Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN THE peace talks which culminated in last year's Good Friday Agreement - the subject of Channel 4 News's retrospective, The Long Good Friday - the only people on speaking terms with every politician in the building were the caterers. "I found the UDP to be very friendly, very down to earth," said Esther Robinson, whose job it was to give the politicians something else to chew on apart from the release of prisoners and cross-border bodies. "The PUP were a lovely bunch. Sinn Fein were very nice."

This would appear to prove merely that paramilitaries, like cats, turn on the charm when they want their dinner. In fact, food, or rather the fact that it ran out, may have played a key role in securing the peace. "Even the coffee machine stopped," recalled Seamus Mallon wryly. On the final morning, with the Ulster Unionists huddled in a room debating whether to accept Tony Blair's written promise to tackle decommissioning at a later date, David Trimble called for refreshment. The tea trolley had to navigate a secret route avoiding other party offices, so that no one else would know there were still beverages in the building.

Politicians needing a square meal were faced with a choice of either signing up to the document or walking out because they were hungry. Which might not have looked good.

The language of the kitchen seeped unguarded into their recollections. "Clearly there was a pressure cooker," said one politician, "and a strong sense that things were going to boil up or boil over." Mallon recalled that Trimble "was very much on eggs", though whether scrambled or poached he didn't say. Blair made his famous self-denying ordnance that this was not a time for sound-bites. But then, it wasn't a time for bites of any kind. No one said it, but in the end, when the empty stomachs sat round the table and applauded the accord, it was very much a case of the chips being up.

If history was made that day - and after the postponement of this week's talks on decommissioning, it seems that it may well not have been - it was fascinating to hear from the foot soldiers. Apart from the two former members of the UDF and the IRA who recalled a pow-wow they had in the corridor, Esther Robinson was almost the only one with anything new to add to the picture.

Like the agreement itself, whose faultlines have been rudely exposed this week, this film felt not quite complete. As a piece of news-gathering about a year-old event, it was too reliant on speculation and rumour, abetted by their partners-in-crime, ominous music and iffy reconstructions. It made tantalising references to "mystery men in dark glasses" entering the building, but was unable to do more than guess that they were IRA. At one point someone spotted a man in the corridor wearing a balaclava, and shrieked. He pulled it off and explained that it was cold outside and he had arrived on a bike. Nor could anyone confirm the suspicion that the entire talks were bugged. Martin McGuinness admitted that Sinn Fein was in communication with IRA prisoners in the Maze throughout the talks, but when asked how, said he'd rather not say. Mobile phone, anyone?