Media: Provos: getting the inside story on the inside story

The Provisionals' history of the Troubles is written in blood, their own and many others'. But they have never spoken so frankly as they do to Peter Taylor, in his new series on BBC1. Twenty-five years reporting on Ireland has given him special insight but that was just the preamble to his latest endeavour - the exhausting and subtle business of getting Provos on camera
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The wife of the former IRA commander seized upon my book, Provos, and rushed straight to the index to find out what I had said about her husband.

I had known his family for many years. Three members had joined the IRA. He had served a life sentence for murder, one of his brothers had been blown up by his own bomb, another had been shot dead by the SAS and a third, who had not been involved, had been assassinated by loyalists. The index listed him under "discrimination", "internment", "hunger strike", "interrogation", "IRA morale" and "UDR men as targets". Many of those I interviewed had even longer lists after their names.

This man had asked me what parts of his television interview might cause him problems in the first programme. I mentioned his remarks about being prepared to kill. He brushed this aside, saying that anyone who joined the IRA and said otherwise was not credible.

Later that morning I'd arranged to meet one of the Sinn Fein leaders whose support had been vital in making Provos possible. Often, in the course of 18 months, the project almost died because of sensitivities on the Provisionals' side. This man was one of those who helped keep it alive, and I wanted to talk to him, too. If the series were deemed to be "OK", he might get some of the credit. If it were judged otherwise, he'd take most of the flak. It was the day after Sinn Fein had made its historic entry into Government Buildings at Stormont for the anticipated beginning of all-party talks. I was told to meet him at Stormont. As I stood outside in the rain, watching bored TV crews waiting for the next crumb from inside, a huge bomb went off in Markethill. Under the circumstances, I thought it inconceivable that it was the IRA. I then drove to Derry, late as ever, to meet Provisionals there whose co-operation had been critical. They, too, have long indexes in the book.

Then it was the 70-mile drive to Belfast to see the IRA veteran Billy McKee, who has 17 listings in the index. Billy, who looks like your favourite grandfather, was one of the founders of the Provisional IRA, the first commander of the Belfast Brigade, and a member of the IRA's Army Council. He'd told me that blowing up the Houses of Parliament wouldn't have bothered him. Historically, Billy was the link with the IRA's past and its present. I'd interviewed him 20 years earlier and not seen him since. In the course of the year, my producer and I met him many times and spent hours listening and talking, fortified by endless ham sandwiches. It takes months or even years to build up the trust and the relationships on which real insights eventually depend. Gradually, Billy was prepared to talk about his remarkable life in the IRA. After several weeks, the critical moment arrived when the question of an on-camera interview was raised. It's always the moment of truth. Billy said he'd think about it, and finally agreed. He gave a memorable interview.

When I'd embarked on work on this series of programmes, colleagues had said there'd be no problem, as the Provisionals would love the publicity. But I knew it wasn't like that. In the course of our many discussions with senior Sinn Fein officials, there were frequent references to the need to consult the "leadership" and, occasionally, the mysterious "authorities", without putting names or faces to either. If the "leadership" says yes, things happen. If it says no, they do not. We pointed out to Sinn Fein that we did propose to cover the evolution of the Provisional IRA as well as Sinn Fein, since not to do so would be a travesty of history. Although most of the current Sinn Fein leadership rose through the ranks of the IRA through the Seventies and Eighties, they were clearly uncomfortable with the IRA aspect of the series and said they would have to take advice. In the end, they came back with a qualified "yes".

Initially, we were to be given access to certain individuals for off- the-record conversations, and then a decision would be made as to whether we could go ahead and record interviews. We were asked whom we wished to talk to and what areas we wanted to cover. We drew up a list.

The conversations were invariably held in Belfast, in the old Conway Mill on the Falls Road which Sinn Fein use as their social, educational and press centre - parts of which I assumed were probably under electronic surveillance by the intelligence services. They took place in what we assumed to be a "safe" classroom. The people we met were remarkably frank about their lives and personal histories. On average, each conversation ran for about two hours; often we would get through three or four a day, and in the autumn of 1996 we arranged a punishing schedule recording up to four interviews a day. They were emotionally draining on both sides of the camera. Many had never been interviewed before, and spoke intimately, as if no camera were present. On the death of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, several hardened Provisionals almost broke down in tears. And the emotion was not confined to the Provisionals. Interviewing Lowry Mathers, whose young wife, Joanne, had been shot dead by the IRA whilst collecting census forms, deeply affected us all. As he broke down, I suggested that we stop the recording, but Lowry insisted on carrying on, as if determined to defy those who had taken Joanne's life.

There were other remarkable moments, too, such as when the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Merlyn Rees, referred to the "Long Kesh concentration camp".

Interviewing the former MI6 officer Frank Steele was emotional in a different way. Frank had set up the secret meeting in London between republican leaders, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and William Whitelaw, in 1972. Frank is terminally ill, but his mind and memory are still sharp. I spent several hours at his bedside talking about Ireland and people we both knew.

However, the series was also about the chase, and the piecing together of complex jigsaws that would illuminate what really took place at critical periods in the conflict. I'd long been fascinated by what really happened during the IRA's secret talks with the British during the truce of 1975. I remembered Ruari O'Bradaigh, the former President of Sinn Fein, telling me years ago that on Christmas Day 1974 he'd received a visit from an intermediary bearing a letter stating that the British government was prepared to discuss "structures of disengagement from Ireland". I'd always found it difficult to believe, and the fact that the letter was no longer in existence only strengthened my scepticism. Nevertheless, I was determined to find out whether it was true, and what the result was. It took months to do so - sometimes involving meetings through the night that ended as dawn broke with empty whisky glasses on the table. I had to struggle to keep awake lest I miss a vital moment. I didn't take notes, since to do so might have broken the spell. I would return to the hotel, shake my memory, and write down as much as I could. The culmination of the quest was finally gaining access to the minutes of the meetings between British officials and the IRA in 1975 which, although taken by the Provisionals, I believed to be genuine, and to represent a broadly accurate picture of what was said by both sides. To gain sight of them, I had to meet outside a pub deep inside the Irish Republic, change cars and then be driven by the most circuitous of routes - so that I wouldn't know where I had been - to a house in the country. There, on a dressing-table in a bedroom, neatly arranged in a red file, were the minutes of the meetings. Someone was on hand to interpret them where necessary. I was allowed to dictate the minutes into my tape recorder. It was one of those moments when the hairs on your neck stand on end. The minutes clearly showed that the British did discuss "structures of disengagement". The key question was, what had the phrase meant? It might not have been quite what the Provisionals had thought. I spent four hours poring over the minutes, and left with a headache.

As transmission approached, Labour won its landslide, Adams and McGuinness were elected to Westminster, the IRA declared a second cease-fire and Tony Blair and Mo Mowlem moved with astonishing rapidity to get Sinn Fein into all-party talks. As I stood in the rain last week outside Government Buildings at Stormont, I consoled myself with the thought that at least what I had written in the last chapter of the series had come to pass. Despite the Markethill bomb, the unionists were on their way to all party talks and Sinn Fein waiting inside. For all concerned, Provos has been a long journey. But it's still not over. We now have to start editing the fourth programme, and that's only three weeks away.

The four-part series `Provos - the IRA and Sinn Fein' begins on BBC1 at 10pm this Tuesday. Peter Taylor's book of the series is published this week by Bloomsbury.