'Blue Lights,' a Northern Irish spin on 'The Wire,' looks at perils of policing in Belfast

When Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson were first approached about making a cop show set in Belfast, they were — to put it mildly — apprehensive.

Both writers grew up in Northern Ireland, live in Belfast and are deeply familiar with the bloody history of the region. Yet they worried that a series about the city’s police force, which was once overwhelmingly Protestant and viewed with suspicion by the Catholic community, would be too inherently polarizing.

Even today, more than 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the country after decades of conflict, “There are some areas where the police can’t go,” Patterson said during a recent visit to New York. “The biggest fear was that the politics of it all would just swallow up anything that we would try to say and become the story. That’s often the case in Northern Ireland.”

“It’s a big privilege to tell a story about your own place, your own time, in your own voice,” added Lawn. “But it’s also a massive — I would say, at times oppressive — responsibility.”

But the duo, former broadcast journalists who worked together on the BBC current affairs series “Panorama,” reconsidered after meeting with real Belfast police officers. “These are just ordinary people, and they’re doing a crazy job for not very much money,” Patterson said. “We thought we could tell a brilliant story about family, using the police as a Trojan horse.”

This idea evolved into “Blue Lights,” a procedural following a trio of fresh recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI: Grace (Siân Brooke), a 40-something pivoting from a career as a social worker; Annie (Katherine Devlin), a young rookie whose Catholic background puts her safety at risk; and Tommy (Nathan Braniff), who is insecure but determined to prove himself. They are guided by a team of seasoned vets, including the charming Gerry (Richard Dormer, of “Game of Thrones” fame).

Season 1 revolved around their pursuit of James McIntyre (John Lynch), a former Irish Republican Army man who is now the head of a crime family based in a Catholic, nationalist neighborhood in West Belfast. The series looked at the ties between the paramilitary groups that terrorized Northern Ireland during the Troubles and the present-day drug trade.

In Season 2, which began streaming on BritBox this week, the focus shifts across town to a loyalist pub in Protestant East Belfast that is a hub for criminal activity that transcends the political divide. The ambitious six-episode season also explores the city’s heroin epidemic, the impact of government funding cuts and the painful legacy of sectarian violence.

If this makes “Blue Lights” sound like Belfast’s answer to “The Wire,” well, that’s exactly what Patterson and Lawn had in mind when they created the show. David Simon’s acclaimed Baltimore-set drama was a huge inspiration, particularly in its multifaceted depiction of “a post-industrial city that people hadn’t paid much attention to before,” Patterson said.

Like Simon, who got his start as a newspaper reporter, Lawn and Patterson spent years traveling around the world as TV journalists. The experiences “teach you a lot about the human condition, and how people will react to great pressure and difficulty,” Patterson said.

“You would expect that the more bad stuff you see, the more pessimistic view you would have of human nature,” Lawn said. “But our takeaway from all those years was [that] most people are good and decent. The people who aren’t have disproportionate power.”

They met in 2009, while on assignment in Wales, and wound up staying out until 4 a.m. doing karaoke. (Lawn performed “Stan” by Eminem in a packed, working-class bar.) They formed an instant bond that is evident in person 15 years later: The writers share a jocular, brotherly rapport and are quick to call each other out for being boring.

They turned to screenwriting as a way to channel their frustration with the constraints of TV journalism. When they were making documentaries, they would meet remarkable people and interview them for hours — only to leave incredible stories on the cutting room floor.

Their first commission was “The Salisbury Poisonings,” a fact-based BBC miniseries about a botched attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, in 2018.

They tend to take a journalistic approach to crafting drama, conducting numerous interviews and using this primary material to create relatable characters. For “Blue Lights,” they’ve talked to dozens of police officers, who shared stories about checking under their cars for bombs and living in fear of fringe republicans.

The history of policing in Belfast is impossible to disentangle from the long conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland until 2001, had almost no Catholics in its ranks and was accused of colluding with unionist paramilitary organizations. It was “horribly divisive,” Patterson said.

The organization was replaced by the PSNI, and there has been a concerted effort to recruit more police officers from Catholic backgrounds. Today, according to the PSNI, about 33% of police officers in the country are Catholic, while 66% are Protestant. (Catholics, once a minority, now narrowly outnumber Protestants in the country as a whole.) The very existence of “Blue Lights” is a sign of the progress that’s been made. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t have made this show,” Lawn said.

Yet threats remain. Police officers in Northern Ireland regularly carry guns, unlike anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

A few weeks before the premiere of Season 1, a police detective named John Caldwell was shot in an attack believed to have been orchestrated by the New IRA, a dissident republican group, but he survived.

“Sometimes the things that happen in real life, we steer away from because they’re almost too crazy to put on a show,” said Lawn, citing a recent data breach in which the PSNI mistakenly released names and other information about thousands of staffers online, where it was obtained by dissident republicans.

“If we put that in a TV show, people would be like, ‘Come on!’” Patterson said.

In Season 2, they delve into the city’s unionist enclaves, leaning on knowledge they gleaned making documentaries about loyalist marching bands. For another storyline involving a character named Happy (Paddy Jenkins), whose family was killed decades ago in a chip shop bombing, they visited the Wave Trauma Center, which provides support to people affected by the Troubles.

But the new episodes also show how crime has, ironically, brought both sides of the conflict together.

“The paramilitary framework is essentially now a sugarcoating for drug gangs. These people do go to church, right? They pretend that they’re fighting for the freedom of Ireland, or the loyalty to the British crown, but they’re gangsters,” Patterson said.

The series has been renewed for a third and fourth season by the BBC (where it airs in the U.K.). In future episodes, they plan to shift to leafy, affluent South Belfast — “where the real criminals are,” Lawn joked.

“We love the city but realize it is a flawed diamond,” Patterson said.

Both in their 40s and part of a generation that came of age at the tail end of the Troubles, Lawn and Patterson bring different perspectives to “Blue Lights.” Patterson comes from a Protestant background, and his father worked in Northern Ireland’s prison system — even doing a stint at the notorious Maze prison, which housed many IRA members. As a kid, he was told to never discuss what his dad did for a living or answer the door to a stranger. They had bullet-resistant glass on the windows.

“It was my normal, but on reflection, it wasn’t normal,” said Patterson, who asked his father for permission to talk about his profession before the release of Season 1. (Lawn said he didn’t even know what Patterson’s father’s did for a living until they started writing “Blue Lights” together.)

Lawn, meanwhile, grew up in a Catholic, nationalist family in Derry (the setting of the raucous Troubles-themed sitcom “Derry Girls”). His parents worked in a bank that was regularly a target of robberies. They lived across the river from the city center and would often hear bombs going off.

“I became super anxious about them coming home,” he said. “Even if they were five minutes late, I’d be like, ‘Oh, they’re dead,’ which was actually quite a rational expectation. People were being blown up all the time.”

Lawn and Patterson said they had been friends and creative partners for a decade before they really talked about their experiences growing up. Patterson explained the thinking this way: “Somebody else down the road always had something more horrific happen to them. So what right do you have to whine about the things happened to you?”

Yet in writing “Blue Lights,” authenticity is key because “Northern Ireland is a tough audience,” Lawn said. “If you get even the slightest piece of vernacular or accent or anything wrong, they will tell you. So far, we haven’t had any major complaints.”

The series films on location in republican and loyalist neighborhoods where overt displays of support for one side or the other — usually flags and murals — are commonplace.

“The only way you’re going to be able to film there in those places is with the consent of the community. So far, people have been extremely welcoming,” Lawn said. “It might be gritty and difficult, but it’s fair. It doesn’t demonize anyone.”

This realism extends to use of regional slang like “touts” (informants), “peelers” (cops) and “ride” (have sex) and the prevalence of thick Northern Irish accents, which turn long A sounds into short E’s. (Lawn heartily recommends watching with subtitles.) But the creators of “Blue Lights” believe it resonates beyond the community where it’s set, because themes like family and belonging are universal. It also approaches heavy subject matter with dark humor.

And as unflinching as it is, “Blue Lights” is also an optimistic show, Lawn said. “There’s lots of darkness, lots of grimness. But ultimately, I think it’s about a kind of quiet heroism.”

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