Peter Taylor on The Troubles

Oliver Webb-Carter

Peter Taylor is a journalist who has covered The Troubles since 1972. Our editor met with him on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.
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Peter Taylor on The Troubles

When I was a teenager living on a British military base in Germany, my mother would hand me an extendable mirror and tell me I needed to check under the family car to ensure it did not have a bomb placed on the underside. I remember this vividly because I couldn’t tell the base of one vehicle from another, and so had an explosive device been placed there, I’d have assumed it was a vital component – perhaps part of the exhaust or something similar. We would sometimes hear rumours that a member of the IRA had been seen within JHQ Rheindalen, cycling by the tennis courts I seem to recall, which would make my search even more stressful.

The Troubles have therefore always held a deep interest to me. This makes me somewhat unusual among my fellow countrymen, many of whom barely think about Ireland. Peter Taylor, the veteran BBC journalist, was in that category up until the 30th January 1972 when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by members of the Parachute Regiment in the Bogside area of Londonderry (a fourteenth died of his wounds four months later). Taylor learned of the story in London and so immediately flew over to Belfast, and arrived in Londonderry that night.

“It was one of the landmark moments in the history of Northern Ireland, a landmark moment in my personal experience of coming to terms with the conflict…I didn’t know where Londonderry was. I didn’t know why it was called Londonderry and Derry at the same time. So I arrived not being a totally ignorant journalist, but being a rather naive young journalist who’d never actually set foot in Ireland, north or south before. And I actually arrived in Bloody Sunday on the evening of that Sunday after the killings had actually happened. We were going to film it for a documentary, but the company, Thames Television, wouldn’t pay the danger money the union was demanding.”

The scene on the ground when he arrived must have been horrific, and did he know that when he got on the plane that day Northern Ireland would define his career for the next 50 years?

“I knew that 13 innocent people had been killed, but I couldn’t understand why this had happened. Why my soldiers (me being a Brit) from the Parachute Regiment, were alleged to have shot dead, in cold blood, 13 innocent civil rights marchers. I felt guilty that it appeared to be soldiers who were responsible, but also guilty that me, as a young journalist, knew very little about the conflict. I decided there and then I better try and find out. And I spent the next 50 years trying to do just that.

“I thought it would be a quick in and out job doing a programme…called Two Sides of a Story. That was a landmark programme in which I interviewed [those who] saw what happened. A colleague interviewed the Paras and we had two roles of film and managed to evade the injunction necessitated by the Widgery report…So that was my first experience and I never thought I’d spend the next 50 years covering the conflict as it got worse and worse and worse, which is why I carried on covering it. The more I found out, the more fascinated I became and the more involved I became and the more I got to know people on all sides be [they] Republican, Nationalist, Loyalist, Unionist, Security Services, RUC, Army I made contact with them all over a period of years and therefore was in a privileged position to get a fairly inside view from all sides of what was happening. Critically, why did it happened and even more critically, how on earth were we going to find a way out of it?”

It’s a matter of disappointment to me that so many Brits are ignorant of both Irish history and The Troubles, as we’ve seen with Brexit negotiations as members of the government breezily dismissed border concerns as fabrication. Think about our curriculum – schoolchildren do not learn about Britain’s relationship with Ireland at all. It is thanks in large part to Peter Taylor through his reporting  with Thames TV, the BBC as well as his trilogy of books (Provos, Loyalists and Brits), that one can have an excellent base knowledge of the cause, major events and resolution of the conflict that ended 25 years ago, and which cost the lives of more than 3,500 British subjects. (YouTube is a great resource.) Now he has added a fourth book, Operation Chiffon, which details the intelligence operation of the same name that began within months of Bloody Sunday, and continued into the mid-90s with three spies – two MI6 and one MI5, and a quite extraordinary Derry businessman, Brendan Duddy.

“Operation Chiffon begins its long [journey] in those bloody awful days of the early 1970s. That’s when the framework, the platform was built from, which ultimately Operation Chiffon in the 1990s materialised.”

Taylor has an ability, and it is a unique one, to be able to gain access to all sides of The Troubles; be they republican or loyalist, soldiers or spies, or those better-known names who contributed to, or were signatories of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, such as John Hulme; David Trimble; Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern; Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness; and of course Ian Paisley. Operation Chiffon helped them get to 1998. Has he reflected on why all sides are willing to talk to him in particular?

“Well, Oliver, it took a long time. You don’t just go in there and start talking to people because what you have to do over a period of time is gain their confidence so they will trust you and they will therefore say things they perhaps wouldn’t normally say and I have to trust them. So it’s a two way thing and that takes a long time to build up. I was always driven by the need to find out, to ask questions of people with no agenda.”

The great hero of the book is Duddy, who is involved very early on in The Troubles. It’s extraordinary to me, with Bloody Sunday being such a boon for the IRA and because it prompted so many volunteers, that within a few months there’s a ceasefire.

“Well, Brendan’s, first role in these events was helping get IRA weapons out of the Bogside, into the Creggan…to take them out of the potential area of conflict because the IRA was aware of what the risks were and the danger to their own community from gunfire. So the order was given by the IRA’s commanding officer of the Derry Brigade… to get all guns out of the Bogside, which in fact did happen…In that process he got to know some of the then IRA leadership like Rory O’broady, Martin  McGuinness, who was almost a neighbour of Brendan’s.

“But Brendan didn’t have any direct role in the in the first talks between the British government and the Northern Ireland secretary William Whitelaw in 1972. Astonishingly held in a fashionable Cheyne  Walk in Chelsea when Willie Whitelaw swallowed all his principles, and encouraged in particular by Frank Steele, the wonderful Frank Steele [MI5 Officer] whom I interviewed on his deathbed.

“The remarkable thing about Cheyne walk is a that it happened with a senior British minister Willie Whitelaw [SoS for Northern Ireland] actually meeting the leadership of the IRA. Seán MacStiofáin [Chief of Staff PIRA], Seamus Twomey [CO Belfast PIRA], Martin McGuinness [Deputy CO Derry PIRA] and David O’Connell [PIRA Army Council].

“It was never going to work because the IRA leadership was saying, ‘We want you, the Brits, out; out of Ireland; out of the north of Ireland by 1975.’ We’re talking, in 1972, in three years’ time, ‘Pack your bags, get on the boats and go home.’ That was never going to happen…[But] it broke the taboo that it [talks] could happen.”

The peace process was fortunate for the part successive intelligence officers played – and of course, Brendan Duddy. On the British side, Michael Oatley, Frank Steele, and ‘Robert’ took the view that that talks were important. Had there been a spy who took a more hard-line view, then who knows what would have happened?

“It [the peace process] wouldn’t have happened, I don’t think. What drove Steele, Oatley, Brendan Duddy and ‘Robert’ was one thing which is this [violence] has got to be brought to an end. We can’t go on killing each other like this. There’s got to be an endgame, and that endgame has to be peace. How do we get there? All those four people recognised that there had to be some kind of political dialogue.

“The other important thing to note is that all the way through this period, from the early 1970s through to Operation Chiffon, all the way through to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, that the British government was speaking…to the IRA or to Republicans and Nationalists, [and] made it absolutely clear that there could be no agreement without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland. On that the British held firm…In the end, what turned the tables was when the IRA finally recognised the penny, if you like, finally dropped, that if there was to be a solution, Unionists and Loyalists would have to be involved.

“The IRA and Sinn Fein gradually came to realise that by the end of the 1980s, it was a question of how were those intentions made real? The important thing about Martin McGuinness putting to one side what he may or may not have done beforehand, which one can’t do because he was a senior IRA commander and if he wasn’t responsible for heinous things, his organisation certainly was. That’s why Martin McGuinness, remarkably, in the end when he became again astonishingly Deputy Minister in the power sharing government that flowed from Good Friday and sharing power with Ian Paisley. Astonishing, never ever thought that would happen. That’s when he shook hands with the Queen and dined with her at Windsor Castle in honour of the Irish President donning white tie and tails [in 2011]. Just the most amazing scene that one never ever dreamt one would see.”

Talk of the late 1980s makes me think of the Enniskillen bombing during a Remembrance Sunday ceremony, 8th November 1987 when the IRA murdered 11 people, many elderly. It was probably my first memory of The Troubles. Was this a bend in the road or a turning point for the IRA?

The aftermath of the bombing on 8th November 1987 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh

“Enniskillen I don’t think was ever meant to kill civilians, but the anticipation was that the bomb was placed where the army or the police would be standing, positioned.”

At this point I interrupted Taylor. If a bomb is placed in a public place you are almost certainly going to kill innocent civilians.

“That I accept.”

If I have a criticism, it is that Gerry Adams and McGuinness are given a little too much slack, as bombs are going off during peace talks. I don’t just direct this at the book, but also the intelligence officers who seem to accept that violence against innocents is a necessary evil when talking with Sinn Fein and the IRA.

“Enniskillen shook Gerry Adams…It did the Republican movement a lot of damage because the… IRA was blamed for it, quite rightly.

“I asked McGuinness about it. I went to see him privately, which wasn’t easy because I wanted to talk to him about Enniskillen, because I understood him to have been, at the time, the Acting Head of Northern Command that was responsible for Enniskillen and say, ‘You must have known about the bomb.’ He said, ‘I didn’t.’

“He was clearly being economical with the truth. He denied it because in a sense, he couldn’t do anything other than to other than deny it. But it was uncomfortable for McGuinness, it was uncomfortable for Gerry Adams and he said so publicly that the movement should be ashamed of itself or words to that effect. So the revulsion of Enniskillen was rather like the revulsion later on to the Warrington bombs, where the two little boys…were killed. These events backfired on those responsible in the IRA and created a climate in which people said, ‘Look, we have just got to stop.’

“It also made the IRA recognise that they had to stop because it was not helping their cause. They recognised by this time that bombing and killing in isolation was not going to further the cause. The question that I’m asked quite often is the IRA say that they wanted peace and yet they carried on killing people at Warrington and the Bishopsgate bomb. They carried on with their campaign right up to the last minute before the ceasefire came. And I asked ‘Robert’ about this and also I asked John Chilcott [Permanent Secretary to the NIO] about it.

“…Both echoed the same sentiment…[The IRA] assert maximum pressure until the last before the ceasefire is declared. If you look at previous ceasefires, that’s the pattern. That’s the pattern you carry on with the so-called armed struggle, until the last moment when the ceasefire is due at one minute past midnight, and that’s when it stops. That’s the way they operate.”

We no longer have army bases in Germany necessitating security measures carried out by untrained teenagers, and the threat of violence is very distant for us living in England, Scotland and Wales, but that’s not true today in the case of Northern Ireland. Recent attacks by the so-called ‘New’ IRA have seen the murder of journalist Lyra McKee and the shooting of off-duty PSNI officer John Caldwell.

We should be thankful to Brendan Duddy, those spies at Five and Six, and we should be grateful to Peter Taylor. He has brought the story of The Troubles to our bookshelves and TV screens over the past 50 years with an exemplary balance. By its very name, the peace process is not an event, and with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, it’s more important than ever that we in the United Kingdom remain invested in demanding a peaceful way of life for all our fellow countrymen and women in Ulster.

Peter Taylor is the author of Operation Chiffon: The Secret Story of MI5 and MI6 and the Road to Peace in Ireland. You can listen to the full interview with Peter on the Aspects of History Podcast.