Image makers set the ceasefire to music for television

Alan Murdoch reports on the Government's advert campaign
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The Independent Online
Against an upbeat Van Morrison soundtrack, one heart-warming image follows another of happy children, young lovers and endless sunny days, selling the message that ceasefires are good for you.

As Van the Man sings "My mamma told me there'd be days like this," in the strong accent of Belfast, his native city, a handwritten slogan moves across the final frame asking with a poignant simplicity: "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

The advertiser is the British government and the product being sold is peace. The advertisement shown on Ulster Television to its Northern Ireland audience (and to three-quarters of the Irish Republic's homes receiving the signal) is part of a pounds 1m campaign aimed at underpinning the paramilitary ceasefires by fostering the conviction that they must continue.

The recent change in tone of the advertisements has been as striking as the political turnaround of the last year. Before the ceasefire, Northern Ireland Office (NIO) advertisements offered a view of terrorism's consequences just as deliberately heart-wrenching as today's set out to create a warm glow.

The NIO began using commercials in the Seventies to promote its confidential telephone lines for information on paramilitary activity. Relatively late in the Troubles, in 1987, it commissioned a broader campaign to win hearts and minds against violence from Belfast advertising agency McCann- Erickson.

Powerful images included masked gunmen conducting a routine back-alley execution, and the haunting shot of a corpse in a lake coming back to the surface after a final bullet is fired into the victim. Such shock tactics were deemed vital to shift previously ambivalent citizens into helping security forces.

Although not giving actual numbers of contacts, the Royal Ulster Constabulary attributed a sizeable increase in public co-operation to the propaganda.

The most recent series of advertisements began last Easter with one showing a group of babies in nappies playing together, clearly oblivious to any differences between them while the voice-over makes the simple point that some are Protestant and some Roman Catholic. "Strip it all away and it's saying our differences are socially learnt and socially conditioned. Take away the conditioning of tribalism and the education system and you're left with ordinary people who can get on with each other," David Lyle, of McCann Erickson, said.

Another used children telling jokes to mock stereotypes and ridicule division. Some typically black Belfast "bomb" humour, although very funny, was thought "a bit too strong meat". These, along with some choice jokes about the Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, have become prized cuts.

A more recent one showed two young boys on holiday, sharing marbles and chewing gum and discovering friendship and learning respect for contrasting backgrounds, symbolised in a King Billy (William III) medal and a Gaelic football medal. Another condenses diverse Northern Ireland sporting moments with their own fraught allegiances, but presented as a cause for shared pride.

But the most evocative deals with what Mr Lyle calls "the almost spiritual relationship people here have with their landscape". Using another Van Morrison song "Have I told you lately that I love you," it highlights a common powerful allegiance. But the sweeping views of scenic spots allude also to a shared suffering - the locations include Loughinisland and Enniskillen, scenes of some of the worst atrocities before peace was declared.

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