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23 February 2023 Edition

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British media must face realities of the Good Friday Agreement

Should anyone doubt that the ‘independent’ British press is willing and able to act on behalf of the British state, then its collective enthusiasm for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) should surely quieten the doubters. 

The London-based newspapers had plenty of form, of course, in supporting successive governments, of whatever stripe, during the 28-year war against Republicans in the north.

But that joint call for a referendum ‘yes’ vote in 1998, by Westminster and Fleet Street, has significant implications for the present. Firstly, it illustrates that the government can, if it sets its mind to it, successfully confront Unionist intransigence. Secondly, it shows how the British media, when properly motivated, can be persuaded to do its government’s bidding. 

Before we take those lessons to heart in the current context, let’s consider how those newspapers dealt with the issue at the time. Despite having relatively small sales in Ireland, north and south of the border, most editors did not so much urge Irish people to support the GFA as order them to do so. 

In parallel, they sought to convince their readers in England, Wales and Scotland – who were non-voters – that securing acceptance of the Agreement would benefit Britain as a whole. Peace was at hand.

The popularity of Prime Minister Tony Blair, then enjoying a honeymoon period after sweeping to power in a landslide less than a year before, undoubtedly played a major part in the press’s attitude.

But editorial zeal for the GFA had a much more profound rationale, which the British media dare not admit, neither to themselves nor the public they purported to serve. Here, for once, that elephant-in-the-room cliché is relevant. 

Over the course of the war, Britain’s security forces had failed to crush the IRA while Westminster’s attempts to enforce peace on its own terms had failed just as miserably. Therefore, the Agreement represented what politicians of all parties, and journalists of all persuasions, regarded as the last, best hope for a lasting peace that their previous belligerence had helped to prevent.

Editors were aware that there was, to quote The Times’s apposite understatement, a “sense of distance” between the citizens of Britain and those identifying as British in Ireland’s northern counties. With that in mind, they recognised that they were on safe ground in disregarding loyalist antagonism.

They were also conscious that the buyers of their newspapers were eager for the conflict’s conclusion and there was no chance of them losing readers by taking the government’s side

So, in the days before the poll, in a remarkable sign of unity, papers of the political left, right, and centre, carried the same message. There was not a scintilla of difference between the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror and the Tory-cheerleading Daily Mail

The Daily Express warned: “Don’t reject this bid for peace.” The Sun agreed, running three successive leading articles supporting a ‘yes’ vote. It also devoted a front page to an exclusive article written by US President Bill Clinton, headlined: “Say YES to peace.” The Sunday Times was adamant: “Both sides should grasp this settlement with enthusiasm and move forward on behalf of Ireland, Britain and future generations.”

The Guardian pointed out that “wholly negative” Unionists who opposed the deal offered no “alternative solution to Ulster’s woes”. It cited Joe Cahill’s support for the GFA, “after more than 50 years of struggle”, as a welcome sign of “a genuine shift” by “the republican movement.”

The Times chose a very different revolutionary to make its case, by quoting Antonio Gramsci’s famous statement about the need for optimism, even if it was only “optimism of the will.” Italian Marxist philosophers do not figure too often in Britain’s venerable paper of record. The Daily Mail, without mentioning Gramsci, echoed the sentiment: “It is better to venture in hope than surrender to fear and despair.”

Only the Daily Telegraph registered its reluctance to endorse the Agreement, viewing it in less than positive terms. In its early risible misreading of the situation, it speculated that Gerry Adams would find it difficult to convince Sinn Féin to back the Agreement. 

It found much to dislike, such as the early release of prisoners and the mooted disbandment of the RUC, saluting the force’s “loyalty to the United Kingdom”. It was also angry with the Tory opposition, led by William Hague, for supporting the Agreement. “Why”, it asked, “does he not listen to Mrs Thatcher?”

The paper, in contending that the IRA “has been unable to defeat the RUC operationally”, was frustrated that Sinn Féin was “doing well in the battle of the airwaves.” How dare that party succeed in articulating its case so well!

Indeed, one of the notable features of the Telegraph’s hostility to Irish republicanism, shared by several other papers, was that having long demanded that republicans should follow a political rather than a military path, it could not stomach the fact that Sinn Féin proved so adept at the task.

But, after days railing against both the concept and the reality of the Agreement, it grudgingly came into line. Its stablemate, the Sunday Telegraph, reluctantly concluded: “There may be occasions in future when it is right to say ‘No’; but Friday’s referendum is not one of them.”

That leading article, which expressed the views of high Tory right-wingers, carried the headline “faute de mieux”, meaning “for want of a better alternative”. It was, in other words, a lame admission that it, and the naysaying Unionists, had nothing to offer. 

Perhaps the most revealing point made by the Telegraph was its statement about having “grave reservations about the peace process.” Quite so. What irked it most was the failure of the “war process”.

GFA Media 2

• The agreement represented what politicians and journalists of all persuasions, regarded as the last, best hope for a lasting peace that their previous belligerence had helped to prevent

It was noticeable that the rest of the English press (for that is what it was, and is) gave short shrift to the Orange Order’s rejection of the Agreement, noting it only in passing. As for the DUP’s leader, Ian Paisley, several papers ignored him altogether. 

Then again, they also turned a blind eye to Republicanism’s part in the 700 days of negotiations which led up to the Good Friday. Instead, papers chose to lionise David Trimble, with The Times referring to his “personal triumph” in persuading so many Unionists to back the Agreement. Fair enough, but personal triumphs from the republican side were entirely overlooked.

Re-reading the newspaper output in spring 1998 is a reminder of deep-seated British exceptionalism. There were several instances of the kind of blind ignorance that, from an Irish perspective, made for painful reading. For example, a Labour MP, and member of the Commons select committee on Northern Ireland, Martin Salter, offered his wisdom to readers of his local evening newspaper. 

The people of Ireland, he told them, were “the prisoners of their troubled history”. This has become something of a British mantra since the plantation, if not before, in which the architect of that troubled history is eliminated from the scene. 

On the same theme, The Sun told its readers that “a No vote will plunge the province back into the Dark Ages.” If we obligingly overlook the misuse of “province” and ignore the hyperbole, we cannot disregard the message: unlike Britain, Ireland remains uncivilised, and that is no-one’s fault but its own. History is erased. Britain is not responsible for the creation of an unstable statelet based on religious division.

There were many similar examples, but let us turn away from the myth-making to consider the real import of that moment 25 years ago when a united British press acted as the propaganda arm of Westminster and, even more importantly, when Westminster briefly stopped playing the Orange card.

Ever since the DUP refused to comply with the democratic will of the Six Counties, firstly by scorning the people’s vote against Brexit, secondly by opposing the protocol, and thirdly by defying the people’s wish to see a Stormont assembly, Westminster has let the tail wag the dog.

Rather than act on behalf of the majority, it has allowed the minority to dictate events in the North. As for the press, it has returned to its traditional position – the one it has employed ever since Partition – of turning a blind eye to the political realities of life in a place it laughably insists is part of the United Kingdom.

But should Westminster and its compliant press set their mind to it, as they did over the Good Friday Agreement, they could take on loyalism, could they not? 

Roy Greenslade is a journalist, author and former Professor of Journalism at City, University of London

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