30 December 2005

Bring me sunshine, bring me paramilitary surrender

Guardian

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Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
Thursday December 29, 2005
The Guardian

Having tried internment, military might, power sharing and even secret talks with the IRA, the government considered one last desperate measure to dig themselves out of the escalating war in Northern Ireland - Morecambe and Wise.

Papers from 1975, released today, reveal proposals for a "Brighten up Ulster" campaign designed to put a smile back on people's faces in the wake of a disastrous 1974, during which the devolved government collapsed after a general strike organised by loyalists, the IRA bombed Birmingham pubs, and more than 300 people were killed in Northern Ireland.

One suggestion for raising spirits made by the chairman of the government's Information Policy Coordinating Committee was to see Britain's favourite comedy double act perform their trademark Bring Me Sunshine dance routine on the lawns of Stormont.

In a letter to committee members on March 18 1975, just over a month after the IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire, Michael Cudlipp stressed the need to "think really big" in organising a campaign of "morale-boosting" events. "Why not have big variety stars?" he asked, suggesting Morecambe and Wise, who were then at the peak of their careers, and who he hoped could be persuaded to "give their services for more or less free as part of an attempt to boost Ulster".

He envisaged hosting a big Morecambe and Wise performance at Stormont "subject to all obvious difficulties" and security considerations.

His ambitions did not stop in Britain: he also suggested recruiting Frank Sinatra to sing for free as a good deed for Northern Ireland. Other "cultural personalities" such as the Welsh baritone Geraint Evans were proposed.

In a series of memos over the months following the IRA truce, committee members said the "Brightening Up Ulster" campaign should highlight the "sunny side of life" in Northern Ireland, bring back mass entertainment and create a "postwar atmosphere and spirit".

One committee member, Jimmy Hamilton, recommended an "inter-town It's a Knockout competition" hosted by the rugby commentator Eddie Waring. He perhaps hoped that the addition of giant foam costumes and buckets of gunge would cancel out the murderous violence on Northern Ireland's streets. He suggested, as a sign of goodwill for the "morale-boosting" events, that "where possible, even it is only a token gesture, [we] remove the security barriers in towns".

Other ideas for themed events included a "Miss Good Cheer" beauty pageant, a special "Sociable Week" with the message "Don't Let's Be Downhearted" in which Rotary Clubs and the Women's Institute could run "Good Cheer conferences". One committee member wrote: "The theme tune of the effort could be based on the song 'Pick Yourself up, Dust yourself down, start all over again.'"

It was suggested that newspapers, at that point full of the horror stories of the Troubles, could run special "Good Cheer" supplements with "positive news" stories lined up for TV and radio.

One memo cautioned that government assistance in these feel-good events should be "discreet". The "Brightening Up Ulster" campaign was a "normality drive" aimed at bringing back the sporting, cultural and entertainment events that had stayed away in the early 1970s, and creating an atmosphere in which "normality activities" flourished.

Between December 1974 and spring 1975, the same government committee was also developing its strategy in the propaganda war against the IRA. One memo on a paper called "Undermining the IRA" stated: "The IRA's will to fight can best be undermined by a concerted PR/information campaign aimed at isolating the Provisional leadership and movement from the remainder of the Catholic community."

Mr Cudlipp wrote that the Northern Ireland secretary, Merlyn Rees "emphasises that there must be no attempts at 'black propaganda' without ministerial authority. He is extremely concerned at the 'blowback' effect of such methods. He emphasised however that this did not mean he was not greatly in favour of a vigorous and attacking information policy and indeed he is anxious that we should be far more on the attack than on the defence."

Morecambe and Wise did not perform at Stormont and, by the end of 1975, it was clear that the IRA ceasefire had not led to a decrease in violence. The truce was called off in 1976. By the end of 1975, 206 people had died in Northern Ireland, 174 of them civilians. The majority were killed by loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

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