Ben Lowry: Peter Taylor has made revealing Troubles films such as this personal one, but most of all it is revealing about him

Peter Taylor's reflective documentary on the Troubles was very watchable but parts of it were problematic. He said if he had been a teen at the time of Bloody Sunday he might have joined the IRA but not, for example, that he might have joined loyalists after Enniskillen
Peter Taylor's reflective documentary on the Troubles was very watchable but parts of it were problematic. He said if he had been a teen at the time of Bloody Sunday he might have joined the IRA but not, for example, that he might have joined loyalists after Enniskillen
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Peter Taylor has been reporting on Northern Ireland since he first arrived here on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

His fascinating film about the Maze in 1990, which I saw in my teens, was a vivid snapshot of the H Blocks, midway between the hunger strikes and the prisoner releases after the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Over the decades Taylor has secured interviews with key personalities from the Troubles era, and taken gripping video footage.

On Monday I was among journalists at a preview at BBC Belfast of his 90-minute personal film, in which he looked back at his time covering the conflict here. The documentary aired on Wednesday.

It was very watchable, and included claims I don’t recall hearing before, such as that one of the Loughgall gang killed by the SAS in 1987 was an informant who gave warning of the attack on an RUC station (I can see, though, that such an explanation as to the source might suit some IRA factions).

One thing no viewer had seen before was Taylor’s interview with an IRA Bogside leader at the time of Bloody Sunday — it had not before been screened. This anonymous man’s insistence that the IRA did not want trouble that day was self serving. Taylor also interviewed an anonymous Parachute Regiment member who agreed there was no IRA shooting that day.

Thus the anonymous Para’s testimony reflected badly on the Paras, and the decent anonymous IRA man’s testimony reflected badly on ... the Paras. What a surprise!

Taylor said in the programme that if he had been a local teenager on Bloody Sunday, he might have joined the IRA: “I would have considered taking that final step.”

Taylor was at Monday’s preview screening, after which we got a chance to question him. He said he had been unsure about whether or not to make the IRA remark but the documentary was, he and his director explained, a personal reflection.

The comment about joining the IRA was not the most problematic aspect of the film, which was too thin on the many terrorist outrages, and too focused on Bloody Sunday.

He explained that those killings were the first event he covered and were an ongoing issue, hence that tragic day was a bookend to his film.

Taylor pointed out that he had reported on many terrorist acts, including a film about the 1987 IRA bomb at Enniskillen. Yet he did not say that if he had been a teen in Fermanagh at that time he would have wanted to join a loyalist gang.

Nor, for example, did he point out that out of 116 killings in that county during the Troubles more than 100 were by republican terrorists. Only five were by loyalists.

He can’t of course cite every statistic but given that he felt free to make controversial personal reflections, he could have acknowledged both a temptation to join the IRA after Bloody Sunday and also a temptation in Fermanagh to fight back against such a massively one sided sectarian onslaught in that area. But he didn’t say the latter (a temptation that the Protestants of Fermanagh almost entirely resisted).

There were other things he didn’t say.

Reflecting on prosecutions of soldiers for killings such as Bloody Sunday, he wondered aloud about the rights and wrongs of such trials and concluded: “I think in the end the law must take its course.”

Good, fine. How noble of him.

But if Taylor is so relaxed about the law taking its course, then a journalist with such influence should at least ask why the law never took its course with those who orchestrated decades of violence.

After all, as he recounted, he interviewed members of the IRA Army Council, Martin McGuinness and Seán Mac Stíofáin.

The UK state knew all these leaders, including brutal men such as Brian Keenan, yet never made a real effort to penalise them. Yes, some of them served time but no charge, such as directing terror, remotely comparable to what they did.

The state let them to come off their bloodshed at their own pace, and die in their beds in the way that they did not allow of the people whose lives they decided that they had the authority to end.

The crimes those men commissioned such as Bloody Friday, skirted over in the programme, would have led them to an international court had they been Serbs.

In 2017, CDC Armstrong, a historian of this newspaper, wrote a detailed challenge to a remark by Taylor that when IRA killed civilians it mostly was not deliberate.

In the documentary, Taylor said he came to realise there was “a secret war” against the IRA. If so, why did so few top IRA die?

It is long overdue for a journalist of Taylor’s standing to examine that question.

There is an almost settled nationalist narrative of widespread loyalist-state collusion. As I keep writing, the utter lack of loyalist intelligence and the tiny number of republicans among their 1,100 victims suggests this narrative is rubbish.

In this film, Taylor, in po-faced mode, referred to the “notorious” RUC interrogation centre at Castlereagh, to having his “eyes opened to what was going on behind closed doors”. “Scandalous” he said.

Ah yes, just like those centres in South America and South Africa where people died in custody?

Not only did people not die in detention in NI, the treatment of the hooded men was not even deemed torture, despite Dublin’s recent effort to humiliate the UK and get it ruled as such by the European Court of Human Rights (all judges who heard the case rejected that bid, except the Irish one).

Taylor has left an important archive of work on the Troubles. He of course is free after years of effort to speak personally about it. Whether it was wise to do so, having been associated with a state broadcaster whose coverage of legacy matters concerns some of us pundits, is a matter for him.

And while he can speak freely, we are free to reach our own conclusions about what it reveals about him.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor