How Irish media coverage of Northern Ireland fails to inform people in the south…

Earlier this week I addressed the Belfast dialogue group Compass Points on the coverage of Northern Ireland by the media in the Republic. This is a slightly edited version of my remarks.

The first thing I should say is that what follows are the views of a former Irish Times journalist, a man in his seventies; a long-time resident of Dublin (although born in County Antrim), who was a Northern Ireland reporter for the BBC and that newspaper in the late 1970s and 1980s; who went back to Belfast in the early 1990s as coordinator of the independent Opsahl Commission, and from 1999-2013 set up and ran the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. So mine is a particular and maybe outdated view, and probably one not informed enough by contemporary social and online media. But for what it’s worth, here it is.

The key thing to understand about the Southern media’s coverage of the North is that it is serving a constituency which is largely uninterested in and indifferent to Northern Ireland. The former Director-General of RTE, Bob Collins (who also knows the North well as a former chief commissioner of the NI Equality Commission), used to say that there was interest in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when the main evening news bulletin carried graphic daily footage of killings and bombings in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere, but since the Northern violence largely finished at the end of the 1990s, that interest declined and eventually all but disappeared. That is still the situation today.

I always say that in more than 50 years of living off and on in Dublin, I can’t recall a single well-informed conversation with the journalists, academics, teachers, civil servants, cultural and voluntary sector workers who make up my friendship group about what reunification with the difficult and divided North might mean for the politics, economics and culture of the complacent – and in recent years rather successful – society that is the Republic of Ireland. And all these people are avid newspaper readers and TV news and current affairs watchers.

I’m going to focus today on the two media outlets I know best, the Irish Times and RTE. Perusing the other two main national dailies, the Irish Independent and the Irish Examiner, in recent weeks in preparation for this talk, I found almost nothing about Northern Ireland. The Sunday Independent is unusual (apart from its anti-Sinn Fein tone): because of the joint ownership of that paper and the Belfast Telegraph, it carries a weekly column from the excellent Northern journalist Sam McBride.

The Irish Times and RTE do each keep two full-time journalists in Belfast (all, incidentally, from a nationalist background). These are good journalists and I have no criticism of them when it comes to reporting the politics – and it is overwhelmingly the politics they report – of Northern Ireland. I should also say that the coverage of Brexit and its impact on Ireland, North and South, by RTE’s Brussels correspondent Tony Connelly (a Northerner), has been world class. Both the Irish Times and RTE also cover the North’s elections well (although I rely on BBC NI for the granular detail) .

What I am critical of is two things: firstly, there are few if any articles or broadcasts on all the other elements that make up a living, functioning society: the economy and business, health, education, the environment, culture and the arts, local government, community development, the lives of ordinary people, and so on. It is almost as though Northern Ireland isn’t a real society, which significant numbers of Southerners (and not only republicans) probably think anyway. The region is largely seen through the narrow prism of its sectarian politics, and in particular the antics of its two big beasts, the DUP and Sinn Fein. Occasionally the Irish Times carries pieces about past atrocities, most of them at the hands of the security forces.

Secondly, there is little serious analysis and explanation of what is happening in the strange place that is the North. [I should add here that Northern Ireland really is ‘strange’ – i.e. foreign – to most people in the South: a recent tourism survey showed that 50% of the population of the Republic – two and a half million people – had never ever visited the North]. As somebody who is genuinely interested in Northern affairs of all kinds, I have to rely on some of the excellent journalists there are in Belfast for the deeper coverage and analysis that is otherwise lacking: people like Sam McBride, Suzanne Breen, Alex Kane and Allison Morris.

I’m showing my age now, but this is a far cry from when I was in the Irish Times Belfast office in the 1980s. Then – under brilliant Northern editors like David McKittrick and Ed Moloney (and Conor O’Clery before them) – Ireland’s ‘paper of record’ led the world on the big breaking stories: the IRA’s various spectacular atrocities, the Maze Prison hunger strike, the Kincora Boys Home scandal, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and so on. We had a ‘Northern Notebook’ every Saturday to analyse the week’s events; and an ‘Inside Belfast’ column every Tuesday to write about subjects other than politics and violence. Until shortly before I arrived there had even been a Northern business editor to cover the economy (economic stories are now left largely to the Press Association news agency). I have a vivid memory of Belfast Telegraph reporters hanging around our office in Great Victoria Street, waiting for the latest instalment in the Kincora Boys Home saga.

Upstairs in the RTE office, there was a similar deep seriousness about the coverage of Northern Ireland, with superb journalists like Tommie Gorman, Cathal Mac Coille and Póilín Ní Chiaráin. We all knew that our editors and bosses – men like Douglas Gageby, Conor Brady and Bob Collins – believed fervently that Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’ was an enormously important story which their readers, viewers and listeners absolutely had to pay attention to.

The former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, as a young politician in the 1960s, used to urge RTE to include more unionists in its discussion programmes. That is still not happening except in the most tokenistic way. We don’t understand the North (and particularly the unionist North) because – other than the obvious political leaders – we don’t hear from Northerners. For example, I think I have heard Alliance leader Naomi Long once on RTE in the past 12 months, and have yet to read a decent interview with or profile of her in any Southern paper. I can’t remember the last time I heard a broadcast or read an article about a Northern business or trade union or farmers’ or women’s movement leader. A recent profile of new GAA president Jarlath Burns as a pioneering school principal in south Armagh was only commissioned by the Irish Times after I suggested it.

Of course, in the final three decades of the last century Northern Ireland was often a news-leading world story, as well as a vital Irish one. Today the North’s interminable deadlock is simply boring, and there is no major violence to shock the media-consuming public. Now, with newspapers in particular being under constant threat from social media, much of what serves as analysis and debate is a kind of culture war where an individual commentator’s beliefs – ‘echo chamber’ style – trump the good journalist’s search for truth through gathering facts and evidence. Even I, a lifelong newspaper man, find myself perusing the Slugger O’Toole website (with its multitude of rubbishy ‘threads’, interspersed with some thought-provoking ones) nearly as often as I check with the Irish Times and RTE.

Why would anyone read the Irish Times to find out what is going on in Northern Ireland in any depth these days? Somebody like me, with a continuing deep interest in the place, can get a subscription to the online edition of the Belfast Telegraph to keep up with events there. This is particularly the case when I want to know what is happening in the unionist and loyalist communities, which remain terra incognita to both the Southern media and the people they are supposed to serve.

Unfortunately this leads to an uniformed and indifferent public in the South remaining uninformed and indifferent. Last month the editor of the News Letter, Ben Lowry, unapologetically told a Dublin audience that his pro-unionist paper had scant interest in events south of the border. If they were being honest, the editors of the three national papers in the South would be admitting the same thing: they are nationalist papers serving a readership with little or no interest in the North.

At least the the Irish Times has a weekly opinion columnist with a unionist bent. However, as a relatively knowledgeable Northerner, I often find Newton Emerson’s columns very unsatisfactory. As a satirist-turned-commentator, he doesn’t appear to understand the basic journalistic requirement to back up his statements by referring to confirmatory sources. Thus a good journalist will cite a “government source” or a “source close to Politician A or government department B” when making a claim. Emerson never quotes or cites anyone. As a result I never know whether I am reading something that is actually happening in Northern Ireland or only something that is happening in Emerson’s brain. Once again, it is a very far cry from the columns of the peerless Mary Holland, occasionally flanked by Vincent Browne or Nuala O’Faolain, that I used to rely on in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rory Montgomery, the former top Irish civil servant who was a key player in both the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and the diplomatic manoeuvring following the Brexit disaster, shares my unhappiness with the mixture of delusional thinking and sheer apathy that passes for opinion about Northern Ireland in the South. Agreeing with a recent blog of mine about Sinn Fein rewriting recent Irish history if and when they get into power in the Republic, he wrote: “Far too many people in the South, and elsewhere, are susceptible to cynical republican mythologising. This is not incompatible with, and indeed is only possible, because of enormous levels of ignorance and indifference.” He finds that many members of the younger generation, which is “implacable in its excoriation of manifestations of racism and sexism (with no statute of limitations) seem not to care about, or at best to relativise, the greater sin of murder.” The Sinn Fein narrative of the Northern conflict as “a noble and justified struggle for human rights quietly advances,” writes another astute observer, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy.

All this means that the Southern electorate are extraordinarily ill-informed about the North (and particularly about unionism). The Irish Times did run an excellent series of opinion polls and focus groups on unity and related issues last December and January, which only served to show how little Southerners were prepared to change their comfortable society and traditional symbols in order to accommodate Northerners (and particularly large numbers of alienated and abandoned unionists). It is difficult to overstate how ill-prepared the Southern electorate is for the extremely difficult public debate that will have to start soon here about the huge changes that will be needed to bring about a peaceful and harmonious united Ireland. And the Southern media’s return (for the most part) to its pre-1969 indifference to Northern Ireland is not helping that debate one bit.

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