“Why can’t Great Britain look Northern Ireland in the eye?”

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.

Few of the comments below the Comment is Free article shed much light on the subject. Two did catch my eye!

poop scoop

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.

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  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Watching UK-wide coverage of the flags nonsense I’m torn between the usual frustration with determined ignorance, and fear that po-faced interviews with baffled English reporters give exactly the impression of legitimacy that self-appointed ‘representatives’ of loyalist ‘communities’ want.

  • Cric

    About two years back a middle aged English friend asked me were the IRA the Catholic ones or the Protestant ones – apparently we’re all a bunch of Paddies fighting over stupid small differences… he wasn’t far wrong.

    In saying this my English co-workers and even some random English taxi drivers have been asking me questions about the recent flag protests – so even if it doesn’t make the front pages they seem to be aware of the situation.

  • Cric. We got a fairly heavy hinnt at the time of the olympics from the coverage over there, of that old cestnut Team GB and Team Ireland. cross channel commentators were only too happy to regard all NI athletes, as, all athletes from here ought to all represent themselves with Team Ireland.
    Cue much muttering from the usual suspects among unionist politicians to no effect across the water.They should get used to it.

  • ayeYerMa

    I think there has been quite a lot of coverage (and often more balanced than the “those flag protestors are evil” nonsense spouted continuously by our local media). More interesting that numerous flag protests in support also took place in Glasgow, Liverpool and other parts of GB but was never mentioned on national news.

  • BluesJazz

    Goes back a long way. If an RUC officer or UDR soldier was murdered, it was hardly ever headline news.
    A regular British Army soldier murdered was always top of the news agenda.

  • grumpyoldgit

    Interesting article. I would however query the phrase explaining why we are ignored as ‘We are small, remote and we have a reputation’. Yes, we are small in terms of land area with no natural resources and in terms of population. Yes we are perceived as being remote. But I feel that it is not so much that we have a reputation, rather that the ‘Brit on the street’ has a perception of us that has been formed over the years by media coverage. There might be an odd ‘good news’ report for ‘balance’ but the headline grabbers are always the bad news. As any good marketing/advertising man will tell you, facts are irrelevant, evidence is irrelevant, perception is everything whether it’s selling Tesco burgers or tourism. I am old enough to remember when the media would pay a crowd of youngsters to stage a ‘riot’ for the camera. Today, I get the distinct impression that most of the media, but particularly the BBC, are unduly influenced if not actually controlled by 10 Downing Street. Legislation was passed last March which is effectively selling off and giving away the entire National Health Service. Almost a year later, the BBC have still not reported on the effects of the legislation which affects every person in the UK.
    Northern Ireland is still regarded as rather irrelevant, much like the Falklands without the Argentinian interest. Today we are governed by a Conservative/Liberal oligarcy where we have no voice, never mind direct influence. Our local administration are so busy scoring petty political points among each other, consumed by ‘whataboutery’ that they have effectively handed over the running of the country to a dysfunctional civil service.
    In Britain there is an appalling lack of knowledge of or interest in their own history so why should they make the effort to learn anything about ours.
    The solution? Well, we could certainly avoid the headlong rush to be the 51st. American State like the British and Irish oligarcies seem to be doing. We should stop the continual tinkering with our education system. All children should be taught together and taught HOW to think rather than WHAT to think. If they are imbued with a desire for knowlegde, an ability to critically evaluate evidence and have the ability to see marketing self interest, religious dogma and political spin for what they are, then surely we are well on the way to creating a better society in which to live.

  • IJP

    I honestly think it’s a lot simpler than all that.

    When Northern Ireland was set up in the first place, it was deliberately detached from the rest of the UK.

    It was a containment exercise (theoretically pending the “natural reintegration” with the rest of Ireland).

    So it has always been a place apart from inception – and, quite frankly, has never done anything to prove otherwise.

    This is also why, by the way, the “mainland parties” are, well, just that.

  • Red Lion

    Agree with IJP above, we had devolution in NI when it didn’t happen in any other part of the UK for another approx 75 years.

    Danielsmoran @12.16, wasnt my experience of the Olympics. When a competitor from NI was performing for Team GB, i found the commentators went out of their way to refer to ‘Team GB and NI’.

    There is a role for any new lib union party to forge closer links with mainland GB liberal values. If the DUP got involved in the Scottish debate it would be a recruiting sarge for the SNP. However, i can see liberal NI pro-union people like Basil McCrea and John McCallister addressing even fringe meetings of the Better Together campaign, and it working well.

  • Cric

    A hint of truth IJP.

    When young James McClean refused to wear a Poppy on his shirt, a Sunderland supporting friend of mine commented that he could go back to his own country if he didn’t like Britain’s culture – I quietly whispered that Derry is in the same country as Sunderland.

  • Toastedpuffin

    “the media have been strangely reluctant to cover eight weeks of intense rioting in Belfast, yet this is a major UK event”.

    It might possibly be because we haven’t had eight weeks of rioting, intense or otherwise, in Belfast. Shoddy stuff here, and pretty much standard fare in today’s media. The rioting (which was “intense” for perhaps 45 minutes to an hour in the last eight weeks) has occasionally hit the UK headlines, but journos have the attention span of gnats (not to mention a bad case of favouring hysteria over plain fact, eh, Emer?).

    I wonder if the folks down Syria way are wondering why their more than eight weeks of what intense violence doesn’t command the headlines every single day.

  • sherdy

    Puff – Must say I like your rose coloured glasses.

  • Toastedpuffin

    Thanks sherdy. I near got them smashed during the intense rioting that’s happening day in day out here in Belfast. It’s truly amazing I’ve survived this apocalypse, but I comfort myself with the thought that the journos are able to spin yarns about it and make a (dis)honest $.

  • anne warren

    I think the detached attitude is because
    a) once the two parliaments were set up in Ireland in the 1920s the British government of the time hoped the Irish question had been solved forever

    b) once the Republic of Ireland was declared after WWII the Westminster government of the time passed a resolution not to discuss NI – in other words, total lack of interest

    c) once the GFA/Belfast Agreement was signed what happened was no longer Westminster’s responsibility. Stormont and local politicians are supposed to deal with whatever happens. In other words – You wanted devolution, you got it, now get on with it.
    Which has been their attitude all along

  • IJP[3.41] The British govt in the 1920s wanted the rest of the world to think they’d left the natives to it, and unionists at the time wanted full integration but London wasn’t having it, and left them to their own devices to run this place as they pleased, which we know in what fashion and the rest is history. This laissez-faire attitude in London came back tobite them in 1969 when they had to send their army over to stabilise it, but even in 1985, Paisley had an, apparently, stormy interview with Thatcher in Downing St, during which he demand she integrate NI with Britain but she repeated the three NOs she rebuffed demands from the other side with and left them with the anglo-irish agreement for their trouble.

  • babyface finlayson

    I think it’s even simpler than that. Newspapers need to sell. After 40 years we are bad box office.

  • BluesJazz

    Unlikely that Paisley demanded integration. He saw ‘Ulster’ as his wee ‘Gods country’ and despised every secular SoS sent over even more than he despised O’Neill and Faulkner.
    As for the British Army, they were here before 1969 as we had squaddie’s children from Ballykinler and RAF Bishopscourt at my primary school well before that.

    Apart from that you’re correct to say that most of GB regarded ‘the dreary steeples’ in much the same way Chamberlain regarded Czechoslovakia in 1938.

    Tony Blair (and Bill Clinton) spotted an opportunity to spruce up their role in history, but that’s about it. I still think Reggie Maudling summed us up better than any academic, journalist or politico.

  • Zig70

    The comparison is that during the troubles a dead horse got more print in England than a Northern Irish policeman. Why would you want a government as detached as England’s looking after our best interests? Maybe Maskey should have thought of that.

  • ThomasMourne

    When local politicians warn that ‘the world is looking at us’ they are talking total cobblers. The world’s press [apart from some Irish expats] take no notice of our petty squabbles. And how wise they are.

    It is more worrying that the British [and Irish] media pay virtually no heed to the drone war crimes being committed by Obama, supported by Cameron. But then, that’s just a game for Hooray Harry and his chums.

  • BluesJazz [8.21] I even remember that remark of Maudling’s asking for a double Scotch on the plane out from here which must have been after 1970 as the Tories got in then, I was paying little attention to the day to day riots etc 10 miles out in the sticks from the Bogside but some events stick in the mind from the time. I must have read about Paisley in one of those jouro’s memoirs of the troubles. I know Enoch was all for full integration while he was in Nth Down in the anglo-Irish agreement period..

  • Sp12

    “The comparison is that during the troubles a dead horse got more print in England than a Northern Irish policeman. ”

    I remember an English Uni publishing a study on column inches in British papers various victims were afforded during the troubles. The results were not in the least bit surprising.

  • Toastedpuffin – in terms of intensity – name another single police force in the UK that has had 100 officers injured in the last 8 weeks?

  • Toastedpuffin


    Am I to take it that this is your response to me pointing out that Emer O’Toole was indulging in a bit of over-dramatisation of the violence we’ve seen here lately? Or are you looking for bang up to date stats on police injuries across the UK, for I suspect that other forces have indeed seen more than twelve officers injured per week. Does that make her claim any more or less factual? I’m at a loss to work that one out…

    Let’s be blunt here: The claim that Belfast has seen eight weeks of intense rioting is a fabrication. It is simply untrue. She has engaged in misrepresentation in order to sell an article she’s written. It’s shoddy journalism, and unfortunately common as muck in the trade.

  • 6crealist

    Having lived in Britain for a few years, I raised the same question with my English friends. The answer I got was quite simple really: a bit of rioting is expected of us. It has to reach quite severe levels before it will register in the English consciousness.

    Just as O’Toole’s friend answered her: violence in Northern Ireland is “less surprising and shocking” than if it occurred in Britain.

    And, for what it’s worth, the vast majority of English people that I know really couldn’t give a toss if NI left the UK. That changes, however, when I mention the £11bn subvention…

  • 6crealist

    “More interesting that numerous flag protests in support also took place in Glasgow, Liverpool and other parts of GB but was never mentioned on national news.”

    Six men and a dog turning up at events in Liverpool, Glasgow and parts of Kent is hardly newsworthy.

    You’d get more at an Irish League match.

    And I hear Jamie was a no-show at tonight’s big event in Castlederg: even though he pwomised he’d be there.

  • Toastedpuffin

    Ah, I love anecdotes purportedly showing the English attitude towards NI. People frequently have to have them dragged out of them, but when they do, boy are they fascinating. Oddly enough, they do seem to suggest that the English (all of ’em) agree with the viewpoint of the person with the anecdote.

    You’d nearly think that what you were measuring is the impact of a boring conversation on someone with a life.

  • 6crealist

    Stay in denial if you want toasty.

    And if it helps you sleep better tonight, their ambivalence on the matter is nearly matched by those in the Republic (having talked to all 4.5m of them).

  • Toastedpuffin

    Thanks, but denial of what exactly? That anecdotes reflecting how folks don’t much know or care about stuff outside their house, let alone postcode, are interesting and informative? Nah. You can stay gripped by that sort of stuff if that floats yer boat, but tbh it makes me despair of humanitynot only that people are parochial but that this parochialism is taken as scorchingly hot news worthy of sharing with everyone, again and again and again.

  • 6crealist

    Yes, I’m gripped.

    Core n’grato.

  • Toastedpuffin

    That’s lovely.

    Ciao bella!

  • Viridiplantae

    The attitude of many English people to Northern Ireland has the potential to offend both sides here in that I found that those who thought of Northern Ireland as being foreign were if anything actually outnumbered by those who thought that the whole of Ireland was just another part of the UK like Scotland or Wales.

    The perception of Northern Ireland as foreign is also largely based on ignorance in the sense that when people with such attitudes actually meet people from Northern Ireland or spend time in Northern Ireland they generally correct their view and see Northern Ireland as being less foreign than they at first thought.

  • Greenflag

    Stale old news apart from the first few days . Folks in NI have to realise that they need to start killing each other again by the hundreds or more before they become ‘newsworthy ‘ again .The whole sorry saga of the ‘troubles ‘ and it’s episodic revomiting as with the dissidents and flag wavers is just passe for everybody bar a few journalists with time on their hands in mid winter .

    Just as well it’s not reported too much . nobody wants the great unwashed in mainland Britain to become too aware of how their taxes are paying for PSNI overtime etc etc etc .

    ‘Rioting in Belfast ‘ is a headline that’s much less interesting for most people in England than the weather forecast . Like Death & Taxes , Rioting & Belfast go together like a horse and carriage . As to the marriage of convenience ?. For the NI unionist establishment who never trusted HMG fully everything was fine until the game ended in 1974 . Some haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that the old days are gone and that new politics is forcing both sides to think uncomfortable thoughts .

    About time one would think !

  • Britain for most of the 20th century–certainly for all of the last half of it–has regarded NI as culturally distinct from Britain–which it regards as the real UK. Think of the commentator summaries of the premiership of Tony Blair when he retired. No one seemed to weigh in the fact that he ended a civil war or insurgency in the UK, the first such war since the Treaty of 1921 left the Free State out of the UK. No he was judged on the Iraq war and what he did or didn’t do for the NHS. The same can be said about Major’s contribution to the start of the Northern Ireland peace process.

    Not only was NI considered to be remote it was also considered to be temporary and that is testified to by the very name: Northern Ireland and not North Ireland. In English legally-defined major jurisdictions that have directional markers in them are named with cardinal directions: North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, South Africa, West Pakistan, East Pakistan, North Korea, etc. The fact that the term Northern was used indicates that it was intended to be temporary.

    What is interesting to contemplate is if a border poll does someday result in a United Ireland, will London then officially change the name of the state to “the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales” (provided that Scotland is still part of it at that time) or will it simply become the Kingdom of Great Britain?

  • tmitch57. The united kingdom bit may be subject to whether the monarchy still exists, I suppose, and if not, probably just ‘Great Britain’ of a federal unit including the 3 parts.England Scotland and Wales will always exist regardless of whether they are grouped together or not and referenda won’t end the entities, whereas, a border poll can extinguish this entity. Interesting that the Republic has final refusal on bringing NI into it’s territory, but no equivalent facility for rest of uk in event of a continuous NI link there.

  • IJP


    Yes – but they tend to “over-correct”, missing the point that Northern Ireland is a place apart – a different country, and not just in the way Scotland is.

    In my experience, most people in England do tend to regard “Ireland” as a home country, as does the BBC for most sporting purposes.


    An interesting theory, but “West Germany” was the temporary one and “Western Australia” wasn’t…

  • @IJP,

    Australia has a Western Australia and a Northern Territory and a New South Wales and South Australia–so it seems that linguistically it is just mixed up. West Germany was an informal designation, the formal name was Federal Republic of Germany. But it lasted for almost 40 years as a sovereign state, much longer than Northern Ireland was intended to last for.