Memories Of The Cavan-Monaghan Hunger Strike Election Of 1981

I recently came across a clip on Facebook of RTE television news’ coverage of the count in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency in the 1981 Irish general election, one of two seats won by protesting/hunger striking republican prisoners, and the memories came flooding back – and they weren’t all happy ones.

You can watch the clip here and it is fascinating not just to see such a young Vincent Browne in action, but to observe how out of touch the Irish journalistic elite was with the attitudes of so many ordinary Irish people towards the republican hunger strike in the H Blocks, then in its fourth month and fourth death.

To give him his due, while Browne had completely missed the story and had not at all expected the H Block candidates to do so well – hunger striker Kieran Doherty won a seat in Cavan-Monaghan while Paddy Agnew won in Louth (now Gerry Adams’ seat) – he did realise that something akin to a political earthquake had just shaken the Irish political system.

My own admittedly small role in the coverage of the Cavan-Monaghan count was one of those occasions when I gained a valuable insight – or perhaps confirmation is a better word – of how malformed Irish journalism had become thanks to the Northern Troubles.

In June 1981, I had taken over as stand-in Northern Editor of The Irish Times from David McKittrick, who had moved to the London office, but my family was still in Dublin where we had moved when I was first hired by the Times. So I was commuting, mostly at the weekends, between Belfast and Dublin.

The news-desk in D’Olier Street knew this and asked if I would mind stopping off to cover the count in Cavan-Monaghan. I happily agreed and made my way to, I think it was Monaghan town for the tally. Irish election counts are always entertaining affairs and this one had the added spice of a Provo prisoner challenging the establishment. So I was looking forward to the spectacle.

Before I set off, I got hold of the election notebook for Cavan-Monaghan to familiarise myself with the various candidates. The Times published notebooks for every constituency in the run up to polling day and while often less than inspiring pieces of literature, these articles were nonetheless an invaluable who’s who guide to the contest.

But when I read the Cavan-Monaghan article there was scarcely a mention of the H Blocks candidate. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were all over the page; this was a Border constituency and the parties who had fought out the civil war had dominated politics in the area ever since. So it was Fine Gael this, and Fianna Fail that, but virtually no mention of Kieran Doherty or the National H Blocks committee running his campaign.

So I set off, thinking that despite the evident outpouring of support for the H Blocks campaign in Nationalist areas of the North, it looked as if the prisoners would be out of luck on the other side of the Border.

And then I crossed the Border into Monaghan and drove from there to Cavan and back again.

Virtually every crossroads I passed was festooned with black flags and banners urging a vote for Doherty, and between crossroads black flags fluttered from telephone poles and lamp-posts.

It was obvious that a massive machine had been mobilised behind the H Blocks campaign and that if so many people were willing to hoist the thousands of flags and banners that I had seen, then it was very likely that an awful lot of people in Cavan-Monaghan would likely vote for Kieran Doherty.

So when, later that evening, the IRA prisoner, who would die less than two months later, ran second to Fianna Fail minister, John Wilson by 300 or so votes, I was not at all surprised.

But establishment Ireland was. In fact it was shocked to learn that their own people were ready to vote for people like Doherty and Agnew.

Nowhere was this shock more pronounced that in Dublin journalism. Not only had the Irish Times’ profiler of Cavan-Monaghan managed not to see the hosts of black flags and banners that had greeted me, but even someone like Vincent Browne, a guy who I had always regarded as one of most shrewd reporters in the business, had missed the story.

So why? Well there’s no doubt there was a Dublin-centric influence at work which translated into journalists reflecting the views and attitudes of the politicians and power-brokers they covered day and daily, and as far as the republican hunger strike went, there was no-one in the Irish establishment who wished it well or would want to read such stuff as they cracked open their breakfast boiled egg.

We saw something similar happening in the US last November with Donald Trump’s election, the shock of which was magnified by the fact that so many in the mainstream, Washington-centred media – the so-called beltway media – had completely missed seeing it come.

But in Cavan-Monaghan all those many years ago, how could the media have missed that multitude of black flags, except that they chose not to see them for fear that to draw attention to them might also draw an unwelcome scrutiny of themselves?

In the twisted world of Irish journalism then, and now, to tell it as it was is far too often not regarded as good, healthy objective, fact-based journalism but as an expression of individual bias or wishful thinking.

I suspect this has always been a feature of Irish society – and perhaps of the human condition – but it got appreciably worse in the years after 1981, when Sinn Fein mounted an increasingly effective electoral challenge to a terrified political establishment. And it has continued, perhaps even intensified, during the years of the peace process. Ironically, Sinn Fein was the victim of one but the beneficiary of the other.

It was during these years, years when truth-telling was not always a healthy pastime for a journalist, that I peddled my trade on a daily or weekly basis, and more than once my mind went back to that count in Cavan-Monaghan and the lesson I had learned from the crossroads I had driven through.

You will know, I am sure, the fable of the King’s new clothes which ends with a boy stepping from the crowd to tell the truth: ‘the King is naked’. In the Irish version of the story, the crowd turns on the boy and tears him to pieces.

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