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6 February 2004

How republicans 'travelled the world telling unchallenged porkies'

Is the media soft on Sinn Fein? Ruth Dudley Edwards, a long time critic of Gerry Adams, argues that unionists don't exactly help in countering the spin

IT is exactly a decade since - in a mixture of rage, despondency and fear - I wrote my first political article and thus began an unexpected new career as a political columnist. And to think I owe it all to Gerry Adams.

First, let's have a quick trot down memory lane: in October 1993, an IRA bomber had murdered nine and killed himself in a Shankill Road fish shop - his coffin had been carried by Gerry Adams; a week later two loyalist gunmen had murdered seven in the Rising Sun in Greysteel (another victim died later); in December, in the Downing Street Declaration, the British and Irish Governments had committed themselves to finding a new political framework founded on the principle of consent and Sinn Fein had requested clarification. 

In January the Irish Government lifted the radio/television ban on Sinn Fein; against State Department advice, President Clinton authorised a US visa for Gerry Adams; and the British media clamoured loudly for an end to the (admittedly dotty) rule that interviews with 11 listed organisations including Sinn Fein could be broadcast only with a voice-over or subtitles. 

At the time I was a book reviewer for The Independent in London which - though a liberal organ - published the article in which I admitted that, while I had long opposed on civil liberties grounds the British and Irish broadcasting bans, I had changed my mind because a) reading the Victorian thinker Walter Bagehot had persuaded me of the fundamental truth that you have to have order before you can have the luxury of liberty and b) I realised that Sinn Fein/IRA spokesmen were better at their job than their interviewers. 

I was, and am, an enthusiastic proponent of free speech but believe it is a privilege that should be denied those who want to destroy the state by violent means. 

"I have seen the first Irish television interview with Gerry Adams", I began. "The good news is that he was dull; the bad that he was clever; and the worst - confirmed by the two radio interviews about which I have read much - is that professional interviewers seem unable to demolish his dishonest arguments." 

Brian Farrell, RTE's most distinguished political interviewer, and a Professor of Politics to boot, "was too civilised to be able to deal with an opponent who is single-minded, unscrupulous and brilliant at rising from the terrorist gutter to seize the high moral ground." 

Next month, I was miserably telling readers of the Sunday Times that Adams had been a wow in the US, that he had already seen off the best the BBC could offer despite the voice restrictions and that the only hope of defeating him and his in argument was to confront them with "unusually articulate members of bereaved families, brutal Irish barristers and one or two of the rougher Irish revisionists." 

Knowing I was wasting ink, I suggested the two Governments should declare "that enemies of their two states will get no hearing and make it clear that being civilised does not stop a state from getting tough with assassins."

Gloomy though I was at the time, events were to prove the media even more hopeless than I had feared. This was partly, of course, the fault of unionists. Between those who believed that their case was so good it didn't have to be made, those who refused on principle to defend their goal against opponents they didn't want to play with, those who thought the media didn't matter and those who performed badly because they despised the black arts of presentation, there wasn't much scope for lively demolition of the enemy's lies. 

Republicans travelled the world drivelling pieties about Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, using all the carefully-acquired Orwellian lingo about dialogue and peace and democracy, and telling unchallenged porkies. 

Sinn Fein were utterly professional: spokesmen were sent to charm school and learned to woo outsiders with their politeness and apparent warmth. It always amused me how Martin McGuinness or Mitchel McLaughlin, for instance, would rush forward smiling with hand outstretched when they saw me, their savage critic, while most unionist politicians - whose case I was trying valiantly to explain - would give me just a curt nod. 

Sinn Fein had no time for free speech themselves: they were brilliant at complaining and bullying and put in place a rapid rebuttal system that Alastair Campbell would envy; and their private army terrified the nervous. 

In the south, they put the frighteners on newspapers and RTE by brilliant, unscrupulous and usually behind-the-scenes use of the oppressive libel laws: the Sunday Times was one of the few to have the courage and money to fight back when Thomas 'Slab' Murphy went too far by demanding damages when he was accused of being a member of the organisation of which he was chief-of-staff.

There were other factors. Even tough British journalists simply did not have enough information or understanding to see through the lies and were always vulnerable to the '800-years-of-British-oppression-ploy', in which, of course, the masochistic left - well represented in BBC NI - revelled.

In the south, which is culturally homogenous, the vast bulk of the media took the John Hume and Government line that peace was all about inclusiveness and must not be threatened by the asking of awkward questions; this approach was bolstered by the ancestral voices of nationalism and the sexual frisson of the whiff of cordite. 

Those few of us who wrote about fascists threatening the state were written off by the chattering classes as anti-peace demonisers; I was accused by Eamon Dunphy of having so hurt the feelings of the IRA that they were forced to break the ceasefire at Canary Wharf. 

So where are we now? The media are no longer afraid of violent republicanism, yet instead of pursuing Adams and his clones about IRA murders and torture and racketeering, they still treat republicans with a respect they do not deserve. 

Maybe most of my colleagues just like fascists.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards