25 September 2003 Edition
Spin and speculation grows with election expectation
BY LAURA FRIEL
In some ways it's nothing new. As soon as there's a whiff of an election in the air, familiar political configurations begin to emerge. It's a widely recognised phenomenon that in the run up to an election, the nationalist media will switch into anti-republican mode.
Newspapers like the Irish News, whose circulation normally relies upon a wider audience than the dwindling SDLP support base, are temporarily transformed into little more than a party political propaganda sheet. During the run up to an election, the consistently anti-republican unionist media is joined by compliant nationalism.
Of course, in the context of the current peace process, the SDLP and their allies in the Irish media and Catholic Church have been robbed of their traditional opposition to mainstream republicanism and must look towards a handful of dissidents to provide the impetus for their campaign of vilification.
The dissidents may be isolated within the nationalist community and irrelevant as a political force, but that didn't deter the SDLP from milking the opportunity. The current intimidation of members of District Policing Partnerships and Policing Board is just the latest indication of the dissidents' failed campaign and political bankruptcy. But in terms of anti-republican propaganda, it was a gift.
As is so often the case, it began with the PSNI. On 15 September, PSNI Chief Hugh Orde highlighted a number of attacks and threats against DPP members. Orde's comments followed the resignation of Cathal O'Dolan following a threat from dissidents.
In an interview in the Irish News, Orde described those involved in the intimidation as 'rogue elements' that were plotting to destroy the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Féin, as a pro-Agreement party, cannot be accused of plotting to destroy the peace process, but the party's refusal to accept anything less than the new beginning to policing envisaged by the Patten Report sticks not only in the throat of the Chief Constable but also the British administration.
In what can only be described as a bit of British mischief making, Orde called for all parties engaged in the democratic process to condemn the threats. "Anyone that wants to engage in a democratic process should condemn it, said Orde. "That includes every single political party and it includes Sinn Féin."
NIO Security Minister Jane Kennedy reiterated the PSNI Chief's calls. "The community must come together to support those who are participating in the new policing arrangements," she said. Of course, lumping support for policing arrangements as they are currently constituted with opposition to threats against individual participants is a propaganda ploy.
Sinn Féin immediately replied with a comprehensive repudiation of threats against DPP members but retained its right to contest current policing arrangements. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said his party was right to withhold support because the new policing arrangements were "not good enough". Martin McGuinness said "I think that the people who are making threats against individual members of the district policing boards need to recognise that they are doing so without any support whatsoever from within our community.
"I am an elected representative in the Mid Ulster area - 25,000 people voted for me. I have given leadership to those people in making it absolutely clear that we are totally and absolutely opposed to the intimidation of anyone who sits on a district policing partnership.
"I am convinced that what is happening is a result of the activities of micro-groups. I am dismayed that Hugh Orde feels the need to try and blacken the name of republicans, Sinn Féin in particular, on this particular issue."
But, the scene having been set by the British, the SDLP and its friends in the media were only too willing to run on with the baton.
Emerging from a meeting with Gerry Adams at which he had sought and received reassurances from the Sinn Féin leader, SDLP leader Mark Durkan begrudgingly conceded: "If Sinn Féin can clearly state that they oppose this violence and these threats from these so called dissidents, then I would hope that people would take comfort from that."
But a day later, while former SDLP leader John Hume restricted his comments "to those responsible", his colleague and party chairperson Alex Attwood called for a "crystal clear" statement from the IRA that it was not involved in recent attacks.
In the media, threats from dissidents were massaged into the catch-all phrase of 'republican intimidation', which would, of course, require reassurances from both Sinn Féin and the IRA. Prominent members of Sinn Féin, both locally and nationally, repeatedly reiterated the party's position but to little avail.
The Irish News carried a front page "Have your say" advertisement inviting readers to let the paper know "what you think of the republican intimidation of the DPP". The Irish News promised to print a "selection" of readers' comments. They appeared the following day.
"Outpouring of outrage and disgust," ran the banner headline. The Irish News had invited comments about threats from dissidents but it printed condemnations of Sinn Féin and the IRA. Having manufactured sufficient confusion, the Irish News was certainly not in the business of clearing it up.
Without comment, the paper printed a series of readers' letters expressing a mixed bag of grievances against Sinn Féin and mainstream republicanism. The comments ranged from "who does Gerry Adams think he is?" to expressions of support for the PSNI and calls for Sinn Féin to participate in the policing boards.
Meanwhile, building on the climate of media induced confusion, the SDLP leader accused Sinn Fein of "creating a climate of abuse". There is no intended irony in Durkan's words. Sinn Féin rhetoric had helped create the climate for dissident republican attacks, claimed Durhan. "They have created this whole atmosphere of intimidation," he said.
After a week during which Sinn Féin had repeatedly reiterated its opposition to the threats, Martin McGuinness expressed surprise at the SDLP's comments.
"I have to say I was very surprised by the leadership of the SDLP's attitude in the course of recent times," said McGuinness. "These incidents are absolutely deplorable and they are coming from a gang of people who are militarily useless and politically a shambles. The SDLP should stop politicking on a matter as serious as this."
While the Irish News was using confusion to propel the political agenda of the SDLP, Gerry Moriarty of the Irish Times was more direct. "SF leaders in reported row with IRA over intimidation" ran the paper's front-page headline. But these grandiose claims are at odds with the detail.
On the one hand we have "the Sinn Féin leadership" involved in "angry recriminations with Provisional IRA members" while on the other we have "an incident" in County Tyrone involving "minor activists".
It's only with the last paragraph that the reason behind this blatantly spurious article becomes clear. If there is no evidence to support the claim that mainstream republicans are behind the threats, why, despite Sinn Féin denials, would the SDLP leader Mark Durkan have called on the IRA to issue a statement saying it was not involved, concluded Moriarty.
Or could it possibly be something to do with a possible forthcoming election?