Category Archives: Media

Martin McGuinness, Informers, the Media and Why Dissident Republicans Still Kill People

This is one of those weeks when I am glad to be in New York and not Belfast. I’ll explain why further down, but it’s not for the reasons that you think.

Last weekend, dissident republicans, i.e. anti-Provisional ones, killed a young member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, using a bomb that was a standard IRA weapon when the Troubles were raging. It was nicknamed by those who developed and used the device ‘an up and under’, an appellation derived from the way it was placed.

Dissident IRA bomb killed policeman in Omagh, Co. Tyrone

An “up and under” was a small bomb, usually packed into a Tupperware-style container that was attached to the underside of a car, usually just beneath the driver’s seat, assuming the driver was the target, and designed to explode while the car was in motion.

It was affixed to the bodywork by a strong magnet and detonated by a mercury tilt switch, essentially a small tube partially filled with mercury that would flow from one end of the tube to the other, thereby completing an electrical circuit, whenever the car was driven on to a gradient.

Once it was flowing, the electric current would detonate a fuse which in turn would set off the main charge. It was the easiest device to place and it took just a few furtive moments to begin the process of hurling someone into eternity. All the bomber had to do was crouch down, slip the package underneath the car and then up into the seat well. Hence the nickname.

The Provisional IRA, whose resourceful engineering department devised this and many other weapons during the Troubles, used this sort of bomb repeatedly. Not only was it an effective weapon that invariably killed but it required little in the way of investment: a few ounces of explosive, some basic intelligence work, one person and a getaway car with driver. One additional bonus was that the hardest bit, placing the bomb, could be done in the middle of the night when the risks of being caught were minimal.

It also terrified those who were its potential targets, mainly RUC officers and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment but also politicians, judges, prosecutors and civil servants whose every day would have to begin with an undignified but possibly life-saving search of the underneath of their vehicles. The bomb was the ultimate psychological weapon, a constant reminder from the Provos to the security establishment that there was a war going on which might tomorrow morning claim their lives, or at least their legs.

Most the weapon’s victims were policemen or UDR soldiers killed as they drove to work in the mornings but there were more prominent casualties as well. John McMichael, the talented UDA leader, was one, killed in the driveway of his Lisburn,

John McMichael, the UDA commander killed by an IRA up and under" bomb

Co. Antrim home by an “up and under” device. His killing, it was widely believed at the time, was carried out by the IRA in retaliation for the assassination bid on Gerry Adams, shot as he was being driven through the centre of Belfast after a court appearance in March 1984.

McMichael was the UDA’s military commander at the time and since he was spotted scouting the courthouse a few minutes before Adams was ambushed, it was assumed, not unreasonably, that he had something to do with it. The Provos bided their time and killed McMichael in December 1987 over three years later.

The timing of McMichael’s death may also have had something to do with an internal inquiry he had launched into fellow UDA member Jim Craig who was

Jim Craig, UDA traitor killed by his own people

killed by his own people a year later. Craig was a UDA traitor and as corrupt as they come. He had been passing on information to the IRA and INLA for some time and was believed, for instance, to have told the IRA where they could best kill Lennie Murphy, the leader of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang who was gunned down by an IRA squad in 1982. Revenge for trying to kill Gerry Adams was certainly one motive for blowing McMichael to pieces but so was the desire to preserve a valuable asset in the UDA.

(The Adams’ shooting had an interesting sequel. The late Tommy Little, who some years later succeeded Andy Tyrie as Supreme Commander of the UDA, told

Tommy Little, learned about the 'top men's agreement'.

me that later on the day of the Adams’ shooting an angry Joe Haughey rang the UDA’s headquarters on the Newtownards Road demanding to know what had happened to ‘the top men’s agreement’. Haughey was an IRA leader from the Unity Flats area, incidentally, who was later charged with, but acquitted of killing Mary Travers, the daughter of Belfast magistrate Tom Travers a few weeks after the attempt on Adams’ life. So why was an IRA commander making angry phone calls to the guys who had just tried to kill his boss? How come he even had their number?

Tommy made some inquiries and discovered that ‘the top men’s agreement’ was just that, a deal between the leaders of the IRA, UDA and UVF that while their respective ‘grunts’ were fair game, none of their leaders would ever be touched. It apparently had been struck sometime in the mid-1970‘s when Belfast’s sectarian slaughter was at its height. Such were the ethical rules of Northern Ireland’s dirty little war: kill the other ranks whenever and wherever you can, but we officer-types are off-bounds! Anyway the Adams’ assassination effort marked the end of the ‘top men’s agreement’, although it is remarkable how many of the ‘top men’ nonetheless came through it all with nary a scrape.)

Gerry Adams (centre, wearing glasses) - John McMichael was killed in retaliation for bid on his life

UDA and IRA had 'top men's agreement' to safeguard their leaders from attack

Nor was the IRA the only republican organisation to use “up and under” bombs. Their most famous victim was the Tory MP, Airey Neave who was killed in 1979 when just such a device placed by the INLA exploded under his car as he was driving up the ramp from the underground car park at the House of Commons in Westminster. The bomb blew off both his legs and he died an hour later in hospital from massive

Airey Neave with Margaret Thatcher

shock and loss of blood. Neave had masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid for the leadership of the British Conservatives and was slated to be her NI Secretary, which would have been good news for Unionists since he was an avid supporter of their cause.

I mention all this to demonstrate that the sort of bomb which killed Ronan Kerr has been around for decades and there is absolutely nothing new or particularly innovative about their use. But what did I read in the following Monday’s Irish Times but this:

British and Irish security and intelligence sources are increasingly concerned at the technical capacity of dissident republican groups following Saturday’s murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in an under-car explosion in Co Tyrone.

They believe the dissidents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their bomb-making capability, while the PSNI has described as ‘substantial’ the device that killed Constable Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic, in Omagh.

The PSNI, Garda and MI5 fear the dissidents are using under-car bombs that are miniature and more difficult to detect.

Reading that brought me back with a jolt to the days when it was often my job to write up such incidents. My abiding memory of that time was that the media, both Irish and British, often felt free, some seemed compelled, to write the most exaggerated, loosely sourced nonsense about such events. The effect was to to paint groups like the IRA in the most lurid of colors so as to emphasize how utterly beyond the pale they were.

In more recent times, both pre and post the St Andrews’ Agreement, there has been a small industry working away with energy and skill to do the same sort of thing with the dissidents, except in their case it is to inflate the perceived threat that they represent.

Before the St Andrews’ Agreement it was mostly Sinn Fein who were in this business and from their viewpoint it made sense. The more they could persuade everyone that only they stood between a fragile peace and a return to the bad old days of the Troubles, the easier it was to extract political concessions from the British and Irish governments and the easier it was to persuade the authorities on both sides of the Border to turn a blind eye to their various, uh, money-raising ventures, like armed robberies and tiger kidnappings on the grounds that such things were necessary to keep the hard men happy and on board.

Post the St Andrews’ Agreement a number of groups have had a vested interest in over-egging the dissident pudding. Some, like this bunch of London-based neocons, are in the business worldwide and especially in the Middle East, of exaggerating terrorist threats but is it not hard to work out either that, in these straitened days, both the PSNI and MI5 have much to gain if we are all led to believe that the dissidents are really, really bad news.

The PSNI and MI5 are, in Northern Ireland, primarily in the anti-terrorist business so the more terrorists they make us think there are and the more fearsome they seem to be, the greater the amount of money, manpower, prestige and bureaucratic clout that will come their way. There are also those, in both these two organisations and in the wider political world, who hope that in such ways Sinn Fein might be persuaded to embrace its Four Courts moment and take the offensive against erstwhile comrades, an event that would, like its Dublin counterpart in 1922, finally seal the peace process beyond any doubt or chance of retreat.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going the other way and minimising the threat posed by dissidents. Clearly they are capable of killing people. It’s just that compared to the Provos and what it was really like during the Troubles, even in the final years, the dissidents are a faint shadow, a mouse beside an elephant in comparison and they just don’t merit the hysterical, exaggeration-laden coverage of the last few days. I’ve seen reports, for instance, that the dissident groups have 600 members between them. In the name of God, that’s more than the Provos had in their ranks in the 1980’s when they nearly wiped our Mrs Thatcher’s entire Cabinet!

Nor am I necessarily getting over-exercised about the behaviour of the PSNI and MI5. It is an immutable law of organisations that they overstate the need for their own existence. In such ways not only do they get to keep their jobs but they get better and bigger ones. I don’t like nor approve of what they do, but neither am I surprised. And as for nudging the Provos to their Four Courts moment, what would you expect?

What really bugs me, and brought me back in this instance with a jolt to the days when I had to report similar events, is that it is no business of the media to indulge these organisations and interests in the way reflected in that Irish Times report. Of course, reporters must give an account of what such people have to say, making clear these are only claims, and balance the report by putting what happened in context. But no more than that.

To highlight what I am trying to say here, that Irish Times report could just as easily have read:

Dissident republicans kill first security force member in two whole years using booby trap bomb technology developed thirty years ago and inherited from Provisional IRA campaign. Security experts believe dissidents have sourced a supply of smaller Tupperware containers. Attack highlights patchy and fitful pattern of violent activity from dissident groups better noted for incompetence, political confusion and propensity to steal money sent from American sympathisers for prisoners’ families.

The reason why reports like the one in the Irish Times that I have just lampooned bug me is that I know that the reporters are fully aware of all this yet it doesn’t stop them. I can’t speak on a first-hand basis for the situation nowadays but when I used to observe this sort of reporting in situ, I was overwhelmingly aware of the real, albeit unspoken reason and I doubt if it has changed that much.

It was as if the journalists were saying:

OK, I strongly suspect we’re being fed mostly bullshit. But if I don’t go along with it I’ll be accused of not taking the threat seriously which means people might think that I secretly sympathise with those responsible because I don’t want to make them look bad. So rather than be labelled ‘a sneakin’ regarder’, I’ll go along with all the hyperbole and that way I’ll keep my job.

That sort of reasoning is part of what I call the Section 31 syndrome, a nasty leftover from the official censorship and its more insidious cousin, self-censorship that was ushered in by the Irish Republic’s broadcasting law of the 1970’s. The law forbad radio and television outlets from broadcasting the voices of members of certain proscribed groups. The IRA and SInn Fein were the principal targets but it had a chilling effect generally on coverage of the Troubles that lasted for many, many years.

The official censorship filtered into the print media and brought Ireland into an ice age of self-censorship that for many reporters was all about professional survival. Journalists were terrified of being labeled a fellow traveler of the IRA while timidity and mediocrity thrived. In my view Section 31 needlessly perpetuated the Troubles because it inhibited real understanding of what was going on. Simple reportage of the “Last night a bomb exploded….” variety almost entirely replaced efforts to explain what persuaded otherwise normal people to do things as extreme as planting the bombs.

The law was repealed at the outset of the peace process but the truth is that by that stage it was unnecessary to do such things by law; the media were perfectly capable of censoring themselves without any urging from the State. They still are and that this sort of behaviour lingers on in the coverage of bombings like that at the weekend is profoundly depressing and for me a reminder of why I was so happy to leave it all behind. And it’s why this week I’m glad I’m here and not there.

On a slightly different tack the killing of Ronan Kerr has brought the Provos a little closer to their Four Courts moment and that’s important because it helps to explain why the dissidents exist and are so intent on keeping a war alive that everyone else regards, correctly, as a lost cause.

The move came from Martin McGuinness who had these words to say to the media in the aftermath of the bomb:

I would say, and I am standing up to be counted, give the information to the police, give it to the Garda in the south if you have it, give it to the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] in the north.

My message is very, very simple: those who are perpetrating these acts, those who are killing our people, need to be apprehended.

These are people who are pledged to destroy the peace and destroy a peace process that many of us have invested much of our adult lives in trying to bring about.

That’s a step up from McGuinness’ comments when dissidents last killed security force members, two soldiers shot dead in March 2009 at an military barracks in Co. Antrim and a PSNI member shot dead in Co. Armagh. That time he called the perpetrators “traitors”. He was roundly criticized by other, non-Provo republicans, and even by some Provos, for his choice of words and that he has gone a stage further this time and called on people to inform is surely significant. It will also spur the dissidents to more violence.

A measure of how significant his words are can be judged by watching, by way of sharp contrast, this extract from a TV interview that McGuinness gave when he was Northern Commander of the IRA and men and women under his command did a good deal more than plant “up and unders” beneath policemen’s cars. “Death”, he agreed with interviewer Peter Taylor, was the fate reserved for those who betrayed the IRA.

Martin McGuinness knows a thing or two about informers. He was centrally involved in the celebrated, not to say infamous case of the Derry informer Frank Hegarty about which you can read more here. The affair ended with Hegarty’s death and a more than lingering belief amongst some at the IRA’s highest reaches that perhaps the wrong informer had been killed.

He also played a part in the more tragic death of IRA informer Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old woman from West Belfast whose offence was, so I have been told, to betray an arms dump containing a single rifle. (Maybe if she had just said that it was an act of anticipatory decommissioning she would have lived. But she didn’t.)

She was killed in July 1994 just a month before the first peace process, IRA ceasefire was called. When the Army Council met to decide, inter alia, whether to confirm her death sentence, IRA and Sinn Fein leaders were faced with a dilemma. Her offence was relatively minor and the war was about to end, so what the hell, maybe she should be spared. But if the leadership let her live then it would have sowed suspicion in the ranks of those in the IRA who still believed the leadership line that the peace process was merely a tactical device to wrong foot the Brits and not a plot to go constitutional. The dissidents-in-waiting, if you like, would have been needlessly alarmed.

And so poor Caroline Moreland was given the thumbs down by those seven men in a room. There was a brief discussion on how to handle her killing. One person suggested that she be disappeared, that is killed, her body dumped in a secret grave and lies told to her family about what had really happened. Who came up with the idea? Well, put it this way, it wasn’t Gerry Adams.

The idea was dismissed by one figure on the Council, someone who was aware that the whole issue of the disappeared of the 1970’s might well return to haunt him and that it would be foolish to add to that problem. And who was that? Well let’s just say it wasn’t Martin McGuinness.

The point about all this history telling is this. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played roles in the development and selling of the peace process that was a little akin to Mutt and Jeff, the good cop, bad cop routine. Adams was the good cop, whose role was to interact with John Hume and be the public face of diplomacy in dealings with governments, the White House and so on. McGuinness’ role, a suitable one since he had the active service record and Adams didn’t, was to be the bad cop, to reassure the IRA grassroots that there would be no sell out while he was running Northern Command and that if Martin backed the peace process then there was nothing to be worried about.

And it worked perfectly, well almost so. Dissident opposition to the Adams-McGuinness strategy did emerge but it came in two waves and because of that the strategy triumphed. The first was led by people like Michael McKevitt, the IRA Quarter-Master General who was close enough to events and the major players to

Micky McKevitt, the first IRA dissident

get suspicious early on about the real deal that was coming down the pike. But his effort to overthrow Adams was frustrated and then when he broke off to form the Real IRA and made common cause with the INLA and the Continuity IRA against the Adams-McGuinness strategy, the venture was torpedoed by the Omagh bomb.

The next wave came many years later and really didn’t gather steam until the Provos agreed to accept and recognise the PSNI in the wake of the St Andrews’ Agreement which brought them into government with Ian Paisley and the DUP. The people involved in this wave were those who had ignored McKevitt’s warnings, and went along with the leadership’s claim that he was just an ambitious malcontent. They chose to stay within the bosom of the Provos, preferring to believe Martin McGuinness’s soothing words rather than the reality unfolding all around them. But when Martin & Co. agreed to back the PSNI they could deny the reality no longer.

Their determination to go back to war appears therefore to be fueled less by any sophisticated plan to destabilize Sinn Fein or the peace deal and more by their anger at being misled and tricked by the Provo leadership, especially the bad cop, Martin McGuinness. They were always wary of Gerry Adams. He was ever the crafty politician, never to be trusted. But Martin was one of their own. How could he lie so treacherously, they cried?

And so their anger at McGuinness is expressed in the killing of Ronan Kerr. Except that’s not the full truth either. The people they’re really angry at are themselves, for being so stupid, except they won’t admit as much. That’s why they’ll keep on planting “up and unders” and why others like Ronan Kerr will die. And it is why they’re not really a threat and why the peace process will likely survive everything they throw at it.

The Death of a Newspaper

The announcement last week that Tony O’Reilly had sent the bailiffs into the Sunday Tribune was a bit like hearing of the death of an old ailing friend; you had been expecting it for a long time but even so, the shock is still intense, the sadness real.

The Sunday Tribune was so much part of my life in Irish journalism that it really does feel like a limb has been chopped off (not that you would notice the difference these days!).

The paper was born out of the old Hibernia weekly magazine that had been run for years out of a Dickensian suite of offices near Dublin’s Custom House by John Mulcahy and his wife Nuala in their uniquely paternal but often inspirational way. They gave me my first proper job in journalism – for which I will always be grateful – and since I was there at the death of Hibernia, I can claim, I think, to have played a small part in the conception, if not birth, of the Tribune.

The Mulcahy’s had the good luck to come into ownership of Hibernia at the start of the Northern Troubles and they made the magazine’s name with a consistent record of investigative journalism on that side of the Border, burrowing into places where the mainstream press did not have the nous nor, as government-imposed and media self-censorship began to bite, the courage to delve. To its eternal credit Hibernia earned the wrath of Conor Cruise O’Brien in the flush of his Section 31 days; he took a hissy fit one day and condemned it as a cross between the good wine guide and Republican News. Mulcahy thought it a wonderful compliment.

Sadly it was the North that also brought Hibernia to its knees. An article by the late, great Jack Holland about the involvement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary alongside Loyalist paramilitaries in the intimidation and forced movement of hundreds of Catholic families from the Rathcoole area of north Belfast in 1972 spelled disaster for the magazine. Jack had named a couple of senior RUC officers as being in charge of the local police, and therefore responsible for what happened during those terrible days but unfortunately he got his information from a Constabulary gazette that was out of date. The cops sued, it was an open and shut case and that was the end of Hibernia.

(In a last desperate effort to get some dirt on the policemen, Mulcahy gave me two weeks off in the early part of 1980 to dig into the story for any evidence that they had been somehow involved. They weren’t, but my burrowing took me to the Twinbrook housing estate on the fringe of West Belfast where many of the Rathcoole refugees had been rehoused. One of the families I interviewed was called Sands and they told me that yes, the RUC had stood idly by watching, while they were forced by armed thugs to flee their home and their eldest boy, who was called Bobby, was so angry that afterwards he had joined the IRA and was now languishing in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. We’d soon hear a lot more about him.)

With Hibernia out of business, Mulcahy launched the Sunday Tribune later the same year with Conor Brady (originally editor of the Garda Review and later the Irish Times) as his editor. But then the Midas syndrome, the conviction that some businessmen develop that they can do no wrong or ever fail in commercial matters, intervened. The Tribune was doing well, its journalism was much admired and it was moving towards profitability when one of Mulcahy’s partners, Hugh McLaughlin insisted on launching a new daily paper, the Daily News which was a (deservedly) disastrous flop. When it failed the Sunday Tribune was brought crashing down alongside it.

In stepped Vincent Browne to buy the title and relaunch the paper. Sunday Tribune Mark II, the real Trib, was born.

If there is one man who made me the journalist I later became it was Vincent. By the time I first encountered him, in 1979, he was already a legend. He’d cut his reporting teeth for the Irish Press group and later the Irish Independent covering the North in the very early days of the Troubles. He was the very first to talent spot Gerry Adams, then working his way up through the ranks of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, and he penetrated the strange world of Northern Loyalism, something very few other southern journalists were able or willing to do.

One story, an interview with a youngish Ian Paisley caused a sensation when the Protestant leader effectively (albeit only temporarily) abandoned his Unionist politics and conceded that if Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were scrapped (they laid claim on the territory of Northern Ireland), he’d favour closer relations with the South. Changing the constitution in this way thereafter became a priority, even an obsession for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. They finally got their way in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

By 1968 he had already started one magazine, the monthly Nusight (which propelled that complex being, Kevin Myers into journalism) and then in 1977 he launched Magill magazine which had so many high points over the years  (the Arms Trial issues come to mind) that you couldn’t count them.

Two qualities marked Browne out as a truly exceptional editor and journalist: one was a real love for the skill of reportage, that is the ability to firstly identify where the story was and then to get at it and finally write it up in an attractive, readable yet penetrating fashion, and the second was his gift for spotting other journalistic talent. Some of Ireland’s most talented reporters and writers, from Colm Toibin (former Magill editor) to Paddy Agnew to Gene Kerrigan (Magill columnist) amongst many, many others, got their start with Vincent and I believe it is for this that he should be best remembered. He watered the garden of Irish journalism (often with more than the stuff that comes out of taps) and planted many of its seeds. Inasmuch as the garden has blossomed, it is in no small measure down to Vincent.

Vincent also gave me a start by commissioning a series of articles on the North in 1979. With those pieces in my portfolio I was able to persuade John Mulcahy to give me employment (landing a job with Hibernia was the equivalent then of waking up in Heaven) and the rest is history. I briefly rejoined Magill a couple of years later before moving to D’Olier Street and when the Irish Times and myself fell out in 1986, I was hired by Vincent as the Sunday Tribune’s Northern editor. I stayed there until 2001, outlasting him incidentally by nearly a decade. He could be extraordinarily kind and generous – he and his delightful wife Jean, once put me up for weeks in Dublin while I house-searched for my new family – and he always paid well if he was getting good work from you.

Vincent in his heyday

There was however another side to Vincent, as those who had dealings with him knew only too well. He could never make a friend without falling out with them, often in a tirade of angry insults and abuse. He had high standards to be sure and couldn’t abide it when others failed to meet them, as they often did. There’s nothing wrong with that but Vincent could be so unimaginably cruel to people who otherwise worshipped him that these confrontations often ended with the victim in tears, vowing eternal hatred for the man.

His editorial meetings on a Tuesday morning were such exercises in terror that I always found an excuse to skip them. That was the great advantage of working in Belfast, a hundred miles away; there was always a breaking story to cover or the plea that making the journey there and back would lose me a full working day.

I attended only a handful of them and they were truly awful affairs. The staff would filter into Vincent’s office with about as much enthusiasm as a condemned man facing the gallows. The bravest among them would take seats at the big editorial table while the rest hugged the wall as if praying that they would merge with the paintwork and go unnoticed. There was a good reason for that; Vincent would always descend upon one poor soul and rage about how pitiful their story that weekend had been. Even though the humiliation was heart-rending to witness, the rest of us would breathe a sigh of relief, quickly tempered by a horrifying thought: “Would it be my turn next week?”

Being stationed in Belfast meant that our paths rarely crossed and for that reason I probably stayed friends with Vincent longer than most. But inevitably the day of our falling out arrived. We quarreled about many things but at the root of our dispute was a fundamental difference about where the North, and specifically the IRA, was going.

Like most in the Southern media, Vincent had failed to spot the burgeoning peace process and by the early 1990’s he was openly advocating the re-introduction of internment to deal with the Provos. By contrast I was writing about the potentially huge ideological changes, and likely compromises to come, that were happening within the leadership of Sinn Fein and, therefore, the IRA. But as far as Vincent was concerned I might as well have been filing my copy from Mars, so out of touch with reality, so accommodating to the men of violence was my coverage.

We dueled furiously over ersatz issues and finally a fax arrived one summer afternoon. I was being transferred to work in the Dublin office. How quickly could I report for duty, he demanded? I replied ‘Whenever you wish’ and heard nothing more. He had obviously been hoping that I would object and refuse, and that would be a firing offence. In reality he wanted me nowhere near the Dublin office. And so it went on until deus ex machina-like, everything changed.

For that I have to thanks Vincent’s other failing, the fact that he was a lousy businessman. Like Hugh McLaughlin he was infected with the Midas virus and in the early 1990’s, as the Sunday paper was consolidating itself, he started the Dublin Tribune, a giveaway that was meant to form the beginnings of a new daily paper.

Now anyone who knows anything about the newspaper business can tell you that you produce freesheets with nothing more ambitious than two men and a dog; anything more and it becomes a sure money loser. But Vincent knew better and before too long there were more reporters working for the giveaway Dublin Tribune than were employed in the money-making parent publication. Admittedly the journalism was great and once again Vincent discovered some great writing talent – it was edited by the lovely Michael Hand and Rory Godson and, inter alia, included amongst its stars Ed O’Loughlin, listed for a Booker prize in 2009 for his novel ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ – but it was a commercial disaster and a drain on the Sunday Tribune.

Finally the board moved against Vincent and, in 1994, he was sacked. The Trib then became part of the Independent stable, bought by Tony O’Reilly we were told, to stave off a broader challenge to his titles from Rupert Murdoch’s empire.The Sunday Tribune never made Tony O’Reilly a penny, as far as I know, and it was always a mystery why he kept it going, especially since the rationale for buying it had long since been undermined by the Sunday Times’ success in Ireland. The only surprise in the move to put the paper into receivership is that it took so long to happen.

I cannot say that I have a word of complaint about O’Reilly’s management of the Sunday Tribune. They stood bravely by me when Scotland Yard attempted to destroy my career and always allowed me a complete free hand in my coverage of the North, especially during the controversial years of the peace process when the Irish media were sharply divided into the (larger) ‘helpful to the process, i.e. ask no questions’ camp and the (much smaller) ‘unhelpful, i.e. ask too many awkward questions’  bunch, of which I am proud to say I was a founder member.

But the Sunday Tribune for me will always be Vincent Browne’s newspaper. I will miss it just as I miss our friendship.

Any takers?

The Irish General Election

In the wake of the economic collapse in Ireland, the Fianna Fail-led coalition government headed by prime minister Brian Cowen has crumbled amid allegations of widespread lying and corruption in Irish political life. A general election will be held within weeks.

Gerry Adams Action Hero

Gerry Adams has quit his West Belfast seat to stand in Louth, and if elected will lead Sinn Fein in the Dail, the Irish parliament. Many observers believe Sinn Fein could do well, possibly well enough to become a partner in the next government. In the coming election the dishonesty of politicians and the extent to which their words and promises can be believed, will be major issues in voters’ minds. Here are some extracts from reports and interviews dealing with the central issue in Adams’ political life, the achievement of a united Ireland via the peace process. No comment from me is necessary.

BBC, 14th January 2000

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has predicted there could be a united Ireland in 16 years time.

Mr Adams made the comment to rousing applause at a rally for party supporters in New York on Thursday night.

He said the logic of the peace process would lead to unification – perhaps by the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which was seen a turning point for Irish nationalism.

“If we want to make progress then there is no reason whatsoever, from someone who has dealt with the unionists close up, who has dealt with the British close up, no reason why we cannot celebrate the 1916 Rising in the year 2016, in a free and united Ireland.”

Irish Independent, 18th November 2003

A UNITED Ireland by 2016 is on the cards, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness  predicted last night.

With nine days left to the North’s Assembly Election, the Mid Ulster MP said at his party’s manifesto launch republicans could attain their goal by the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

“As we develop the north-south implementation bodies and people co-operate and work together, I think people will see more and more the logic of that,” Mr McGuinness said.

“Certainly it is our view that it can be accomplished over a short period. Gerry Adams has said 2016 and I think that is achievable.”

Guardian, 15th September 2007 – Gerry Adams interviewed by Nick Stadlen,

NS: You said that a united Ireland could be achievable by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising …

GA: Well I didn’t quite say that. A colleague of mine said that and then when I was asked the question I said: “But if we don’t get it, don’t blame us”. Because it will not happen inevitably, it will only happen if we continue to pursue proper strategies, and if we’re able to develop the political strength and the political support … if we’re able to create the political conditions to bring that about, and I think that we have got the ability to create those conditions, but I wouldn’t be precious about it’s going to happen at such and such a date.

University Times (paper of Trinity College, Dublin), 26th January 2011 – Gerry Adams interviewed by Eugene Reavey

Q – It now seems that the party’s goal of achieving Irish unity by 2016 will not come to fruition. Are you still hopeful of achieving unity in your lifetime, or do you feel the political will amongst the other parties no longer exists?

A – The party’s primary political objective is to attain Irish reunification. I believe that it is a doable and achievable project. I want it to happen sooner rather than later.

The party never had a position of achieving this by 2016. It will happen when sufficient political and public support has been attained. Bear in mind that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the Government of Ireland Act was scrapped and replaced with a new constitutional arrangement. The British government is now committed to legislating for a United Ireland if a majority of citizens in the north want it.

That places a huge challenge before all of us who want Irish unity. We have to win support for it. We have to especially reach out to unionists. But we also need to make the border irrelevant by building on the all-Ireland dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement and harmonising relations between north and south.

A Fish Rots from the Head Down

“…I call my cancer, the main one [in] the pancreas, ‘Rupert’, so I can get close to it because that man Murdoch….there is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press. And the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life and it’s an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse. And that is what is happening. Look at what is happening at the BBC. Look at what is happening to television in general. Look who owns it…”  –British playwright Dennis Potter interviewed by Melvyn Bragg in April 1994, a few weeks before his death.

“…moneyed propagandists have taken advantage of that to create a demonology in which it is the left, the Democratic left, that is the source of many of our troubles. And this is the most frightening development, rather than the kind of nutty death threats that you read a couple of. It’s a very alarming development, because it raises the question of whether a democracy can survive and reemerge with any kind of health in the face of these enormous propaganda capacities. And in that sense, it is Murdoch, not Beck, who is the more important target.”  –American academic Frances Fox Piven interviewed on Democracy Now about violent rhetorical attacks on her by Fox News host Glenn Beck on January 14th, 2011

The news that British premier David Cameron’s spokesman, Andy Coulson, has been forced to resign in the face of a growing scandal over, and widening police investigations into, allegations that journalists at the News of the World hacked into celebrity telephone calls while he was the paper’s editor is welcome for a number of reasons.

Along with the deplorably double-dealing Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Tory party boss Cameron is about to fulfill that Thatcherite pipe dream and begin dismantling the National Health Service. Anything that casts doubts on Cameron’s judgement and in the process hampers that nefarious plan (hatched, coincidentally, at the same time that Obama is contemplating a similar fate for Social Security) can only be a good thing.

The other bit of good news is that the embarrassing but hardly surprising revelation that News of the World journalists have the same ethical standards as sewer rats may seriously upend plans by the paper’s publisher and News International* supremo, Rupert Murdoch to tighten his grip on non-terrestrial television in Britain.

Cameron’s coalition government has yet to decide whether to let News International’s $12 billion takeover bid for the satellite television operator, BSkyB to go ahead or refer it to competition authorities. Given the recent history of British prime ministerial deference to Murdoch (Thatcher, Blair, Brown and now Cameron) the decision was previously regarded as a slam dunk. Not so straightforward now. Maybe.

As the Guardian reports, News International has been trying desperately to ‘close down’ the hacking scandal, spreading bucket loads of money around in confidential settlements to soothe angry celebrities and movie stars but now the floodgates have burst. An anxious Murdoch is due in London next week. His journey from New York was supposed to be a triumphant celebration of a successful BSkyB deal (and an opportunity to let the world know he had yet another British prime minister safely tucked in his back pocket) but instead he faces a full-blown crisis over low standards at one of his media ventures that may, just may, underline the reality that low standards and News International are more often than not Siamese twins.

In this regard the Guardian highlights a long disregarded truism about the company’s founder:  “…in the end no decision of significance can be taken without him at the company he has built over half a century.”

A truism it may be but it is more often ignored than heeded, especially here in the United States where liberal and progressive critics of Fox News too often concentrate their fire on Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity while ignoring the reality that they all get their cue from Murdoch, notwithstanding efforts in some quarters to distance him from their worst excessess.

Where in the post-Tucson outrage was there even a hint of recognition that the guy who signs the checks for Ailes, Beck & Co. also calls their tune? None of that hate-filled rhetoric, none of Glenn Beck’s lunatic ravings would happen without his approval.

* A word of disclosure. Like many Irish and British journalists, I have had occasion to take Murdoch’s shilling. It is a measure of the man’s reach that it’s almost impossible to work in the media and not be on the payroll of a Murdoch outfit at some stage. And we are all slaves in the kingdom of necessity after all.

‘Motiveless’ Murders

Watching and reading the tortured but determined efforts on the part of some to depoliticize the massacre in Tucson brought vividly back to mind a similar episode from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The parallels are, of course, not exact. They couldn’t possibly be. But there are some strikingly similar features — and lessons — to both.

The Belfast experience and the shootings in Tucson had a number of characteristics in common: a terrible loss of life caused by psychotic individuals, a background of traumatic political change (at least in the minds of the perpetrators) and a setting of fevered rhetoric from right-wing political leaders who were whipping their followers into a frenzy of derangement against their opponents, alleging conspiracies where none existed. And like the killings in Tucson, the ‘motiveless murders’ that took place in Belfast during the awful summer of 1972, brought with them a persistent effort by people in authority to deny or misdescribe the motives, to play down the political inspiration and accentuate instead the individual and the psychopathic aspects of the killers.

As we know well by now, attempts to characterize the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the murder of six people attending her ‘Congress on the Corner’ meeting at a Tucson strip mall and the wounding of fourteen others as the act of a madman motivated solely or predominantly by his own mental illness have gained considerable traction.

It is not just in Palin-land or the curious universe inhabited by Fox News that this is happening but in the mainstream media, or at least amongst some sections of it. By coincidence or not, in many instances some of the same media folk could be seen quite recently lining up against Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

Putting cynicism aside, it is not hard to see how they could come to such a conclusion. The alleged perpetrator, Jared Loughner is clearly crazy. Enough about his life has emerged, not least an alarming mugshot snapped not long after the killings and a disturbing video he shot at his community college, to support the view that he is quite probably a paranoid schizophrenic, a lone, delusional nut who was likely to kill or cause great harm to someone, some day.

But it wasn’t just ‘someone’ who he attempted to kill. His target was a Democratic politician who had herself been singled out for political destruction by Sarah Palin in her infamous ‘crosshairs’ map of vulnerable Congressmen. And the attempt to kill her came against a background of some two years of furiously violent and ‘eliminationist’ rhetoric, as Paul Krugman put it, from GOP extremists determined to wrest control of Congress from Democrats and ultimately to kick Obama out of the White House.

A madman Loughner almost certainly is, but he inhabits a country and a state where various levels of madness and irrationality define a large chunk of the political Right, where it is acceptable and even laudable for many to use language that suggests the violent removal of political opponents and for serious politicians to give currency to the most laughably absurd conspiracies.

And while Loughner seems not to have obsessed on the major bugbears of the Tea Party, such as the idea that Obama is a Kenya-born, Muslim Marxist or that health care reform is the first stage on a journey to a country filled with death panels and concentration camps housing dissident American patriots, he nonetheless shares enough of the views of the Right on hallmark issues — for example, Glenn Beck’s favorite obsession, restoring the gold standard, a fixation elsewhere on the Right — to qualify him as a member, albeit of its less well-defined fringes. And a recent interview with a former girlfriend suggests he may actually have been closer to classic Tea Party thinking than many believed, a guy who would ‘rant’ about the powers of the federal government with as much fervor as anyone on Fox News.

But back to Belfast in the summer of 1972. The phenomenon of which Tucson is a junior cousin became unavoidably visible in July of that year. Bodies of dead Catholics began showing up, thirty-one of them by the end of the month, dumped at the edges or sometimes in the heart of Protestant or Loyalist parts of the city. Many had been tortured or mutilated — “fingers, toes, genitals (were) cut off, or eyes plucked out”, according to one account — and all died horrible deaths. One victim had been suspended from a beam and tortured for hours; his body had some 150 knife wounds. Another’s body hair was removed with a blow torch.

So here is point one in the catalog of similarities between Tucson, January 2011 and Belfast circa 1972: the madness of the killers. Those in Belfast were undeniably sadists of a particularly evil sort whose slaughter was inspired by xenophobia and whose American equivalent would more likely be found in Mississippi or Alabama than in Arizona. But that the Belfast killers and Jared Loughner were both psychologically imbalanced in a deep and serious way is undeniable.

And like the slaughter in Tucson on January 8th, the killings of July 1972 in Belfast didn’t come out of the blue. Northern Ireland had been in a political ferment for over two years. A campaign for civil rights by Catholics had met violent resistance from the Protestant or Unionist majority which governed the place. Loyalist mobs (a note of explanation: Loyalist was the term used to describe hardline Unionists; they were the Irish version of the Tea Party, if you like) had attempted to burn down whole Catholic areas, Britain sent troops in and before too long the long-dormant IRA had been revived and was bombing and shooting in an effort to destroy the state. Faced with rising, uncontrollable violence and spreading political instability, the British decided to close down the Unionist government, known as Stormont after the building in which the parliament met, and rule the place directly from London.

Now Unionists and Loyalists both saw Stormont as the bulwark against Catholic domination and their protection against being absorbed by the rest of Ireland. They had been Britain’s surrogate in Ireland for centuries. Transplanted in the seventeenth century and given confiscated Catholic land, the Protestants of the North were the instrument through which Britain controlled the whole island. They had occupied a privileged place but this had been whittled away when most of Ireland won independence in 1921. Now they saw their last buttress being taken away from them; an appalling vista stretched before them. They were in great political shock.

Point number two in the list of similarities. The election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, in 2008, preceded by the financial collapse on Wall Street and followed by the great bank bailout and bursting of the property bubble, is the equivalent for many Americans — interestingly of similar social, racial and economic background and outlook to the Unionists of Northern Ireland — of the fall of Stormont. A safe, comfortable and predictable world had suddenly been taken away from them and an uncertain and threatening future lay ahead.

For the Unionists of Northern Ireland that uncertain future could, in their minds, mean only one thing: their absorption into the Irish Republic where they would now be the minority, condemned to live in fear that those who had once had their land taken away from them — and their jobs, houses and political rights — would now be out for revenge.

That this was in fact neither the intention nor the likely outcome of abolishing Stormont did not matter. The British wanted to reform Northern Ireland, to bring Catholics in from the cold and not to drive the place into the arms of the Irish Republic. Not only could the southern state not afford such a burden, it didn’t want it and it was already clear, as subsequent events would bear out, that Catholics would happily stay British as long as they got a fair deal. But at the time and in the atmosphere of the day such rationality fell on deaf Unionist ears.

For the Tea Party constituency, the Obama election and the financial crisis offered an equally alarming set of possibilities. To begin with, Obama’s success foretold the worst nightmare of White America: the coming demographic revolution that would see Blacks and Hispanics outnumber Whites, a fate that almost mirrored exactly the fears of Northern Ireland Protestants in 1972 that ahead of them lay a future in which they would become the exploited, victimized minority.

Meanwhile, the dramatic shrinkage of property values and retirement portfolios along with a background of near hysteria over Islamic terrorism combined to create an atmosphere in which the wildest of conspiracies suddenly seemed plausible and tenable. Obama was a Muslim, an alien and charlatan who could not prove his American citizenship, a Communist with roots in the radical left of the 1970s and a community organizer who would impoverish the middle class to subsidize the feckless poor and needy in the ghettoes.

As with Northern Ireland in 1972, it did not matter that this was utter nonsense. Like their Irish counterparts, the Tea Party constituency was impervious to reason, instead preferring to find a bizarre solace in imagining the worst.

In Northern Ireland there was no shortage of right-wing politicians ready and willing to put all the Unionists’ worst paranoid imaginings into words. The Rev Ian Paisley, the loud street-corner preacher cum extremist politician, was certainly one. But in those days he had lots of competition. Perhaps the most chilling Loyalist leader was a former Unionist government minister called Bill Craig, who in 1972 had set up a quasi-fascist political movement called Vanguard. He would organize massive protest rallies at which his uniformed followers would parade in their thousands, flags flying as Craig reviewed them from a platform, like a Hitler admiring his stormtroopers at Nuremberg.

A week before the British removed Stormont, Craig held a massive rally at a public park in south Belfast. The rally had been called to protest the anticipated British move and Craig did not mince his words: “We are firmly decided to defeat anyone who tries to subvert our constitution”, he told the 60,000 strong crowd. “We must build up the dossier on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country, because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”.

Almost exactly a month later the first Catholic was shot dead (above: a Loyalist murder victim of the 1970s) and each subsequent week saw more and more killings until by July the numbers of bodies being found on the streets of Belfast were multiplying so fast that it became impossible to deny that something very sinister was happening.

Words have consequences and these were the consequences of Craig’s angry words. Now it may be technically correct that Sharon Angle’s ‘Second amendment remedies’, Palin’s ‘Don’t retreat – reload!’ or Jesse Kelly’s invitation to ‘target’  Gabby Giffords’ defeat by firing a M16 automatic rifle with him, don’t quite match the sinister quality of Bill Craig’s threat, but they’re pretty darned close. And if they don’t, there’s no shortage of others in the conservative camp whose rhetoric over the last five or six years certainly does, like this gem from Rush Limbaugh: “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus — living fossils — so we will never forget what these people stood for.” Or Ann Coulter’s response in 2005 when asked if she’d rather not talk to a liberal: “I think a baseball bat is the most effective response these days.”

Bill Craig and other like him had opened a Pandora’s Box in Belfast. The killing of Catholics that began after his rally was of course very organized and deliberate. It was intended to terrorize the Catholics into turning against the IRA and it was carried out by Loyalist paramilitary groups whose ranks were populated with killers whose psycopathy would, over subsequent years, become every bit as notorious as Jared Loughner’s, men like John White , Davy Payne , Lennie Murphy, Michael Stone (pictured left) and Johnny Adair.

The deliberate and organized nature of the killing was an obvious piece of political wisdom to the Catholics of Belfast but the authorities decided to pretend that it was not happening. The police, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), christened the killings ‘motiveless murders’ and the British government, by now the sole political authority, agreed.

Minimal resources were allocated to tracking down the killers and the police, according to one account, even tried to blame the carnage on a single psycopath, “variously dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ or the ‘Shankill Butcher’, even when killings were taking place simultaneously in different parts of Belfast, some of the victims being bundled into cars by three or four men.”

The decision not to admit the obvious was motivated by a number of factors, primarily an unwillingness to open up another front in the war raging in Northern Ireland. The IRA was Britain’s main enemy and chasing Loyalist killers would be a distraction. As well, the British Army had begun to recognize that the Loyalists could be a useful tool to wield against the IRA, that the ranks of the paramilitaries could be infiltrated and their leaders directed towards desired military goals. 

Whatever the real reason the fact remains that next to nothing was done to halt the bloodletting. Unconfronted by the British, the Loyalist killers went on to kill more and more people. Within a couple of years, the paramilitary groups responsible emerged into daylight and the media was able to put names to them; one group was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), another the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The government could no longer deny that they existed or that they killed on a massive scale. But it was too late. By the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the UDA and the UVF, and their associated splinter groups had between them killed over a thousand people. The per capita equivalent in the U.S. would be 200,000.

The lesson from all of this for Americans in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords is that if the underlying reality behind Jared Loughner’s killing spree is not fully recognized, and that the significant role, however indirect, played by the hate speech of the Right remains unacknowledged, then the risk of more Tucson’s can only grow.

Oh, and there’s one more point of similarity between the Tucson situation and Northern Ireland of the early 1970s, and that’s gun ownership. In America, according to one poll, three out of ten people own a weapon. In Northern Ireland the figure is one in ten. By sharp contrast only one out of every 121 people in England and Wales owns a firearm.

*      *      *

SO, WHO’S THE CRAZYHEAD?

Jared Loughner may well be a crazyhead but take a look at these samplings from a libertarian website, Atlas Shrugs posted in the days following the Tucson killings. The blog is run by Pamela Geller, co-author of the anti-Obama diatribe, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America and a fanatical opponent of all things Muslim. She was a leading light in the campaign against the so-called ‘ground zero’ mosque in lower Manhattan and, at the height of the hysteria over that issue, Fox News brought her on to the network, giving her a slot as a contributor alongside John Bolton, Juan Williams and Judith Miller. Read these postings and ask yourself if in Geller’s world and Fox News’, Jared Loughner is really not mad at all but actually represents what passes for normality?

TRG said in reply to DanS….
Correct, what many people don’t understand here is that this man is akin to a pit bull. He has an owner and a handler. His handler let him off the leash and used him as a weapon. This happens all the time, so the media can just say “Oh, just another unstable psycho who lived in his mom’s basement and got this wild idea to kill a bunch of people” NO, it doesn’t happen like that. These types are programmed and engineered from a very young age by extremely elite and wealthy people to do their bidding. They do this with hollywood and the music industry as well, except they use celebrities to shape social structure and conformity, whereas they use people like Jared as a weapon. There’s WAY more to this story than most people can even possibly begin to comprehend.

android__ said in reply to Blakrat…
Are you kidding me? You need to be read about mind control. Anytime the government wants to pass a new law they create a scenario in which something tragic happens, and going forward they try to convince Americans to give up their liberties for protection. Now they’re trying to say any type of political rhetoric is responsible for actions like this when truly they’re the ones creating the event. Don’t you see they’re trying to take the First and Second Amendment away by using these scenarios? It’s disgusting. Please, get informed. This is why they’re able to pull the wool over a majority of American citizens.

True Patriot said…
I would like to jump in and say the liberal lying news media is covering up that this nutjob was one of their own. He is a Democrat. He is not an Independent. The Communist thugs in the media have been on overtime 24/7 to coverup this nutjobs background. The real story that is.

He was always a Democrat. Also turns out this loon went to Mountain View High School which embraced teaching curriculum offered up by none other than good old Bill Ayers of Weather Underground.

World Net Daily’s reported – Aaron Klein broke this story yesterday after uncovering this school taught the violence and killing of thugs like Bill Ayers, and guess what else? This curriculum was funded by Obama, during the time Obama was Chairman of Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

So Loughner gobbled up this curriculum, embraced it and did what he was taught. He is one of their own and the radical media is having a stroke to try and stop this news from getting out.

Go to World Net Daily’s site and read the entire article. Obama should be in jail, along with Ayers, and all of these thugs. Loughner is just a casualty of this dangerous propaganda Obama embraces.