New BBC documentary asks ‘Who Won the War in North?’
Journalist Peter Taylor got some surprising answers to his simple query
A former senior British Conservative minister, James Prior, has stated that “violence probably does work”, while one of the last of the IRA hunger strikers to end the fast, Gerard Hodgins, has said that in terms of the Northern Troubles, the British “won the war” and the IRA “lost”.
Another former Tory minister, Norman Tebbit, welcomed the peace achieved in Northern Ireland while Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness said the “struggle for a united Ireland” would continue, with Peter Robinson countering: “I am afraid Gerry’s day is over, he is not going to get his united Ireland.”
These are just some of the voices and often revelatory comments heard in a new BBC documentary put together by journalist Peter Taylor, who has covered the conflict for more than 40 years. In the programme he looks back on the past and poses the question Who Won the War?, in the end offering his own answer.
Perhaps some of the most surprising observations come from people such as Baron Prior, who as James Prior was Margaret Thatcher’s Northern secretary during the course of the 1981 hunger strikes, and also from Lord Tebbit, who was injured in the 1984 IRA Brighton bombing and whose wife was paralysed in the attack.
Baron Prior, one of the so-called wets in the Tory cabinet, said “Mrs Thatcher never really understood what the problem was” in Northern Ireland. Asked if he viewed the IRA as terrorists, he replied: “It’s a very difficult question to answer. I always felt they were close to terrorism, particularly when they tried to kill me. But there was a deeper side to it as well as, as it were, a terrorist side.”
Asked who won the war, he said: “I know we didn’t win it and I am not certain the other side won it. As time went on, it became possible for both sides to get into a position where it was easier to make peace than to make war.”
Controversially, he added: “I think violence probably does work. It may not work quickly and it may not be seen to be working but in the long run one has to look back and say, yes, it did work.”
Lord Tebbit is often viewed as understandably bitter about the Brighton bombing, but he was positive about the peace that was achieved. “I have no sympathy for those who declared the war,” he told Taylor, “but having said all that, one way or another a ceasefire was achieved and to that extent it was a price that was worth paying.”
As for the question asked of most contributors, he said: “I don’t think this was a war that was won. It was a war which ended in a truce.”
Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is shown in the early 1970s saying the “cutting edge” of the IRA would bring “freedom”. Asked for his view now, he said: “It is often argued that the British came to the negotiating table specifically because of the ongoing IRA campaign.”
He was “absolutely” convinced “that at some stage in the future there will be a reunified Ireland”, while the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, made the same prediction but said it must be “a united Ireland in which unionists can feel secure”.
First Minister Peter Robinson disagreed. “It is just not going to happen,” he said, adding: “Unionists are capable of extracting defeat from the jaws of victory and nationalists and republicans are capable of gaining victory from the jaws of defeat.”
Former IRA hunger striker Gerard Hodgins, who has become disaffected from the Adams- McGuinness leadership, said: “We lost,” adding: “It’s a crazy situation where you set out to be revolutionaries to overthrow the state and ended up being caretakers of the state . . . 3,000 plus dead is a hell of a price to pay to become part of the state you were supposedly trying to overthrow. You could have become a part of that state a long, long time ago.”
He added: “The IRA are too clever to tell the full truth of what was negotiated and unionists are just too stupid to recognise the enormity of what they have achieved in bringing the IRA to a negotiated settlement which accepts the six-county state.”
Former Tory prime minister John Major said the peace should be an example of what could be achieved in other troubled spots around the world.
“No one won the war,” former Labour British prime minister Tony Blair said. “The British and the unionists were never going to be bombed out of the United Kingdom and we were never going to be able by military force to destroy the republicans. So, no one won. On the other hand, I honestly do believe that everyone has won the peace.”
Former deputy first minister Seamus Mallon lamented how the sacrifices the SDLP made in supporting the peace damaged his party. Former first minister David Trimble, who for the same reason saw his own Ulster Unionist Party usurped by the DUP, was more positive.
“It could have been better,” he said. “It may very well be that there were misjudgments that I made – maybe there were misjudgments that were made by the SDLP – but I am not going to say it wasn’t worth it.”
Taylor’s programme, which is produced by Natalie Maynes and Paul McGuigan, also features footage of an interview he did with a 10-year-old Seán McKinley 40 years ago in west Belfast, where he said: “I am going to fight for my country and die for it.”
When he was 23, he was sentenced to life for the murder of a British soldier. Asked now, and looking older than his 53 years, what he would say to any young people contemplating getting involved in republican violence, he said: “I would advise them to forget it because I know a lot of people who died and they thought they were fighting and dying for their country but it never worked out that way, it never worked out.”
Taylor’s own assessment of who won the war was that “viewed through the prism of the present, it is clear that the British and the unionists won because the union is secure and the IRA is no more.” He added: “I would not be surprised if at some stage in the long years ahead a united Ireland did emerge.
“The danger is that people may forget what we have all been through, a past that the young know little about,” he said. “The memories of that past may ensure that we never go through it again. l Who Won the War? is on BBC Northern Ireland next Monday at 9pm.