'Ulster Loyalism and the British Media' by Alan F. Parkinson (1998)
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The following chapter has been contributed by the author Alan F. Parkinson, with the permission of the publisher, Four Courts Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:
Ulster Loyalism and the British Media'
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The cover design, by Graham Thew, is based on photographs by Steven Davison courtesy of Pacemaker Press, Belfast
This publication is copyright Alan F. Parkinson (1998) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Four Courts Press and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
From the back cover:
Ulster Loyalism and the British Media
The growing body of research into Ulster ‘loyalism’ has tended to focus on its political nature rather than the manner in which it has been presented in the British media. This is where this study differs from previous works. It examines not only the manifestations of such ‘loyalism’, but also considers the messages disseminated by Unionist propagandists and their effects on British political policy. However, the book's essence is in its analysis of media representations of Ulster’s Protestant community including a case study investigation into the 1987 Enniskillen bombing.
It also presents the results of the first survey of British public opinion regarding the unionist case. Utilising a wide variety of press reports and transcripts of television documentaries covering the last thirty years Dr Parkinson's book provides unprecedented analysis of British media coverage of Ulster unionism and suggests that there is direct correlation between the paucity of such coverage and ongoing unionist marginatization.
Alan Parkinson is senior lecturer in history and education at South Bank University, London, and holds degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast and Swansea University.
CHAPTER THREEWhy don’t they like us?
Loyalists and the British media
We as Ulster loyalists protest against the gross irresponsibility of the BBC and ITV in the reporting of day to day troubles in Northern Ireland ... We question the right of the mass media to continually distort the news in favour of the terrorists and the politicians whose loyalties are to subversion and not to the constitution of the country. No time or expense is spared in the interviewing the gunman, or travelling to the refugee camps for on-the-spot stories. Yet hundreds of Protestant families are without homes, having been evicted at the point of the gun, loyalist women and their children are living in fear, business premises have been burned and looted, and little of this side of the story is told.1
COVERING THE SAME OLD STORY
The start of the modern Irish conflict in 1968 presented the British media with a sizeable dilemma. Clearly this was a major news story which demanded immediate and detailed media attention. However, the media found themselves ill-prepared for the latest Irish Troubles. Only a handful of programmes had focused their attention on the region and most of these had portrayed its inhabitants in a prototypical ‘stage-Irish’ manner.2
The early street demonstrations and the public disintegration of the Ulster Unionist Party received disproportionately high media treatment (particularly when compared to more serious security incidents from the mid 1970s). National (and indeed, international) journalists, photographers and TV cameramen saturated the province, their numbers increasing dramatically as the potential for violence increased from march to march. Although the tone of media coverage was to radically alter with the emergence of the IRA towards the end of 1970, media treatment of the conflict, whilst periodically attaining high levels, was to decline somewhat from the mid 1970s. This was due to the monotonous nature of Ulster news stories and the lack of progress in both political and security fields. With the decline in violence levels and the introduction of an ‘Ulsterisation’ policy around this time, there was a growing recognition by the media of the unofficial political line of an ‘acceptable level of violence’.3 Consequently the media duly reported incidents involving serious injury or loss of life (although the degree of space allotted to the killings of soldiers inevitably declined to a brief mention on a news bulletin or a short paragraph in a national paper), only concentrating in greater detail on large-scale security incidents or on signs of political development. As the conflict endured, television in particular used the occasion of anniversaries to remind their audience of the origins of the conflict.4
Apart from fluctuations in the level of reporting, there were distinct modifications in the media’s perception of what was happening in Northern Ireland. The first phase of the conflict produced an over-simplistic account of what was going on in the province. English journalists, with little background information, had initial problems coping with the complexities of the unfolding situation, and as indicated below, the situation tended to be contextualised in terms of stereotypes. These ‘visiting firemen’ tended to exhibit more sympathy to the Catholics, whom they portrayed as the ‘underdogs’, reserving their venom for dissident unionists (most notably Ian Paisley).5 These attitudes were to change when the IRA campaign started and the loyalists’ role as ‘baddies’ was taken on by the Provisionals, with loyalists taking on a ‘supporting’ role as ‘Uglies’. This attitude shift was not an overnight phenomenon and Paul Wilkinson, an expert on terrorism, suggested that it was only on account of the media filming incidents such as Belfast’s Bloody Friday in 1972 that fully convinced the British public of the dangers posed by republican terrorists.6
TV crews were soon at the scenes of the crimes and the reports that sped down the wires to the news capitals of the world seemed to convince many TV editors, and certainly those in Britain, that they could no longer remain neutral toward such events. They therefore decided to show the horrific consequences to a public halfway persuaded to thinking of bomb attacks as romantic, Robin Hood-style adventures.7
Initially, therefore, the media’s reporting of events in Northern Ireland left a lot to be desired. A combination of greater experience of on-the-ground conditions and instructions from broadcasting chiefs and editors, requesting their staff to take a calm, dispassionate look at incidents, led to a greater sophistication in reportage.8 Although this was not to fundamentally alter the grassroots loyalist conviction that the media were ‘against’ them (as expressed in the introductory quote), sections of the media were eventually to become more aware of shifts in the unionist perspective.
A number of writers have pointed out that as most people in Great Britain have little direct experience of the Irish conflict and are ‘almost entirely dependent on the mass media for news and interpretation of events’ in the province, it is imperative that the quality of such coverage is of the highest standard, as it ‘influences the extent to which British people can participate in an informed discussion about their government’s Irish policy’.9 The production and maintenance of ‘quality’ media coverage of the Northern Irish situation has not been assisted by the early decision to place such coverage within the usual, factual ‘bulletin’ framework. This has meant that the normal news ‘package’ - factual on-the-spot reports and interviews with leading political personalities (more often or not, British Ministers) - has generally failed to provide a background context apart that is, from a reminder of the last atrocity) to unfolding events. This lack of a relevant context mitigates against a proper understanding of the complexities of the Irish problem and the resulting confusion of a mainland audience which has not fully grasped the relevant background frequently manifests itself in rapid dismissal of the problem on account of the ‘irrationality’ of the communities involved, as well as fostering the development of widespread apathy.10
The more complex the political case, the deeper is the confusion of the receiving audience, as unionists have found to their cost. Occasionally this bemusement has prompted journalists in Great Britain, unable to disguise their guilty consciences over persistent ignorance and apathy towards Ulster, into requesting more open and intensive debate of the issues involved. Peter McKay expressed such sentiments in the Evening Standard in 1990.11 Demanding that television should mount an ‘Ulsterthon’, McKay admitted:
Isn’t it time we decided to talk openly and honestly about Northern Ireland and not just pretend it is a God-forsaken place fit only for contemptuous saloon-bar dismissal - ‘I’d pull out and let them get on with it’ - each time its citizens are blown to bits or shot dead? I suggest a week-long TV debate about the province and its troubles, presented by Mr Terry Wogan and Miss Gloria Hunniford.12
The one-dimensional nature of the reporting of the Ulster situation - what’s been called ‘a shopping-list in death and destruction’ - has been criticised for presenting the British public with ‘a series of decontextualised reports of violence’ which ‘failed to analyse and re-analyse the historical roots of the Irish problem’.13 It was also unpopular with many Irish people who believed that the ‘fix’ of violence in daily news bulletins gave an unrepresentative and unhelpful impression of life ‘across the water’. Recalling a period when he was living in Canterbury, distinguished Irish historian ES.L. Lyons regretted the impact of such ‘cycle of violence’ reporting on mainland viewers.
English public opinion had little option but to take a view of Northern Ireland as a place where bloodthirsty bigots of various obscure sects murdered each other incessantly for reasons no sane man could fathom. I longed them to say what I still say - show us the place as it really is, show it to us in all its human ordinariness, its quirky humour, it stubborn contraryness, its integrity. Show it to us, above all, as a place inhabited not only by evil men ... but also by decent human beings.14
It was this emphasis on security and broader issues, such as questions over the integrity of the English judicial system and political censorship, which tended to dominate media interest in Northern Ireland.15 This limited presentation of the Irish conflict is mirrored in the comparatively small number and restricted range of investigative programmes. Only two series explaining the historical background to the discord in Ireland were transmitted in a period of over 15 years and these were transmitted at approximately the same time.16 Most documentaries concentrated on a ‘non-unionist’ agenda, featuring several cases of alleged miscarriages of justice and other ‘humanitarian’ cases, censorship issues and political developments which were increasingly in the hands of London and Dublin rather than Belfast and the likelihood of a cessation of violence. The fact that loyalists were regarded as being fundamentally reactive in both political and military fields explains their peripheral role in such analytical programmes.
Whilst a growing number of enlightening documentaries about the unionist predicament were transmitted, particularly in the late 1980s and 1990s, these were the exception, rather than the rule (this is developed later in the chapter). For instance, opportunities to highlight the particular plight of border Protestants were either ignored or partially covered.17 An exception was Ronald Eyre’s 1990 programme in the Frontiers series which looked sympathetically at such an often ignored community.18 Mark Steyn’s review of the programme in the Independent referred to the cameras panning round the tombstones in a Protestant graveyard, before accentuating the dearth of sympathy for unionists in Great Britain.
It was filled with the bodies of young Protestant sons, their headstones inscribed, ‘Murdered by the IRA’. It ought to make you weep, except that the English save their Irish tears for bandsmen in Deal and Australian tourists. No one in these islands is as unloved as the Ulster Unionists.19
My main intention in this chapter is to consider how loyalists have been depicted by the British media and also to assess the effects of this portrayal on national public opinion. I’m therefore less concerned about the central area for research on this subject of media coverage in Northern Ireland - namely the wider question of political censorship of broadcasting related to the Irish conflict - and focus instead on how the largely one-dimensional, selective nature of the broadcasting agencies in particular, have mediated against an adequate analysis of the unionist predicament. In this introductory section I look at the way in which the media’s agenda has been dominated by republican and ‘human rights’ issues, with loyalist concerns such as political isolation, deteriorating security and border ‘genocide’, being largely confined to the periphery of national media coverage. I also focus on the tendency of the media to scapegoat loyalists for political failure in Northern Ireland (this is illustrated below with specific reference to the 1991 Brooke talks). My television and press sections provide more detailed illustrations of how the unionist case was portrayed, both negatively and positively, in the media. The TV section’s focal point is an analysis of the quality of in-depth coverage of programmes relating to unionism. I attempt this by concentrating on a number of leading investigative programmes and TV channels, tracing both the extent and nature of their coverage of ‘loyalist’ topics. In the press section I conclude that having mutual ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ (army and IRA respectively) did not mean that the British press and Ulster Unionists were necessarily staunch bedfellows and I stress the support given in the press for government initiatives on Northern Ireland and their condemnation of a variety of unionist misdemeanours. However, I also observe evidence of a growing awareness of what was behind these negative characteristics. In my final section I shall discuss the findings of a small survey on loyalism which I conducted in various parts of Great Britain. I based many of the questions in this survey around central images of loyalism, several of which are developed in the case studies and elsewhere in this thesis. I turn first to the domination of the media agenda by nationalists and republicans.
A republican agenda
The assertion that republicans gained the upper hand in the propaganda battle without winning the publicity ‘war’ outright, is a reasonable one. Although mainstream American political opinion gradually shifted from covert espousal of the Sinn Fein cause to overt backing for the joint approach of British and Irish governments, the party succeeded, over a period of many years, in damaging Britain’s reputation as a liberal, democratic state, both in Europe and America, less on account of their own ‘freedom-fighting’ campaign but rather as a result of the British response, which, particularly in the 1980s, appeared to outsiders to be intransigent and inflexible.20 Thus the Sinn Fein message was listened to with interest outside the United Kingdom in spite of the violence associated with it and its comparatively limited political backing, due to an unimaginative British response and the general unawareness of a third dimension in the conflict, namely that of the loyalists. By choosing the appropriate agenda and language, Sinn Fein were able to consistently score propaganda successes. Their listing of British military ‘excesses’ (such as a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy, the risk of civilian injury due to the use of plastic bullets and allegations of brutality in interrogation centres), the adroit tactic of the hunger strike which breathed new life into what many considered to be a dying movement in 1981, and their decision to call a ceasefire in 1994 before the British had initiated a meaningful all-party conference, thus enabling them to pose as ‘peace-makers’, all succeeded in putting British authorities on the defensive.21 Although most of the British press failed to see the ‘logic’ behind IRA attacks (the term ‘senseless’ was frequently and invariably inaccurately applied to describe their tactics), some writers were astute enough to pinpoint the true motivation behind republican propaganda. Paul Wilkinson, argued:
The purpose of Provisional propaganda directed at British and at most uncommitted audiences, was less to convert them but to confuse and embarrass. By creating doubts, minds that were determined might be changed. If the man on the Clapham omnibus began to wonder whether his troops were indeed misbehaving, and whether the law was being abused, and whether government policy was sectarian and unjust, then he should worry ...22
It was on account of their perceived control of events in Ulster that Sinn Fein/IRA were allowed to dominate media coverage. Apart from focusing periodically on the government’s political options and the army’s role in the province, the bulk of coverage was dominated by the republican perspective.23 This domination of the media agenda ignored Sinn Fein’s ‘minority’ party status in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but resulted in its party conferences ensuring substantial treatment in the British broadsheets.24 The Independent devoted nearly a page to the 1990 conference, whilst the Guardian described Gerry Adams as ‘the apostle of the bullet and the ballot box’ following his 1991 conference speech.25 Great attention was paid to Sinn Fein leaders’ speeches and actions. Indeed, Gerry Adams was, for many years, the most profiled, non-elected politician in Europe. Profiles of him appeared in several television programmes and papers. These included the Independent’s description of the Sinn Fein President as ‘the Castro of the Emerald Isle’, the Sunday Times feature ‘In the Shadow of the Gun’ and John Ware’s 1995 Panorama reassessment of the Sinn Fein leader.26 British coverage of his trips to America in and 1995 were copious in detail, if vitriolic in their tone. The Daily Mirror in its leader, ‘Death of an old friend’, maintained that ‘the moment when Adams flew into New York, the special relationship that existed between Britain and America was finally killed off’.27 Another leading Sinn Fein member, Martin McGuinness, also received a considerable amount of media attention. He was featured in the controversial BBC programme At the Edge of the Union, where he was portrayed as a family-loving, church-going republican activist, whilst ITV’s Cook Report exposed his background as the IRA’s military commander in the north.28
The chief result of Sinn Fein’s dominance of the media agenda on Northern Ireland has been the marginalisation of the unionist community. Unable as an intrinsically reactive force to dictate ‘military’ events, they are politically fragmented and bereft of friends. Despite the acceptance that their position has to be considered, their numerical majority in the province is increasingly irrelevant, both in terms of Westminster’s political response and the media’s presentation of the convex. Whilst media perception of the unionist case has been modified during this decade, the unionist position is still not taken as seriously as the nationalist, or republican, one.
Miscarriages of justice
The knee-jerk response of the British judiciary in the mid-1970s to the demands of the British public for quick, punitive action against IRA terrorism, was to result in the shame-faced reaction of the judicial establishment several years later when the reviews of several cases, including those of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and Judith Ward, reinforced the impression that such an establishment possessed a blatant anti-Irish bias. Respected journalists and writers such as Ludovic Kennedy and Robert Kee, church leaders both in Ireland and Britain and sections of the British left (Labour MP Chris Mullin was prominent in the campaign for the release of the Birmingham Six) united in their demands for the original convictions against those involved in the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings to be reviewed.30
During the run-up to the appeal cases, sections of the press and a number of TV programmes focused on the inadequacies of the prosecution’s argument in the original trials and presented what they claimed to be ‘new’ evidence. Yorkshire TV concentrated on the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four cases.31 They argued that their documentary, ‘Aunt Annie’s Bomb Factory’, which proclaimed the innocence of Ann Maguire and her family ‘reveals how the legal process can be swayed, resulting in dubious justice'.32 The same commercial company assembled two powerful ‘drama-doc’ programmes on the Guildford Four case, putting pressure on the government as well as the legal authorities to reopen the case.33 ITV were later to produce a similar investigative programme, ‘Who Bombed Birmingham?’, which was also to have a profound effect on influential opinion in Britain and Ireland.34
The release of those convicted for the Guildford and Birmingham bombings earned substantial headlines in the British press and the experiences of the cleared men and woman resulted in a number of them (notably Paul Hill and Gerard Conlon) becoming minor ‘celebrities’.35 The broadsheets, in particular, rendered special treatment to the early days of freedom for the Birmingham Six. Gerry Hunter’s ‘return to the free world’ was featured in the Observer, whilst the Independent featured both Hugh Callaghan’s story of events and John Walker’s ‘rapturous’ return to Derry, noting how local people ‘thronged around a man who has become for them a living icon of British injustice’.36 Even those tabloids which had reservations about the verdicts, covered the release of the Birmingham Six in depth. The Daily Star devoted several pages to the story, speculating that the compensation for each of the released ‘might top the million mark’ and argued that ‘as Sinn Fein are so interested in justice, they might now like to finally identify the guilty men’.37 Both press and TV concentrated on the feelings of those imprisoned and their families. The Daily Mirror ran a two page story on ‘the women who wait in hope - crying out for freedom’, whilst Melanie McFadyean’s New Statesman and Society’s feature praised the ‘courage’ of the relatives of the Birmingham Six’, ‘women who weren’t prepared to sit back and do nothing’.38 Television also featured the long, frustrating and worrying wait of the Birmingham women both in a 1985 World in Action programme and an Everyman version of the same ‘angle’ five years on.39
A rare occasion when Protestants found themselves featured as victims of miscarriages of justices was the case of the UDR, or Armagh, Four. This case was so intriguing because it involved four members of the security forces who had been convicted of murdering a Catholic and the ensuing campaign for their release involved loyalists in an unprecedented contesting of decisions taken in Ulster’s courts. The UDR Four had expressed their innocence at the time of their trial in 1986.40 A campaign to reverse the initial legal decision was to result in Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke granting an appeal which ultimately led to the acquittal in 1992 of three of the group.41
The uniqueness of the case was its essential feature and one highlighted in the Guardian, which remarked it was the first time that ‘widespread allegations of a miscarriage of justice have been voiced by unionists'.42 The irony of Protestant Ulstermen serving in a regiment of the British Army contesting the legal decisions of British courts, was another conspicuous characteristic of this case. The extreme dilemma facing the UDR Four was vividly described by a leading campaigner for their release. Ian Paisley Junior wrote of the Armagh Four:
These men have been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand they are Protestant, British and ex-soldiers who were part of the British way of life in Ulster. They detested the ideas of those who challenged the Northern Ireland system accepting that the police, army and courts were doing a job that had to be done. On the other hand, they are now precariously placed out on a limb, claiming that they were wrongly convicted by the system they supported.43
The same author, whilst questioning the correctness of this particular decision, proceeded to argue that the very fact Protestant soldiers had been prosecuted and jailed for terrorist offences was valedictory proof of the basic equity of Northern Ireland’s legal system.44
Whilst recognising fundamental differences between this and other ‘miscarriage’ cases involving Catholics, the media also observed some similarities. One was that the bulk of evidence against the UDR soldiers, had been extracted from them in custody under alleged duress and that their confessions were subsequently withdrawn. Another was that, like the IRA bombings in England in the killing had been the work of a paramilitary group (in this case, the Protestant Action Force). In a report, ‘New doubts over Armagh Four guilt’, the Independent on Sunday suggested that there was ‘new’ evidence in the case which ‘supports the theory that a loyalist paramilitary organisation carried out the killing’ and that this would ‘add to growing pressure for the case to be reopened’.45 Television coverage of the incident, restricted as it was to three ‘non prime-time’ programmes, pursued the same investigative approach adopted in other ‘miscarriage’ cases. Miriam O’Callaghan’s Newsnight report mentioned the ‘profound effect’ of the case on ‘a community unaccustomed to questioning the workings of the Northern Ireland legal system’.46 Using scientific ‘experts’, the report questioned the reliability of police statements. Andrew Morton, an expert in cases of disputed authorship, maintained that ‘the men’s alleged confessions to the killing of Adrian Carroll, a Catholic, in Armagh in 1983, were unreliable’.47 Channel Four allotted two programmes to the case, one before and the other after the acquittal, both of which stressed the case’s unique quality and fallibility of the legal system which had produced such convictions.48
Although the Armagh Four did, therefore, eventually gain national media exposure and their campaign team were adroit enough in marshalling substantial support (much of it emanating from sources not normally sympathetic to the unionist cause), this was nowhere near the scale of the other cases involving Irish Catholics.49 In particular, the case received little publicity in the tabloid press. Why, therefore, did this whole incident fail to generate the media attention which other miscarriage of justice cases had warranted, particularly since it was generally acknowledged to be ‘different’? Robert Kee suggested it was the location of the trials which was the significant factor in explaining the comparative dearth of publicity. Writing in the Sunday Times about ‘the curious case of the Armagh Four’, Kee argued that ‘the lack of attention was due to the appeal court being held in Northern Ireland and not Great Britain’.50 The scale and location of the attack - a street killing in an Ulster town was unlikely to seriously compete for equal media space with incidents involving large numbers of people in English towns and cities - were other factors which might explain this differential in media treatment. Another explanation lay in the response of the Protestant community. Whilst the UDR Four case did lead to many unionists asking questions of the judicial system, it’s also true to say that the greater fragmentation of the unionist community (particularly along class lines) and its reticence in challenging their province’s legal structure, mitigated against their campaign group harnessing widespread support, even within Northern Ireland.
Unionists, therefore, have lost out in a number of ways in the propaganda ‘war’. Part of the explanation is due to their own poor presentational skills and distrust of the media. Also, they have not been aided by the media’s contextualisation of the conflict which, as I’ve already indicated, presents Britain trying to separate two warring factions. Consequently loyalists have, on the whole, been unable to make long-term capital from the horrific results of PIRA’s bombing campaign, with sections of the British media suggesting that such terrorism was directly attributable to unionism’s own negative legacy. A proper understanding of the loyalist position has hardly been helped by the republican domination of the media agenda mentioned earlier and the media’s selectivity of stories which has, with a few notable exceptions, mitigated against unionists. Thus, emphasis has been given to British and Irish governments’ political initiatives, incidents of mainland violence, the calling of the IRA ceasefires, in 1994 and 1997 and Sinn Fein ‘tours’ of America, all of which have underlined unionists’ growing sense of alienation, ignored their pleas for self-determination and provided scant coverage of their sense of suffering at the hands of terrorists for over a quarter of a century. As a result, the central images associated with unionism (which are examined in detail elsewhere) - unionist intransigence, bigotry and their reputation as ‘blockers’ or ‘wreckers’ - tend to be, in the main, negative ones. David Butler has argued that even analytical accounts of loyalism in the British media are over-simplistic, and amount to little more than cementing earlier, easily recognisable representations of loyalism.
British documentary dispatches have been inclined to condense the sociopolitical complexities of protestant politics (landed aristocrats, small farmers, industrial labourers ... immobilists, devolutionists, integrationists, religious rednecks) into Paisley’s demagogic form ...51
Butler has also asserted that those attempts to counter loyalism’s ‘ugly’ image have generally been ‘defensive and apologetic rather than (being) robust arguments in favour of their interests'.52 This is, I believe, a fair assessment of media accounts of loyalism, though as I point out, there has been an increase in the number of genuine attempts to explain, if not actually sympathise with the loyalist predicament.
The 1991 Brooke talks
The findings on the degree of coverage were, on the whole, rather predictable. The tabloid press frequently failed to mention Northern Ireland and covered the talks process in considerably less detail than the ‘qualities’. Out of an estimated 55 editions covered in the survey the Daily Mirror failed to mention Northern Irish issues in nearly half of them (27 editions), with the Daily Mail also failing to do so in 24 editions. The Mirror only gave ‘detailed’ coverage to Ulster on seven occasions (these included ‘non-talks’ issues such as the cases of the Maguire Seven and Guildford Four), whilst the Daily Mail only provided ‘detailed’ coverage on 5 occasions. On the other hand, the broadsheets dealt more generously with the situation in Northern Ireland, with the Guardian giving ‘detailed’ treatment to Northern Ireland 27 times, and the Times on 21 occasions (the Times only failed to cover Northern Ireland on three occasions, with the Guardian omitting it twice). Obviously it was not easy extricating purely ‘loyalist’ stories from those dealing with the wider talks process, but I estimated that unionists were portrayed in a negative light on at least 30 occasions, compared with 9 news items proving to be sympathetic either to the unionist position directly, or by placing criticism on their opponents.
Undoubtedly the main impression the British public gleaned from the media coverage of the talks was one of petty squabbling and bickering, mainly fermented by the unionists, who inevitably became readily associated with its failure.56 There were at least 25 ‘strong’ criticisms of the unionist tactics during the talks, with only I ‘mild’ criticism of the SDLP’s decision to withdraw from the talks until unionist misgivings about procedural arrangements had been assuaged.57 A mood of pessimism was prevalent in sections of the British press from the start. One report even suggested that the lone protests at Stormont of a DUP councillor might well represent ‘the lack of common ground for Mr Brooke’s talks’.58
Impressions of continuing loyalist intransigence and stalling tactics abounded in media reports. The Times considered the unionists to be deliberately behaving awkwardly. In the leader ‘Up and Down in Ulster’, they argued that both unionist parties ‘have decided to make a mountain out of a molehill, until their counterparts run out of time or patience’.59 The belief that unionists were again failing to concede ground resurfaced, particularly when negotiations invariably ended in an impasse. Thus, a News at Ten headline announced that ‘Unionist leaders refused to make any concessions’ regarding the locations of the talks.60 This impression was also echoed on BBC1’s Question Time where a Labour MP with republican sympathies, Clare Short, expounded on unionist failings over the years and audience members criticised unionists ‘for not making concessions’.61 Ironically, it was left to one of the architects of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Garret Fitzgerald, to ‘defend’ loyalist fears and to explain why they felt threatened!62
The media considered that loyalist concern over the appointment of the Conference Chairperson constituted a deliberate attempt to wreck the talks. Therefore, their rejection of Lord Carrington for such a role (he had condemned unionist ‘bigotry’ in his autobiography) was castigated for producing what News at Ten considered to be ‘a political fiasco’ and Newsnight deemed to be unionists’ ‘latest obstacle’.63 Mary Holland avowed that they had deliberately chosen this ‘stalling’ tactic where they could do damage to the overall negotiation process rather than simply boycott the talks and run the risk of being overtaken by political events. Holland wrote in the Observer:
There is widespread suspicion that the Unionist leadership is now involved in an elaborate exercise designed to scupper the talks while avoiding the blame that will fall on whoever is seen to destroy an initiative offering hopes of bringing the violence to an end.64
Perhaps the strongest criticism of unionist behaviour came from Joe Haines. Writing in the Daily Mirror, Harold Wilson’s ex-advisor berated the ‘patience’ of British Governments in endeavouring to ‘talk round’ Ulster Unionists, because that was ‘the last thing the Unionists want’.65 Haines even proceeded to liken the Unionists to the IRA, arguing that they had similar ‘wrecking’ motives.
If you don’t like the game, object to the rules. That’s what the Ulster Unionists are up to in the talks about Ireland’s future. The Unionists and the IRA are playing a different game from all the others. Talks which succeeded would diminish the role of both.66
Other negative characteristics of unionism highlighted by the media during this period included its ‘illogical’ nature, division in the unionist ranks and the seemingly irrelevant belligerence of their leaders, past and present. Tim Jones’ Times report on the eve of the talks, assessed the ‘achievements’ of that loyalist icon, Edward Carson, derisively suggesting that these included ‘raising a volunteer army to fight the British for the right to remain British and being involved in talks with the Kaiser that led to suggestions that the province could become part of the German empire in preference to being swallowed up by ‘papists’.67 Further traits of media coverage were journalists’ inability to treat seriously unionists’ argument and a stressing of their isolationism. Thus, Jeremy Paxman described the contrast between the unionist leaders’ stern appearance on entering 10 Downing Street with their ‘all smiles’ exit as a further example of loyalists ‘huffing and puffing’, which had not affected the initiative and ‘which remains to fight another day’.68 The isolation of unionism’s leaders was personified in a Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian.69 Bell’s cartoon strip portrayed Molyneaux and Paisley arriving for talks on a desert island (they were the sole ‘delegates’ for the ‘conference’ there). The cartoon went on:
Paisley: We could set up our independent Protestant state right here on Rockall.
Molyneaux: But there are no people here, Ian!
Paisley: People? People? Who needs people? 70
On the eve of the talks there was an anticipatory air of change in the unionist perspective. Owen Bowcott optimistically proclaimed that ‘both unionist parties are facing up to the prospect of an accommodation with the Republic and power-sharing with a Catholic minority’, while Richard Ford suggested that in their acknowledgment of the talks framework, unionists had ‘accepted their opponents’ analysis of the problem’.71 News at Ten’s innovative device of highlighting change in attitudes across three generations of the Brownes, a north Belfast Protestant family, accentuated hopes for compromise ‘after 6 years of impotent protest by the Protestant community against the Anglo-Irish Agreement'.72 Miriam O’Callaghan’s Newsnight report, in covering a wide range of Protestant opinion (including Ballylumford power workers and the players of Ballynahinch Rugby Club) arrived at similar conclusions. She argued that ‘apathy rules in the Protestant community’ and that ‘receding power has ground Protestant resistance to sharing power’.73 Although she admitted that unionists were still ‘haunted by the ghosts of Terence O’Neill and Brian Faulkner, Unionists who were destroyed as they dared to compromise’, O’Callaghan maintained that their increasing political isolation had forced many of them into reassessing their political future, which had resulted in many accepting their dilemma that ‘they have to talk about the Anglo-Irish Agreement to get it reversed’.74
Other journalists were less optimistic about the chances of a successful outcome to the talks. David Selborne, in a perceptive Sunday Times article, ‘Among the Accused’, described a recent visit to Belfast where he had found attitudes, particularly among Protestants, ‘beyond the reach of negotiation’.75 In his conclusion he dismissed ‘triumphalist’ feelings in the Protestant community, arguing that the predominant impression was of ‘a worried, alienated people’ who, Selborne believed, formed ‘a majority with a minority complex’.76 He continued:
Left behind, politically and economically by most of the rest of Europe, under direct rule from Westminster, and lacking a normal democratic process, Ulster cries out for redemption.77
Compared with the media’s response to later events (most notably the IRA ceasefire), there was little sympathy for unionism at this time beyond the occasional explanation of their alienation or the sporadic rebuke of the Dublin government. Therefore, the Times, whilst criticising unionists ‘for not having much interest in forcing the talks to succeed’, proceeded to argue that concessions ‘could not be expected to come solely from the unionist direction’.78 The Times leader, ‘When all else fails’, went on to argue that Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution should be amended:
The Unionists had agreed in principle to talk with the Irish government while these clauses remain - a substantial concession - but they demanded in return either that the Irish government express an intention to have the constitution amended, or that more of the talks should take place in the Irish capital ... What price would he (Charles Haughey) pay in order to take part in talks with Unionists.79
The ‘on-off’ nature of the talks was a constant feature of their coverage in May and early June. A News at Ten report argued that Peter Brooke ‘had been doing his best’ to produce a compromise with the parties but that ‘each side blames the other about where to meet’.80
This image of petty squabbling and failure of negotiations to proceed beyond the ‘talks about talks’ stage did, of course, fit the prevalent conception that Britain held the line between two unreasonable factions. Papers on the right praised Ulster Secretary Peter Brooke and premier John Major for ‘rescuing’ the talks.81 It was the Conservative Government’s sense of duty rather than open support for the unionist cause which was the Mail’s main message in their leader, ‘Brooke’s burden'.82 In stating that unionists’ procedural bickerings possessed ‘all the characteristics of a childish spat’, the Mail suggested that the government was following the only sensible line.
Unless we are prepared to abandon part of the United Kingdom to the rule of gunmen, there is no choice but to overcome such frustrations and persevere with the kind of patient diplomacy undertaken by the Northern Ireland Secretary.83
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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