Anna Joyce takes a deeper dive inside GunPlot, an eight part podcast series, in tandem with a 50-minute television documentary by RTÉ Factual, in what is set to be RTÉ's first bi-media project - listen to the first episode of GunPlot above.
The assasination of JFK, the moon landing, UFOs and the Irish Arms Crisis. If the last addition feels out of place then you need to brush up on your history, as the Irish Arms Crisis is arguably Ireland's most enduring conspiracy theory, shrouded in mystery, political deceit and fake news long before Trump.
Although the Arms Crisis erupted in 1969, the themes and political tensions bear an eerie likeness to modern events. It is set during a cold war-like tension between Northern Ireland, the Republic and Great Britain (Article 16 anyone?). A mild-mannered Cork man is trying to hold the Republic of Ireland together and protesters across the globe are taking to the streets in the name of civil rights.
And they say humanity hasn't developed in the last fifty years...
If the above description has spiked your curiosity, RTÉ has not one, but two retellings of this seminal historical event hitting screens and airwaves this spring. The award winning Documentary On One team have launched GunPlot, an eight part podcast series, with a 50-minute television documentary by RTÉ Factual to follow.
To refresh your memory, here is a quick synopsis of this landmark historical event...
In 1969, tensions that had been bubbling in Northern Ireland erupted in a conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the Apprentice Boys Parade, in Derry. The parade marked a Protestant victory over Catholic attackers in 1689. The violence which ensued soon became known as the Battle of the Bogside. But when word of the three day long battle reached the Irish Republic, the government under Taoiseach Jack Lynch decided to intervene.
GunPlot examines the tumultuous 16 months which followed, culminating in the dismissal of ministers Neil Blaney and Charles J. Haughey who were accused of illegal attempts to bring arms into the Republic to give to Catholics in the North to defend themselves against rising violence.
As the name would suggest the alleged plot is indeed about guns, but also has side helpings of spies, fiction writers and a political dynamic to rival Macbeth - a fine way to burn through those final months of lockdown. Thankfully, I (like everyone else) have no social life at present and so have corralled the creators of GunPlot into answering a litany of questions about this bi-media historical extravaganza.
So whether you're in the mood for a political scandal minus the real-time consequences, or want a more educational quarantine pastime, pencil GunPlot into your springtime social life of streaming and TV viewing.
On that note, I’ll hop off my soapbox and pass things over to TV producer and director Brian Hayes and documentary podcaster Nicoline Greer...
How did you get your start as a documentary maker?
Brian (TV): I’ve been working on documentaries since I started in TV. My first job was directing a film about the Irish ascent of Mount Everest in 1993. I spent an amazing 3 months working out of a freezing tent on the Tibetan side of the mountain. Once thawed out, I was hooked on making documentaries.
Can you tell me about your role in the making of GunPlot the podcast?
Nicoline (Pod): Producer Ronan Kelly has been working on this project for about a year now and is the backbone of the whole podcast series. This area has been researched by so many people in incredible detail, that we had many sources to go to for information on the Arms Crisis. That said, there are also many conflicting takes on what happened and many of the people who were involved took their secrets to their graves. We have spoken to the children of many of the main characters in this story. We have tried to speak to some people who may not automatically spring to mind too. For example, the fiction novelist Frederick Forsyth makes an appearance!
How did the project come about? Who came up with the idea first?
Brian (TV): Hats off to the Podcast team for the idea. They were planning a series of Podcasts on the 1970 Arms Crisis and it seemed like a great topic for TV also. RTE Factual was keen to get a bi-media project going, so GunPlot was born.
This is a story shrouded in conspiracy theories and conflicting accounts. How did you sort facts from fiction?
Nicoline (Pod): When looking at the information presented, we always ask, "Where did this information come from?" Checking the source of information is really important. And going back to the source documents like ministerial directives, witness statements and letters are valuable in verifying information and unpacking what happened. We have tried to present what facts are out there and that can be established, and invite the listener to draw their own conclusions. And where there are disputed facts, we say that. In this story, many people stayed silent.
It sounds like the project involved a lot of research. Is there any information you couldn’t find?
Brian (TV): The film archive for a project like this is crucial. The problem is that so much of the big moments of the Arms Crisis took place behind closed doors in smoky rooms - it seems like everyone smoked in 1970! - so no cameras and no archive. But then Róisín O’Dea, the researcher on the TV documentary, would emerge from the vaults with something extraordinary. For example, a film of Captain Jim Kelly and John Kelly, two of the men accused of gun-running, sauntering along the quays in Dublin Port in 1970 without a care in the world. I’d guess very few people will have seen that footage before. The right archive is like shining a searchlight on new aspects of the story.
What is your favorite episode of the podcast series and why?
Nicoline(Pod): Episode one was probably the most difficult to make because in some ways it defines the whole series. We went through many many drafts of it. Is it my favourite? It's my favourite one to have finished!
What is the difference between an audio and a TV project? Would you ever collaborate with another team again?
Brian (TV): Huge difference. Audio at its best works at a very personal or intimate level, whereas TV grabs your attention in a much more show-off kind of way. So the two experiences can be miles apart. Another thing is that great audio programs are sometimes made by just one or two people, which is rarely possible with TV where you have far bigger numbers on a production. I think that changes the relationship with the audience.
The bi-media approach has so many advantages from sharing research to increasing the potential audience. I think we’ll be doing more.
Who was Captain James Kelly? He seems to play a central role in this tale.
Nicoline (Pod): Captain James Kelly was an Intelligence Officer in the Irish Army in 1969. He was monitoring events as they unfolded in Northern Ireland and he was the man on the ground gathering information and liaising with government ministers concerned with what was happening in the North. He’s only one person in this story, but his family have been most vocal, over the years, on the impact the Arms Crisis had on him, his wife and children.
GunPlot is the story that has everything! Revolution on the streets in the North, rumours of gun-running down South, bank accounts in fictitious names, Government Ministers in the dock, political intrigue, and that's before you bring Charlie Haughey into the mix!
What challenges did you face with this project? Were there any particularly disastrous days on the GunPlot set!
Brian (TV): Sounds boring but there was really no day of filming where things went badly wrong. Covid means that planning ahead is even more vital, especially when filming reconstructions of events that involve actors. It can be a challenge to make those intense up-close moments work on camera when you have to keep the actors two metres apart because of the virus, but that’s show business!
How do you approach someone for an interview on such a sensitive topic?
Nicoline (Pod): Honestly. We want people to have the opportunity to tell their family’s story and want them to feel that they can trust us with their story. If they feel that they will not be misrepresented and we will do our best with their story it helps.
Did you make any significant historical breakthroughs while making the documentary?
Brian (TV): The Arms Crisis comes with loads of conflicting perspectives and we haven’t dodged any of that in order to tell a "clear" story. However, we hope people who are curious or confused about a particularly murky part of our history will tune in and come away with a much clearer idea of what went on.
A lot of important revelations have emerged in books about the Arms Crisis over the last while. We were lucky with the timing of the project to be able to talk to historians who have brought all this new information to light. Our approach was to pull the sources together and to turn a truly extraordinary period of our recent history into what we hope is gripping TV.
Who was your favourite interviewee of the project?
Nicoline (Pod): I loved speaking with the relatives of the people involved. The sons and daughters. There was black humour in how they tried to mess with the Special Branch men listening in on their phone calls (most of them had their phones tapped for years afterward). I was also struck by the fierce loyalty that they feel towards their fathers.
Did the coronavirus have an impact on your production?
Brian (TV): I think we’re managing to do our job and keep everyone on the production safe, touch wood. It’s a question of working within the Covid constraints to get the best outcome. For instance, on Gunplot we rented the entire floor of an unoccupied office building to do all our interviews since we couldn’t film in people’s homes or offices. A bit of creative lighting by Ronan Fox, the Director of Photography, and the space looks great on camera. So a problem can nudge you to think about things in a different way. Hopefully, the finished documentary won’t look too much like it was made in a pandemic!
The story touches on a lot of modern themes: government scandals, conspiracy theories, youth-driven political protest. Do you see parallels between what happened in 1969 and today?
Nicoline (Pod): Many of the roots of the arms crisis came from feelings of inequality, misinformation that led to the division of society, and tensions between communities that see other people as different from themselves - themes that are as relevant today as they were then. And unfortunately, we are seeing tensions spilling over on the streets of Belfast and Derry again, so the ghosts are not at rest it seems...
Did your opinion of the Arms Crisis change over the course of the project? Did you learn anything new?
Brian (TV): I’m old enough to remember the Arms Crisis as a teenager and it was usually presented in extremes of black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, like the way the Irish Civil War was often discussed. What I’ve learned is that politicians muddied the waters by jumping onto polar opposite positions once the Crisis happened. But at the time all the figures involved were acting out of a real concern about what was happening in Northern Ireland. It was never black and white. That sometimes gets lost in translation.
In the podcast, audio is aired from inside an Irish courtroom, a first for Irish broadcasting. Does the documentary/podcast feature any more exclusives?
Nicoline (Pod): There are people who have never spoken publicly about this before like Sylvia Kelly, daughter of Captain James Kelly and Martin Gibbons, son of Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons.
To what recent historical event would you compare the Arms Crisis?
Brian (TV): I’ve heard people describe the Arms Crisis as Ireland’s "Watergate". Both events happened in the early 1970s and there’s some similarity alright in terms of denial and cover-up. But the motives that triggered the Arms Crisis are far removed from the Watergate scandal in the US which was rooted in blatant political self-interest. The Arms Crisis is way more complex.
It took 30 years until the release of Ireland’s State Papers in 2001 for a lot of important detail on the Crisis to finally emerge. In the States, they had the Watergate enquiries done and dusted and Nixon was gone within 2 years.
What role does entertainment play in a historical retelling?
Nicoline (Pod): Entertainment can really bring a historical story alive and we hope that this series will be a resource for people learning about history. However, there is a balance between entertainment and history – we need to tell the story in an engaging way without sacrificing the facts. We don’t want to sensationalize events and are very conscious that there are real people at the heart of this story.
What makes the project unique? Why would a member of the millennial or Gen Z cohort tune in?
Brian (TV): GunPlot is the story that has everything! Revolution on the streets in the North, rumours of gun-running down South, bank accounts in fictitious names, Government Ministers in the dock, political intrigue, and that’s before you bring Charlie Haughey into the mix!
The first episode of GunPlot the podcast series is available now, with the television documentary gracing our screens on RTÉ One on Wednesday April 28th at 9.30 pm.