Spotlight on ‘A Secret History’

By Gareth Mulvenna

secret history a version of historical events which differs from the official or commonly accepted record and purports to be the true version – Collins English Dictionary

This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the recent Spotlight series. I don’t think it is possible to fairly appraise the full project in only 1500 words; however, it aims to provide a few comments on some issues which I noted over the seven episodes, analyse the dearth of new information on loyalism (my main area of interest) and appeal for a better understanding of what the aims of the programme actually were. I also hope it will generate a discussion among academics and others about the documentary itself and journalistic treatments of the ‘Troubles’ more widely 50 years on from 1969.

When it was announced that the Spotlight team were working on a ‘secret history’ of the Troubles to be broadcast over seven episodes, expectations were high. Darragh MacIntyre’s atmospheric and compelling 2013 film on The Disappeared was an unsettling and memorable addition to the canon of Troubles documentary films. When I was approached by one of the journalists early last year; they were interested in my book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries and talked at length about their amazement at the nuance and complexities of early loyalism and the fears that drove elements of the Protestant working-class to resort to the gun. On the back of this conversation, I was led to believe that this was going to be a series which drew out previously unheard or misunderstood aspects of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

When the credits at the end of episode one began to roll, I felt extremely underwhelmed. Aside from the heavily-trailed footage of Martin McGuinness from the unseen Secret Army documentary, there was little in the way of revelation. The information that Ian Paisley had allegedly funded elements of the UVF which exploded a bomb in Kilkeel was perhaps surprising, however it only served to add weight to what many people had thought for a number of years rather than give a genuinely fresh insight. Peter Taylor, in his peerless documentary and book Loyalists (1999) had previously encouraged one-time Paisleyite Noel Doherty to talk to the camera about the setting up of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. That Paisleyism and the UVF were seen as ‘the one and the same’ in 1966 by police intelligence is not new information, and the skeletons in unionism’s closet from that year will continue to rest until another secret history is produced.

When the disarming of the RUC was heralded by the Hunt Report in October 1969, the loyalist working class of the Shankill found itself in a bind of paradox and contradiction which led to the ‘Battle of the Shankill’. Local men carrying Union flags attacked British soldiers and police officers as fierce rioting broke out on 11 October along the Shankill Road. Herbie Hawe and his cousin Geordie Dickie became the first two people to be killed by the British Army in the Troubles. On the same evening, RUC man Victor Arbuckle became the first police casualty of the conflict, shot dead by the ‘69ers’ of the new UVF during the street disturbances. This section of episode one was enlightening, and the interview with May Elwood, sister of Herbert Hawe, provided a rare and valuable Protestant working-class voice criticising the actions of the British Army in the north of Ireland.

I also think it is time that journalists focused their efforts away from trying to present us with evidence that Gerry Adams was in the Provisional IRA. In terms of republican dynamics there is a whole lot more interesting ‘secret’ history that the general viewer may not be aware of. This has been expertly presented by Hanley and Millar[i] and McDonald and Holland[ii] in comprehensive written accounts of the Official IRA, the INLA and its offshoots. Pop Goes Northern Ireland has pulled out some fascinating BBC archive footage[iii], and an illumination of the bloody feuds that have dogged republicanism over the years would have been extremely interesting for the casual viewer and those with a deeper interest alike. That’s without even mentioning the political machinations guided by the vast array of fascinating characters that held high positions in left-wing republicanism such as Seamus Costello and Sean Garland to name but two.

The language of the narrative was at times distorted and confused. Episode five began with the sectarian massacre at Darkley in November 1983, after which the presenter gravely informed viewers that ‘The IRA said they were fighting the forces of the British Crown, but for the largely Protestant Unionist community their campaign frequently felt sectarian because the IRA’s targets in the security forces were their families, friend and neighbours.’ [Emphasis added by presenter]. Given that loyalism and the Protestant working-class more broadly had only been alluded to in episode one, those with no knowledge of the Troubles could easily have been forgiven for thinking that loyalists only began to mobilise in this early 1980s period as a response to IRA killings of security force members and the dark mood surrounding the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

It fed neatly into a narrative of collusion which would come to define episodes five and six, the parts of the series which examined loyalism in any serious depth. This meant that Spotlight utterly failed to address the emergence of the loyalist paramilitaries in the early 1970s – a time when a founding member of the Red Hand Commando told me that he recalled meeting neighbours at a barricade in the autumn of 1971 who were armed with only billiard balls in socks in the event that the IRA attacked the Shankill. After the Four Step Inn bombing around this time, Billy Hutchinson heard people talking about how the IRA would kill everyone in their beds. At this stage, the IRA was carrying out sectarian bombings and Protestants couldn’t have felt that the Provo campaign was anything other than sectarian.

This fear and the primal rage that the IRA unleashed in the Protestant community has never really been explored properly in any documentary series I have ever seen, and it was obvious from an early stage that Spotlight wasn’t going to be the programme to address it. One thing that has come across repeatedly in conversations I have had with people who have held senior positions in the UVF is a frustration that collusion has come to define the modus operandi of loyalist paramilitarism. I think it is important to explore properly the roots, dynamics and emotions that drive these organisations.[iv] By injecting every story with the collusion myth, it takes away any agency from the people who perpetrated loyalist atrocities. Collusion is not an illusion, as the saying goes; however, it is only a part of the story. The issue has been given plenty of coverage in recent years through the films No Stone Unturned and Unquiet Graves as well as publications such as A State in Denial and Lethal Allies.

On social media there were a number of posts by republicans wryly asking whether there would be any coverage of the loyalist ‘murder gangs’ while loyalists bemoaned what they felt was another rewriting of history toward a hagiography of republicanism. Of course, both parties were wrong. Spotlight set out its stall fairly early. This was a series that explored elements of the ‘dirty war’ between the British Government and the Provos. It shows how they locked horns in an interminable scrummage that brought only tragic collateral in the form of endless coffins and shattered lives.

Defenders of the programme (many from within the journalistic community) were at pains to remind any dissenters that Spotlight was never intended as the secret history, but rather a secret history. The problem, ultimately, was that it wasn’t a secret history. There were very few true revelations, and the programme swung from comfortable narrative to tabloid outrage with very little of true value being uncovered.


[i] Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party (Penguin, 2009)

[ii] Henry McDonald and Jack Holland, INLA – Deadly Divisions (Poolbeg, 1994)

[iii] Footage of Billy Wright’s contribution to an inquiry held by the Orange Order after trouble at a parade in Portadown in 1986 was shown on the 1986 episode of Pop Goes Northern Ireland on 27 October 2019. This was the sort of material I think the Spotlight team should have utilised.

[iv] This has been done successfully before, most notably by Richard Reed, Paramilitary Loyalism: Identity and Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Steve Bruce, The Red Hand – Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland (Oxford, 1992) while the researcher Iain Turner whose ongoing research into the UVF has tackled these themes and built upon previous blog articles such as ‘Apples and Orangies – The UVF and UDA Compared’, at  More research is required on this area in the future.

(Image: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr)


Dr Gareth Mulvenna is the author of Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016). He is the creator and host of the Hidden Histories of the Northern Ireland Troubles podcast and is currently researching and writing the autobiography of PUP leader Billy Hutchinson in collaboration with the Belfast City Councillor which will be published in 2021.

3 thoughts on “Spotlight on ‘A Secret History’

Add yours

  1. That’s a fair assessment of the series.

    I’m reliably informed that those with no real interest in the conflict found it fascinating, which indicates the market the series was aiming for. Problem is, the title heavily implies untold stories and unearthed archive footage (both of which were light on the ground), so maybe a change of title would have been appropriate?


  2. Reblogged this on The Broken Elbow and commented:
    Gareth Mulvenna is a writer and an observer of Loyalism whose work I have praised before on this site. In this piece for writingthetroublesweb he takes BBC Spotlight to task for failing to properly examine Loyalism in its recent ‘Secret History’ series. I think he has a point. The series was generally Provo heavy (leaving out the Officials and the INLA by and large) and aside from examining the rile played by Loyalists in edging the IRA to a ceasefire, light on the early years and development of groups like the UDA and their relationship with mainstream Unionism. Anyway, here are his thoughts:


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