Sifting through Northern Ireland's rumour machine


I was walking down the street the other night with a friend from Northern Ireland when he said of a man who had been present at dinner: "Of course, Jimmy [not his real name] is a spook." "He isn't," I said, for I know Jimmy to be jobless and penniless. "He is. He has to be." When I asked for evidence, it emerged that Jimmy had to be a spook because he looked like one and he was interested in Northern Ireland.

Considering that my friend, like me, has frequently been accused by paramilitary apologists of being an agent of MI5 or MI6, this was a bit rich. What was even richer was that I too used to think, for exactly my friend's ridiculous reasons, that Jimmy was a spook. It was a useful reminder that people who deal much with Northern Ireland always catch its contagious disease, paranoia.

In the furore last week over Jim Cusack's report that Chris Patten's Commission on Policing was contemplating significant changes in to the RUC, the symptoms of this disease were well visible. Unionists were queueing up to believe that six months before the report was due, the RUC had already been betrayed, while Gerry Adams was blaming the story on "security elements" trying to put up obstacles to root-and-branch change.

None of this was a surprise to me, for I had had several phone calls of the woe-woe-and-thrice-woe variety from Northern Ireland last week telling me four different stories that conclusively proved that the Northern Ireland Office/Mo Mowlam/the British and Irish governments/and Ronnie Flanagan, the RUC Chief Constable, were engaged in conspiracies of one kind or another to sell out the decent people of the province and the police in particular.

Being in remission from the disease at the time, I was soothing and assured them they were getting everything out of perspective.

The Jimmy experience rattled me, though, and led me to think hard about the peculiar circumstances in which we hacks operate in Northern Ireland. I'm not a good example, for I don't live there, I've been given up as unseduceable by both lots of paramilitaries and, having once been a civil servant, I rarely believe anything any politicians or officials tell me. But think about what the place does to the average journalist.

Let's take young Joseph, bright, eager and desperate to prove himself, who is sent by a London newspaper to spend three years as the Northern Ireland correspondent. Had he been sent to Washington or Brussels or Tokyo he would have had to fight for the attention of the natives. But the day he hits Belfast, he is a man of serious consequence, a prize possession to be fought over, a vital player in what Adams has called "the unarmed propaganda" war.

The British government machine will want to know if Joseph is "helpful"; the security forces will be keen to see if he's a useful conduit for kite-flying exercises; smooth-talking loyalist and republican spokesmen will begin the charm offensive; John Hume will find time to do a bit of mesmerising; and representatives of the Irish Government will cosy up to Joseph at every opportunity.

Unless he is very canny, he'll succumb to some or all of these forces. He'll be safe, of course, from most unionists, who disapprove of seduction on principle. But they'll have a view of him, nonetheless, and if they think he's fallen for their enemies' propaganda they'll glower at him resentfully and say he's gone green.

From the moment he lands in Northern Ireland, Joseph will have the heady experience of having his stories pored over and commented on by the very people about whom he's writing. As he writes, he will know whom he's going to please and whom he's going to upset. He'll be praised or challenged by people with 30 years of experience of dealing with the world's press. He will find he cannot stay aloof and keep his distance, for he is a soldier in the battle-ground that is the media in Northern Ireland.

If Joseph were working in Washington, no one there would care enough about what he wrote to accuse him of being partisan: in Northern Ireland, he'll be labelled within weeks. He may even come to think of himself as a player, someone who can make a difference.

Joseph's best hope of holding on to his virginity is to find an experienced hack to warn him of the wiles of the would-be seducers.

Fortunately for him, such help will be easily forthcoming. The pressure is such in Northern Ireland that journalists make common cause more than they would elsewhere. When an enraged Sinn Feiner grabbed the lapels of one British journalist and told him he would be henceforward barred from republican circles for the crime of being with me when I was indulging myself by teasing Martin McGuinness, the young man smiled seraphically and said: "Hacks hunt in packs. You just have to put up with it."

What is most vital for Joseph, however, is to be warned about the perils of living in what has been rightly described as the "rumour-factory" that is Northern Ireland. Quite apart from the squads of people who are deliberately planting disinformation, the place is rife with those innocently passing on stories they implicitly believe.

What starts out as a speculation in the morning in Antrim is a proven fact by lunchtime in Portadown. The place is alive with networks that specialise in Chinese whispers: members of the Orange Order are more accomplished gossips that the clientele of Doheny and Nesbitt.

Jim Cusack's story was worth running, for the debate on the RUC needs to be out in the open. But the rumour-factory will be going at full production to decide who leaked what and why. I've already applied to myself the medicine that keeps my own paranoia under control, constant rereading of these lines from Walter Bagehot, the wisest of wise journalists: "Nothing can exceed the torture of being constantly told `on the best authority' a vast variety of inconsistent rumours, the mass of which must be lies, but some one of which may possibly have some truth in it.

"Every person of any influence in such matters knows that the truth at the moment is imparted only to a very few persons, who are generally reticent, and selected because they are reticent, and that therefore the mass of grave and plausible persons who affect to know so much are usually impostors, and know nothing."