That’s the question Emer O’Toole asks in her Guardian Comment is Free article today. She reckons that “the media have been strangely reluctant to cover eight weeks of intense rioting in Belfast, yet this is a major UK event”.
Great Britain’s attitude towards Northern Ireland has been puzzling me lately …
There is a very strange reluctance to give due attention to newsworthy Northern Irish events in Britain. Trying to follow the recent happenings in the papers, I found myself wondering why the story was only the third, fourth or fifth item of news on that day. We are, after all, talking about major civil unrest in the UK, which is threatening the peace process that has finally brought stability to the lives of so many British citizens. Isn’t this is a pretty massive deal? (like a good ex-pat, I then flicked to the Irish Times where, sure enough, the story was given more attention).
If 100 police officers were injured in clashes with civilians in any other part of the UK, headlines would be screaming it. As Kevin Meagher points out in the New Statesman, using baton rounds and water cannon in any other British city would be unthinkable (water cannon was discussed as a tactical option during the London riots, but never used).
It is a topic that the Guardian have taken up before. Back in September 2011 after the appearance of Presbyterian minister Rev David Latimer at the Sinn Féin ard fheis, media commentator and Donegal resident Roy Greenslade questioned why The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and the Financial Times had failed to cover the story.
While flying across to England in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I noticed little mention of flags protests and in the Metro, the i or the Evening Standard. Public disorder, arrests and PSNI injuries were not news worthy in print. In contrast, network television news did – somewhat intermittently – run with the story, building up to a crescendo in the new year when Alex Thomson – Channel 4’s version of Kate Adie – spent a long week reporting from the streets of Belfast.
Having identified the problem, Emer O’Toole attempts to answer the question “So why the averted gaze?” in the second half of her comment piece.
One English friend reckons that while equal weight should be given to violence in all parts of the UK, unrest in Northern Ireland is less surprising and shocking, because there’s awareness of the region’s complex history … Violence in Northern Ireland might not be as surprising as in other parts of the UK but I’m not surprised when I hear that David Cameron has chewed another limb off the NHS – and I still want it reported prominently in my newspapers.
She also wonders whether a lack of education about Irish history contributes to Great Britain’s lack of enthusiasm to track Northern Ireland events.
Another friend suggested that British people don’t like to acknowledge the religious sectarianism and fundamentalism homegrown on British soil: it’s much easier to locate politico-religious conflicts far away – something that the Taliban might take part in, or something that might affect the Israelis and Palestinians. I think this is astute: conflict in Northern Ireland messes with Britain’s view of its civilised, mainly secular culture, making Northern Ireland an “elsewhere” where events, including the use of water cannon against civilians, are treated differently.
Perhaps the answer is straightforward: we’re small, remote and we have a reputation.
If token flag protests had been organised in the south east of England – rather than Airdrie, Edinburgh and Glasgow – the proximity to editors’ houses might have piqued their interest. However, representing less than 3% of the population of the United Kingdom, and insulated by the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland’s problems are small beer. Rioting in Croydon might spread across English urban areas; East Belfast rioting is contained and unlikely to spark crowds hanging around Conservative Party offices. Voyeurism isn’t an excuse to devote column inches – and business expenses – to waving flags and burning buses on the streets of Belfast. It is not sufficiently novel.
Being ignored may be bad for political and social analysis. However, it is good for damage limitation. Last week’s illustrated article in the New York Times along with pieces on France 24 and international news output may damage opportunities for foreign trade and investment. Coverage of City of Culture events will be stained with references to what is happening elsewhere in the north.
In the meantime, until Northern Ireland makes another demand for cash from the Exchequer, the flag issue will most likely remain invisible to Great Britain readers.