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4 May 2006 Edition

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TV Review: Hunger Strike. RTÉ 1. Tuesday 2 May

A weakness of the programme was that it did not really get across the full extent of what the H-Block and Armagh prisoners went through between 1976 and 1980

A weakness of the programme was that it did not really get across the full extent of what the H-Block and Armagh prisoners went through between 1976 and 1980

Reminders of censorship era in portrayal of H-Block struggle

For those of use who remember what it was like when Irish television was gagged by Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act it is still something of an experience to see republicans on RTÉ describing their role in events during that era of censorship and intense repression. For those who are too young to remember, a simple exercise will illustrate what Section 31 meant. Imagine RTÉ's Hunger Strike documentary without the participation of the former H-Block prisoners and Sinn Féin voices such as Jim Gibney and Gerry Adams.

From 1971 to 1994 that was how RTÉ covered the war in our country. Countless historic events were simply never filmed or recorded because of Section 31. Many key players have died without ever being interviewed. Political censorship was not only a denial of freedom of information and freedom of speech it was also a denial of the historical record for future generations. Therefore it is very necessary for RTÉ to make programmes such as the Hunger Strike documentary.

This was a riveting programme by the very nature of the events it covered. It was pervaded with the sense that this was an intense confrontation between republican prisoners and the British government. The programme-makers based their approach on key interviewees and used relatively little original news footage from the time. This was at once a strength and a weakness.

Some of the interviewees just seemed irrelevant. It was depressing to listen to David Trimble speak of the "beastly behaviour" of the H-Block prisoners and the "contempt" that Unionists had for them. If his experience in the peace process has taught him anything at all about republicans it was not apparent in his interview. The colonial sneer of Thatcher's PR man Bernard Ingham said it all about the British government's attitude.

What kept you watching was the testimony of the prisoners who were there such as Brendan McFarlane and Laurence McKeown and those who bridged the prison world and the outside world - Jim Gibney and Danny Morrison. A weakness of the programme was that it did not really get across the full extent of what the H-Block prisoners went through between 1976 and 1980. The plight of the women in Armagh, including their role in the 1980 Hunger Strike, was omitted.

However, the most bizarre decision of the programme-makers was to feature former Irish diplomat Seán Donlon as the main voice from the 26 Counties. Donlon played a despicable role in the prison struggle. As Irish ambassador in Washington he was diligent in his opposition to anyone who supported the prisoners or who challenged British policy in Ireland in any way. In one notorious case he even wrote to a Congressman warning against association with Fr. Raymond Murray who was championing the case of the Birmingham Six. It was nauseating to watch Donlon, with his patrician air of privilege, muse on how hard it was to understand people voting for republicans "then or now".

Equally sickening was the soundbite from Garret FitzGerald who spoke of the IRA's "lack of concern for the prisoners". Expect more of this next week from FitzGerald who was in the 1973-77 Cabinet that treated republican prisoners in its own jurisdiction with brutality and who, as Taoiseach, stood by while the Hunger Strike tragedy unfolded.

Again reflecting on the legacy of Section 31, when the programme used news footage of the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election it was a BBC and not an RTÉ reporter who gave the news of the election of Bobby Sands.

• The second and final part of Hunger Strike is on RTÉ 1 next Tuesday 9 May at 10.15pm.

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