27 January 2005 Edition
Myth making and nation building
Commenting on the American media of his day, film maker John Ford once remarked that when the legend becomes accepted as fact, the only thing left to do is print the legend. And in recent weeks just such a process has been taking place within the British and Irish media.
It followed the collapse of negotiations precipitated by the DUP leader's demand for the public humiliation of republicans and the opportunity presented by the Northern Bank robbery. It began with media speculation about the projected opinion of Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable and former London Metropolitan officer.
At this point we had three areas, in the terminology of Hollywood, of myth making, involving the (1) speculation of the media about an (2) opinion set in the (3) future. In doing this, the media was able to draw on a rich seam of notions with a long history of promotion by British counter insurgency and already prevalent within the public discourse.
The second phase involved confirmation of his position by the PSNI Chief Constable and the media upping the ante by further fudging the differences between speculation and inside information, opinion and evidence, fantasy and fact.
The media had prophesied Orde would confirm their imaginings and despite the fact that he said nothing which changed the status of the evidence — which still stands as none at all — in newsprint and broadcast commentary speculation was transformed into assertion.
As far as the media was concerned, the IRA was guilty and the only question to be asked was about the likely political fallout and how to punish Sinn Féin. Few journalists stopped to ask why one scenario necessarily flowed from the other. It was as if the engine pushing the whole process forward had been designed to attack Sinn Féin and now we'd arrived at the station.
Suddenly the platform was crowded with commuters eager to add their penny's worth of condemnation. Amongst the usual passengers of anti-Agreement unionism, the SDLP was running in all directions and Bertie Ahern appeared to have joined the throng. There was a great deal of noise and smoke but as the air cleared, a few simple truths still remained standing.
No matter how much the British, unionism and elements within the South might wish republicans were excluded and marginalised, it remained a pure fantasy. Phase three of the post November onslaught was all about admitting it.
This week, the two governments announced a resumption of talks with Sinn Féin. Senior British Government sources admitted, as the largest nationalist party, any meaningful way forward must include Sinn Féin. Everyone was cross and tired but nothing much had changed.
Criminalisation as a strategy pursued by the British against republicans is nothing new and has been pursued since the imposition of partition and the creation of a sectarian unionist dominated body politic. Following the 1981 Hunger Strikes, criminalisation as a strategy was effectively defeated by international and national public opinion, but if the corpse was dead it has repeatedly refused to lie down.
The resurrection of criminalisation by sections of the media, the British establishment and unionists as a response to the collapse of negotiations just before Christmas came as no surprise to republicans. At every stage in the peace process, a crisis in unionism has routinely been translated into an attempt to criminalise republicans.
But if criminalisation as a failed British strategy still walks amongst us, it is a shadow of its former self. At one time, criminalisation was a prelude to brutal repression including death, torture and incarceration. Now it is little more than a propaganda ploy played out by reactionary forces hoping to undermine Sinn Féin's growing electoral potential, and even their most devoted anti-republican advocates are already discouraged and pessimistic.
Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times was momentarily cock-a-hoop last week at the possibility of the SDLP doing "battle with the Provos". But even before the SDLP leadership put paid to the ramblings of McGrady and McDonnell, Clarke was filled with doom and gloom. Any attempt to exclude Sinn Féin by capitulating to the unionist agenda was likely to hasten the SDLP's inevitable decline. The SDLP risks being "snuffed out in one fell swoop", concluded Clarke.
The SDLP had "set its sights on recovering support" after the bank robbery said the Sunday Business Post's Paul T Colgan but there were "pitfalls" ahead and any decision by the SDLP to enter an executive without Sinn Féin would "bury the party".
For Clarke, the "political battle" for the North is almost over and Sinn Féin success in eclipsing the SDLP in the forthcoming Westminster elections will build "a strong bridgehead" for the party to grow in the South. In the South, partitionist nationalism might be as fervently anti-republican as Liam Clarke but they're also equally as pessimistic about containing Sinn Féin.
In the Six Counties the media has already largely admitted that blaming the IRA for the Northern Bank robbery "will have no bearing on the ballot box" and Sinn Féin's position as the voice of nationalism is "unlikely to change". In the 26 Counties a series of opinion polls told much the same story.
The "majority wants talks with SF on North deal to continue" ran the front page headlines of the Irish Times and worse still, even people who believed the IRA carried out the bank robbery also believed Sinn Féin was a fit partner of government in the 26 Counties.
After weeks of newsprint dedicated to portraying republicans as criminals and liars, no one was more disappointed than the Irish Times in their apparent inability to manipulate public opinion. And it wasn't just Sinn Féin voters, "a significant proportion of the total electorate would be happy to see people associated with such behaviour participating in government", said the Irish Times.
It's an "appaling state of affairs", ran the editorial. The "public are confused" and the blame lies with Bertie Ahern. "He has repeatedly failed to draw a line with the Sinn Féin leadership about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. Luckily McDowell was there." Without McDowell "the issue of criminality would not have become an issue for the Irish Government," said the Irish Times.
A crisis in the media to manipulate public opinion in favour of the status quo is swiftly translated by the media's political commentators into a crisis of state and their rhetoric is all dressed up in the borrowed rags of Britain's criminalisation discourse.
"One of the downsides of the Peace Process," writes the editor of the Sunday Tribune, "has been the erosion of democratic standards. That slide has been facilitated by the casual attitude of the Irish and British Governments to the criminal activities of republicans."
Pat Leahy, writing in the Sunday Business Post, admits that the crisis is rooted in Sinn Féin's electoral threat to Fianna Fáil and the rest of the southern political establishment.
"A certain amount of the vehemence of the media and political reaction of recent weeks can probably be ascribed to a certain amount of pent up frustration with Sinn Féin's electoral success and seemingly inexorably increasing support in recent years," writes Leahy.
Peel away the nonsense and what lies at the core of it all is plain enough to see. It is not a crisis of criminality, as David Adams, writing in the Irish Times, suggests. Instead of inclusive democracy we hoped for, says David Adams, "we are now closer to having built a mafia state".
The crisis is not in the credibility of Sinn Féin: "Sinn Féin's electoral support remains rock solid", says Matt Cooper of the SBP. There is no crisis in democracy, as suggested by the Sunday Tribune. The crisis is not flowing from the Good Friday Agreement, "simply a mandate to re-define ongoing criminality as peace", as Brenda Power of the Sunday Times suggests.
It is a crisis in Partition. The imposition of partition by definition outlawed aspirations of re-unification, whether by military, political or social means. In this, republicans have always been outside the law, beyond the Pale and their aspirations have been repeatedly criminalised. The unravelling of an unstable and unsustainable sectarian state in the Six Counties will necessarily rock the political establishment both sides of the border. And there will be tantrums and tears before bedtime.