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30 April 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past









Siobhán McKenna, the BBC and the IRA 


ONE of the first examples of the banning of a television programme in relation to the war in Ireland involved a world renowned Irish actress, a TV journalist who faced down Senator Joseph McCarthy and a serving and future Unionist Prime Minister.
There was major controversy when on Saturday night 25 April 1959, the BBC broadcast a show from CBS in the USA, the Small World talk programme hosted by Ed Murrow. One of his guests was Siobhán McKenna, the Belfast-born actress, then at the height of her career. Internment without trial had recently ended in the 26 Counties and the release of the internees had been criticised by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan while on a visit to Belfast.
Siobhán McKenna described Macmillan’s protest as “impertinent”. She was surprised the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, for whom she normally had great respect, had put in prison “young idealists” who were fighting for the same cause he had fought for in 1916. She asked if partition was no solution in Cyprus why did England maintain it in Ireland. She said of Macmillan:
“He spoke of the Six Counties as Ulster. That is wrong geographically. I was born in Belfast myself and I do not think it is English property.”
When the members of the Unionist regime in Belfast heard the Volunteers of the IRA described as “young idealists” on BBC TV they could not contain their indignation. Ulster Unionist Chief Whip Brian Faulkner, who himself went on to impose internment in the Six Counties in 1971, said it was “nothing short of a disgrace that the national television network should be used for such anti-British propaganda purposes”. He resigned in protest from the BBC Northern Ireland Advisory Council.

‘A good spanking’
The storm then spread to the Stormont parliament where Unionist Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough took the BBC to task. He said he had never heard of Siobhán McKenna before but “probably a good spanking would do her good”. Unionist MP Nat Minford slammed the “Fenian propaganda” of the BBC, called McKenna a liar for saying she was an Irish citizen and then stormed out of the House.
Siobhán McKenna said she had “not the slightest regret for anything I said”. She said that if the people of Britain and the North were “as democratic as they insist” they should be able to take fair criticism. She insisted she was an Irish citizen. “The press people in the United States told me that they seldom get an Irish point of view”, she said.
Then, after J. Ritchie McKee, National Governor of the BBC in the Six Counties, met with Sir Ian Jacob, Director-General of the BBC in London, the BBC announced that the second half of the Small World programme would not be broadcast. This was despite the fact that it contained no discussion of Irish politics. 

It was ironic that the presenter of the banned programme was the legendary TV journalist Ed Murrow. A few years before he had helped to expose the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy whose witch-hunt against radicals of all hues, and against people he simply did not like, was carried out under the banner of anti-communism and gave the world the concept of McCarthyism.
Earlier in 1959 the BBC had also stopped a series of reports on the Six Counties by Alan Whicker because Unionists had objected to the first report which was on betting shops. Following the pattern set in 1959, broadcasting censorship was to become extensive following the escalation of the conflict a decade later.
Siobhán McKenna continued a successful acting career and maintained her republican beliefs.
The BBC banned the Small World programme on 30 April 1959, 50 years ago this week. 

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