Embassy examined relationship between IRA and the media


Embassy officials identified a ‘scattering’ of IRA sympathisers in the Irish media

THE BRITISH embassy in Dublin produced a lengthy report on the relationship between the Provisional IRA and the Irish media, following a claim that RTÉ had been infiltrated by republican sympathisers.

The claim was made by councillor Paud Black, lord mayor of Cork, in a speech given to the National Tourism Council on November 18th, 1981. Two days later Black met the British ambassador and explained that, while he had received many messages of support, he now feared for his safety. British diplomats were sceptical about the veracity of Black’s claim. They had believed that the group which had most sympathisers in RTÉ was Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party (the stickies), who were “bitterly anti-Provisional”.

“This is not to say that we regard RTÉ’s coverage of the hunger strikes as having been successful,” wrote PR Whiteway, an official at the British embassy, “but it was reasonably balanced when allowance is made for the underlying sympathy of Irish journalists with the minority community in the North.”

Indeed, the BBC had come in for its share of criticism from the British government over its coverage of the crisis.

While Whiteway did not believe there were many IRA sympathisers within the national broadcaster, he did suggest that there were a “scattering of them in the newspapers and magazines”. Of these, he claimed the “best known” were Ed Moloney and Seán Cronin in The Irish Times, Deasún Breathnach in the Irish Independent, Vincent Browne and Gene Kerrigan in Magill, Eamon McCann and Gerry Lawless in the Sunday Worldand Paddy Prendiville in the Sunday Tribune. That said, it was also made clear that “the presence of journalists sympathetic to the Provisionals does not seem to have affected the editorial line of the main newspapers and magazines with the exception of Magill”. Most newspapers remained “bitterly anti-IRA”.

Much more widespread than sympathy for the IRA was “dislike of British authority – particularly in Northern Ireland – which partly reflects general Irish feeling but may be intensified by a belief among Irish media people that they are considered provincial”.

Whiteway continued: “Most professional Irish journalists feed off the North. Death and disaster keep them busy and brings fellow journalists from all over the Western world to see them – offers of syndication rights, bylines abroad and so on. The hunger strike proved to many Irish journalists that they mattered and that Ireland mattered. No wonder that they milked it for all it was worth.”

Whiteway suggested that there was “an almost blithe lack of responsibility in what they write and a failing, either to perceive that the Provisionals pose a serious threat to society in the South, or – if they are more perceptive – to feel that as journalists they have any responsibility for this situation or much loyalty to the society of which they form a part”.

His document also noted “widespread irritation” with the media, “particularly in well-to-do and Fine Gael circles, and the belief that if they ceased rubbing everyone’s nose in the problem, it would, if not go away, at least be more manageable”.

In a follow-up memorandum, DR Snoxell at the Republic of Ireland department agreed that “little sympathy that does exist is motivated more by self-interest than by a genuine compatibility with PIRA”. However, he added that “the fact that journalists like Moloney and Cronin get their articles into The Irish Times, despite editorial control, implies some degree of latent sympathy for their views.”

Snoxell claimed “the media attracts bright people who are keen to make their names and faces known but the Republic simply does not generate enough internal news to go around. This may result in an obsession with the search for sensational news from the ‘war front’ and translate itself politically into an apparent sympathy for the left and radical chic.”

During the same period, the British foreign office clashed with Reuters over the news wire’s reluctance to use the term “terrorists” to describe the Provisional IRA.

In September 1981, PR Whiteway also reported on a lengthy discussion with Martin Mansergh, who had just been appointed as head of the Fianna Fáil research department. Mansergh entered into what Whiteway called a “long-winded” critique of the British government’s handling of the hunger strike.

According to Whiteway, Mansergh also contrasted with the calm and “statesmanlike” manner in which Haughey had handled the hunger strikes with that of the FitzGerald government, whom he criticised for holding “frenetic press briefings”. He also warned that Fianna Fáil was the republican party and that, if the present situation continued, the leadership might “come under pressure to do something drastic”.

In a follow-up note, another official described how he had relayed this conversation to Wally Kirwan, assistant secretary in the department of the taoiseach, who had replied that “Mansergh was a 100 per cent Haughey supporter who had made no secret of his political leanings . . .” Mansergh “evidently had political ambition in his native Tipperary but Kirwan found it inconceivable that he could ever escape the handicap of his ‘West Brit’ accent even though there was no denying his talent and ability”.