Back in 1982 when I was Northern Editor of the Irish Times one of my duties was to write weekly column, called the Northern Notebook, which would take a look at the issue of the week as it affected the North’s politics.
It was always a great opportunity to present analysis and some investigative journalism and what’s more I got to design a cartoon along with the late Rowel Friers, which was always fun. I think it fair to say that the Northern Notebook, which appeared every Saturday but which alas no longer exists (why not?), was a favourite with many readers.
1982 would be a tumultuous year for myself and the Irish Times and the Northern Notebook would play a part in the drama. In the autumn of that year the then Northern Secretary Jim Prior called elections for a new Assembly at Stormont and the poll provided Sinn Fein with the first opportunity to really test out its electoral strategy under the party’s flag.
Sinn Fein’s foray into elections had its roots of course in the 1981 hunger strikes when in the North, first Bobby Sands and then Owen Carron had stood successfully for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone Westminster seat in by-elections, while an election south of the Border saw hunger strikers either win Dail seats (including Gerry Adams’ current Louth constituency) or come very close, close enough to scare the pants off the southern political establishment (although as it turned out they didn’t really have that much to worry about).
For three years or more before all this, key figures in what I would later learn was the Provo ‘think tank’, a secret committee created by Gerry Adams to devise and implement Sinn Fein and IRA policy, had been telling me that eventually they would like to contest elections, including south of the Border, but such were the ideological difficulties and sensitivities surrounding the issue, especially considering the Provisionals’ fractious origins over opposition to electoralism, that they could only foresee a very modest beginning, perhaps running for council seats in Belfast, and then many years ahead. In those days, standing for elections was officially a heresy although clearly it was being actively discussed in policy-making circles.
What the hunger strikes did was to provide an ideal, never-to-be-repeated opportunity for the ‘think tank’ to dramatically fast forward this programme, to get into parliamentary elections in one fell swoop – under the Sinn Fein banner rather than a surrogate such as H Blocks or hunger strike candidates – with the enthusiastic support of many grassroots supporters.
It is why I find Richard O’Rawe’s thesis about the 1981 hunger strike so credible, since sabotaging a British offer to end the protest – as O’Rawe effectively contends is what happened – ensured Owen Carron’s success in the August 1981 by-election to replace Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. And Carron’s victory acted as a springboard for that October’s Sinn Fein ard-fheis endorsement of the new strategy of contesting elections as a matter of principle. That was the ‘armalite and ballot box’ ard-fheis made famous by Danny Morrison. Without Carron’s victory, without Bobby Sand’s election agent standing on the ard-fheis platform as evidence that the strategy could succeed, the path would have been so much more difficult.
Anyway, the new Assembly elections rolled around a year later and it was obvious to a blind elephant that Sinn Fein was going to do well. Nationalists were still so angry over what they saw (we now know mistakenly) as Margaret Thatcher’s cold-blooded obduracy during the prison protest that the SDLP was forced to stand on an abstentionist basis, something which actually contradicted their raison d’etre since it forced them to share the same ideological ground as the republicans.
And you didn’t have to travel very far out of the office to find Nationalists who were quite happy to tell you that the election was a perfect opportunity for angry Catholics to give Mrs Thatcher a vigorous two-fingers, i.e. by voting for the political wing of the IRA.
So, when it came to writing about all this in the run-up to the election one of the vehicles I used was the Northern Notebook. I predicted that Sinn Fein was probably going to win three seats, very possibly could win five and had a chance of winning as many as seven. As it turned out they won five seats, ten percent of the total electorate and some forty per cent of the combined Nationalist vote. Except for regular readers of the Northern Notebook, the outcome came as an outrageous and horrific shock which sent the the Irish political establishment into an hysterical spin.
Sinn Fein winning five seats doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but it was then; a very big deal. Apparently my coverage was greeted in the newsroom with a mixture of appalled horror, anger and political venom, with some claiming that what I was writing was what I wanted to happen, which at least was an insight into how such people approached their own journalism.
A few years later I would learn just exactly what was being planned out of my sight and hearing during these weeks. A colleague who was privy to the events and was in a position to be an eye-witness and participant told me that if my prediction had been wrong, the powers-that-be had decided that I would have been out of the Belfast office so fast my feet would not have touched the ground.
To which I had this thought in response: if my memory is correct, and I think it is, I was the only journalist or at least one of the very, very few journalists in Ireland who got that election result right. Virtually every other reporter took the accepted, establishment line that no-one in their right mind would place an ‘X’ or give a preference on the ballot paper in favour of the IRA’s political wing; at most, they chorused, Sinn Fein would get one or two per cent of the vote.
They all got the story wrong, badly, terribly, completely off-the-board wrong, but how many of them would get the sack (as arguably in such an important election, they should have)? Answer: None. Conclusion: In journalism, especially in Ireland at that time, getting the story wrong for the right reasons is perfectly acceptable, even laudable.
That was the second time the Northern Notebook got me into hot water with the powers that be in D’Olier Street. The first occasion also concerned an election but this one was south of the Border and it produced a hung Dail in which the majority leader, Fianna Fail’s Charles Haughey needed the support of independents to form a government. Which he did. Tony Gregory did a deal with him in return for money for inner city Dublin and so did Neil Blaney and the three Workers Party TD’s, whose success in the February 1982 poll, marked a breakthrough for that party’s own electoral strategy.
(Incidentally, I remember one of the ‘think tank’ people commenting bitterly to me afterwards that the Stickies’ (Workers Party) vote down south in 1982 was really their vote, i.e. Sinn Fein’s vote, which they had stolen. Stupidly, I didn’t think through the logic of that remark although I understood its significance many years later: the Workers Party’s success was made possible not just as a consequence of their appeal to a section of the dispossessed in Ireland but also because a) the WP had recognised the legitimacy of the Dail and had abandoned abstentionism, and b) they had put away the gun, at least for use against the British. If that ‘think tank’ person was right and the WP electoral support really belonged to Sinn Fein, then reclaiming it implied adopting the same attitude on those two crucial issues, the Dail and the use of violence. Southern voters were willing to vote for the Provos in times of emotion, such as the hunger strikes, but otherwise, as SF’s first miserable electoral forays down South demonstrated, they would not vote for a party linked to the IRA that did not accept state institutions.)
Anyway, to return to the aftermath of the 1982 Dail election. The really interesting aspect of it was the success of the Workers Party. It had won three seats and would a few years later have seven TD’s in the Dail, as well as an MP in the European parliament. This alone seemed to be a vindication of the split with the Provos back in 1969/70 when differences over abstentionism, along with the IRA’s failure to defend the Northern Catholic ghettoes, led to a parting of the ways.
The Officials, or Sticks as they became known, wanted to abandon abstentionism, recognise all three parliaments and contest for electoral support on a radical left-wing platform. Well, winning seats in the Irish parliament is as resounding an endorsement of this policy switch as you can get.
That alone, would merit a Northern Notebook. But there was another aspect of the Sticks which made them an interesting subject to write about, an aspect in fact that a journalist could not, should not ignore. The WP’s leaders had claimed that the military wing which they led back in 1969/70, which became known as the Official IRA and which until 1972 had fought the British every bit as vigorously as had the Provos, had been disbanded and that all vestiges of militarism had been cleansed from the party’s ranks.
It was in fact a lie, an outrageous lie. Not only did the WP have an armed wing but it was very active, was engaged in sporadic acts of violence against rivals and heavily involved in many criminal conspiracies, including running brothels with the UVF and building site rackets with the UDA, whose aim was to raise funds for the electoral wing so that the WP could get TD’s elected to the Dail.
It was the 1980’s equivalent of Gerry Adams’ ‘I was never in the IRA’ lie of the post-1998 era, and being the sort of journalist I am, when a lie is so outrageous it becomes offensive and so big it cannot be ignored, then I think it is our duty as reporters to expose it.
And so, along with a few souls like Vincent Browne, I set out as often as I could to demonstrate precisely why and how it was a lie (incidentally those who accuse me of being obsessed with Adams used to say, in exactly the same way, that I was obsessed with the Sticks. What they miss in both instances is that a) it has nothing to do with the person or people involved and b) is all to do with the scale of the lie and rage at the fact that so many in the media happily ignore it).
So, I composed a Northern Notebook in two parts. The first dealt with the WP’s political rise and the second with the Official IRA. The Notebook was usually written on a Thursday morning and the cartoon designed the same afternoon in liaison with Rowel Friers, then dispatched on the Thursday night for Saturday’s paper.
Come that Saturday I picked up the Irish Times and there was the part of the Notebook dealing with the electoral rise of the Workers Party. But of the Official IRA there was no sign. It had been disappeared, just like one of those old photos which airbrush Trotsky out of scenes that have Lenin, Stalin and other comrades celebrating the latest revolutionary exploit in early Soviet Russia.
I never did get an adequate explanation why the Irish Times chose to remove half the Northern Notebook nor who was responsible – and needless to say the paper’s readers were told nothing of this. At the time however the WP’s influence in D’Olier Street was considerable and I suspect their sympathisers had a hand in this episode and in the threat to sack me over my coverage of the Assembly election later that year.
Fast forward to 2014 and the people and party responsible for this and many, many other instances of media censorship in Ireland are, thankfully, fast becoming dim memories, as dim as the Berlin Wall which was for so long their monument.
So, it is all the more disturbing to read that the Irish Times has returned to the ways of censorship, last week removing from its web editions all copies of a cartoon drawn by Martyn Turner dealing with the Irish Catholic Church, the sexual exploitation by priests of young children and a new law which properly obliges people to report any knowledge they have of child sex abuse to the authorities. The Church is using the confessional seal to claim a status above and separate from the rest of Ireland to excuse priests from complying with the law and, arguably, the Church has seized upon a Martyn Turner cartoon as a convenient cudgel with which to batter a law they do not like.
In this respect the Church is acting in exactly the same way as the Workers Party used to, which is to use its not inconsiderable political clout to censor a point of view which they find embarrassing and difficult to deal with. And the Irish Times is indulging the Church just as it indulged the Workers Party back in the 1980’s. The Irish Times and some, maybe even most of its readers, may not like Martyn Turner’s cartoon but they do not have the right to prevent us looking at his cartoon just as they did not have the right to stop its readers from reading about the Official IRA back in 1982. Shame on the Irish Times.
Below I reprint an informative article by Michael Nugent who dissects the issues behind the censoring of Martyn Turner with commendable skill. I thoroughly recommend it: