BATEMAN PLUNGES INTO PROVINCE’S TROUBLED HISTORY

BANGOR’s own Colin Bateman joined former BBC NI reporters Maggie Taggart and Seamus McKee for a deep plunge into the province’s troubled past last Thursday evening. The panel had been put together by the team at Aspects to discuss the stories they and others had contributed to the book, Reporting the Troubles 2. As the name suggests, the book is the second compilation put together by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little which relates the history of the Troubles from the perspective of the news reporters who covered events at the time. Amongst the battle-hardened names from broadcast and print journalism who contribute are Gavin Esler, Fergal Keane, Vincent Kearney, Darrah MacIntyre, Lindy McDowell and Sir Trevor McDonald. With Seamus McKee in the role of host at Bangor Town Hall, Colin Bateman and Maggie Taggart spoke of their very different perspectives on the Troubles, both as reporters and as witnesses to it in their personal lives. Maggie Taggart read from her contribution in which she recalled how the Maguire family from west Belfast had been mown down by a car while out for a walk on Finaghy Road North. The horrific incident became the catalyst for the formation of the Peace People in 1976. She talked of the organisation’s first meeting at Ormeau Park and its second in the loyalist heartland of the Shankill. It did, she said, take courage for people to attend in the face of community pressure not to. Whilst others wrote of the atrocities they saw, Maggie Taggart said she wanted to highlight a moment in time that represented a positive watershed in our history. She also spoke of how she had originally chosen to study social sciences at Queen’s University with a view to becoming a social worker. However she soon changed her mind and it was clear from the passion with which she spoke that she considered journalism her true calling. By contrast Colin Bateman, a former deputy editor with the County Down Spectator, wanted to be a writer from the outset and as a teenager saw journalism as the only means by which he could do that. After impressing the paper’s then editor, Annie Roycroft, with his 300 word essay on why he wanted to be a journalist, Colin became, he said: “The last to squeeze in under the wire with no qualifications other than shorthand and typing.” His perception that he was unsuited to the career he found himself in was crystallised on the night of October 22, 1992 when the IRA blew up upper Main Street with a 200lb bomb. At the time the editor was on leave and as deputy editor Colin had quite possibly the biggest story ever to happen in Bangor on his hands – and a paper to put out the next day that would reflect the significance of that. In the end of course an exceptional paper went out with the front page headline ‘Devastated’ written large above a huge broadsheet picture of the scene on Main Street in which four police officers had been injured. The reporting staff had pulled together in-depth coverage of the bomb, oblivious to the fact that the night before their acting editor Colin had attended the scene of the bomb and, in his own words, ‘absolutely froze’. Different aspects revealed on reporting on ‘The Troubles’ He recounted that after seeing what was left of his town he got back into his car, drove home and ‘hid under the covers’ of his bed. Under Colin the team had, he said, produced, ‘a great paper, but something in me had changed’. Not long afterwards he began writing his first novel, Divorcing Jack. Seamus McKee drew attention to the humour Colin brought to his depiction of the Troubles in his recently published memoir, Thunder and Lightning, in which he jokes that Bangorians were too busy ironing their tennis socks to pay much attention to what was happening. Maggie Taggart saw humour as a common tool used by many journalists to help them process the atrocities they were witnessing. Many would be aghast, she said, at the type of black humour that was common in Ulster newsrooms in the 1970s and 1980s. “It was constant turmoil and a turning around of things happening. A way of releasing that was making a joke of it,” she said. Unlike Colin, Maggie Taggart wanted to throw herself ‘into the thick of it’. She was more reticent however in one area of her job, which was approaching the families of those who had been murdered for a comment. She recalled one time reluctantly walking up the driveway of a prison officer’s widow and knocking on her door to ask if she would talk about how she was feeling. On such occasions Maggie Taggart said she was often happy to be sent away but this time the widow spoke ‘so movingly’ of her recent loss in order that other families might avoid the same fate. Some other bereaved families, she said, could never come to terms with their loss and carried anger and bitterness with them. Maggie Taggart also paid tribute to the murdered freelance journalist Lyra McKee who she had known to some degree since Lyra had been a teenager. She spoke of Lyra’s doggedness in digging out difficult stories, not knowing if she had an audience for them. Both Colin and Maggie agreed that the province has changed ‘dramatically’ in recent years and that as a result they thought it unlikely that many young people were in any way familiar with the stories published in the two Reporting the Troubles books. Though she made no claim to suffering trauma, Maggie Taggart commented that she herself carried some legacy from reporting on the Troubles which showed itself in her nervousness in walking past parked cars or being in crowds in Belfast city centre.