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TV & Radio

TELEVISION / Can anyone read the writing on the wall?

IN FRONTLINE (C4), Malachi O'Doherty went into the Catholic community to weigh up the prospects of peace. Featherlight, judging by the graffiti. 'Sniper at Work - for Justice' read the motto on a marcher's T-shirt; 'Work for Peace - Join the IRA' said one of those dogmatic gable-ends that blight the country; another, painted with a professional expertise born of years of practice, announced that the Downing Street Declaration was a 'sellout'.

These seemed pretty explicit - more so at least than Doherty's film itself, which couldn't afford the luxury of sectarian enlistment. Indeed, though I admired his fluent exposition of the subtleties of the conflict and his low-key reminders of the wide gulf that remains between both sides, I couldn't ever quite work out what he made of all this - indeed, I played his final sentence three times trying to work out exactly what his conclusion was.

'If one community is winning in Northern Ireland,' he said, 'it is the Catholics, who are now a minority too large for anyone to oppress. In a generation they will outnumber the Protestants and they will decide whether there is to be a united Ireland or not. Sinn Fein's job then will be to persuade Catholics to vote for unity, and they may not want to, they may look back with scorn instead and mock this war as pointless.' They may indeed, though where that leaves us now isn't clear at all. This isn't his fault exactly.

On Monday night, in The Last Colony (C4), Martin Dillon had shown how much easier hindsight is than insight with this subject. His intriguing account of how the general staff had turned a soft posting with excellent fishing into one of the British army's least desirable tours of duty had a clarity and focus unavailable to Doherty. Up close, Northern Ireland is a puzzle-picture, a tangle of conflicting interests and suspicions which baffle the eye - and, as Doherty's remark conceded, only the passage of time will supply a viewing point distant enough to grasp the pattern.

'The Kids Aren't Alright', Justin Wallace's report for Open Space (BBC 2), was unlucky on several counts. It didn't help that Wallace, who works in the 'leisure industry', irresistibly reminded you of Gordon Brittas, the dim but well-meaning leisure-centre manager from The Brittas Empire. As he warned us of a pending 'major national health crisis', I was trying to shake images of Chris Barry's comic pontifications from my mind. In truth, Wallace had a real point - when children seek sponsorship for a four-mile walk it really may be time to worry about an entire generation slumping into inactivity.

But when he extended his argument to suggest that adult terror was trapping children indoors, he got into more trouble. Even if it is true that parents have become paranoid about the safety of their children, this was a lousy week to make the case. The man talking about a golden age in which children went happily about the streets 'learning the consequences of making mistakes' simply made you think how cruelly final the lessons could be.

And in places Wallace's interviewees were downright idiotic. Somebody had come up with the finding that 98 per cent of parents of junior school children won't let them out after dark. It would be nice to think that this highly implausible statistic was true, that virtually all parents were exercising proper stewardship of their children. I doubt it very much myself, which may console the contributor who saw it as 'a real denial of freedom'. He shouldn't worry, there are plenty out there - free to be abused, free to be neglected, free to go wrong.