Ceasefire (Féile an Phobail)
by Catherine DOYLE for Northern Ireland Foundation
4 August 2014
In 1994, the IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) announced a ceasefire. Journalists Brian Rowan, Eamonn Mallie and Charlie Bird reported on those extraordinary statements. Twenty years on, they looked back in an event organised as part of the Féile an Phobail (Festival of the People).
It was helpful having Judith Hill (UTV) chair the discussion. Her presence worked as a bridge between the correspondents, who reported the conflict and the younger members of the audience, who are also “post-ceasefire”.
The lecture theatre in St Mary’s University College was at its capacity, with spectators ranging from Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan to the Reverend Ian Dunlop (who acted as a mediator for the loyalists during this period).
Hill explained that 1994 is “history” for her and part of the reason why she entered into journalism. She said: “The ceasefire has allowed our story to change and that’s the story that I want to be involved in reporting.”
The three men demonstrated the anticipation they feel when being privy to information before it breaks.
Brian Rowan was the first to give his narrative of events and he recreated the sense of tension in the days leading up to 31 August. He recalled “pacing the BBC newsroom up and down waiting for the phone to ring”. When the IRA finally contacted him the following day, he was instructed to meet in a café in West Belfast’s Kennedy Centre, along with Eamonn Mallie.
Rowan described the meeting: “There was a woman waiting for us, we obviously knew who it was. She had a tiny piece of paper… with the IRA statement on it. She read the first couple of sentences that from midnight that night there would be a complete cessation of military operations.” Less than thirty minutes later the story began to break.
Rowan described the difference between the IRA ceasefire statement and the CLMC press conference: “The loyalists wanted to do it with bells and bows. They wanted the media there, they wanted the cameras there, they wanted the news there.”
Charlie Bird worked for RTE in Dublin at this time. He described the state censorship that hindered journalists in the Republic. The Broadcasting Act prohibited interviews with members of Sinn Fein and the IRA. However, he said: “RTE took the decision in 1993 that we would have contact with the IRA”, and he was the journalist selected to meet the contact, who he referred to as Brendan.
This caused Bird to be viewed as “a postman to the IRA”, but said that “it was clearly important”.
He described one revealing meeting with Brendan and a member of Sinn Fein, which ended with the two men embracing each other. After the IRA man had left, Bird questioned the Sinn Fein member about the embrace and was told: “You may not understand, but in a couple of days’ time something very momentous is going to happen for us.”
The three correspondents captured the tension but also that unique Irish humour. Mallie described the historic moment when the IRA commander was reading out the statement and “space was a bit scarce” in the cafe. While being briefed by the IRA representative, they were interrupted by an elderly woman: “Move up there love.”
Northern Irish reporters also faced potential charges when dealing with the IRA. Mallie explained his attempts at destroying the IRA statements after reporting the story: “I put it in my mouth and I masticated it and I chewed it up into tiny little pieces, and when I reached the first patch of earth I put my heel in the ground, dropped it down and tramped on it.”
The South experienced its own funny moments as well. Bird described the IRA cassettes he used to receive, as sounding “fuzzy”. Later he discovered that the IRA used hairdryers during their recordings to disguise their location.
Their stories of 1994 were comical, but didn’t overlook the violence of the times. Mallie and Rowan remembered meeting an IRA representative for a statement of the killing of three IRA men and it was actually Rowan who had discovered two of the bodies the previous night. He said: “I went back to the BBC and it was a bit of an earthquake when I explained to them this set of circumstances, and in fact they offered me some counselling, and I declined their offer because at that stage I thought this indicates some sign of weakness.”
Bird also recalled some of the horrors of the conflict, such as the day of the Canary Wharf bomb. He described it as “the lowest point” in his contact with the IRA. He said: “I’d never been a day sick in RTE in my life and yet I went home that afternoon with the cold, and I wasn’t in the right place at the right time to take that statement.” Bird was the “only person to be given the IRA statement”, but “by the time that I got the phone call, it was from Brendan, it was only minutes before the bomb went off in Canary Wharf”. Bird is still haunted by what-ifs about the attack.
The discussion gave both the Northern Irish and Southern Irish perspective from reporters at the cusp of a huge political year for us all.
The three journalists offered a unique insight into a pivotal historic event, but also one that is still important to consider in the work towards a shared future.