State Papers1992-2002

Higgins’s repeal of Sinn Féin broadcast ban caused tension between governments

Current President was minister for arts when he presided over the lifting of broadcasting ban, first introduced in 1971, in 1994

Michael D. Higgins in the department of arts, culture and the gaeltacht in 1993. Photograph: Jack McManus

A government decision overseen by Michael D Higgins to lift the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin when he was minister for arts in 1994 caused tension between Dublin and London, state papers released in Belfast show.

The ban, first introduced in 1971 and strengthened in 1977, prohibited RTÉ and other broadcasters from transmitting interviews with Sinn Féin while the IRA’s terror campaign was at its height.

Known as Section 31, the ban was lifted by the future president in January 1994 in line with taoiseach Albert Reynolds’ desire to encourage Sinn Féin in from the political cold. However, it predated the IRA’s first ceasefire by eight months, and the UK did not lift its own restrictions until September 1994.

During an Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference held in Dublin on January 28th 1994, the Northern Ireland secretary Patrick Mayhew said he was “concerned and disappointed by the Irish government’s decision not to renew the order banning interviews with Sinn Féin and proscribed organisations. He believed that this had sent the wrong signals to the terrorist organisations”, a memo read.


Mr Mayhew argued that Sinn Féin should only be brought within the democratic process “if and when it clearly renounced violence”. Lifting the Irish broadcasting ban was, in his view, “inconsistent with that position and wholly premature”.

Tánaiste Dick Spring said the timing had been dictated by the expiry of the previous Section 31 order and the “essential motivation for the decision (taken on the basis of the recommendation from the minister for art, culture the gaeltacht [Mr Higgins]) was concern for the civil liberties implications of broadcasting restrictions which had formed part of a widespread public debate”.

Mr Spring noted that the broadcasting restrictions could be reintroduced if that became necessary, but he pointed British ministers to “a recent opinion poll which showed only 1½ per cent of support for Sinn Féin in the Irish Republic. It was clear that Sinn Féin were not impacting on the minds of the Irish public and he hoped that interviews by the press would enable their policies to be brought under the microscope thereby making it more difficult for them to justify their views”, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) memo released in Belfast reads.

This was not the only broadcasting issue to cause tension. Ahead of a meeting of British and Irish ministers in April 1994, Northern Ireland Office civil servants advised their ministers to resist pressure from the Irish government to establish an Irish language TV channel as “an all-Ireland service”.

The previous month, March 1994, Mr Higgins had used a keynote speech to the Celtic Film and Television Festival in Derry as an opportunity to announce the establishment of the new Irish language channel, then known as Teilifís Na Gaelige, now renamed TG4.

The confidential notes on “lines to take” for the ministers expressed disappointment “that proposals have been aired publicly before there has been any serious discussion”. The notes say “there have been various hints over the last 6 months that they [the Irish government] are hoping certainly to broadcast into Northern Ireland and perhaps to involve the UK broadcasters in programme production. In a recent speech, however, Michael Higgins took the matter a stage further and talked about the establishment of a ‘real all island service’”.

British ministers are advised that the UK government is clearly interested in “any proposals to improve access to Irish language broadcasting” but the confidential notes go on to pose a series of questions about the cost of the new channel, the frequency that will be used, the hours of broadcasting to be filled and the proposed source of funding.

The document says Irish ministers will “probably try to secure Ministerial commitment to the idea in principle, suggesting that the details can be worked out later”. Officials advise that this approach “should be resisted” and the Irish told to spell out their proposal in more detail. The British rationale is that this is “a complex and technical matter. Cannot possibly give Ministerial commitment at this stage.”

The channel eventually launched two years later, in 1996.

Besides Irish language broadcasting, British and Irish ministers frequently discussed improving RTÉ's signal north of the Border in the mid-1990s.

In January 1994, Mr Spring, told British ministers he “believed this was an issue which had a direct bearing on the political and cultural identity of the minority community who lived there”.

The British minister Michael Ancram sympathised with the Irish government’s intentions but expressed concern that boosting the power at RTÉ's Clermont Carn transmitter might adversely affect the reception of UK channels in the area.