Propaganda of Peace: Media and culture during the peace process

Extract from Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker: The Propaganda of Peace: The Role of Media and Culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Bristol: Intellect Books. 2010.

Political opponents Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness were confirmed as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of a new executive in May 2007, closing yet another chapter in Northern Ireland’s troubled history. A dramatic realignment of politics had brought these irreconcilable enemies together and the media played a significant role in persuading the public to accept this startling change.

The Propaganda of Peace places their role in a broad cultural context and examines a range of factual and fictional representations, from journalism and public museum exhibitions to film, television drama and situation comedy. The authors propose a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach to analyzing the role of such representations in communicating what they call ‘the propaganda of peace’. They go on to explore whether it simply promotes conflict transformation or if it actually underwrites the abandonment of a politically engaged public sphere at the very moment when debates about neo-liberalism, financial meltdown and social and economic inequality make it most necessary?

The propaganda of peace, as defined and identified in this book, has been reproduced in different media and cultural forms, supported and sponsored by various political, social and cultural agencies. Nevertheless, it has demonstrated a remarkable unity, narrowing the terms of political debate and shrinking the cultural imagination to promote two complimentary narratives about Northern Ireland’s bright new future. The first, most explicit and immediate narrative was about the need for an end to violence and the achievement of a political settlement between Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist. The second, implicit and far-reaching narrative was about making Northern Ireland fit for integration into the global capitalist system or, as Tony Blair preferred to call it, the ‘civilised world’.

Seen in these terms, Northern Ireland is not only undergoing a peace process aimed at settling its constitutional position. It is potentially undergoing a process of pacification, a denial of politics upon which the free market depends. The construction of a peace process ‘consensus’ has somehow pre-empted the need or desire to question, re-imagine or propose alternatives at a critical moment in history.

Indeed, in his book, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, Eric Hobsbawn considers the prospects for war and peace in the 21st century, pointing out that ‘the more rapidly growing inequalities created by uncontrolled free-market globalisation are natural incubators of grievance and instability’. He was writing at a time when the neo-liberal project still seemed unassailable but the credit crunch and the financial meltdown of September 2008 have thrown it into a crisis of legitimacy, giving rise to what Antonio Gramsci called ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms’. In the specific context of Northern Ireland, such symptoms include increasing sectarian conflict, social exclusion and poverty.  Journalist, David McKittrick, has reported that a total of 1500 sectarian attacks – an average of four a day – took place in there the space of one year (2007/08). Meanwhile, the number of families evacuated from their homes because of intimidation had also risen in that period. (Independent, 14 September, 2008). Yet these realities were rarely acknowledged in the media and cultural representations we looked at in this book. Instead, the overwhelming emphasis of the propaganda of peace has been a discourse of ‘no alternative’ – effectively a denial of politics in preference for domesticated consumerism – just at a time when what is really needed, post devolution, is politically engaged public discourse and active citizenship.

Post script

The Propaganda of Peace went to press before the recent upsurge of activity in the north by the Real IRA. Yet the public reaction to their shootings and car bombs in some ways underlines one of the key arguments of the book. It is as if the peace process has marked for Northern Ireland a cultural year zero, in which the history and politics of the conflict it apparently resolved has been sucked out of public memory, replaced instead with incomprehension and an inability to look at republican or loyalist dissidence, or indeed any other social, economic or political problem, as a sign that the framework of the political settlement is somewhat shaky, the foundations unsound.

The key themes of the book also resonate internationally.  For example, we show how the British state played a key role in helping transform the image of republicans from pariahs to peacemakers, reversing decades of anti-terrorist propaganda in order to justify face-to-face negotiations with them. It may have to do likewise if it is to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan, an eventuality the state is at last coming to terms with. President Obama’s attempt to revive the peace process in the Middle East, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Spain’s response to the ETA’s recently announced ceasefire, will also dictate a radical shift in official positions if they are to bear any palatable fruit. Such contingencies demand that in each case the state provides cues and leads to the mainstream media, helping to transform the atmosphere and create the right mood music.

However, the lesson of the ‘propaganda of peace’ is that the role of the state and the media in conflict transformation is about more than just contingency. Ideally, in a post conflict society, they need to broaden their conception of peace as more than the mere absence of conflict. They need to play a part in accommodating competing visions of a new and inclusive civil society rather than just settle for a one-dimensional political system and integration into a global economy that has since been so fatally compromised and discredited.

Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker are lecturers in media studies at the University of Ulster and fellows of the University’s Centre for Media Research.

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