14 April 2005 Edition
The stuff of history
BY LAURA FRIEL
Historic or a cynical stunt? The media and political reaction to Gerry Adams' appeal to the IRA last week fell into two main categories. Predictably, the response largely depended on the position already established by the commentator. As a rule of thumb, the mainstream media followed the line of the two governments, both of which welcomed, if in a somewhat muted way, the development as a positive contribution.
The initial reaction, particularly within the live media, was curious. In a week of major news stories, the announcement of the general election in Britain, the Windsor wedding and the death of Pope John Paul 11, the prominence given to Adams' speech signalled its importance and most serious media commentators acknowledged the historical and political significance.
But the wider media was thrown into an immediate dilemma. After weeks of vilifying republicans in an ideological attempt to relocate Sinn Féin outside the political process, they were being asked to respond to a political initiative that placed republicans visibly at the core.
For three months there had been an unholy alliance between the British and Irish media, the Irish political establishment, Ireland's extreme right wing, anti-Agreement unionism and the SDLP. It had even spilled out into Irish America. Based on half-truths and untruths, that transitory unity of purpose was unlikely to be sustained.
And throughout it all, there had been one clear unequivocal truth to emerge. The Irish people support the Good Friday Agreement, they believe in inclusive dialogue and real change, they want a political settlement and they are not prepared to abandon Sinn Féin. It was a political reality that the real power brokers sooner or later would begin to acknowledge.
But if the real movers and shakers were facing up to their responsibilities, including republicans, those who refuse to take any responsibility, the naysayers of unionism, elements within the British media and the irresponsible lunatic right in the south of Ireland, were still clinging to the old agenda.
"A PR stunt," declared Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune. "It's all a game," she concluded. "Adams' statement was a careful PR stunt aimed at two audiences, soft Sinn Féin voters who might have been put off by recent events and middle class Catholics dithering between the Shinners and the SDLP."
Curiously, in another article by Breen appearing in the same edition, she reveals secret research carried out by the British government that predicts "Sinn Féin are poised to make gains in next month's Westminster election.
"The NIO has conducted its own assessment of the likely results in all 18 constituencies," reports Breen. The report offers no evidence of 'dithering' or 'put off' Sinn Féin voters, but Breen doesn't allow these simple facts to interrupt her analysis.
Alan Ruddock in the Sunday Times demands: "Come clean, Mr Adams." His dialogue isn't designed to engage republicans but is a remonstration with other media commentators. "The trouble is, his [Adams] propaganda works," bewails Ruddock.
And as for Adams' appeal to the IRA, "it simply confirms what we refuse to acknowledge: Adams and his colleagues are engaged in a long war, and we are letting them win. He sets his agenda and we slavishly follow rather than expose it for the sham it is," writes Ruddock.
But while Ruddock might not like it, he has to admit, "hard as it is to stomach, Sinn Féin will wipe the floor with the SDLP in the Westminster elections and will, no doubt, continue to grow in the republic".
John Drennan of the Sunday Independent was also pretty cross with his fellow journalists in the Irish media. Drennan accuses the Irish Times of being "optimistic" and RTE of being "gullible".
The Irish Times dealt with Adams' speech primarily as a news story, choosing to prioritise the "cautious welcome in Dublin and London".
Dan Keenan noted that "unionists were cynical" and the "guarded welcome" of the SDLP. "Reaction to the speech was generally positive in Washington. Republican Congressman Jim Walsh, chairman of the Friends of Ireland in Congress said that Sinn Féin leaders 'see this as hugely significant and I think the rest of the world should too'."
But for Ed Moloney, it's clearly a case of 'be careful what you wish for because it may come true'. For years, journalists like Moloney have attempted to create division between republicans but now it's the last thing he wants. "Sinn Féin may prefer divorce. Should we?" asks Moloney. For Moloney, Adams' speech is not about making politics work, it's about "leverage" without responsibility. It suits Moloney to hold Sinn Féin to account at the whim of the media, the sham findings of the IMC or the opinion of Hugh Orde. He doesn't want anything to change.
Many newspapers carried reports of Michael McDowell's inflammatory address to the Progressive Democrats' annual conference at the weekend but despite the coverage, McDowell already appeared off message.
But for the extreme right the show must go on. "IRA-Sinn Féin were well on the way to creating a state within a state," McDowell told the PDs in Cork. "They were using well placed sleepers and collaborators, some of them pillars of society, to achieve that end," said McDowell. There is now an "ongoing massive operation" by Gardaí "to prevent the subversion of our democracy".
It was still a kind of Irish version of 'reds under the beds' paranoia for the PDs, but the rest of the world had woken up.
In the Sunday Business Post, Niall O'Dowd saw Adams' speech as winning back the initiative for Sinn Féin. "It was a classic counter-intuitive Adams move," he wrote. "In a broad stroke he regained the initiative for Sinn Féin and confused his opponents, who were caught off guard. The immediate prospect of not having the IRA to kick around anymore was clearly a daunting one for so many leaders North and South."
O'Dowd sees Adams' initiative as rebuilding the support of the American administration but he's less optimistic about Sinn Féin's relationship with Fianna Fáil.
"Clearly, the Sinn Féin potential to become a major player in southern politics and to subsequently threaten Fianna Fáil's hold on office, has created a deep divide between Bertie Ahern and Adams," says O'Dowd.
He acknowledges that "there was a clear political advantage for Sinn Féin to the announcement, coming as it did in the run up to elections" but he is in no doubt that it was "an historic and momentous week" and "truly the stuff of history".