TV review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, photo BBC

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, available on BBC iPlayer, is one of the outstanding documentaries on the conflict in Northern Ireland that is euphemistically known as the ‘Troubles’. Rather than an overarching narrative, the programme has in-depth interviews with former paramilitaries, from both republican and loyalist backgrounds, former personnel from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the British Army, and its local regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment, as well as with relatives of those who were killed during the conflict.

The five-part series, directed by James Bluemel, as a follow-up to his 2020 series Once Upon a Time in Iraq, uses footage rarely seen on British television. At times harrowing and moving, particularly for those who lived through it in the North, the series gives a real sense of the decades of turmoil and violence between 1969 and 1998.

The first episode begins with an interview with Billy McVeigh, the “Best rioter in Derry”, who describes how he was brought up in one of three Catholic families sharing a three-bedroom house in Derry city. A woman describes how her family endured similar conditions in the Protestant Waterside area of the city.

McVeigh describes how discrimination against Catholics in housing and jobs, and state repression, led to the rise of the civil rights movement in October 1968. He describes how the police beat the protesters. By August 1969, the situation had exploded in the Battle of the Bogside, a pitched battle between local youths in the Catholic Bogside area of Derry against the paramilitary police of the RUC and the notorious ‘B-Specials’. With the prospect of a slide into civil war, British troops were dispatched by the Labour government to the streets of Northern Ireland. Catholic interviewees describe how the troops were initially seen as saviours and handed cups of tea and biscuits by local residents. At this stage, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is described as dormant but, following brutal house raids by the British Army, the IRA grew.

In January 1972, a demonstration in Derry against internment without trial of innocent Catholics led to Bloody Sunday. Reflecting the extreme polarisation in society at the time, a former loyalist paramilitary member says on camera how he “feels bad that he and others cheered and called it Good Sunday”.  The programme is told how “boys lied about their age to sign up to the IRA”, following Bloody Sunday.

Episode two describes the horrendous events of Bloody Friday in Belfast on 21 July 1972. A series of bombings carried out by the Provisional IRA, as a retaliation against British Army violence, led to the deaths of scores of people and many injuries in the city of Belfast. A former IRA member, Richard O’Rawe, concedes that Bloody Friday was “embarrassing for the IRA”, and how “the direction of the war after Bloody Friday went into a dark place”. He adds: “There were Republicans who were sectarian… Protestants were killed because they were Protestants”.

A former Protestant paramilitary member comments that he felt, “we needed to fight back,” and he joined the 50,000-strong Ulster Defence Association. He adds: “We didn’t know we had also joined the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF)… We carried out lots of atrocities”.

Hunger strikes

The Troubles saw thousands of young people going through the prison system, and this led to a major struggle between republican prisoners and the British state after political status was removed for prisoners. An interviewee describes how the 1981 republican prisoners’ hunger strikes led to an “atmosphere so heavy we knew it would explode… Northern Ireland came close to an all-out civil war”. An estimated 100,000 people attended hunger striker Bobby Sands’ funeral out of a sense of “fear, anger and hopelessness”.

The programme looks at the collusion of the state with loyalist paramilitaries and attempts to recruit informers. An IRA member describes how, under questioning by the RUC, she was offered £35,000 to turn against the republican movement.

Attacks by loyalist gangs escalated in the late 1980s and 90s, just as a peace process began to emerge. Billy McManus describes how his father was one of the victims of a loyalist indiscriminate shooting in 1988. The UFF said it was in retaliation for a bombing by the IRA of workers going to a police barracks, in which eight people were killed, all of them Protestants.

While the series sees former republican and loyalist paramilitaries express remorse for some of their organisations’ armed actions, the British soldiers defend or justify their operations. Perhaps this is an institutional mindset, given that the British army has not called a ceasefire, anywhere, and continues its wars and military interventions (including in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and, de facto, Ukraine) in  pursuit of the interests of the British ruling class.

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland is a good introduction to the conflict and to daily life at the time. Popular culture is referenced, including Terry Hooley’s  ‘Good Vibrations’ record shop and label, set up in 1976, which helped launch bands such as The Undertones, and whose music nights were one of the few social places that brought Catholic and Protestant youth together in central Belfast. But there is not much historical background, however, regarding centuries of colonial and imperialist oppression and mass resistance, and the British ruling class’ policy of sectarian ‘divide and rule’. Still, the series is an eye-opener for many people outside the North.

Given the format of the series, it cannot be an in-depth analysis and, apart from the competing armed combatants, it largely ignores other important factors in society, such as the role of the political parties and politicians. Aside from footage of trade unionists on a demonstration demanding an end to conflict in the 1990s, the role of the organised workers’ movement is missing from the series. The unions in the workplaces played a key role in stopping a slide to all-out sectarian conflict many times. However the leaders of the trade unions and long-defunct Northern Ireland Labour Party were found wanting in providing decisive leadership, with bold socialist policies, during the civil rights struggle, and on other occasions, that could have united Catholics and Protestant workers. A vacuum was left for other forces to fill and the Troubles were the tragic outcome.

  • ‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’ is available for streaming on BBC iPlayer

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August 2023