From #aras97 to #aras11: has the media decommissioned?

Áras an Uachtaráin - residence of the Irish President, and soon to be home to Northern Irish beesSome more of the commentary on the 1997 Presidential campaign. While many new media tools are available for #aras11, the behind-the-scenes briefing and leaks are probably no different (the end products are summarised here by Mick). While politics inevitably includes a deep interrogation of individual candidate’s past utterances, the contribution of the media to the shape of past election campaigns tends to be kept below the radar by the, eh, media.

Similarly, northern commentators, for long briefed by the NIO and security ‘sources’, don’t tend to be reflective when it comes to reviewing the intimacy of ‘security’, politics and journalism in the north. It is not only politicians that should often be reminded that they shouldn’t believe their own propaganda. The major anti-McAleese leaks in 1997 are dealt with below. Whether she was being briefed against by the usual NIO types isn’t clear, but wouldn’t be a surprise. Obviously, the Norris campaign has been de-railed by a leak once already.

An article in The Sunday Times on October 26, 1997 (the week before the election) by Liam Clarke and Chris Ryder had the headline Unionists deliver snub to McAleese and was based on the results of a poll taken at the Ulster Unionist party conference (no polling methodology provided). The overall result given by Clarke and Ryder was that:

The findings of the poll will undermine McAleese’s claims to be a “bridge builder” in the province.

Which they go on to interpret as:

The distaste for her candidature did not seem to be a simple sectarian reaction.

They also included a quote from a rising star in the UUP, Peter Weir:

“She has actually become a hate figure to many Ulster Unionists”.

On the previous Sunday, Maeve Sheehan, Clarke and Jan Battles had a piece entitled SDLP linked McAleese to Sinn Fein in the same paper:

The Department of Foreign Affairs was told in April by a senior SDLP figure that Mary McAleese, Fianna Fail’s presidential candidate, was “pushing a Sinn Fein agenda” and should not be trusted…

The accusation is contained in a leaked document from a foreign department dossier, and is a serious embarrassment to the Irish government, which has just ordered a garda investigation into leaks…

Brid Rogers, an experienced SDLP councillor, made the comment about McAleese to an Irish government official. Last night she said she was aware of the leaked documents but refused to comment on her conversation with the foreign affairs official. She also refused to comment on whether she now considers McAleese to be a Sinn Fein supporter.

This episode of the leaks intended to damage McAleese dominated the latter end of the campaign (at one stage a long-time aide to Gay Mitchell was questioned over it). The deft use being made of the leaked documents was also visible elsewhere in that last pre-election edition of The Sunday Times of 26th October. John Burns wrote (Mary, Mary) that:

Those who dislike McAleese personally, or her politics, see the election as a different type of litmus test: is the republic mature enough to reject a candidate who antagonises Unionists?

He also provides more detail on the nature of what (and who) was briefing against McAleese:

Last Sunday McAleese accompanied senior Fianna Fail politicians to the annual commemoration of Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown. Once again she was on the run from journalists; this time they wanted to question her about a leaked department of foreign affairs memo which quoted Brid Rodgers, an SDLP councillor, accusing McAleese of “pushing the Sinn Fein agenda”.

Rodgers’s accusation grew out of a complaint about the allegedly poor coverage the nationalist Irish News was giving to the SDLP. This, she believed, was because Jim Fitzpatrick, its editor-in-chief, had formed a triumvirate with McAleese and Alex Reid, a Redemptorist priest. “Their main objective,” Rodgers said, ” is promoting a new nationalist consensus which owes more to Sinn Fein than the SDLP. All three are in regular touch with the Sinn Fein leadership.”

The agenda, as Rodgers saw it, was to build a bridge between Sinn Fein and the nationalist middle class in Northern Ireland. If the IRA would abandon violence, the Catholic middle class would steer the pan-nationalist consensus into a much tougher stance against the British government.

Burns also includes quotes from John Alderdice, then Alliance party leader.

“She made it clear she wanted to be a bridge in the peace process, but she is in danger of becoming a wedge,” he said on Monday morning. “If she were to be elected it would not be seen as a positive contribution to the peace process. In the interests of the peace process it would be better if she withdrew.”

In it’s last pre-election edition, The Sunday Independent included Eilis O’Hanlon’s analysis that McAleese was unsuitable and:

…, the great mass of Irish people, finally comfortable in their identity and rightly proud of what they have achieved, can surely agree on this at least – that turning Aras an Uachtaráin into a fortress of outdated grievance would be a retrograde, self-indulgent and self-defeating step. An angry president is the last the country needs now.

On the same page, Anthony Clare’s analysis of the campaign could be dusted off and re-used by a number of candidates today:

…I have watched the unedifying spectacle of the inttellectual left baying and behaving with the kind of authoritarianism, intolerance and paternalism it so detested in the reactionary right…

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  • Mick Fealty

    John, if you get time can you sow in some backlinks if you have them… it’s always good to let the reader see the primary sources, if they are still publicly available…

  • John Ó Néill

    I have them via paywalls (Lexis etc), I can add the complete text if anyone wants to challenge individual pieces (although date of publication, title etc is included above).

  • michael-mcivor

    Some in the media use their journalism skills whilst telling the people the news- but others just want to use their fangs to bite into a story-which is why sections of the media have made more apologys to people than most out-law groups have- which is a good thing as well-

  • “the nature of what (and who) was briefing against McAleese”

    John, what you refer to as ‘briefing against’ might be described by others as shedding light on the secretive, dark side of political machinations.

    By 1997 the SDLP had been more or less abandoned by not only London and Dublin but also by the Catholic Church so it’s hardly surprising that the SDLP’s Brid Rodgers was feeling a bit sore. However, Mary McAleese’s identification with paramilitarism whilst in office (eg Finaghy Crossroads Group of loyalist and republican paramilitaries) would indicate that Brid’s concerns were well justified. Such identification has ill-served justice and democracy here in Northern Ireland – and has caused disquiet in the Department of Justice in Dublin.

    None of this makes Mary a member of the PRM but rather a supporter of the ‘Stepping Stones’ Brits-out strategy associated with Alec Reid but involving the more hardline elements in the pan-Nationalist family.

    Martin has quite a bit in common with Mary so I’d expect him to carry on where she left off should he be elected. I can see why his supporters would wish to brief against the media as he’s got a lot more to hide.

  • Mark

    Fourteen years later … I wonder do many Unionists still see President McAleese as a ” hate figure ” .

    The Irish News has a piece this mornng about four prominent Loyalists who’ve been granted US visas for a trip in Oct after an implied ” Intervention ” from the Dept of Foreign Affairs . Do Unionists still resent her relationship with certain Loyalists ? .

    Listening to a couple of Loyalists in the wake of Gusty Spence’s passing , there still seems a resentment on their part about about ” having ever listened to certain Unionists ( Paisley Snr ) in the first place .

    The hook , line and sinker was thrown at McGuinness last week . And I see the Tinker Tailor Soldier Butcher’s Apprentice accusation has come out again in spite of some of McGuinness’s critics dismissing the lie ( A . McIntyre ) . The constant rehashing of old stories will start to backfire on the Southern media .

    Reading some of the above quotes make you realise just how wrong the media can be . And just how far they’ll go to try and sway the public’s opinion ….

  • Mark

    Mick’s SDLP leadership poll got a mention in this mornings Irish News …

    We’ll have to wait and see if Dave Cochrane’s poll over on Politics.ie does likewise in the Southern Media .

    Politics.ie has McGuinness at 41 % .

  • John Ó Néill

    Nevin – many of those reporting what they were briefed do not indicate their sources. Thats being a press officer, not a journalist.

  • John, do you have an explanation for the release of the Brid Rodgers correspondence? Brid’s analysis would seem to fit fairly well with Ed Moloney’s interpretation of events within the Nationalist family in the run-up to 1998 in his Secret History of the IRA.

    I try to give a flavour of the results of my own pursuit of the ‘facts’ but I quite often don’t detail my sources. Were I to name my sources this could cut off my sources of information or could endanger those who get on the wrong side of the paramilitaries. One of my major criticisms of some journalists is their willingness to string together a few quotes from opposing sources for the sake of balance but without challenging the veracity of the claims made.

  • John Ó Néill

    Nevin, it seems to have been leaked as part of a broader campaign tko jigsaw a picture of McAleese as an reconstructed republican.

  • The story of the leaked DFA file was fairly well documented at the time, and there could be very little doubt that it was designed to finish off the McAleese campaign. However, the only evidence offered to justify the contention that the Irish News had switched to supporting Sinn Fein was a claim that an opinion piece by the SDLP’s Joe Byrne had been censored. When Byrne came forward and said he had never written any such article for the paper, the whole thing fell apart fairly quickly. The affair actually generated sympathy for McAleese and propelled her firmly towards the Aras.