proceedings based on press releases prepared up at Stormont by a government press official. Eventually the system broke down and news was broadcast of a Parliamentary answer which had been prepared by officials but not actually read out by a Minister. It was an embarrassing affair and the reaction of the authorities at Stormont was surprisingly creative - why, they asked, didn't the BBC simply appoint its own correspondent to provide political coverage from The Hill? The BBC was clearly impressed with this invitation to the epicentre of local controversy, and just sixteen short years after the suggestion was received from Stormont, WD Flackes, a Donegal-born veteran of PA's Westminster service in London, took up the job.

Billy Flackes was still in his post of course, when violence consumed daily life in Northern Ireland and tested and strained that network of high-tension wires that connected BBC managers in Belfast and London as well as the two administrations at Stormont and Westminster.

From the moment on October 5th 1968 when television cameras captured the violence as police battered the civil rights marchers taking part in a banned demonstration in Londonderry BBC Northern Ireland found itself facing a challenge to its editorial policies and values which was almost without precedent in western Europe or north America.

The physical dangers were obvious. Crews were threatened or attacked by Protestant extremists as an exhausting round of civil rights protests and loyalist counter-demonstrations heightened the sense of crisis.

The political dangers were clear enough too. In a torrent of phone calls and abusive letters Unionists expressed outrage at the idea that the BBC, a quintessentially British institution, should be providing a platform for Her Majesty's enemies, opponents and critics. How, they asked, could a 'government-sponsored organisation' allow such publicity to "rebels and civil rightsers…and seditious organisations"? It was becoming clear that covering a continuing state of violent civil disturbance in a part of the United Kingdom was going to impose intolerable strains on relationships between broadcasters and politicians in London and Belfast.

There could be no question of censorship of course, but might there not be a case for what might be called restrained reporting when the BBC found itself addressing angry and aggrieved communities during bouts of rioting?

One Controller from the early seventies, Waldo Maguire, explained the dilemma bluntly: "In the present atmosphere of hatred and fear, we have to recognise that the broadcasting of violently-opposed views, passionately and offensively expressed, could have direct and immediate consequences on the streets of Belfast or Londonderry."

Maguire's preferred solution was to recognise that within Northern Ireland there were nearly always separate Catholic and Protestant perspectives on nearly everything, and to counsel the waves of reporters and producers now arriving from London to cover 'The Troubles', that both points of view should normally be included in every report. There were other possibilities of course - the BBC could for example, offer different coverage of the disturbances and the political divisions to audiences in Northern Ireland on the one hand, and the rest of the UK on the other. Or it could seek to ensure that its all of its reporting continued to be available throughout the UK, and avoid the use of language which was inflammatory or provocative.

That first possibility was tried only once - when BBC Northern Ireland opted out of a network edition of Panorama in which some Protestants in East Belfast were heard calling for retaliation for the deaths of their relatives at the hands of an IRA gunman. In general terms, the second option became accepted BBC policy - but it had significant weaknesses too; clearly this was going to be an area in which no answers were entirely satisfactory. For one thing, it laid the BBC open to a charge of censorship - of failing to broadcast people expressing extreme, hate-filled and provocative views, even when they might be widely held. This was in the days before the broadcasting of such opinions became a breach of the law, rather than merely a breach of taste and good citizenship. And even more importantly, it was a policy which would not help much with the single issue which was to generate the sharpest and most damaging conflicts between the BBC and British government - the broadcasting of interviews with, and pictures of, members of illegal organisations.

It's worth remembering the overall political context within which the BBC formulated its policy. In 1971 the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs said directly that "as between the IRA and the Ulster government or between the army and the terrorists", the media "were not required to strike a balance". The chairman of the governors Lord Hill wrote to re-assure the government: "between the British Army and the gunmen the BBC is not, and cannot be impartial".

When Lord Hill was a broadcaster himself, as the Radio Doctor during the Second World War, things had been morally simpler, and it was easy for him to see the issue in black and white terms. He'd finished a subsequent career in politics as a Conservative cabinet minister and was sent to the BBC by the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson with a brief to "sort out" the Corporation. For programme makers, things were not so straightforward. Even if you didn't have to worry about impartiality, there was a duty to explain what motivated the "gunmen" and to describe the context from which they had sprung. For the BBC in Northern Ireland, the difficulty was even more acute - how was it to deal with politicians from parties which supported the gunmen or indeed with the gunmen themselves if they turned to politics?

In that context, the BBC's first experience with the problem was surprisingly trouble-free. A team from Nationwide filmed a secret IRA training camp south of the border, and after consultations at the highest levels within the BBC, the report was broadcast. There was criticism from the Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph and from some unionist MPs. This was of course in the days before government departments could monitor and record programmes for themselves. Cathcart records how Northern Ireland's government requested a special screening of the report at Broadcasting House in Belfast which was attended by the Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark and several of his ministers.
He doesn't record their reactions.

We are in no doubt as to the reactions prompted by the BBC's next such venture. It provoked angry debate both inside the BBC and far beyond and it also resulted in the imprisonment of one of the Corporation's London-based reporters, Bernard Falk.

Falk had been to Ballymurphy in west Belfast to make a film about a series of attacks on an army post there. Two masked figures described as "senior officers" of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA were interviewed and offered the view that they were providing order in an area where the concept of conventional law-enforcement had no meaning. This time around, there was real official anger - but there was also an intriguing sign of an underlying acceptance by the government that such voices would sometimes be heard, even if the only reason for hearing them was that it would be worse to have the kind of system of censorship which would be necessary to exclude them. The Postmaster General Christopher Chataway was challenged to ban all such interviews and declined.

That didn't help Bernard Falk though who had been summonsed to appear in the case of one

Patrick Leo Martin, who faced a charge of IRA membership. Under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) of 1967 Falk faced the threat of jail if he refused to say whether Martin was one of the men he'd interviewed. He duly refused, and went to jail - the subsequent internal agonising at the BBC produced the rule that anyone wishing to interview a member of an organisation like the IRA needed the personal permission of the Director General. So a kind of principle was established. The BBC would not agree simply to ban such people from the airwaves - but it would impose rigorous internal controls; then in cases where proper procedures were followed, it would defend its staff and its programmes.

Individual cases continued to cause difficulties, but one of the greatest tests of the BBC's systems and structures came with the UWC strike in 1974. Seen from elsewhere in a Britain crippled by waves of industrial unrest, it might have seemed like any other strike. In practice though, it was a successful, if limited coup d'etat, designed to destroy power-sharing government. This time the charge against the BBC was more subtle; it was that by providing constant coverage of the UWC announcements they gave the impression that the strike leaders had momentum and authority - and had the initiative.

Perhaps it was inevitable that such an impression might be created because of the need to devote time in bulletins to such issues as where petrol might be bought, on any given evening, but it was food for thought for broadcasting executives.

One strike leader observed damagingly: " The BBC were marvellous, they were prepared to be fed any information…they fell into their own trap that the public must get the news….we found with the media on our side, we didn't need a gun".

It is hard to see what else the BBC could have done, faced with a local audience desperate for reliable practical information about which roads were open and which shops had bread, but in the longer term, such experiences paved the way for the creation of a news machine more capable of delivering context and analysis alongside the steady flow of factual information.

It was the issue of how the BBC should treat paramilitary organisations though, which continued to prove the most damaging area of division between the Governors on the one hand, and the Government on the other. One indication of the strength of feeling among certain ministers on the subject came when the Labour Secretary of State Roy Mason told a private dinner with senior figures from the Corporation at the Culloden Hotel in 1976 that its coverage of the province was "appalling" and that it "didn't behave like a public service organisation". No-one could doubt Mason's sincerity at least - when he was challenged as to what he meant by the proposal of a news black out on IRA activity he said even news of his own assassination should be "ignored".

The new Secretary of State's mood in the build up to the "Second Battle of Culloden" wouldn't have been improved by a startling demonstration of independence from BBC NI's new current affairs programme Spotlight. Its reporter Jeremy Paxman had approached Mason and asked if he'd care to appear in a profile to be broadcast as he took up his sensitive new post. When Mason declined, with the intention of making the programme impossible, Paxman went ahead and made it anyway - it's interesting to ask whether a broadcaster these days would take the same attitude towards such a powerful and pugnacious figure.

In an internal BBC memo written two years later, Bernard Falk quoted Mason as offering more direct advice still on how the BBC should deal with the thorny question of probing and explaining the activities of paramilitaries: "Stay away from these killers, Bernard," he's reported to have told Falk after meeting him in Yorkshire, "Remember the Licence Fee, get sharp son."

But things were not really so simple. It was the Controller Richard Francis who perhaps put the BBC's case best when he spoke at Chatham House in 1977 on the problems of broadcasting in a divided society. Francis said he understood emotional calls for the BBC to "treat paramilitaries for what they are - thugs, murderers and bombers by any other name". But as Francis pointed out, if the government allowed organisations like Provisional Sinn Fein to remain legal, then the BBC had a clear duty to cover their activities. This was also in the age of course, when the UDA remained a legal organisation - Francis didn't put it in so many words, but his argument in plain English was this. If the government wouldn't or couldn't ban such organisations, then how could the BBC?

In a curious kind of way Margaret Thatcher's government was to provide a kind of answer to that question eleven years later when it legislated to ban the broadcasting of the views of precisely the kind of people about whom Richard Francis had been writing.

When a stunned House of Commons rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombing in 1974 legal provisions were introduced which effectively spelled an end to the possibility of interviewing anyone describing themselves as "an IRA spokesman". But the challenges of the future were to be more subtle, and would require subtle internal procedures of control, rather than blunt legal prohibitions. It was one thing to ban the IRA directly from the airwaves, for example, but quite another to know how to deal with the political representatives of republicanism in Sinn Fein, who articulated the same case but who had behind them the legitimacy of a democratic mandate.

There's little to be gained from re-telling the story of every confrontation between the BBC and the government through the years of the late seventies and the 1980s.

But perhaps the story of one period of confrontation in 1979 best demonstrates the kinds of pressure under which the BBC operated, and the manner in which it normally tried to respond.

On Jul 5th 1979 the Tonight programme broadcast an interview with a member of the INLA in which he said the organisation had been responsible for the murder of the Conservative MP Airey Neave, a close confidant of the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A few months later a Panorama crew filmed members of the IRA establishing an illegal road-block at Carrickmore in County Tyrone. In the eyes of many in the political establishment the two issues became conflated…this was about providing a platform for enemies of the state.

The Speaker of the Commons George Thomas wrote to the Director General Ian Trethowan to warn that "a large number of members of parliament have told me of the sense of nausea that they have when you give publicity to Irish terrorists." Thomas was hardly the BBC's most damaging or acerbic critic so it's worth noting that what he objected to was that "Irish terrorists" were being given publicity at all. In that context the BBC's traditional defence - that people expressing repugnant views were subjected to searching and even hostile scrutiny - counted for very little. In 1977, Richard Francis had defended a Spotlight interview with an INLA man broadcast on BBC NI with the words "the demeanour of our reporter left no doubt as to where we stood". That attitude would cut little ice in the new Britain which had elected Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

The interview with the INLA man which provoked such strong feelings at Westminster was at least in the public domain - the Panorama footage of the IRA road-block in County Tyrone enraged many politicians even though it wasn't, in the end, broadcast. It's worth noting that the crew affirmed that they had travelled to Tyrone after receiving a telephone tip-off, and not as the result of any detailed prior agreement about what they were to be shown.

Nonetheless, to the new Conservative government (and it's hard to believe that Roy Mason's view would have been any different) it was a clear example of the BBC offering terrorists the oxygen of publicity. Serious consideration was given to the possibility of prosecuting members of the teams from Tonight and Panorama under Section 11 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This legislation in the view of the government placed a legal responsibility on anyone even negotiating about the possibility of an interview with a "terrorist" to inform the authorities immediately. In the end, the Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers decided not to prosecute but he took almost a year to make up his mind, and if part of the government's aim was exert pressure on the BBC over the whole issue of how it covered Irish affairs, then it seemed his mission had been accomplished.

The BBC's Director of News and Current Affairs at the time wrote of "the impossibility of reconciling journalistic obligations as he (Havers) defines them with his interpretation of Section 11 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act". In other words, as far as coverage of Northern Ireland went, it was getting difficult to be a good journalist and a good citizen in the eyes of the government.

The row over the London-made feature programme "Real Lives: Edge of the Union" provided proof that under sustained government pressure the BBC found it difficult in those days to speak with a united voice. The programme, made by Paul Hamann, essentially consisted of "at home" interviews with the IRA leader and Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuiness and the DUP representative Gregory Campbell. Because it came from outside the tightly-controlled worlds of News and Current Affairs - it was a "feature" in BBC-speak - it had escaped the usual system of upward referral which generally acted as an early warning system for senior managers that there was trouble on the horizon.

It's worth remembering the context. It was the summer of 1985, less than a year on from the Brighton bomb. Margaret Thatcher had already spoken of the need for democratic governments to find ways to starve terrorists of the "oxygen of publicity" - now here was the BBC proposing to broadcast what the government regarded as a cosy fireside chat with a leading terrorist.

The Home Secretary Leon Brittan took the extraordinary step of writing to the BBC demanding that the programme should not be broadcast. His argument was that the propagation of such an interview would "materially assist the terrorist cause". It was a straightforward attempt at censorship which threw the BBC into a damaging period of chaotic internal conflict. The age of the mobile phone was still some years distant and the luckless Director-General Alasdair Milne was on a cruise off the coast of Norway.

In his absence the Board of Governors viewed the programme and decided to ban it, ignoring the protests of the deputy Director-General Michael Checkland who argued that there were two issues of huge importance at stake - the BBC's actual and perceived independence, and the ability of the media to transmit material related to terrorism at all.

The issue poisoned relations between management, Governors and staff who went on strike in protest at the decision to pull the programme. On the picket line outside Broadcasting House in Belfast a VHS copy of the banned documentary was played for passing members of the public - all of whom were of course already familiar with the thoughts of both Campbell and McGuinness. The programme was eventually broadcast with a few minor adjustments a few months after the initial row - and the dispute was chiefly remarkable as a demonstration of the way in which external pressure exerted on the BBC could, if sufficiently intense, cause lasting internal damage.

The Thatcher government's eventual decision to impose a broadcasting ban can be read as the logical culmination of her growing irritation with the determination of the BBC, and of other broadcasters, to report Northern Ireland, both at a local and national level, as comprehensively and fairly as possible. The trigger for the ban was the Ballygawley bomb in August 1988 in which eight soldiers were killed but it was clear that the idea had been discussed at the highest level for many months.

The ban was evidence that the Thatcher government had abandoned all hope that a policy of sporadic, case by case pressure would force the BBC to toe the government line on Northern Ireland. Indeed, the policy was tending to create an apparently never-ending series of rows in which the Corporation was obliged to stand firm not just because of a belief in the importance and the quality of the individual programmes at issue but also from a genuine sense that its independence was being challenged.

BBC Northern Ireland's sharpest confrontation with the government in that year came again over an edition of Spotlight - this time it was a programme in which Alex Thomson attempted to unravel how and why an SAS team in Gibraltar had shot dead three members of the IRA.

The government was forced to divide its anger almost equally between BBC Northern Ireland and Thames Television which was preparing, in parallel, its own account of the shootings, Death on the Rock.

But there was plenty of anger to go around. Margaret Thatcher wanted the programme banned; complaining bitterly that it amounted to "Trial by Television". And Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe wrote directly to the BBC, attempting to halt the screening. Management held firm, and the programme was transmitted.

But can a public service broadcaster ever "win" a confrontation with the government to which it is accountable? The row may have been a final straw in the process of persuading Margaret Thatcher that strict and direct legal controls were needed over the whole business of reporting the troubles.

The ban when it came was couched deliberately in vague language - it was clear that interviews with members of Sinn Fein couldn't be broadcast for example, but what about elected British politicians who might have sympathy for the republican point of view? The government's technique was to leave it to broadcasters themselves to decide, knowing that in the climate of pressure it had created over the course of almost a decade that broadcasters would be inclined to err on the side of caution. In the end the technique of hiring actors to voice over news clips of senior republicans like Gerry Adams meant that the ban had much less effect than had seemed likely when it was first mooted. The BBC was able to get on with the business of reporting on Ireland - with the curious side effect that a minor cottage industry was created in lip-synching and impersonation. The longer-serving members of the Spotlight staff might have detected a certain irony in the fact that it fell to Douglas Hurd, as Home Secretary, to announce the ban. Ten years earlier as an Opposition front bencher he'd appeared in an edition of the programme which amounted to a kind of extended fact-finding tour of Northern Ireland. Among the local politicians he'd engaged in vigorous debate was Gerry Adams, arguably the principal target of the new legislation.

Read in a longer historical context, the ban is particularly intriguing - it's perfectly clear now that when it was introduced, secret contacts between the British government and violent republicanism were already under way.

So the actual voices of senior republicans were being heard by interlocutors acting on behalf of Britain - just not by the voters who made up our television and radio audiences.

The ban itself became a negotiating chip in the political talks which were eventually to lead to a deal in the spring of 1998, but the IRA ceasefire - and to a lesser extent the loyalist truces which followed - reduced the capacity of Northern Ireland to provoke conflict between the BBC on the one hand, and the government on the other. It is not without significance that most of the major conflicts of the last 40 years between the Corporation and the government to which it is answerable have involved "the troubles" and how they should be reported.

The way in which peace came - fractiously, haltingly and accompanied by interminable talks - continued to provide BBC managers with genuine difficulties, even if they were not of the kind which produced confrontation with the wider authorities. In the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement, for example, was it the task of the BBC act as a persuader for the deal? Should it act as a kind of cheer-leader for settlement once the deal was done? How much airtime should be given to opponents and critics of the initial accommodation? How were we to find a balance between the outrage of anti-agreement Unionists who felt their views were given insufficient airtime, and the irritation of pro-agreement parties who felt they'd been given far too much.

They are perhaps questions for a future correspondent writing about the sixtieth anniversary of the coming of television news broadcasting here - time and distance tend to make our judgement more distant and dispassionate.

And it's in the nature of broadcasting to a divided society that the coming of peace means a change in the nature of the difficulties we face, and not an end to them. There will always be pressure from government.

This writer is not the only BBC representative who's heard at first hand the view from elected politicians that the Corporation is not doing enough to reflect the "mood of optimism" which they detect in the province.

And of course, in a curious way, we have come full circle in this brief historical survey. After a period in which the issue of Northern Ireland engaged politicians and BBC managers in London, we are returning to an age where the busiest line of communication will run between Stormont and Broadcasting House in Belfast.

How will the BBC deal with the future in Northern Ireland? Well, the former Controller Richard Francis never lived to see the peace which must have seemed unimaginable when he picked through the wreckage in Ormeau Avenue after the IRA bombed the BBC in 1974…but his words describing the difficulty of reporting the past also serve as a pointer towards the way the Corporation has to face the future. He wrote: "We have a contribution to make to the maintenance of democracy, both by providing a forum where harsh differences of opinion can be aired and by reporting courageously and investigating the unpalatable truths which underlie the problems in our midst". It was an attitude which served the BBC well in a period of conflict - there is no reason why it can't serve equally well in times of peace.

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly ©BBC

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