To coincide with BBC One Northern Ireland broadcasting Ads on the Frontline (23 May at 21:00 BST) we have published this extract from Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker’s book, The Propaganda of Peace: The role of culture and media in the Northern Ireland peace process. In it the authors argue that a series of advertisements commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office to publicise the confidential telephone number, marked a shift in government thinking, initially about paramilitaries but also about Northern Ireland generally. In the NIO advertisements, the image of loyalists and republicans changed from that of psychotic criminals to ordinary family men and women; and Northern Ireland was transformed on screen from a place of violence and dereliction to a desirable commodity in the global market place, capable of catching the eye of tourists.
The confidential telephone service was set up by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the 1970s to receive anonymous information from the public regarding paramilitary activity. It was publicised through a variety of media but of most interest here are the television advertisement campaigns. The early campaigns were strictly anti-terrorist in orientation and fitted into the wider British propaganda framework. Terrorism had no political content or context and the terrorists themselves were portrayed as ruthless, psychotic criminals. For example, A Future (NIO 1988) features a young man reflecting on the future for his wife and child in a community dominated by paramilitary violence. What, he asks on his odyssey around his troubled city, have these ‘hard men’ ever done for him? ‘They’ve left me with no job and no hope, they’ve wrecked where I live, they’ve hijacked our cars, they’ve fed off our backs, and when I saw their kind of justice, I thought there’s gotta be something better than this.’ This voiceover accompanies images of a war-torn urban environment: bombs exploding, punishment shootings in back alleys and paramilitaries collecting funds in local pubs. The lighting is dark and the atmosphere foreboding, an effect heightened by a crime thriller score.
The NIO continued the service into the 1990s and the period of the peace process but the new circumstances brought a perceptible shift in emphasis in the advertisement campaigns. One only has to note the dramatic visual contrast between the despair of A Future and the biblical message of hope in A New Era, from 1994, in which the traditional symbols of conflict and division are transformed before our eyes into images of peace and prosperity. A paramilitary gun morphs into a starting pistol for the Belfast marathon; security bollards turn into flower displays; a police cordon turns into ceremonial tape for the opening of a new motorway; and two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) constables reunite a lost child with his mother, confounding the controversial history and nature of the force.7
However, we want to focus here on two adverts from 1993 – Lady and I Wanna Be Like You. This is because they broke most radically from the traditional formal conventions of the confidential telephone adverts shown up until then and since. Far from the usual montage of propaganda images and messages, these ads were constructed as mini-domestic dramas that represented the paramilitary with a more human face, thus situating him in a more ambiguous position in society.
Lady tells the story of two women whose lives are blighted by violence. The ethno- religious identity of the women is not made explicit: they are both portrayed as victims. One is a widow whose husband is murdered by a paramilitary. The other is married to the paramilitary who is imprisoned for the murder. A female narrator intones, ‘Two women, two traditions, two tragedies. One married to the victim of violence, one married to the prisoner of violence. Both scarred, both suffering, both desperately wanting it to stop.’ As with A Future, Lady is about the impact of violence on domestic relations except, in this instance, violence is presented as equally tragic for the paramilitaries as it is for their victims.
I Wanna Be Like You also reflects upon the cost of paramilitary violence to family relations, specifically those of father and son. There is no voiceover narrative to this film. Instead it is accompanied by a version of the Harry Chapin song, ‘Cat in the Cradle’. It presents a man’s journey over a number of years from paramilitarism to his recognition of the futility of violence. In the beginning, he neglects his family, ends up in prison and eventually sees his son grow up and follow in his footsteps as a paramilitary. The son in turn becomes remote from the father and is shown gunning down a man in front of his child, emphasising the cyclical nature of the violence. The son eventually loses his life to violence and the advert closes with the image of his father grieving at his grave.
After the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the NIO commissioned a very different series of public films that moved away from the anti-terrorist message altogether. Broadcast during the summer of 1995, these made no mention of the confidential phone service or of terrorists or terrorism. Indeed, they appeared to have no specific purpose except to show off Northern Ireland as a place where people enjoyed life without fear of violence. Scored with some of the best-known songs of Van Morrison, a native of Belfast, such as ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Days Like This’, and ‘Have I Told You Lately’, the four films have the glossy look of tourist advertisements, marketing peace in Northern Ireland as consumer commodity. In the first film, Northern Irish Difference, babies and toddlers play at a crèche, oblivious to sectarian or cultural difference; in the second, Northern Irish Life, two boys from both traditions play on a beach and innocently exchange what would, in the conflict of the past, have been seen as sectarian badges of identity – King Billy for Glasgow Celtic Football Club! The third film, Northern Irish Quality, celebrates the sporting and cultural achievements of people like Mary Peters, George Best and Liam Neeson, while the fourth, Northern Irish Spirit, reminds people of the region’s stunning coastal and rural scenery. All the films in the series end with Van Morrison’s epithet from ‘Coney Island’, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ and the on-screen slogan, ‘Time for the Bright Side’. The use of Morrison’s music in this series of films came with his explicit permission and blessing and reveals much about the heady, optimistic mood that gripped Northern Ireland in the hot summer of 1995.
When the IRA ceasefire ended in 1996, with bombs in London and Manchester, the NIO returned to the violent imagery of the early confidential telephone advertisements. However, the restoration of the ceasefires and the negotiations towards the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought a return to optimism. During the referendum campaign in May that year, the NIO distributed to every home a copy of the Agreement document, its cover showing the archetypal nuclear family silhouetted against a rising sun, symbolising the Agreement as a new dawn for the people of Northern Ireland. It was revealed later that the picture was actually of a sunset and was taken in South Africa, perfect dawns being difficult to catch in Northern Ireland. Still, these idealised, post-ceasefire images marked a radical departure from the violent imagery of 1988 and A Future, and even from the more positive advertisements of the early 1990s because they dispensed with the anti-terrorist message altogether and held out the prospect of real peace and a final settlement to the conflict.
Martin McLoone (1993) was one of the first media academics to take a serious look at these government films and spot the subtle change of message in their narrative and photography. As he has argued, they did indeed appear to prepare the public for negotiations with the enemy while at the same time suggest to the IRA especially that they had something to gain by laying down their arms. However, the films may also have had the effect of giving the media licence to explore the ongoing transition from war to peace in ways unthinkable just years before.
McLaughlin, Greg and Stephen Baker (2010) The Propaganda of Peace: The role of culture and media in the Northern Ireland peace process (Bristol: Intellect Books)
McLoone, M. (1993), ‘The Commitments: the NIO anti-terrorist ads’, Fortnight, 321, October, pp. 34–36