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Sunday 14 December 2003

Minister, abandon this mad proposal of yours

'WHEN freedom dies it may well be with a whimper," wrote Patrick Weever recently in the Observer, "with the too-clever-by-half intellectuals and opinion formers elegantly apologising for its deficiencies as it goes." The founder/editor of www.anti-spin.com, a website for anyone who cares about truth in the media, was writing about the statutory press council equipped with regulatory powers that Michael McDowell is contemplating setting up as a quid pro quo for relaxing Ireland's viciously restrictive libel laws. Admittedly, McDowell has lately shown welcome signs of dithering on this mad proposal, but he hasn't recanted. He should. 

McDowell is probably better disposed towards the media than the majority of his colleagues in Government - or even in politics. I'm sure he would be punctilious about appointing responsible, liberal types to man such a council. The trouble is what could happen apres him. Fianna Fail has been well content in its time to see newspapers gagged. In coalition with Sinn Fein, how hard would it fight for media freedom? 

Ponder on Gerry Adams and the Sunday Independent. Eoghan Harris bragged happily the other week that his name had caused Adams to lose his temper during a Hot Press interview. I've had the even greater accolade of having the bearded one lose his rag with me in the presence of 700 people, and Conor Cruise O'Brien is denounced in his latest volume of heavily expurgated autobiography as 'a dangerous crank'. Then, of course there was the recent business with Eilis O'Hanlon being called by various members of her family, a 'scumbag', a 'disgrace' and 'lower than a prostitute' for answering in an interview a question about her sister Siobhan, one of Adams's closest colleagues. He's no fan of John A Murphy either. 

Our association with the Sunday Independent, offends Adams hugely. Here's the extract from the Hot Press interview: 

Olaf Tyaransen: 'Writing about the disappearance of Jean McConville in the Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris compared Sinn Fein to the Nazis. Any comment on that. 

Gerry Adams: 'I didn't read it. I'm not even gonna respond to that [glares].' 

OT: 'You were quite critical of the Sunday Independent in the book.' 

GA: I didn't comment so much on the Independent. I gave examples of how, for example, President Mary Robinson came here and the Independent had something like nine articles critical of a handshake. So the Sunday Independent was the paper which editorialised to see James Connolly executed, when he was wounded and they discovered he was the only one who hadn't been executed. And . . . Eoghan Harris? Why should I dignify Eoghan Harris with a reply? He's earning his money by insulting people and writing rubbish. I've more serious business to be about.' 

They're gas, these people. Adams attacks something the paper said 87 years ago, but if you ask him about IRA atrocities he tells you to move on. 

My run-in with Adams came in 1999 when I accepted an invitation from the West Belfast Festival to take part in a discussion on politics. When I remarked that he and his colleagues had done their community harm by encouraging narrow nationalism and navel-gazing, he shouted that for 30 years I'd been part of a media-clique that had silenced his people. As it happens, I didn't write about Irish politics until 1993, but, hey, when did facts ever matter to Sinn Fein/IRA? 

Conor, of course, is hated for being prescient enough to realise that if you let the IRA's frontmen onto the airwaves they would walk all over the interviewers. O'Brien, explained Adams in an earlier book, was 'an anti-nationalist', 'an enthusiast for censorship who had been remarkably successful in generating a McCarthyite atmosphere [and] whose hostility to the democratic demands of nationalists in the north was intimately concerned with his denial of the colonial nature of Britain's presence in Ireland.' Eilis is loathed because she not only rejected but laughs at the irredentist politics of members of her family like Uncle Joe Cahill. 

Eoghan, Conor, Eilis, John A. and most of our colleagues on the Sunday Independent are what Adams calls 'professional Southern opinionators'. (An 'opinionator' is a person who disagrees with the opinions of Sinn Fein.) 

We are accused, inter alia, of having put John Hume into hospital by attacks on the Hume-Adams talks. (Well, at least we confined ourselves to words: we don't put people into hospitals or morgues by using the weapons of Adams's friends.) We are presented as anti-national, anti-Irish, anti-peace and nasty with it. 

Well, Gerry, you won't admit it, but the reason you hate Sunday Independent writers is because we are anti-terrorist, we persist in telling the inconvenient truth about the dreadful things the fascists of the IRA did in our name in that ghastly, squalid, sectarian war you defend, we do not fall for Sinn Fein lies and bullshit, we won't believe you when you tell us black is white even if you say the future of the peace process depends on it, we enjoy making fun of your pretensions and we don't cave in to bullies. 

We're patriots, actually. We stand for a true patriotism that fascists hate. And one of the reasons we bang on endlessly about the threat to our State is that we know how important a fearless press is in keeping a country free and its politicians honest. 

What kind of people does Michael McDowell think Charles Haughey or Ray Bourke or any other scoundrels bent on hiding their corruption would have appointed to a statutory press council? And what kind of people does he think IRA apologists would want? 

McDowell, who has an honourable record in exposing mutilation and torture in republican and loyalist ghettoes, does not need to be reminded what happens in West Belfast to those who challenge the Provos. 

The World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum recently wrote to the Taoiseach and to McDowell to say that the proposed council 'would constitute a setback for the independence and freedom of the press', would set 'a poor example to emerging democracies', and 'would undoubtedly be cited by less democratic regimes seeking to suppress critical newspapers and journalists.' 

They called instead for an independent press council of the kind that operates well in most European countries. 

As McDowell well knows and deplores, independent Ireland has a poor record for tolerating free expression, exposing corruption in public life or protecting the vulnerable. How appalling therefore that he should seriously consider manufacturing a weapon that could destroy the already restricted freedom of our press. As Patrick Weever wrote sombrely: 'They will be busy wringing their hands, those who ought to have formed the bulwark of the defence . . . with their well-practised grasp of procedure and their gift of language they can ensure that the eyes of the populace are averted until disaster engulfs. Forgive them for they know not what they do.' 

He's talking about you, Michael. He's talking about you. Recant. Recant.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards