Media had key role in forming our response
“OUR RESPONSE has to be to stand shoulder to shoulder with our American brothers and sisters. It is a nation that Ireland holds very, very dear . . .” President Mary McAleese was speaking on RTÉ radio before the dust had settled – literally – on Ground Zero. As she has done many times since, McAleese was deftly setting the tone and the context of national sentiment.
While the reaction of the Irish public and the elite alike was, as with the bulk of the western world, honest, heartfelt and horrified, there was, it could be argued, a discernible element of self-interest in the our haste to demonstrate the singular nature of our sympathy – like somebody pushing their way to the front of a line of mourners at a funeral.
This was exemplified by the announcement of an official day of mourning – Ireland being one of the very few countries to do so.
This discourse had its roots in economic self-interest, obligations to the diaspora and political considerations, including those involving the Northern peace process. It could also be construed as an opportune use of soft power by a small state. And it was also short-lived. An Irish public visibly moved by American suffering in the attack, would become, within months, relatively critical of US intentions, particularly in relation to war in Iraq.
An analysis of the 9/11 coverage in Ireland’s two leading daily newspapers, The Irish Timesand the Irish Independent,from Wednesday, September 12th to Saturday, September 15th, illustrates the development of what was a form of “consolation diplomacy”.
By stressing and demonstrating the value of its concern, a nation can convey the attractiveness of its values and the authenticity of its sympathy. This is a variation on the concept of soft power – as defined by American academic Prof Joseph Nye in 2004 – which arises from the appeal of a nation’s values, culture and ideals.
While there is no suggestion that figures such as President McAleese and then taoiseach Bertie Ahern consciously set out to create a mood favourable to America, their immediate comments and subsequent statements throughout the week helped to set the agenda for the media in their print, broadcast and nascent digital platforms.
The backdrop to the official reaction was not just the attacks on America. The government was grateful for the pivotal support of both the Clinton and Bush administrations in the increasingly fruitful search for a lasting solution in the North. It also owed a huge debt to Irish-America and its leaders, such as Senator Ted Kennedy, who had pushed for American involvement in the peace process.
There was also an economic angle. As the summer of 2001 began, the rickety walls of the “new, new thing”, as writer Michael Lewis called the internet economy, turned to rubble in the so-called dot-bomb crash. This hit the Celtic Tiger economy hard and followed the taxing setback of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease earlier in the year.
Added to this worrying mix was the fear that the proposed EU enlargement, to include central and eastern European countries, would lead to a fall in the flow of American foreign direct investment that had been key to Irish prosperity.
Certainly, after 10 years of FDI-inspired rapid growth which, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, saw unemployment fall from 14 per cent to just under 4 per cent, Ireland faced an uncertain future even before 9/11. Politicians knew it and would have been foolish not to take every possibility to shore up their economic defences.
Every line of influence, every network, every opportunity had to be taken to restate Ireland’s strengths and values, to reinforce its core attraction.
The role of the media was critical in conveying these concerns, emphasising Ireland’s values and interests and outlining the context of the world post 9/11. This was done through reportage and analysis, editorials and opinion pieces.
However, what brought the story home, so to speak, was the fact that many victims were Irish-American, our extended family of “American brothers and sisters” as McAleese put it. Niall O’Dowd, a leading Irish-American journalist, in an article in The Irish Timesin December, 2001, stated that about 25 per cent of the victims were of Irish extraction. If all politics is local, journalism is not much different.
Both the Irish Timesand the Irish Independentreturned to the Irish angle repeatedly over the next four days ( The Irish Timesonly had three editions as it did not publish on Friday, September 14th – the official day of mourning). In its first editorial on the attacks on Wednesday, September 12th, the newspaper followed the official line: “Ireland, like every other democratic state, feels the direct results of this tragedy. The deep and intimate relations built up over many years with the US were eloquently made plain” [by Ahern and McAleese].
The following day the Irish Independenteditorial also played up the Irish connection: “The grief will be deep and sincere and nowhere more so than in Ireland. We do not know the number of Irish deaths, but we fear the list will grow longer . . . We have seen the horrific casualties among the brave New York firefighters, and have been reminded that men of Irish descent predominate in that force. We will share the agony of families waiting, with diminishing hopes, to hear the fate of their loved ones.”
This “connectedness” to the victims marks this monumental event as one with special significance for Ireland and Ireland played that connectedness for all its worth. By Saturday, the Irish Independentwould describe Ireland as the “51st state” such was the empathy and depth of public sympathy for America.
Two letters to The Irish Timeson the same day underline the power of consolation diplomacy. Hillary Brown Webster, from Seattle, wrote: “As an American, may I take this opportunity to express how touched to the heart I am by Ireland’s grief on our behalf. The solidarity you are showing will uphold us more than you can imagine.”
Likewise Paul Connolly of New York stated: “I too was proud to see the comments of President McAleese quoted in Wednesday’s New York Times.”
Looking back over the Irish Timesand the Irish Independentin the four days following 9/11, it is striking how uniform was the coverage and the reaction of the public. American media theorist Robert Entman stated in his 2004 book, Projections of Power, that the “deliberate, planned activation of mental associations is the province mainly of elites”, and while it can be argued that the speeches of Ahern and McAleese owed more to spontaneous response than to crafted diplomacy, there is no doubting how effective they were in framing the event as one with a connectedness to Ireland.
For one very important constituency, Irish-America, this connectedness would prove to be something of a one-week wonder and leave a sour taste.
As initial sceptics such as Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Timesand Robert Fisk in the Irish Independentwere joined within months by more mainstream popular opinion in questioning America’s appetite for war and revenge, a bruised Irish-America hit back. In that same article in December 2001, Niall O’Dowd warned that the possibility of an “Irish-American backlash over what has been perceived as rabid America bashing in Ireland should not be underestimated” (Stuck in neutral: Ireland’s smug America-bashers, Irish TimesOpinion and Analysis, December 19th, 2001).
O’Dowd cited a letter published in his newspaper, the New York-based Irish Voice: “What fools we Irish-Americans have been. Why did we keep the tradition alive here all these years? We must have been laughing stocks going to Ireland, sending money . . . this has really put an end to anything I will ever have to do with Ireland’.”
Not for the first time, and most assuredly, not for the last time, it was clear that Irish-Americans are Americans first and that Ireland is not the “51st state”.