At a certain point during My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me (BBC One, Wednesday, 9pm), a personal, fascinating and rather comprehensive investigation into the legacy of the Good Friday agreement, the comedian and presenter Patrick Kielty takes one slightly unexpected detour – he visits a comedy club.
It's an appropriate stopping point for Kielty, one of Northern Ireland's most successful exports, whose life was changed forever by the Troubles. In 1988, at the age of 16, his father, Jack Kielty, was murdered in his office by UVF gunmen, for no other reason than he was an easy target. Many young men might have sought revenge – an invitation extended to Kielty's family by IRA recruiters, he now recalls.
Instead, Kielty studied psychology (“Don’t read too much into that,” he says) and pursued comedy, “telling jokes about politics and the violence”. So, let’s read too much into that: reeling from an awful experience, he chose to understand why people do what they do, and then, through disarming ways, confronted them with it. This searching documentary does something fascinatingly similar.
Today, curious to see what 20 years of peace have done to Belfast comedy, he finds a Catholic and a Protestant improv duo, who describe their act as “surreal, absurdist… apolitical, atheistic”. Kielty seems both delighted and mystified, as though taking the gun out of Irish politics also meant decommissioning the bang from the jokes.
Still, surrealism seems like an apt response to contemporary Northern Ireland. The word Kielty uses most frequently to describe situations traumatic or horrifying is "strange". One such situation is speaking with Billy Hutchinson, the former UVF commander, whose North Belfast office has an external mural of armed, balaclava-wearing loyalists under the legend "Prepared for Peace, Ready For War". Extraordinarily measured throughout, Kielty makes one of very few jokes here, standing before the squishily painted figures: "They look slightly more prepared for the cold than ready for anything."
It says something about Kielty's ability to find such fresh perspectives that he can be equally open minded interviewing the DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose own father survived an IRA shooting – "I liked Arlene, and that confused me" – or the Sinn Féin politician, Emma Rogan (in an eerily deserted Stormont), whose father was slain in the Loughinisland massacre.
The weight of those grievances makes Northern Ireland's transformations more remarkable, and still Kielty is stunned by peace campaigner Richard Moore, blinded from the age of 10 by a British soldier's rubber bullet, who explains that forgiveness "allows you to let go".
It's just as stirring to hear the words of Mo Mowlam, an extraordinary politician, speaking to Kielty during the knotted frustrations of the peace process, saying "the people want it. It may take a wee while but we're going to make it". No one in the streets, schools, comedy clubs or bars of Northern Ireland contradicts that outlook today. Yet it's politics, as usual, and now the Border threat of Brexit, that create the obstacles.
You share Kielty’s quiet amazement, though, at observable progress, such an integrated secondary school where unionist and nationalist school friends politely discuss ideologies which “don’t define me as a person”. That even they imagine true reconciliation remains one or two generations away might be surprising, but the documentary reminds you that in his short lifetime, Kielty is just one of Northern Ireland’s people to have gone through – and achieved – the unimaginable. “Where there’s peace,” he says, “there’ll always be a wee bit of hope.”