May 1 1990

Northern Ireland From London’s Perspective

Belfast mural (photo: Ardfern/Wikimedia)

Belfast mural recalling the 1970 Falls Curfew. (photo: Ardfern/Wikimedia)

In October 1988, British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced a ban on broadcasting statements by members or appar­ent sympathizers of eleven political and paramilitary organizations (three of them legal). “This is not censorship,” Hurd announced.

Affected journalists tried to adapt to the new conditions. Some news reports in Britain and Ireland now declare that stories have been affected by govern­ment restrictions. Silent images of for­bidden speakers appear with their words subtitled or dubbed in by an announcer.

But as East German writer Christa Wolf once said, the government censor you can escape; it’s the censor in your head you have to watch out for. Since the ban, Belfast’s Republican Press Cen­ter, a pro-IRA media office, has reported that inquiries from broadcast journalists have dropped 75 percent.

Irish nationalists seem to be quoted less often in the U.S. press as well. Out of ten stories dealing with Northern Ire­land that appeared in the New York Times since October 1988, not one con­tained a direct quote from a representa­tive of Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist political party. While Washington has repeatedly refused entry visas to some leading Irish politicians, there is no offi­cial U.S. restriction on coverage of Northern Ireland. But the situation there is still consistently reported in the terms preferred by the British govern­ment.

As Jo Thomas, former London corre­spondent for the New York Times, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review (5- 6/88), “The way we name things in a volatile place like Northern Ireland pro­foundly influences the way we—and our readers—feel about them.” The use of the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” to describe the opposing sides, instead of “loyalist” and “nationalist,” is perhaps the most basic. Loyalists, also known as “unionists” (for continued union with Britain), represent a political opinion common in the Protestant community, but they are not anti-nationalist by virtue of their religious background, any more than nationalists (or “republicans”) are created at the Catholic altar.

The use of the word “Ulster” as a syn­onym for Northern Ireland is also a political choice. Nationalists use the word to refer to one of the four historic provinces of pre-British Ireland. (The British took six of Ulster’s nine counties to create the contemporary North.) The only people who call themselves Ulstermen are the ones who vow to “Keep Ulster British”—the loyalists, whose history begins with the British invasion.

Although even the New York Times has admitted that “there is no rule for distinguishing one person’s ‘terrorist’ from another’s ‘freedom fighter’ (8/26/88), the “terrorist” label contin­ues to be applied without discussion in reference to the IRA. Not to mention the ubiquitous coupling of “outlawed” with “IRA,” a tag that, although strictly accu­rate in the sense that Britain has out­lawed the group, is rarely applied to the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua or UNITA in Angola, armed groups that have also been “outlawed” by sovereign governments.

A slant toward the British perspective is reflected not only in the terms cho­sen, but also in what is deemed worthy of coverage. (Check the date lines— most Northern Ireland stories are filed from London.) The Feb. 12, 1989 killing of Patrick Finucane, a leading human rights lawyer shot by loyalist gunmen in his home in Belfast, went almost com­pletely unnoted in the U.S. press. Not only had Fincucane won landmark cases against the British government in Belfast and the European Court of Human Rights, but his was the first assassination of a human rights lawyer in the 20 years of the conflict. His death came just three weeks after a provoca­tive declaration by a top British civil ser­vant on the floor of Parliament that there were “a number of solicitors” who were “unduly sympathetic to the nation­alist cause.”

The L.A. Times mentioned the killing in two one-paragraph items (2/13/90, 2/14/90). The New York Times men­tioned the death a month later, in a story headlined “Sectarian Killings in Ulster Continue to Mount” (3/12/89), which quoted the government official inaccu­rately so as to blur the relationship between his comment and the assassi­nation. “Our London bureau was stretched by the Rushdie Case,” assis­tant foreign editor Kevin McKenna com­mented (New York Newsday, 3/10/89).

Iranian death threats seemed to take precedence over an actual Irish death.

In the past five years, local Northern Ireland reporters have recorded at least 29 killings by the British SAS (a branch of the intelligence service) and under­cover army units. There is growing evi­dence for the existence of a “shoot-to­-kill” policy being practiced by members of the British and local security forces against their foes in the North. Only one (wounded) prisoner has ever been taken in all of these incidents, and in each case witnesses claim the victims had no opportunity to submit to arrest. These cases have gotten scant U.S. cov­erage, except for the three that took place outside of Ireland (in Gibraltar, in March 1988) and some human interest pieces about a British detective trying to look into some of the deaths (New York Times, 3/22/88; Boston Globe, 5/29/88).

Editors apparently prefer human interest stories to independent inves­tigative work. New York Times reporter Steven Prokesch visited Belfast in March, shortly after three more civil­ians were shot and killed by police. But instead of pursuing the shoot-to-kill investigation, he produced two personal­ity profiles, one of which made it to the front page.

“Protestant Militant Seeks a Way Through Ulster Deadlock” (3/27/90) focused on Peter Robinson, “a frustrat­ed man” who wants to see North/South Irish “cooperation in areas like tourism, energy, agriculture and roads.” That this same Peter Robinson was arrested in August 1986 for leading a violent incur­sion by loyalists into the Irish Republic went unmentioned. If a similar piece had been published about a nationalist party leader, surely editors would have demanded a full account of the man’s past indictable acts.

In his second piece, “With the World Made Over, Can Even Belfast Change?” (4/2/90), Prokesch wrote that the IRA “even bombs projects that are going to create jobs for Catholics,” without men­tioning that the Castlecourt shopping center alluded to was built on the site of a low-rent, predominantly Catholic mar­ket square that was entirely destroyed to make room for its upper-income replacement. The same piece talks about Catholics disliking British sol­diers because their actions on patrol “are heavy-handed at times”—an extraordinary understatement two weeks after security officers had gunned down three unarmed civilians.

When reporters do manage to make the one-hour flight from London to Belfast, it’s usually en masse to cover a march or a funeral. On these rare occa­sions, journalists are under pressure to bring home the “war” picture, the only kind their editors seem eager to publish. In 1989 a German photographer was arrested and charged with conspiracy for carrying the makings of a petrol bomb in his car, to be used as a prop in yet another boy-with-bomb photo.

At the August 1989 funeral of a child killed by a police officer’s plastic bullet, I witnessed a television cameraperson lie down in front of a funeral procession so that pall-bearers had to step over him to get the coffin to the chapel, all for the sake of a new angle on an old picture. Meanwhile, less dramatic stories like the investigation of police killings go uncovered. In a place where 2,700 deaths are still called “The Troubles,” perhaps it is absurd to ask why.