We are talking here about the march towards a new Ireland. But the future also depends on settling accounts with the past. We need to know so much about what happened during the years between 1968 and 1998 before we can move forward, so I make no apologies for looking backwards for a moment. Fifteen years ago, just a couple of months after the people of Northern Ireland had approved the Good Friday Agreement, I spoke in Belfast in memory of a 17-year-old called Damien Walsh. [Damien’s uncle, Breandan O Lochlainn; mother and father, Marian and Peter Walsh.]
On 25 March 1993, he had been shot dead while working – on a youth training scheme – at the Dairy Farm coal depot in Twinbrook, on the outskirts of West Belfast. He had been shot several times – in the back. Gradually, information came to light that pointed to collusion between the perpetrators, the UDA/UFF, and the security forces – notably the British army’s Force Research Unit and the RUC. I can’t go into all the details here but I can tell you there were several interlocking parts to the jigsaw – the hijacking of a car on the Lower Shankill, a timely lifting of an RUC checkpoint, the weaponry used, the presence of undercover soldiers, the abandonment of the killers’ car in Andersonstown, the later “discovery” of bomb-making material close to the scene. According to a report by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in September 2010 undercover soldiers were watching when Damien was murdered. And the same report revealed that one of the two guns used in the attack was later used in another murder, four attempted murders and a further four shooting incidents between 1990 and 1996.
What, you might ask, is the significance of this single murder among so many? Because none of it has ever been reported by the London-based British media. Because, in fact, there are at least 120 cases like it, maybe more. Because, at its heart, is collusion between the agents of the British government and gangs that, to give them their right description, were “death squads.” And because collusion is the great untold story outside of the north of Ireland. And it is that aspect, because I’m a journalist, that I continue to find so disturbing. Next Friday sees the publication of a book by one of my friends, Anne Cadwallader, called Lethal Allies: British collusion in Ireland. Someone who has had the chance to read it calls it “a revealing and forensic insight” into the nature of collaboration between loyalist paramilitaries – the death squads – and shadowy agencies of the British state. But here’s the grim irony. Anne, a journalist for 20-odd years, was not a journalist when she wrote the book. She told me yesterday: “I would never have been able to write this book as a journalist because no-one would have commissioned me to do it.” Instead, she joined the Pat Finucane Centre, the human rights organisation named after a man who was also murdered by loyalists colluding with the security forces. And it was there she met Alan Brecknell, who had spent 15 years painstakingly researching scores of murders.
I’d like to tell you more but the book it’s under a tight embargo. I can tell you there’s due to be a Channel 4 documentary based on it next Thursday evening. I am also hopeful of a Guardian serialisation. And I can tell you the book is explosive. What I fear, however, is that its substantive content – its explosive content – will be ignored by much of the British mainstream media. Why? Because that’s how it is. Because the British national press and broadcasters have been locked into a narrative about Northern Ireland that eschews all deviations from one that harks back to the late 1960s. You know it all too well. Its the one about the two-tribes, each-one-as-bad-as-the-other, with the poor British government cast as the reluctant, impartial, despairing piggy-in-the-middle.
Despite the changes wrought by the peace process, the only story the media care to tell is always about conflict. Those journalists who work outside the London-centric press – meaning British government-centric press – are baffled by this scenario. For example, on Wednesday this week, the Dublin-based correspondent of the international news agency, Reuters, filed what we in the business call a news feature. He told of the wonderful summer enjoyed by the people of Derry as tourists flocked to the city, the city of culture. He told how more than 400,000 people visited during a single week in August for the Irish musical festival, the fleadh cheoil [kuwl]. He explained how businessmen helped to build the foundations of a cross-community infrastructure and the benefits of direct dialogue. Having attended both the fleadh and the “walled city tattoo”, I can testify to the veracity of his report. Derry rocked during August.
So I looked to see who had picked up on the upbeat Reuters report. I found it on US newspaper websites: the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun, for example. On Italy’s La Repubblica and even the Oman Daily Observer. But in Britain? Not one. It was ignored. Why? Well, I concede that “normal” news values do dictate that good news is not news while bad news is almost always news. So the murders on 10 October of Barry McGrory in Derry and Kevin Kearney in Belfast – allegedly by dissident republicans – were covered. But, of course, those killings fit into the Northern Ireland narrative. Only violence and division count. Last winter, the Belfast flag protests got big coverage. Otherwise, the “national press” turns a blind eye to events in the six northern Irish counties.
And I must add, lest anyone misunderstands me, this media silence or media ignorance or media apathy – whatever you want to call it – is as bad for those of a loyalist persuasion as it is for nationalists. What is undeniable is that national newspapers, which remain the big opinion-formers within Britain, are heavily influenced by the need to retain readers. And there is a belief that Northern Ireland news is a turn-off. It’s just not commercial. This belief is the reason for the old editorial mantra: “Ulster doesn’t sell”. But we’re facing something even worse than that because the lack of coverage, the withdrawal of media staffing from the north, implies a return to the pre-1968 situation and a much more sinister media mantra: “Ulster doesn’t matter.” It’s sinister because the absence of British-based media coverage of a peaceful Northern Ireland is problematic in trying to forge a new future. Without any reporting of the positive aspects of the past 15 years people in Britain lack the information to pressure the government to take the peace process on to the next level. There is nothing for the people in Britain to work with, to think about. Denied knowledge of the situation, and blinded by years of misinformation and disinformation, they have no stomach to call on Westminster to do something positive and innovative about the north of Ireland. Now, I’m aware that publishers and editors are constantly reminding us of their historic mission to report freely and fairly, especially in this fraught period when the press believes itself under attack from politicians. But they have to be embarrassed into holding their press freedom banners aloft on behalf of the people their papers affect to serve across what they like to call the United Kingdom. We have to find a way to make them live up to their obligations. In other words, we have to convince them that Ulster does matter. And perhaps, for people like me who live in the uncolonised part of Ulster, that we would like the other six counties to join us as soon as possible.
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