My sense of duty had me listen to a podcast of yet another prolonged whinge from Joe Brolly, football commentator and, God help us, these days a political pundit.

Published: 30 May 2023

​This was because of a conversation I had with a friend about a speech I’d read on that invaluable website Slugger O’Toole about the failure of the media in the Republic to cover Northern Ireland adequately. Its author, the distinguished journalist Andy Pollak, who has spent much of his life encouraging cross-border understanding, observed that in 50+ years living in Dublin “I can’t recall a single well informed conversation with the journalists, academics, teachers, civil servants, cultural and voluntary sector workers who make up my friendship group about what reunification with the difficult and divided North might mean for … the complacent — and in recent years rather successful — society that is the Republic”.

His contention was that people in the South had ceased to be interested in news from NI once the killing had largely stopped and so the media ignored it. This is a two-way process. With true northern directness, Pollak recorded, Ben Lowry, the editor of this newspaper, had last month “told a Dublin audience that his pro-unionist paper had scant interest in events south of the border. If they were being honest, the editors of the three national papers in the South would be admitting the same thing: they are nationalist papers serving a readership with little or no interest in the North”.

Incidentally, I have spoken to Ben about his comments and he has agreed that he was candid about respects in which which this paper tends not to take a close interest in events across the border, such as the back and forth between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, because readers tended not to be particularly interested except insofar as it relates to NI. But he also emphasised in Dublin that the bigger a story was, or the the closer it was to NI, the more interested the paper became (the News Letter cleared the first five pages for the Creeslough gas explosion on the Monday after it, and Ben wrote a personal piece about his sadness in light of his childhood memories of the town).

My friend said that the lack of southern newspaper interest in the north wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the republican propaganda indoctrinating the young through social media that has sold them the lie that there was no alternative to violence. He quoted Rory Montgomery, a retired Irish diplomat, who he said “shares my unhappiness with the mixture of delusional thinking and sheer apathy that passes for opinion about Northern Ireland in the South” and his fear that if Sinn Fein gets into power in the Republic they will rewrite history, “for too many people in the South, and elsewhere, are susceptible to cynical republican mythologising”. Montgomery found that young people who excoriate “manifestations of racism and sexism… seem not to care about…the greater sin of murder”.

“Listen to the most recent episode from Brolly,” said my friend. “It’s called The Roman Catholic Breeders Association and is part of a series called ‘Free State’” (an entity later known as the Republic of Ireland that he believes let down northern nationalists. Presumably its leaders should have launched a proper civil war).

I’m used to what I consider to be Brolly’s old-fashioned prejudices and offensive tribal language against unionists and in particular the DUP, but even so was taken aback by him refer to meeting Gregory Campbell at the West Belfast Festival where the DUP MP was made welcome “in spite of his [Mr Campbell’s] public sectarianism and bigotry etc”. In Brolly’s world, sectarianism is as exclusive to Protestants as victimhood is to Catholics.

So I listened to a stream of venom about the Free State, much of it focused on the late Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, a patriot and scholar who did an enormous amount through his writing to persuade thoughtful Irish nationalists to cast out the beam from their own eyes before casting out the mote from their unionist brother’s. Among the nonsense was that O’Brien had “a rabid hatred of Northern Catholics” and that as an Irish government minister, he banned “anything seen to be remotely honest about the North”.

What surprised me was that the person with whom Brolly does his podcasts is Dion Fanning, whose father Aengus, as Sunday Independent editor, showed courage in using his newspaper to tell uncomfortable truths and stand up against terrorists, their fellow travellers and lawyers. But for him, opponents of the IRA like Eoghan Harris, Eilis O’Hanlon, Prof John A. Murphy and indeed, me, would have been without a home. I wondered why Fanning did not seem to challenge Brolly’s ignorance and outrageous allegations. If he needs help, why not bring on real historians to counter dangerous propaganda?

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