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29 January 2009 Edition

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Blackouts and blanket bans

AS A CHILD in primary school, the date of the First Dáil in 1919 was a mystical event. I knew it was important as teachers cryptically alluded to it but I could never remember when it was and I knew absolutely nothing about the relevance of the day. So I am just like a member of the Irish Government then!
Last week’s media was one of ceremonies including an inauguration, two commemorations and what seems to be a multiplying amount of film award ceremonies.
Oh, and there was daily media coverage of what must now be the world’s longest-running labour dispute as Cork hurlers and their immovable GAA county board remained in deadlock (long yawn). Why it merits hourly news updates on RTÉ Radio I really don’t know.

BARACK Obama’s inauguration was a week-long mediafest of carefully-orchestrated press events including concerts, train rides, 10 balls and a swearing-in ceremony watched by an audience of 38 million Americans (according to Nielsen Media Research). This doesn’t count those who watched in bars and restaurants or the two million who turned up on the day.
So, as no effort was spared in celebrating the 44th US president, the Irish Government’s 90th anniversary commemoration of the First Dáil was a strangely plain affair. Obama’s inauguration was a bit like a Bollywood spectacular while back in the Emerald Isle we got bleak Beckett in comparison.
There was in the run-up a lot of comment in the print media about the fact that Sinn Féin had – with not a lot of resources but incredible foresight – booked Dublin’s Mansion House, site of the meetings of the First Dáil, on the actual 90th anniversary date.
For example, the Belfast Telegraph (13 January) reported: “Sinn Féin wins race to book Mansion House for Dáil anniversary.” The Telegraph also reported, quite accurately, that Sinn Féin was willing to share the venue, offering an “historically accurate” all-Ireland commemoration. This “would have meant Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, co-hosting the event with Taoiseach Brian Cowen”. Similar stories were in a range of other Irish papers and then the media blackout started.
I noticed it first on the RTÉ website that a press briefing by Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams on the steps of the Mansion House, shown live on RTÉ News the day before the Irish Government commemoration, never made it to the RTÉ website archives.
RTÉ did give the Government events serious welly and began to buy into the Fianna Fáil revisionism that 20 January was now the key day. For example, What it Says in the Papers on Morning Ireland, the state’s most-listened-to radio programme, decided on 20 January to have a special review of what it said in the papers on 21 and 22 January 1919.
Then on the news bulletins that evening all we got to see of Sinn Féin was a quick glance of Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald among the invited guests but no mention of Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin’s speech.

SINN Féin’s First Dáil commemoration was a bit more Obama than Biffo. It was one of those once-in-a-decade political events. They had actors, singers, music, a historical display, tours on the hour all day. Oh, and Gerry Adams gave a speech – twice. (Elsewhere in An Phoblacht you can get first-hand details of the historic celebration last week.)
The Mansion House was packed. A crowd of 400 was left outside, hence Adams’s second speech (well, Obama did get to take the oath a second time). All of this merited no comment from the Irish mainstream media: no pictures, no interviews, no comment. It seems that it is safer to be bored by Brian than celebrated by Sinn Féin.

Also in blanket ban mode this week was the BBC, who refused to broadcast an appeal for humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza. ITV and Channel 4 broadcast the appeal but not the BBC.
Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún said:
“The BBC decision not to screen the fund-raising appeal on behalf of charities working to address the humanitarian crisis facing people living in Gaza is wrong. There can be no justification whatsoever for standing by while thousands of families face humanitarian disaster”.

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