‘Everybody has their own terrorist. The British army are mine,’ says Fiona

Television: Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland gives a voice to those who lived through the bombings and the shootings of the Troubles

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm) has been made with two distinct audiences in mind, neither of them Irish. James Bluemel’s five-part documentary airs on the BBC in the UK and on PBS in the United States, and you imagine it will land differently on each side of the Atlantic.

Bluemel told the story of George Bush’s ruinous war against Saddam Hussein in Once Upon a Time in Iraq. He keeps his authorial voice in the background but initially seems to come at the Troubles from the standard perspective of framing the conflict as a-plague-on-both-your-houses sectarian strife.

You wonder whether viewers outside Britain will see it in those terms or share the outlook of the members of the nationalist community whom he interviews. They regard the Troubles as, at their core, a struggle with British imperialism rather than as a question of Catholic versus Protestant (identifiers repeatedly used instead of nationalist or unionist).

“Everybody has their own terrorist. The British army are mine,” says Fiona, a former Miss Derry whose brother joined the Provisional IRA and was killed by a British soldier. “They always were and they always will be. They inflicted terror on me. They traumatised me. That’s what they are to me.”


It is easier to look away from the Troubles – or to filter them through dark humour. But Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland is a long way from the bleak wit of Derry Girls, and it paints the 30 years of conflict as a slow-burning tragedy, a rippling evil that bludgeoned lives and inflicted enduring psychological trauma.

The mood is stark. Ian Paisley snr “was preaching hate. He was sowing fear, like the right wing in America to their people,” James Greer, who was a member of the Ulster Defence Association in the 1970s, says, recalling the late DUP leader’s rabble-rousing in the late 1960s. “I would have seen anybody who was empathetic to the other side as as bad as the other.”

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland has echoes of the film-making of the provocateur documentarian Adam Curtis, who can seem more interested in tone than in facts. There are moments when the effect here is similar, as the story moves from the early civil-rights marches in Derry to the Battle of the Bogside and then, horribly, inevitably, to Bloody Sunday.

Irish viewers will know what is coming. But even those unfamiliar with the Troubles – including a fair chunk of British licence-fee payers – will pick up on the rising dread. “I remember my father saying this is the start of something huge,” says one Derry resident who was a child during Bloody Sunday. “His friends were always committed to armed struggle. They were rubbing their hands and planning.”

After 10 years of “decade of centenaries” documentaries, many will have had their fill of Irish history. Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland is different. It sets out the nuts and bolts of the conflict. Bluemel is ultimately less concerned with assigning blame than with giving a voice to those who lived through the bombings and the shootings. He has made a film about sectarianism and colonialism – but, most of all, about the tragedy of human suffering.