Northern Ireland

Bomb Squad Men: The long walk

One of the robots used by Ammunition Technical Officers to make suspect devices safe
Image caption One of the robots used by Ammunition Technical Officers to make suspect devices safe

A good friend of mine met a bomb disposal man and told me he was fascinating.

I thought to myself, 'now there's a great idea for a film', and so started the journey of finding men who served during one of the darkest periods in Northern Ireland's history and enabling them to tell their stories for the first time on television.

The central contributors in our film are quite remarkable guys.

Paul Wharton, Dave Greenaway and Dave Young did a job most of us would never dream of.

They were the guys we watched on our TV screens who walked up to the bombs to try to defuse them.

They are joined in the film by Colonel Gareth Collett, head of Defence Bomb Disposal Operations.

The film is a portrait of the extraordinary moments of these ordinary men's lives.


I was interested in the psychology of these men, to find out what drove them to their profession in the first place.

The answer was startling.

They trained as Ammunition Technical Officers (ATOs), responsible for the maintenance of the British Army's weapons arsenal.

Then, as the violence in Northern Ireland heightened, the most prominent part of the job became bomb disposal.

What few people realise is that Northern Ireland in the 1970s was the laboratory for bomb making and bomb disposal technology.

The counter measures developed then help save lives in Afghanistan today as NATO forces fight the Taliban's deadly use of improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs.

When I first talked to these men it struck me that they had somehow compartmentalised their Northern Ireland experience somewhere in the back of their mind.

They explained 'near death situations' with the ordinariness and detail of a technician.

Not one of them had ever been back to Northern Ireland so the idea was to frame the film through their journey back here for the first time in over 30 years to revisit the defining moments of their careers and to see first-hand what changes had taken place.

There was a certain anticipation amongst the three men at seeing the place again and when they revisited the places where they almost lost their lives, the memories bubbled visibly to the surface.

In Guildhall Square in Londonderry, Dave Young came face-to-face with the narrow street where a car bomb almost cost him his life.

Dropped guard

At a lonely crossroads in south Armagh, Paul Wharton confronted the memory of the death of his close friend Mick O'Neill in a car bomb.

Here, our former army men dropped their military guard.

These are moving moments which I believe will strike a chord with audiences across Northern Ireland.

The Bomb Squad men stayed in the Europa Hotel where they naturally felt at home.

On a walk around Belfast, they enjoyed the continental market at City Hall and marvelled at the new buildings of Titanic Quarter.

They each expressed a certain pride in the contribution they made to help bring this transformation about and were genuinely thrilled about the solid foundations of our peace process.

They boarded their plane home, generally happy men, having told the unique story of their time doing 'the long walk' in 1970s Northern Ireland.

Bomb Squad Men: The long walk, BBC One Northern Ireland, Thursday, 5 April, 22:35 BST