A brief clip of black-and-white film proved that this was no gilded rewriting of the past, the better to amplify a sense of betrayal.
"Personable, pleasant, intelligent, lucid, persuasive". The man so described is Gerry Adams. And the speaker? A Sinn Fein colleague perhaps? An old comrade in arms? A loyal constituent? Actually it was an MI6 Intelligence Officer called Frank Steele, recalling the moment the then IRA brigade commander turned up for a secret meeting with the British government. The resulting encounter - held in a plush Cheyne House walk - was not exactly a success. "He behaved like Montgomery at Luneberg Heath," said Steele indignantly, describing the peremptory demands of Sean MacStiofain, the IRA delegation leader. No agreement was reached and the violence began again.

What was interesting about the epithets attached to Adams, though, was their very admissibility. It was the sort of remark you make about an old enemy from an old war. It's true, of course, that a ceasefire is currently in place, but we know how the IRA calls off its ceasefires and nobody, surely, can imagine that peace can be taken for granted. It may be that that particular combatant feels he has retired from the fray but almost all of The Provos (BBC1), Peter Taylor's historical account of the rise of the Provisional IRA, was characterised by this odd sense of premature retrospection - as if some healing elapse had already taken place. Watching these veterans from both sides of a bloody and cruel conflict you found yourself thinking "Was it really that long ago?" and the answer, of course, was "No. It's not even over yet."

Some viewers will almost certainly think that it is too early for such equable treatment. But as this first episode demonstrated, inequity is hardly a feasible alternative. The fuel for the first explosion of anger from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland was the engrained discrimination of the Protestant authorities, an administration that a British official described as "a minor tyranny". And at every stage of the escalating disorder it was perceived injustice that fanned the blaze. Nor could the film be accused of fudging the facts - every IRA speaker came with convictions attached to their convictions, a charge sheet that made it clear that they were active members, not just ideological apologists. And the footage of the aftermath of their activities didn't veil the past either - in one brief clip you saw the remains of a person being scraped from the road with a spade, arm flopping from a ragged lump of flesh.

It seemed, indeed, that almost nothing had not been recorded on film. Again and again the programme corroborated verbal accounts with little fragments of archive film, particularly during the sequence in which IRA men who had been children when the troops first arrived recalled the mood of excited relief. "It was an exciting thing to see," said one. "You grew up reading Hotspur and The Victor." On screen you saw a small boy, crouched at a soldier's feet with his comic, confirming that both sides had fed on the same childhood fantasies. "They used to leave their rifles at the corner of the street," said another man, describing the easy trust between soldiers and Catholic residents and a brief clip of black-and-white film proved that this was no gilded rewriting of the past, the better to amplify a sense of betrayal. There was footage of attacks on soldiers from council estate alleyways, images of civilians thumped by the slam of an explosion, even secret surveillance film of an IRA quartermaster attempting to buy Redeye missiles during an FBI sting. ("Taking out British helicopters would have worked wonders for morale," he explained.) Some of these pieces of footage were the occasion for outrage in the past - a feeling that the BBC had refused its call-up papers for an undeclared war - and there remains a large risk in such a programme. That the BBC can hold its hand out so steadily here - without flinching from the need to listen to all sides - may itself be a sign that we have passed some unmarked border in our public attitudes. One can only hope that we aren't sent scurrying back over the next few months.

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