Ireland correspondents: 'In ways, Syria is easier'

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

Four Irish-based foreign correspondents describe how Ireland is viewed abroad: we’re placid, friendly, in control of our economy and have a ‘weird’ political system


Paulo Nunes dos Santosis a freelance writer and photojournalist who works for both the Portuguese and American press (most notably the Expresso newspaper in Lisbon and the New York Times). He works in conflict zones but also reports on and lives in Ireland, where he is married with a child.

“I came here in 2002 on holiday and stayed. There is a great interest in Portugal in what is going on in Ireland’s economy. They feel it predicts what’s going to happen to them.

“When the IMF got its hands on the Irish economy, people in Portugal knew that we would be next. Things happen in Ireland before they happen in Portugal. A lot of the interest involved comparing the Irish situation to the Portuguese situation. I write mainly on the human side of the crisis.

“The idea they have of Ireland is of a country that developed so much and then had this massive collapse. In covering it, the Portuguese press tried to understand how it could fall from grace like that, and maybe learn lessons from it. Unfortunately, Portugal was next and there was no real chance of avoiding the situation.

“But Ireland gave a good lesson to the politicians in your country. Fianna Fáil was in power for a long time, they screwed up, and at the first opportunity you kicked them out. I wrote at the time that the Irish were punishing the government. That doesn’t happen in Portugal. In Portugal, they have a very short memory.

“There’s also been an interest in the Catholic scandals because we’ve had similar issues . . . I think there was a lot of interest because Portugal is quite similar to Ireland in terms of society being attached to the Catholic Church, but in Portugal we started to break from it a bit earlier.

“I also take photos for the New York Times. I’m doing a piece on the Traveller community because two guys from the Traveller community were arrested in the US in connection with international rhino-horn smuggling.

I’m considering doing a story about punishment shootings around the Border. I find doing stories like that in Ireland difficult for some reason. It’s not an easy place to work as a photojournalist. Irish people are very conscious of cameras and newspapers . . . People are very wary. When I go to Syria or Libya or Sudan, I cross borders illegally with rebel groups. I’ve had knives to the throat and been in vehicles that were being shot at, but in many ways I find it easier than doing photojournalism in Ireland.

“As a non-Irish photographer, one of the boxes you tick straight away are the cliches. If I produce a story about daily life in Dublin, I’d go into Mulligan’s or Moore Street or the horse market in Smithfield . . . maybe some Georgian doors. Now I wouldn’t restrict myself to that, I’d do art galleries and restaurants, too, but I do some of the cliches as well. If I didn’t, an editor would ask: ‘Where are the guys with the horses?’


Enzo Farinellais a correspondent for Vatican Radio and the Italian news agency ANSA. He is also an author and lecturer. He has lived in Ireland for more than 40 years and has written several books about Ireland.

“When I first came here, most of the coverage was about Northern Ireland. I was here for the 30 years of the Troubles, following it and writing about it. I interviewed most of the protagonists: John Hume, Gerry Adams, David Trimble, some people in the IRA.

“In 1978, I started working for ANSA, an Italian news agency. Pope John Paul II came in 1979 and I started working for Vatican Radio. I had the privilege of broadcasting live all the functions of the pope in Ireland. I was the most-wanted journalist in Ireland because when the pope arrived, the director of Vatican radio gave me all the speeches he’d be delivering. I passed the information to no one [he laughs].

“Before I came here, the Irish news that arrived in Rome was mostly from London. And the story that London would present, especially during the Troubles, would have been very different to the story presented from Ireland. When I was writing about the North for a Rome newspaper, the correspondent from London complained because what I was saying wasn’t what London was saying. I was writing the view from Ireland. I remember with Bobby Sands’s death I wrote a full page of the newspaper and on the other page was the view from London, which was the complete opposite view.

“Some stories from the south broke through, such as the Stardust fire, but not too many. Then Ireland developed a miracle economy and that was the story. Lots of journalists from Italy came here and many Irish economists went abroad to portray the Irish miracle . . . People wanted to see if the Irish model could be copied and taken to Italy.

“The church scandals were also covered. They would also cover it on Vatican Radio; not as continuously as in Ireland, but they’d deal with the scandals from Cloyne and Waterford and Wexford and so on.

“The financial crash was of course big news but I think there has been much more pessimism about the conditions here in Ireland than abroad. What is observed in Italy is a desire to overcome the crisis and to deal with the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

“Ireland is seen in a more positive way than other countries in Europe. Spain, Greece and Portugal are all in a situation where we don’t know exactly where things will end up. Ireland seems different.

“I consider the Irish to be the Sicilians of the north of Europe: friendly, hospitable, decent. Irish people are sincere. They love conversing and having a drink together, and that’s perceived abroad as a very positive thing.

“It’s easy to get access here. I was meant to meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny for a lunch today but I have to catch a flight home. If you go to Italy, you won’t see an undersecretary or secretary of state on his own. He’ll be surrounded by special branch people. Here, it’s very easy to speak to people in power.”


Ivan Kushchhas been the Irish correspondent for the partially state owned Russian news agency Itar Tass since 2010. He lives in Dublin with his wife and two young children.

“There’s a video of Russian guys in Galway asking different people on YouTube to say a few words on Ireland. They say: “It is green.” “It rains every day.” “People are friendly,” and that’s all true.

“But in Russian news we tend to follow the United Kingdom more. We have a big community there and a lot of economic and political relations. With Ireland, it’s not so strong. Ireland is often seen as just one of the 27 member states of the EU and is reported in the context of Russian/EU relations. My friends and relatives before I came here knew Ulysses and a couple of writers . . . they knew the story of St Patrick and they knew about Guinness and Jameson.

“Mainly when I write, I try to write a positive view of Ireland. It will be the first country to emerge from its economic crisis and proceed on its own. I think the perception abroad is that you will definitely solve your economic problems. You have economic growth. Your links with the US are quite strong. It all looks positive in my opinion.

“Boxing was quite a popular story during the Olympics because Katie Taylor beat our girl. I reported on the celebrations in Dublin. The Queen’s visit or Obama or the national elections – I wrote a lot of stories at those times.

“It differs from the home coverage in that I have to explain a lot of elements. Your political system is one of the weirdest I know: the preferences [proportional representation], that all has to be explained. In Russia it’s quite simple – you cast one vote and that’s all.

“The level of access is also surprising. At the recent Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit, I drove in with my own car. There were three gardaí at the entrance and they asked who I was. I said I was a Russian correspondent based here, and they said: “Okay, go ahead.” Russia would have more security at every meeting. Here, I can ring a minister such as Lucinda Creighton and just ask a question. It’s very straightforward.

“Dublin is a small village compared to Moscow. I would say the standards of living are higher here . . . I was amazed that you have allowances for renting a house and winter allowances.

“Our health service is much better though. Our youngest child was sick. We were unhappy with how our GP was dealing with him. We booked the next flight to Moscow and in seven hours he was in Moscow, and an hour later he was in the clinic. They did the tests, got the results and gave him the special antibiotic he needed.

“I think the most interesting thing to the Russian audience is that you don’t have rows like in Greece or Portugal. People are calm here. The last Budget was the toughest for ordinary people and still there were more people protesting at the Dáil after Savita Halappanavar died than after the Budget. There was a lot of interest in that story, because the fact that abortion is still banned here is interesting to Russians.


Hervé Amorichas been France 24’s Ireland correspondent for six years, and has been here for 15 years in total. Previously, he worked for AFP and Radio France.

“As a France 24 correspondent you work for an international audience. We broadcast in English and we’re not looking for a French angle on stories, but stories that are of interest to a European and an international audience. We cover Europe really closely.

“I’m preparing today for an interview with Taoiseach Enda Kenny about the Irish presidency of Europe and of course we’ll talk about the abortion legislation but of the 14 questions I have, 12 will be on Europe and the economy.

“Ireland is of particular importance to an international observer because of the very visible and rapid changes that have taken place in the last decade: economic changes, social changes, cultural changes, the relationship with the UK and with the rest of Europe and church and state.

“Since 2008, every single news organisation in the world has focused on the economy, and Ireland is quite unique because of the extreme road it took. It went from boom to bust in a spectacular fashion and was one of first countries to be bailed out. So, again, every agency in Europe has watched to see how Ireland would react and recover.

“Then you had most extreme regime of austerity put in place and again commentators in Europe were asking if there was a lesson to be drawn for other Eurozone countries, such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Ireland has become a laboratory to see what could happen in the rest of Europe.

“What do the French know about Ireland? They know that France will probably beat Ireland in Lansdowne Road next year. They will obviously have heard of Ireland’s economic demise.

“They have heard about the Sophie du Plantier murder. That was a story that got a lot of coverage in France. They know about ‘diddly-aye’ music and the pint of Guinness, but we don’t really go for those cliched images on France 24.

“We have a lot of Irish staff in Paris, ex-RTÉ people and ex-BBC people from Ireland, so my work is quite scrutinised. Maybe it’s because we’re international, but I can remember using only one pint of Guinness in a piece, and that was in a piece to camera in a pub in Moneygall just before Barack Obama came to Ireland.

“Ireland being a smaller country can be a good thing and a bad thing. Good in that you get more access more easily. But at the same time, people are watching what you’re doing all the time.

“Irish people talk. It’s an oral culture. If you take a camera and do vox-pops, you rarely come away with nothing. In Paris, it takes longer.

“If there’s one area where there is a different view taken internationally than in the press at home, it’s on abortion and the coverage of the Savita case. There is a view from outside of Ireland that is less sympathetic to how it could have happened. How could a government fail to legislate for 20 years? Reports across Europe would have been quite critical of Ireland.

“I’ve been a foreign correspondent for a very long time. That’s just what I do. You do a lot of explaining and you put things in perspective but it’s a good thing because you end up with a fuller understanding yourself.”