Author and broadcaster Don Anderson reflects on the making of the BBC Radio Ulster series History Lessons.
I couldn't help gazing anew at Stormont during recent momentous events and reflecting that if it had not been for the very late intervention of Tom King as Secretary of State, part of the history of that majestic building would have been as home to a handful of Irish civil servants in the service of the Republic of Ireland.
Journalists happily describe themselves as the authors of the first draft of history, but they can also write succeeding drafts. With the passing of time, secrets become less secret until they don't matter any more, but then they can be absorbing windows into what was really happening at the time, facts which contemporary journalists would have thrashed naked through a thicket of thorns to uncover, myself included.
The History Lessons series for BBC Radio Ulster in mid 2007 was another draft of history, but with a difference. I lived through many of the happenings and remember them both as a journalist and as events that impinged, sometimes drastically, upon friends, family and of course my community. The Troubles have been the backdrop to my entire career - and now I was learning from the big players some of the facts kept hidden or blanketed or largely ignored.
A good example is what Tom King, now Lord King, saw when he followed Douglas Hurd into Stormont Castle as Secretary of State Tom King on 3rd September 1985. The major piece of unfinished business on his desk was the latest draft of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, only six weeks away from signing by Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, a public occasion arranged for mid November. Although he was a new boy, his political warning lights switched flashing red when he read up that the Agreement's secretariat was to be based at Stormont. It would have meant Irish civil servants in this iconic building, answerable to Dublin.
His reaction was instinctive. He knew Unionists' response to the treaty was going to be bitterly hostile, but the presence of Dublin Castle civil servants in what they residually regarded as their Stormont would have infuriated them dangerously. And so it happened that some time before town halls up and down Northern Ireland were festooned in 'Ulster Says No' banners, it was Tom King who said No and the secretariat was moved to Maryfield outside Holywood.
Sometimes a re-examination of history brings back-room people to the fore, like Cedric Wilson. As a DUP member, he coined the 'Ulster Says No' slogan which may be the single most famous slogan of the Troubles, along with John Laird's 'Dublin is only a Sunningdale away.' Cedric was an organiser of the massive protest round the city hall in 1985 against the Anglo Irish Agreement, arguably the largest of the Troubles, where Dr Paisley memorably bellowed his four word letter, Never, Never, Never, Never. And yet in the midst of all this angst, there were lighter, even farcical moments. Cedric Wilson remembered a phone call to a restaurant in East Belfast he owned at the time. One of his women staff took the call.
"I'm callin' fer May Banner," the caller said in his broad accent.
"There's no May Banner workin' here," said the woman.
"No, I'm lookin' fer mae 'Ulster Says No' banner."
Dr Garret Fitzgerald can claim to be one of the political strategic thinkers behind the relative peace we have today. I met him again recently at his modest home in Dublin, its walls covered in art where there weren't bookcases, mostly devoted to Irish, British and European history. It was more the home of a professor than a politician. History rightly defines this Fine Gael leader as one who genuinely tried to understand unionists. And yet, in the odd way that history unfolds, he became a hate figure for unionists along with his foreign minister, Peter Barry, because he was an architect of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which for the first time gave the Republic a role, however insubstantial, in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Unionist rage and outrage all but obliterated the Republic's de facto recognition of partition in the Treaty. As Garret Fitzgerald observed wistfully, "Why does Irish history move so slowly?"
The series highlighted other intriguing forgotten moments, among them:-
- that the IRA leader of the Maze prisoners learning of the death of Bobby Sands in the small hours of the morning on a crystal radio receiver hidden in a small medicine bottle;
- that the prisoners mounted the hunger strike in the face of opposition from the IRA leadership who thought it might not succeed;
- that the negotiators at the Sunningdale talks which produced the first power-sharing executive of 1974, held a fun poll among themselves as to who had come off worst - and nominated the Faulkner Unionists.
- that John Taylor, the hard-line Minister of Home Affairs in the 1971 Unionist Stormont government, only heard from his driver on the way back to the border from Dublin Airport, returning from holiday, that internment without trial had been introduced.
Above all, the series had a freshness because it proved that things were not always what they seemed at the time. And if you are nodding in agreement as you read that, you can be sure that the same is true of right now. History is fascinating!
Don Anderson is the author of a history of the UWC strike of 1974 and was the presenter of the four-part series, entitled History Lessons, on BBC Radio Ulster, first broadcast in June 2007. The series was produced by Noel Russell and Paul Robinson.